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Having it all: Can you be a good indie developer AND a parent?

Kert Gartner creates trailers for indie games, which is a demanding job, but he’s also expecting his family’s second child in the near future.

The stresses, and joys, of balancing your creative work with raising children has proved challenging.

"How do you manage the demands of being a good parent and continue to create great creative work?" he asked the crowd at the Game Developers Conference. It's a big question, perhaps the biggest question if you're a parent or are thinking about becoming a parent.

"This is something that I’ve personally struggled with ever since my boy was born and there’s days, and sometimes weeks, where my passion for making game trailers isn’t where I’d like it to be, simply because the demands of raising a 2 year-old takes a higher priority," he continued.

It’s easy to get lost in your work and spend hours upon hours on projects when you don’t have a kid, but that changes when you’re responsible for another human life, especially when you’re working from home. You no longer have the luxury of waiting to feel creative before working, and there are always other things that could potentially interrupt your flow.

"New parents to be are always warned about the physical exhaustion of caring for a newborn, but I wasn’t very prepared for how mentally exhausting this first stretch of parenthood could be as well," Gartner told the crowd. "There’s times where finding that creative spark is difficult because most of your energy is being funneled into your child."

The fact that the stories told on social media are only part of your reality as a parent. The hard parts are rarely shared. "You never see the pictures of the screaming ear infections, the temper tantrums, the super-late nights, the hours of crying, the lack of sleep and ER visits that are all pretty common occurences behind the scenes of parenthood," he explained.

"The satisfaction and joy I get from being a dad is very different from the satisfaction I get from doing great work and being fulfilled creatively," Gartner said. "So is it even possible to have the best of both worlds?"

Asking other devs

He spoke with a number of developers to find out, and many others in the indie community were struggling with the same aspects of parenthood. Klei’s Jamie Cheng said a support structure of family was a big help, but he hadn’t anticipated other challenges.

"My biggest struggle is to actually remember to be present at home, my mind is constantly running simulations of games and business scenarios and I often get lost in that," Cheng said.

Adam Saltsman is the creator of Canabalt, and he echoed those concerns. The trick is to learn how to compartmentalize your time, he said.

"In our experience there definitely was some chaos," Saltsman told Gartner. The first few months of parenthood are chaotic and scattered as you adjust to your new life, and there may not be a way to avoid that. "The big thing that helped us get back on track was top-down forcing a schedule on ourselves," he explained.

"My biggest struggle is to actually remember to be present at home"

"And after a year or so of trying to balance just one kid and my work flow I basically came to the same conclusion," Gartner continued. "The thing that helps my creativity is having a set work schedule." He set aside large blocks of time to work without interruption, and then keep those hours for work only, as much as possible.

"When I am working, I make work time precious," he said. That means no movies, no social media, none of the other distractions that can leech away your time. You have to be prepared to work, and you can't wait until the muse hits you.

Derek Yu, the creator of Spelunky, also manages his time carefully. "I’m only five months into fatherhood but it’s certainly limited my time in front fo the computer. When I’m there, I’m much more focused."

Fract developer Richard Flanagan said that it is possible to do good creative work and to be a good parent, but you have to be "on" nearly 100 percent of the time.

"But the problem with being on 100 percent of the time is it leads to a 100 percent chance of parenting and creative burnout as well," Gartner explained. "So, my advice is strive to be great. But don’t feel guilty if you and/or your partner end up slipping up every now and then, or even for weeks at a time."

"Raising a child is just as hard as developing a good game and it’s almost impossible to do either of those things alone," Gartner continued. Parents have two jobs, and figuring out where one ends and the other begins is a monstrous challenge for anyone, much less a developer who has the ability to make their own schedule.

"Having an amazing partner and a strong relationship helps whether you’re making a game, raising a child, or trying to do both at the same time," Gartner said.