When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I had what I thought was a genius idea: Not only would I use my upcoming maternity leave to bond with my baby and bask in the glow of motherhood, I would also use the time to write a book.
You know, just knock it out. During naps.
I was naïve to the demands of new motherhood. Of course I thought I could pen a brilliant literary manuscript while diapering, rocking, breast-feeding (oh, the endless breast-feeding!) and adjusting to a baby. It turns out I was prolific, all right . . . at laundry loads, crying jags (mine and the baby’s) and epic ball-bouncing sessions to calm unexpected infant reflux.
Forget writer’s block. I had baby’s block.
But as I came to learn, becoming a parent does not have to mean the kiss of death for your creative life — whether you’re an artist, a musician or a writer; creative professionally or just on the side.
Give yourself permission
“One thing mothers need to remember is to accept the time you have for creativity, no matter how much or little time that is,” says Marcia Wiley, a Seattle glass artist and creativity guide who leads creativity workshops for mothers and art camps for kids.
Wiley remembers how challenging it was to pursue her creativity while parenting a young child. She recalls a friend who gave her a box of valuable scrap glass soon after her son was born. She was grateful but distracted; the box was shoved under a table in her studio.
Recently, Wiley, whose son is now in fourth grade, found that box. “Bugs had gotten in over the years, and the glass was just covered with dead wings and bodies. I washed it off, all this great glass, and it really hit me — there are projects that got put off for 10 years.”
When you’re caring for a young family, the desire to devote time to creative passions can cause personal stress and tension in a marriage. Misplaced guilt sometimes holds us back.
“Women are the nurturers, but they are not often nurtured themselves,” Wiley says. “We have to give ourselves permission to be creative. It’s treating ourselves with compassion.” Often the urge to access, honor and feed our creativity must be fulfilled, regardless of diapers, time and work. Sometimes that urge — especially when paired with the shift in identity that comes with motherhood — can even lead us down new career paths.
“When [my boys] were very small, I fell in love with writing, and I definitely felt frustration because the pull to write felt so strong, and the uninterrupted minutes to do so [were] very few,” recalls Ann Imig, a Wisconsin mom, writer and the founder of Listen to Your Mother, a national series of live staged readings about motherhood. “It turned out that my creative spirit couldn’t be denied and would, in fact, prove [to be] my lifeline through motherhood.”
Find fertile ground
Though it dictates our schedules and monopolizes our hearts, motherhood can also reawaken us creatively in surprising ways.
“Before I became a mother, I was really worried about having kids. It seemed like too much to ask in life to be a writer and a mother,” says Theo Nestor, a Seattle writing teacher and the author of two memoirs, most recently Writing Is My Drink. Nestor recalls that prior to her marriage and kids, she would religiously check biographies to see if a talented writer had children or not — a way of divining her own future path.
“But after my first daughter was born, life just suddenly seemed more important. I felt even more urgency to communicate something than I had before,” Nestor says. When her baby was 6 months old, she decided to get serious about writing. Then she entered a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing when her daughter was 3. A second child came along soon after.
For some mothers, the answer to nurturing their creative selves lies in connecting with their children through art. Roxanne Duniway, a Seattle mom who has taught piano, flute and voice, has led art projects at her kids’ school, organized music for festivals and fundraisers, and served as the music director for a school production of The Sound of Music.
“We want to spend as much time with our children as we can, while we can. So if I can overlap that with my own creativity, it works. I’ve actually been able to try new mediums while being involved in my kids’ world,” Duniway says.
Adapt and adjust
So how can you ensure your creativity isn’t subsumed by your baby?
For Michelle DeMey, the answer was coming up with a concrete goal. A Seattle mother of two with a B.A. in theater arts, DeMey felt she had lost her creative way after having her babies. Then, in 2012, she began a blog to document a promise to herself: Do something creative every day for a year.
“By coming up with a goal and then stating it to the people in my life, it gave me permission to say, ‘I’m not available to you right now.’ And they got it.”
Over 365 days, DeMey experimented with writing, photography, 3-D art, watercolor and more, sometimes involving her kids. “In terms of access to self-compassion, I came so far in that one year. And I think it’s so important to remember that everyone can create.” DeMey says she now plans to open a public studio in Seattle so others can find space to pursue their own creativity.
Creating a framework that enables you to escape is key, Nestor says. “Get child care. And when your house is quiet, don’t do housework — do your creativity. The more time you spend on things that are important to you, the more you’ll be able to give emotionally to your child.”
Once I learned to accept the new realities of life with a baby and be less critical of myself, the creative juice I had longed to tap suddenly came bubbling up. I learned to keep a notebook by my rocking chair and jot down bits of stories as I fed my daughter. I took a poetry class for mothers, knowing nothing about poems but suddenly adoring their brevity. And I found a creative community to support me.
“The real solution to supporting your creativity is to have a creative life,” says Wiley, whose motto is “Find beauty in the mundane.”
A perfect creative mantra, because it is exactly what we do as mothers every day.