Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Alice Allan, Uzbekistan, Central Asia
Creating life, becoming a mother, is the supreme act of creation. But does it mark the end for mothers’ personal creativity?
Throughout history, women have been told that motherhood and creativity (beyond the practical productive kind that clothes and feeds their children) aren’t compatible. After all, aren’t the famous writers and artists all childless? The Brontës, Frida Kahlo, Jane Austen, Georgia O’Keefe, and Virginia Woolf? Yet for many new mothers, birthing a baby triggers a surge of creativity.
It’s not easy to stake out a small space within which to be creative, even for those mothers, like me, who create to express themselves, rather than to make a living. Growing children call for our focus, energy, and time with a fierce honesty that demands we put our own projects on hold. As Naomi Stadlen puts it in What Mothers Do—especially when it looks like nothing, they need their mother to be “constantly interruptible,” and that’s not an easy environment in which to produce polished, finished art.
But don’t despair! Early motherhood can be a fertile ground, and a time to gestate new ideas in readiness for a time when they can be fully birthed. It can also be a time for short, intense surges of creativity.
It helped me to remember that the first stages of creativity are observation and imagination. Early motherhood is rich with such opportunities. Growing babies need stimulation, so taking a baby out of the house on an expedition can become a kind of “artist’s date.” When babies are very small this date can be something you do just for yourself, something that sparks imagination and connection, like a trip to a museum, a market, a wood, some people-watching in a café as your baby sleeps.
A new Stanford study called “Give your ideas some legs” notes the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J.K. Rowling, for one, used to walk her baby to sleep then write out her ideas in a café.
In the house it can be tempting to fritter away time on social media. Although Facebook and the like can offer a life line for many new mothers, it’s worth remembering that many a creative project has been born out of good honest boredom. The mundane rituals of baby and child care can be repetitive, but rhythmic routines like loading a dishwasher, walking or rocking a baby to sleep can prompt surprising connections, emanating from a becalmed brain. Time spent sitting breastfeeding can be truly meditative.
Time spent sitting breastfeeding can be truly meditative.
Neither is broken sleep always the enemy of creativity. The fuzzy disorientation brought on by lack of sleep may feel like hell, but it may also be a good place to mull and chew over ideas, while your critical inner editor is out cold. Although being woken from dream sleep is a wrench, it is then that the prefrontal cortex is most active, and jotting down dreams in a bedside notebook brings a wealth of inspiration.
I started writing my first novel when my first daughter was six months old, though I didn’t finish it until much later. Stuck with plot points, I used to ask my unconscious brain to provide me with a solution as I slept. Often, it would offer it up at 2 am as my daughter snuffled at my breast and I quietly transcribed the answer.
When my second daughter was born, I fiddled with writing longer pieces, but often it was poems that came to me, sharp, and unbidden. They say that in war time people read short stories rather than novels. In the trenches of child rearing, the short dense form of the poem felt more manageable.
Poem for Sylvie, aged 11 months
She has slain me with her waking,
Pulled me gasping from my needy deeps
Into a grey light filled with birdsong
How could I leave her crying on the shore
While I slip back into sleep’s inviting waters?
She, my beaming baby,
She, so heart-breakingly pleased to see me.
She has not let me sleep well for a year.
These words are hard-won from an arid brain,
But something about the complicity of 5.40 am
Demands to be documented.
She is a babbling brook,
Pure well-head, spontaneous font
And I am scratching on all fours
In the dry earth.
So when inspiration bludgeons me,
Cudgels my brains out from behind,
It hits me with a line meant for another day.
A line that rings in my head like tinnitis,
Distracting, unwanted, un-relating,
Pulled from a different depth
Like my metaphor.
I dig on,
Wringing familiar words for drops of freshness.
For her, it’s a whole new day.
Never the same river twice.
Published in Musings on Mothering.
It’s been suggested that we need about seven to eight hours of sleep to function at our best, but clearly a long stretch of sleep isn’t compatible with the tiny tummy of a new baby, or the naturally fast gastric emptying time of breast milk. In warped logic, babies are often asked to accommodate our adult sleep preferences. Rather than accepting the “new night time,” mothers sometimes give their babies formula milk to make them sleep longer. The baby may indeed sleep longer; the casein in formula is harder to digest, meaning that more of the baby’s energy is diverted to processing it. This isn’t a natural state of affairs though. The baby will also become more prone to constipation, gastroenteritis, allergies, and SIDS.
Many mothers are relieved to hear that the sacrosanct stretch of seven to eight hours of unbroken sleep that we’re meant to need is actually a recent cultural invention. Indeed, according to A. Roger Ekirch’s fascinating book on sleep, At Day’s Close, it’s only since the Industrial Revolution, with its rigid nine-to-five work schedule, that a long chunk of sleep has been so insistently prescribed. Our preindustrial ancestors often napped during the day, and then experienced two periods of sleep a night, the first sleep (until about midnight), and then a second, or morning sleep. The interval between them, which could be up to an hour was sometimes called “the watching” and modern researchers have noted that in this time, when the calming hormone prolactin is at its highest, many experience an altered state of consciousness, not unlike meditation. Historically, the watching was a time when people wrote, made plans, chatted, mulled over the events of the days, and made love.
Mothers are notoriously adaptable and do find ways to create, despite the challenges. To those who feel a passionate need to write, draw, or make music, logistic challenges can become opportunities, incentives even. The childbirth expert Sheila Kitzinger wrote: “[My daughter] usually woke for a breastfeed at about 5.30am. She suckled energetically, and then lay happily on my bed while I worked on the first edition of The Experience of Childbirth.” Stephenie Meyer says “I wrote [Twilight] mostly at night, after the kids were asleep so that I could concentrate.”
There are those who are critical of mothers pursuing their passions.
“Why don’t you give it a rest and enjoy your baby? Don’t you think your baby deserves your full attention, just for a while?” argued a third-time mother on one creativity forum I read.
“Babies won’t wait” is wise advice, but some mothers experience the call to create not as an external obligation, a neurotic need to churn out proof of their continued existence, but as an inner imperative. Unlike our babies’ needs for comfort and food, we grown-ups can defer our needs, but for me, if I am honest, sometimes the urge to write felt almost as urgent as a let-down of milk. Well-meaning advice to take a rest felt stifling, suffocating even. When I was offered an hour alone to take a nap or a long relaxing bath, I retreated to a place of solitude and scribbled. It made me feel renewed.
Sustaining a creative outlet, even for a few brief moments, allowed me to enjoy mothering more, to give more to my babies. I felt a pressing need to respond, like for like, to the astonishing act of creation in which I was participating. Self-expression and creativity bolstered my emotional resourcefulness, and allowed me to smooth the transition into my new role.
For me, writing was therapeutic, it helped me to connect with others and to record the fleeting miracles of babyhood. Lucy H. Pearce in The Rainbow Way advises mothers to manage these intense feelings by giving their full attention to their child when it needs it, to carve out a separate space, however short at first, for their poem, their painting, that is, their ‘creative baby.’
Motherhood need not mean that a woman’s generating, creative energy is expended exclusively on her child. There can be overflow. Like love, creativity is limitless. How many women have wondered whether they would have a big enough reserves of love for a second child, only to find a wonderful expansion to accommodate the new being. Creative “babies” are the same. Zadie Smith argues, “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is absurd.” Louise Doughty, another writer, affirms “I think I have become a better writer since having children. It improves creativity, particularly because once you have children it makes you realise the story isn’t about you.”
Alice Allan @alicemeallan is a La Leche League Leader and lactation consultant, a writer and mother to two girls. She is currently based in Uzbekistan. Other features by Alice are Do You Really Need to Pump and Comfort Objects and Attachment Parenting.
Alice’s debut novel, Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things, will be published by Pinter and Martin in March 2017.