For many new mothers, birthing a baby triggers a surge of 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 Brontes, 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. 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 her book What Mothers do, especially when it looks like nothing, they need their mothers to be ‘constantly interruptible’, and that’s not an easy environment in which to produce polished, finished art. But early motherhood can be a fertile ground, a time to gestate new ideas, as well as a time for short, intense surges of creativity.
When my children were small, 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 can be something you do just for yourself, something that sparks imagination and connection, like a trip to a museum or a market, a walk in the woods, or some people-watching in a café as your baby sleeps.
My family lived in Japan when my eldest daughter was little and I used to pound the lanes of the local parks and graveyards. We particularly enjoyed exploring the fish market.
A Stanford study called Give your idea some legs notes the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. JK Rowling, for one, used to walk her baby to sleep then write out her ideas in cafés.
At home, 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.
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 time 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 can bring a wealth of inspiration.
I started writing my first novel when my first daughter was 6 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 2am 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.
Many mothers are relieved to hear that the sacrosanct stretch of seven to eight hours of unbroken sleep 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 pre-industrial ancestors often napped during the day, and then experienced two periods of sleep a night, the ‘first sleep’ until around midnight, and then a ‘second sleep’ 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, it 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, logistical challenges can become opportunities, incentives even.
The childbirth expert Sheila Kitzinger says: “[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.”
Stephanie 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?” argues a third time mother on one creativity forum I read.
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 grownups 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. Self-expression and creativity bolstered my emotional resourcefulness, and allowed me to smooth the transition into my new role as a mother.
For me, writing was therapeutic, it helped me to connect with others and to record the fleeting miracles of babyhood. Lucy H Pearce, in her book The Rainbow Way, advises mothers to manage these intense feelings by giving their full attention to their child when it needs it, but to carve out a separate space, however short at first, for their poem or 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 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.
Motherhood’s made me more empathetic too. My novel, Open My Eyes, is set in a neo-natal ward, with chapters narrated from the view-point of a premature baby. It’s my imaginative response to the intense four years I spent working with premature babies in a hospital in Ethiopia. Had I not invested so intensely in understanding the emotions of my own babies, perhaps I would not have been able to describe those of the baby in my book.
Novelist Zadie Smith says: “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is absurd.”
Louise Doughty, another writer, supports this. She says: “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.”