Parenting vs. the creative process

This is a post about finding ways to keep creating things when you’re a parent (other than breakfasts, lunches, dinners and clean laundry). And the joys and frustrations of being a parent who needs to create.

After a rocky start, becoming a Mum was the best thing that ever happened to me, both personally and creatively. I had always known that creative work was important to me, but there’s nothing like suddenly having a lot less time to make you stop procrastinating and just do something.

I trained as a documentary writer/director but I wasn’t confident enough about my work to pursue my ideas or apply for grants after I finished film school. I found a full-time permanent job that was related to film, and then pretty soon after that I got pregnant.

Once Leo was born and I had recovered from the shock of it all I was drawn to creative practice I could fit into nap-time and didn’t require other people, big budgets or expensive equipment. I had also grown up a lot and cared less about what other people thought of my work.

I had my first exhibition, Breadtag World, when Leo was 18 months old, and then another called Home when he was three.

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Parenting is a hugely creative thing to be engaged in. You are constantly adapting to suit your child/ren’s needs and playing imaginative games, playing with language, song, paint, dance and all sorts of different media (ATM my youngest, Clem, is into wood-chips and banana, and Leo is into pastels and mask making). But it’s not enough for me to just facilitate their creative expression – I want a turn too!

There’s lots of time to daydream but not very much time to actually put pen to paper, brush to canvas or fingers to keyboard.

“I had to learn to be fast, faster than I’d ever been, for every second counts with a child. I had to teach myself to commit phrases and words to memory when I did not have a pen, to scribble notes to myself on the backs of envelopes … I learnt to compose everything in my head rather than on the page, to have whole paragraphs, whole chapters, completely worked out before I even sat down.
… I write this book in my dreams, in buses, in the quiet moments before I go to sleep, in the ink of my blood. I have learnt to write in air.”

– Susan Johnson, A Better Woman: A Memoir

Both mothers and fathers find it hard to practice their art after having children. For people who don’t make a living from their art/music/craft (like Jeff and I), art comes in third place after kids and their paid job. When I am engaged in some creative work I’m much happier, which surely makes me a calmer, happier Mum, and it’s great fun to see your kids vibe off your adventures and get creative themselves. It doesn’t have to be either/or with creativity and parenting, but you do have to be determined in order to get anything done.

You guys must have your own tricks for getting stuff done with kids in the picture (which I would love to hear – please leave a comment!).

Writing, illustrating and self-publishing our book, You’re Doing Great, Baby, is the biggest creative project Jeff and I have ever undertaken. Here’s how it got done:

  • Leo goes to school five days a week and Clem still has two naps a day.
  • I realise this is not do-able for most families, but we both work part-time and I had a year’s maternity leave.
  • I have worked on this project – painting, writing blog posts and promoting it seven days a week for months. I don’t go out much!
  • Jeff worked on the rhymes for the book and is mixing songs for the digital downloads on the train to and from work.
  • We share Google Docs of book text and ideas so we can minimise hand-over. Even still, there was a period there where Leo would say with a sigh “Are you guys talking about the book again?”
  • Jeff and I share the housework and we also have cleaners who come once a week. Also, our house often looks like a bomb has gone off.
  • I write blog posts in my dreams, on my way to work, as I breastfeed Clem, or as I lay next to him, not wanting to move to get a pen because he’ll wake up.
  • Multitasking City. I painted the illustrations and typed blog posts while Clem slept in the carrier on me. There was also often a wash on and something cooking on the stove.
  • My Dad is a big help with babysitting. Thanks Dad!
  • It’s amazing how much you can get done in little bits and pieces. Watercolours are a great medium because you can leave them to dry and then come back to them.
  • We don’t watch much television. Since Clem was born we’ve watched TV a handful of times. We do surf the internet though – that’s our screen recreation.

There are down-sides to all this multitasking. You’re not giving anything your full attention. I try not to check my phone constantly while the kids are around/awake but I still do it a lot. I write ideas on scraps of paper which pile up around the house. This ‘system’ of never being able to work on something right away, or having to stop something when the baby wakes up even though you’re in the zone, is frustrating sometimes but it’s also a good way of seeing what sticks.

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I have recently become addicted the wonderful First Day Back podcast which chronicles Tally Abecassis’s return to her career as a documentary filmmaker after what she calls “the longest maternity leave ever”.

In an episode entitled Fear and Insecurity in Las Vegas she interviewed David Rahman who is a painter and father. This quote resonates with Jeff and I:

“Before kids, I painted. Right now it’s difficult to call myself a painter… If you don’t paint, are you a painter? … If you don’t make art are you an artist still? And I always struggle with that because having kids there’s a lot less time and I go through periods of maybe six months or a year where I’m not doing any art, so I have this whole identity crisis. Am I an artist or not?”

“You know when you have a kid, it’s very hard to find three hours here or one hour there to paint. And even then, it’s difficult to be creative and get into your art in an hour that’s squeezed between picking up the kids or making the dinner or whatever. I need three or four hours consecutive just to get into it.”

In Episode 8, Your Stories, she interviews father and writer Brian Gresko. He sums up the similarities between creativity and parenthood beautifully:

“the anxieties of both activities are very similar because they both require so much faith. You’re not actually able to see in the short term all the time the results of your work. You just have to hope that what you’re doing today will pay off in some year’s time and that it’s going to lead to something beautiful and wonderful and this great contribution that you hope to make to the world.”

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When I read Rachel Power‘s wonderful book The Divided Heart (which has now been updated and re-released as Motherhood and Creativity) for the first time I cried tears of recognition several times. Particularly the parts that Rachel had written herself (the book contains lots of interviews with creative mothers). The following quote expressed how I felt but hadn’t even acknowledged to myself:

“For the first time in my life, I envied women without strong ambitions outside of the home. Art was like a monkey on my back and I resented its skittish hold on me, the way it caused me to strain away from my babies, to live a split life, be a split self. I was burdened by the knowledge of what it would cost my family (financially, but more so emotionally) for me to keep writing – just as I became aware of how much it would cost me not to. More than anything, I longed to plunge into the job of mothering in all its fullness, to wake up each morning needing nothing more than this daily existence: a life for life’s sake. It felt greedy, selfish, unworkable, to try maintaining an identity which seemed entirely at odds with the characteristics of a devoted – a ‘good’ – mother.”

I have yet to meet a woman (or man) that is 100% fulfilled by family life. Maybe the person that Rachel (and me) imagine is a construction – an imaginary figure we torture ourselves with. What I do know is that creating something – whether it’s a papier mâché Octonauts piñata, cooking something more ambitious than cheese on toast, an installation, this book, or these blog posts – feels like breathing to me. It feels good, but more than that it just feels like what it means to be alive.

Lost in Living‘ is a great documentary by Mary Trunk about four women driven to keep making their art after having kids. It’s also a film about friendship and love and loneliness and hope. I had so many a-ha moments watching this film. It’s really powerful to see other people who are negotiating similar situations to yourself.

Here’s a 10 minute trailer:

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Related posts:

Who am I-Read the book here




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