Must Motherhood Kill Your Creative Career?

Alice creative career

What if there’s a way to be a selfless mother while still retaining access to that deep space from which we create? The space where you are not your gender, your role, your obligation, but simply human and able to let your imagination run freely?

I found out I was pregnant the same day a literary agent agreed to represent the manuscript I’d sent her.

Friends and family were ecstatic—about the baby. I interpreted this as “having a baby is more important than that writing-hobby-thing you do.” Having a baby is undoubtedly more life-changing, yet I felt a much greater sense of achievement about the book. Finishing it required huge sacrifices and—regardless of the outcome—altered me as a person. Getting pregnant required functional ovaries and a calendar.

I wanted to tell everyone to back off with their goo-goo smiles and “No sushi for you!” as I was keenly aware I had precious few months to write before taking up my new mantle as a sleep deprived slave to a tiny (beloved!) tyrant.

It’s not an irrational fear. My friend, the bestselling author Kate Holden likened the impact of motherhood on her creative career to a natural disaster. “You know those photos of the American dustbowl in the 1930s where the families literally walked off their land, leaving half eaten bowls of cereal on the kitchen table? That’s what it felt like happened to my work when I had a baby.”

Domestic vs work space and the politics of income

In her book Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart, Rachel Power interviewed top artists, writers, and performers about the impact motherhood had on their careers.

Many spoke of not getting the same support in returning to work as those who work in “proper out-of-the-home employment,” although the mothers who were the primary breadwinners felt less guilt about going back.

“Most jobs are seen as part of the social contract, with recognized outcomes and an associated income,” writes Power. “By contrast, creativity is above all, an expression of the self…artist mothers often struggle to give themselves permission to create—something that can so easily be judged unnecessary, self-indulgent, without clear benefit to her family or society in general.”

“If I’ve had a piece commissioned I feel less guilty about asking someone to look after my son while I work,” says Holden. “But I feel I can’t do that with my novel because no one’s asking me to do it, therefore it’s ‘just for me.’ Even I don’t prioritize it—when I do get downtime, inevitably there’s a mound of laundry. Whereas my partner, being a white, privileged middle class man is much more supported in continuing his work as if nothing’s changed. He can use the downtime he gets in airports to work on his novel, because he’s away from the endless domestic tasks.”

“The only way it could be otherwise would be if my creative practice were held in such esteem, then he would step in more. But because he’s got the job that pays the money, his work is always ‘urgent.’”

Those who worked from a studio or office found they were better able to access the deep concentration required to produce good work as opposed to the 10 minutes they got at home between dunking one kid in the bath and cleaning the poo off another. “When I’m working—particularly the core creative work—there’s an immersive place I need to be in,” says painter Del Kathryn Barton. “If I’m worried about who’s picking up [the children], it’s very hard to make it work.”

Time cost benefit

Just like children, creativity needs to be nurtured in order to thrive.

But creative work is not like a factory pumping out X many widgets in Y hours. You can write a song or a book outline in 20 minutes. But by then you’ve already spent countless hours ruminating, mistake-making, and if nothing else, blankly “dreaming” before you’re at the point where it’s all there, ready to go.

But unless there’s a direct time-cost-benefit, there can be pressure from within and without that it’s not worth it. Surprisingly even the higher earners Power interviewed reported feeling intense guilt about spending time on anything that fed their creativity if it wasn’t directly tied to income. Actor Rachel Griffiths spoke with rapture about a regular acting class she tried to attend, and even though the class inevitably had a hugely positive effect on her paid work, she confessed “I always feel so guilty that I’m going, because it’s just for me.”

How motherhood shifts (or doesn’t) creative priorities

What if the kid hates me in adulthood because they have flashbacks to the sound of “enjoy grandma’s” and squealing tires as I sailed out to “indulge my hobby”? Will “Have you seen this shit mom?” mug shots appear on the streets? Then again, what if hormones and sleep deprivation mean I cease giving a shit about writing until one day I realize I lost “the inner me” and drive off a cliff listening to The Ballad of Lucy Jordan?

“I felt resentment about being a mother and not being able to do my work,” said illustrator Beth Norling. “It was hard, because my identity was so wrapped up in being creative that I sort of lost myself.”

Norling’s colleague, author Tegan Bennett Daylight had the opposite experience. “After my first baby was born writing just seemed like such a paltry and pointless thing. I thought ‘Why would I bother?’ [But over time] it just seeped back in.”

“People talk about choice in parenting, but it’s more like a hostage situation; whatever you do will have a terrible cost,” says Holden. “[My partner] Tim and I, both progressive feminists, had this grand plan of sharing care. But through the force majeure of biology and my choice to do responsive parenting, that’s been too difficult to maintain. But even though I’ve chosen to do that, I’m experiencing incredible grief about my work and identity as an artist, and really upset about the cost in this to my artistic career.”

Motherhood = lost creative edge?

Before pregnancy, I feared that giving birth would—horror of horror—make my work momsy. (A prejudice aided by patronizing terms like “mommy-blogger” and “mom-trepreneur.”)

But far from diminishing their work, many artists found that motherhood enabled a level of empathy they needed to create great work. “My depth of field has changed. You suddenly become a lake of empathy for the human condition,” says Holden.

“Looking back at the work I made in my 20s, there’s a part of me that cringes a little bit. It was so self-absorbed,” says Barton. “I absolutely know that [motherhood] made me a better artist. It freed spaces up in me and my practice that I didn’t even know existed. I felt there was so much more to celebrate.”

Indeed it was Barton’s stunning self-portrait of her with her children, You are what is most beautiful about me, that won her the Archibald prize for portraiture.

“For so long, the myth of the Great Artist, the powerful and obsessive male genius, has been lauded in the public imagination,” writes Power. “Mothers…demolish that myth that a ‘real artist’ must be a brooding, self-absorbed ego maniac who can’t help but damage or neglect those who accompany them on their voyage toward greatness.”

My grandfather was an artist who fit that stereotype neatly.

“The children” were kept away from him so he could work, even though my grandmother is also an artist. A few years ago, the National Gallery of Victoria had a retrospective of his paintings, and included the small collection of the pictures he did of his four daughters. Seeing them all together was chilling. He’d given them numbers instead of names (‘first daughter,’ ‘fourth daughter,’ etc.) and the most loving images were ones in which he painted them as wooden dolls.

Nothing has impacted me so much as seeing the subjects of those pictures wandering like ghosts though the exhibition, while their father, “the great brooding artist” was celebrated. I felt sick on their behalf.

At best, creativity is a simulation. A taking in of the “real” then shuffling it in your subconscious to make something wonderful. But it’s not the real thing.

And yet what if it doesn’t have to be either/or?

What if there’s a way to be a selfless mother while still retaining access to that deep space from which we create? The space where you are not your gender, your role, your obligation, but simply human and able to let your imagination run freely?

I’m starting to wonder if there’s a way I could incorporate the baby into that space. Take it on walks, artist’s dates. And maybe just for a moment forget that I’m a mother and it’s the baby and just be two creatures in that space together, imaginations running free.

Alice Williams is a Melbourne author. Come say hi!

This originally appeared on The Daily Life. Republished here with author’s permission.

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