Every moment of motherhood, from giving birth onward, is characterized by creative process. How else would we ever push our kids out? Not just at birth but later as they separate away from us to launch into adulthood. We invent and re-invent ourselves constantly as mothers as time goes by, as our kids grow up and we find new ways to continue the eternal dialogue that is parenting.
For me, motherhood brought unexpected and welcome creativity. My children became my muse – both in their living and then through the death of my son at age 14. They were (and are) a fount of ideas, emotion and depth for my work as a writer. I believe creativity is having the ability to transcend traditional ways of thinking or acting, and to develop new and original ideas, methods or objects. These are the elements that help us make art out of mothering.
Each person needs to find their own way to give their mind the rest time that is essential for creativity to flourish. For some it is a long bath or a walk. For new mothers, or those with very young children, weaving in this kind of “me” time can be tricky. There are many moments of disruption. When children are very little and need us to be nearby, it is hard to carve out time or energy for art. But the creative drive remains and heeding it is possible. For many, that drive is a passion and some way must be found to follow it.
As a daycare kid, my daughter learned early on that Mom needs to go “on break” once in a while just like her beloved daycare teachers. I sometimes relied on the television to entertain her in those intervals. They were never very long, maybe half an hour grabbed here and there.
I had time to write in part because of the availability of high-quality childcare. Providing this more broadly would be a prime way to nurture creativity in mothers. The time for art to be created, time without worry for our children’s well-being. An affordable childcare system would go a long way in helping families to thrive while mothers/parents pursue their careers – professional, trades or artistic.
Embracing the creative drive and spending some time pursuing it may have meant
that my house was not always as clean it could be. I used that energy for artistic pursuit rather than cleaning hair out of the bathtub. If I was to carve out time for my art, I had to learn to disregard societal rules, and the structural sexism, that say mothers must keep their homes spotless.
That rule is part of the systems that prevent mothers from greater personal expression. Expectations of neat living rooms and nutritious home-cooked meals are part of a patriarchal system that requires women to be perfect providers of home. Seizing moments to build a creative practice transgresses that system.
In my case, I had one very ill child, and that caused me a great deal of anxiety. My son was a beautiful boy with soulful blue eyes that erupted into smiles at the flicker of light in his face. He was unable to sit, stand or speak and received nourishment through a feeding tube to bypass his raspy breathing. And yet, with a voice that sounded like the cooing of a pigeon, he communicated his pleasure and discomfort. Sadly, he was destined to die young.
And then I had a very healthy, bubbly child who had the typical needs for constant love and attention. She was a joyful child and could also be as stubborn as they come. I was a single mother from the time my daughter was four years old, so there was little backup.
Her brother lived in a small palliative care facility that we visited on weekends. He was well-cared for in a loving, competent group home, its only disadvantage that it was two hours away from our house. Those drives became an important together time with my daughter, as we filled the hours with games and chat. Relaxed time to bond and process our experience.
I was devoted to the idea that even though her brother would eventually die, she could have a meaningful relationship with him. And this was my “work” of mothering at that time. She helped me to tuck him into his cot, bringing the covers up to his shoulders. And she would give him a kiss on the forehead when I rocked him in the big white chair at the group home. I see now that this mothering work was also a creative process, there were no how-to manuals. We just had to make our path by doing. And so we did.
When my daughter was in school, however, I experienced a degree of social anxiety during the drop-offs and pickups in the busy cloakroom where we sausaged our kids into and out of their snow pants. I found the small talk with other mothers to be difficult and so I was mostly quiet. I’d pull on my armour before entering the school, so as to be ready for the onslaught of concentrated socializing that typified those moments. I doubt anyone else knew the effort that this involved.
I also live with bipolar illness. It affects every aspect of my life, including my writing. I didn’t tell my daughter this until much later as I was not then in the habit of telling people. It was not until she was in grade 12 and I was hospitalized for a week due to a particularly deep depression, that I spoke to her about the disease. She knew, of course, that her mom had periods of feeling down, but we’d never experienced this extreme level of it before.
She was not pleased with me for withholding this information, although I kept it to myself largely to protect her from thinking she, too, might inherit it. In reality I was also protecting myself, as a need-to-know basis seemed wise at the time. In recent years I am far more open about the diagnosis, especially now that I’m able to manage it well with the arsenal of tools at my disposal. I am perhaps a more compassionate individual now, and that empathic bent is revealed in my writing.
Besides the illness, life has thrown some wild punches. In regards to my son, I always lived on “high alert” during his life. He would take a turn for the worse, I would rush to be by his side and several times, he rallied. This was a different brand of anxiety, one that I had to learn to balance over time.
In a book called “Birds, Art, Life” Kyo Maclear writes that worry is a constriction. She says that a mind contracts when it has too much to bear. Art is not born of unwanted constriction. Art demands formless and spacious quiet…time away from the all-consuming volume of everyday life.
My worry for my son was a constant in those years. I am deeply grateful to the women who cared for him in the group home, as that provided me a window for not worrying, for working at my day job and also to create art. In this fashion, my son could also be my muse and not a burden.
That formless and spacious quiet we need to create may be at odds with children’s need for structure. Children need routines, clear expectations and planned activities to round out their development. There may be a tension between healthy child-raising and the more chaotic elements of creation.
I suspect that simply being aware of this tension may allow mothers to mete out the structure their children require, while not losing their own creative edge. It is not just a question of time, but one of energy and rest. Sometimes I found it was possible to do both. I would take my daughter to the beautiful McMichael Gallery from time to time and we would bring crayons, charcoal and notebooks. While she sketched, I would make notes. And together we would look at the paintings of the Canadian landscape, so gloriously captured by the Group of Seven.
When I was able to include my daughter in my efforts to write, rather than shut her out, I think it was enriching for both of us. I’ll never forget the number of times on cold days when she was tiny that we would toddle over to a nearby café so she could have a hot chocolate with whipped cream and I could look over my notes. We spent many an hour together in this cozy fashion.
A good part of my writing in those days was advocacy pieces, radio commentaries and letters to the editor having defending the need for quality care for kids like my son. I was also active in the daycare movement and so included my daughter’s reality. She came to meetings with me and became comfortable among the women with whom I organized.
Sharing one’s artistic life with a child is of course only a sometime thing. In early years, my desk was close to the bed where she sat, sometimes looking at picture books and other times watching television. Now, I mostly I write alone in the relative quiet of my office, away from the family hearth. The kaleidoscope that is creativity originates in a calmer fulcrum.
In later years, I teamed up with a new life partner and it became easier to shave off chunks of time for writing. I think the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is very apt for arts workers. But mostly, much of that time is a blur now. Cobbling together childcare arrangements and racing to the daycare centre at the end of the work day, I never felt quite in charge of all the demands on my time. I muddled through, like lots of moms. Was I creative? Was I in charge of the process?
Most of the time I was able to be creative, whether I was making an attractive breakfast plate with food in colourful shapes or working at my desk. I made progress. Somehow, I wrote two books and had a variety of other pieces published. I carried a small notebook in my purse and one in the car. In between soccer mom duties, I would make notes and reflect on crises and day-to-day events. My children, each to their ability, flourished in my care and that of other loving adults.
Today, my daughter is trained as a woodworker. At the exotic wood store where she buys her lumber, I cradle a piece of burled wood in my hands. Originating from a tree that was stressed, it is a round knotty growth that when polished will be full of swirls and beauty. I peel away the bark to investigate and marvel at the entangled splendour underneath. Craftspeople say that it can take thirty years for its full beauty to emerge.
The swirl of my burl is my life stories, my children, my joy and pain. Through my writing I shine a light on that jumble of memory, fact and emotion, searching for truth. Like my stories and myself, the burl wood grain is twisted and interlocked, resistant to splitting. I look upon it with wonder as it teaches me to find strength in its misshapenness.
My daughter is the swirl in my burl. Tapping a creative thread nurtured in her since always, she is becoming proficient in her chosen craft. A sphere so different from her mother’s vocation. In awe of her trajectory, I feel enormous pride as she launches away from me and moves through the world. Unlike the tree when its burl is hacked away, she’s going to be all right.
We are both creating, each in our own way. Finding the rest required to be creative continues to be a challenge, but one met more easily as time passes. For me, anyway.
My daughter’s life, as it unfolds, may include her own struggle to find space to follow her artistic pursuits. I look forward to holding my future grandchildren and to offer her the gift of time to create. Motherhood as invention, the chance to bring beauty into the world, resonates for us both. And for that I am grateful.
Miriam Edelson is a neurodivergent social activist, writer and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her non-fiction, personal essays and commentaries have appeared in various literary journals. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs” appeared in late 2005.