I was asked to give a short talk today on creativity and motherhood for a local organization. Here’s the result:
When I became pregnant with my first child 26 years ago, I started to panic. It wasn’t that I was afraid something would be wrong with my baby or that I was afraid of the labor process — although these are justified fears and I did think about those things.
The real issue was, I was afraid that the idea I had for a novel would be subsumed by the demands of a newborn. Having a child would strike a death-knell for my creative dreams. My story would never see the light of day. I had floundered around with writing it, and had come to the realization that I needed help. This fear was foremost in my mind when I signed up for a novel-writing correspondence course offered by Writer’s Digest Magazine soon after I found I was pregnant.
I had heard all the cultural messages that tell women that being creative and having children are incompatible, and I believed them.
The novel-writing course provided me with structure that saw me through the rest of my pregnancy and motivated me to keep working on the story once I had my baby boy. The instructor’s encouragement also helped.
Even so, it took me a long time to finally finish my novel and to get it published — as long as it takes to grow a child into adulthood.
The thing that held me back wasn’t motherhood, it was waiting for the right moment to feel creative – the moment when I wasn’t busy, stressed, or emotional. I was too much at the whim of my outside life. I hadn’t learned yet how to control my inner life and allow room for the creativity to flow no matter what was happening “outside.”
A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine backs up the premise that having children does not harm creativity. In fact, it can change the biology of the mother in ways that can allow for even greater creativity.
Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, studies the maternal brains of rats. Yes, on Mother’s Day, I am going to talk to you about rats, and their brains, no less. Lambert found that when rats become mothers, their brains, which are closer in structure to a human’s than even those of mice or dogs, start reprogramming themselves.
Their sensory and motor systems sharpen. Their circuitry becomes more efficient. Maternal rats are more direct and lethal hunters, catching their prey four times faster than non-mom rats.
Even after having their babies, the changes persist. Lambert found that the mother rats experience less memory decline in old age and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes.
Although neuroscientists do not yet understand what direct impact pregnancy and childbirth have on the human maternal brain and creativity, I am here to testify that, yes, it is possible to be a mother and be creative, too. And I’m sure plenty of other women can testify to this. It’s just that sometimes when you’re a parent, you have to find more creative ways to allow for that creativity.
If you have a partner, have them take care of the kids for a while so that you can go on a writing retreat. Don’t allow your creativity to take a back seat to the other demands of life. Try different things until you find something that works for you.
I learned how to make this inner creative space while I wrote my second novel. Even though I had a second child by this time, after reading a story about right-brain, left-brain thinking and how to make both sides of your brain work together to foster creativity, I learned how to put myself in that elusive creative mind zone, instead of waiting for the zone to come to me. Thanks to this, it only took me two years to write and publish the second one.
You don’t need to be superhuman to have children and to be creative. Mothers have been doing it forever. As the magazine article said, creativity takes time and periods of reflection, and a willingness to let go of ideas that don’t work and move on to better ones.
Learning to look at the world through the eyes of your children, be they yours biologically or children of your heart, is not a bad way to make your own thinking more flexible.