How Much Of Our Creative Selves Are Sacrificed To Motherhood?

By Sarah Stankorb

There is no longer space for the surreal, for the charming, to bloom.

I watch my son building a Lego creation according to a set of directions, and suggest making something from his imagination. He blinks at me, goes back to the instructions.

I try to model creativity and stack a few columns of bricks, stick a curved piece on top, and tell him I’ve made a dinosaur house. He’s too polite to tell me I’ve made nothing special, so he quietly turns another page, hunts for another prescribed brick.

I am defeated that he won’t make use of his child’s mental flexibility; moreso that I cannot show him how. I want him to exercise whatever creative impulses he has now, because if my experience is any indication, the wonderful, weird parts of his mind will grow quieter with age. I’m irked and want more from him, but later, when my daughter asks me to make up a story for her at bedtime, I tell her I’m too tired. I grab a book instead and rely upon other people’s ideas.

I’d supposed motherhood would be different. That the years of nurturing young children would propel me back to the mental space of that early age, when my mind blossomed with stories, art, when I perceived creativity to be a fundamental part of who I was. I certainly never planned to be so consumed with churning out a steady supply of other people’s clean socks and underwear. I wouldn’t have a dry-erase calendar with a week’s meal plans, chores, and children’s activities. I was meant to lead a band of mud-smeared bandits on quixotic adventures, not become a woman with a day bag stocked with Tide sticks and wet wipes. I had planned to be inspired by children, not exhausted by their many needs.

I am defeated that he won’t make use of his child’s mental flexibility; moreso that I cannot show him how.

Among the subtle costs of parenting — and yes, I do also count the many joys — there are the customarily bemoaned increased levels of stress, sleep deprivation, reduced happiness, and (supposed) pregnancy brain. But I’ve found myself recently mourning a flagging creativity, not caused ipso facto by my children, but the life their demands have led me to live.

But it’s not exactly the burden of modern parenting — corn syrup concerns and the nearly all-consuming work of creating a cocoon of security around our offspring so poignantly described by Kim Brooks in her essay “A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Mom” in NY Magazine. To me, it’s not the tension between parenting wholeheartedly and the quiet, inner-screaming voice demanding space to create, a chance to fulfill a truer self. It’s that the inner voice, for me, is no longer crying for attention — or if it is, I cannot hear it.

I don’t mourn the artist and writer I planned to become. I don’t mourn a diminished self. But I note, with a somewhat detached regret, that my mind no longer works like hers. I don’t worry I’ve lost myself. I simply consider, half-shrugging, that my mind has grown rigid.

I recall an essay by Joseph Pieper from his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture, in which the thinker argued that leisure creates the conditions of the mind through which we can perceive reality clearly, and so think philosophically, artistically, religiously. Cultural development requires leisure; leisure requires contemplative space. And leisure, Pieper argued, cannot exist in a world of constant labor.

This is the world in which I’ve come to reside, not because my children ask me to, but to ensure everyone else is clean, fed, and properly enriched, that my work is completed, and kids are shuttled from daycare and school to soccer, dance, and scouts. My days become colored blocks of time on a calendar filled with my family member’s names. (Even color, here, is drained of its aesthetic value and becomes a function of the mundane.)

Much as I aspired to see the world differently, I’m like so many American women tasked with organizing and transporting my family daily. There isn’t space for the surreal, for the charming, to bloom. It isn’t hard labor, certainly, and because I freelance I have considerably more flexibility in my schedule than most working parents, but I also do not have free time. My working hours just slide to surround my children. I have blocks of time preserved for work, but there aren’t minutes and hours in which my mind can wander, or wonder.

A few months ago, sometime around 5:30 a.m. (because that’s when I can sneak away for a workout), I plucked an old New Yorker from a stack of discarded magazines at the gym and happened upon Adam Gopnik’s story about learning to draw in middle age. The art critic was not a natural artist, and reading about his struggle to learn, what stuck with me was an observation:

“Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it’s really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place — relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table.”

In adulthood, we focus our work upon areas of talent and comfort, and abandon the rest. I’d add that as parents, personal interests and self-care also tend to get pushed out. It’s partially specialization, but I began to consider that it’s also a reflection of decreasing mental plasticity that can come with age, a relinquishing of intellectual freedom as time for all our other obligations swallows our non-parenting or work-related interests.

We do what we can (as much as we can) and drop what we can’t. But there are areas of latent talent that get dismissed, for there simply isn’t time anymore for triviality. What we love, if not immediately beneficial to family life and livelihood, starts to seem trivial.

Combine that with little time to truly become something else or foster other parts of ourselves, and we can burrow deep into being just enough of who we are.

There was a time in youth, foolhardy as the perception might have been, that I thought I might become a poet or a novelist or an artist (or a social worker or a physicist or at least a physics minor). I wasn’t more skilled in these pursuits than others, but believed with time and focused work, I could at least become proficient, learn to do or understand many of these things well enough to enjoy doing them. I was young, and believed that within a lifetime, there was space for all of it.

As I read Gopnik’s essay about his frustration learning to draw, I began to consider the intellectual paths and interests I too had given up — not for lack of interest, but because the time to do so had disappeared. Eventually those curiosities curled into forgotten bits of gray matter, ghost towns of my mind. Breastfeeding on demand was more important than learning oil painting.

We can burrow deep into being just enough of who we are.

I still take an occasional art class at night — after carefully arranging schedules and childcare coverage so that I can do so, often rushing in 15 minutes late. It’s a stressful process of setting aside time for goal-directed leisure. It’s also a groggy, frustrating reawakening of the parts of my mind and hands that know how to draw. Sometimes I’ll get on a creative writing kick and try to force myself to write fiction. It’s choppy, characters run flat, and then deadlines, my real paying work, calls me back to what I ought to be doing. When I steal time to do any of it, I feel guilty. Because I’m not earning money or raising children, so comparatively, where is the value in making up stories or pictures?

As I linger on the precipice of middle life, I feel an internal battle between responsibility and wanting to keep alive what in comparison are the most frivolous destinations along my mental landscape. These are also the places within myself I’ve previously enjoyed the most. Perhaps it is because they require a certain freedom that I long for them. Wouldn’t we all rather play than work? But when I take too long between visits, it becomes increasingly difficult to find my way back, and the longer I take to cut passage to those realms of imagination, the more likely it is that I’ll become the sort of thinker who can no longer find her way.

I habituate to the grind and become evermore the woman holding soggy Kleenex, mopping runny noses, and my capacity to imagine myself or anything else in another context becomes ever more limited.

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