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Motherhood and Creativity: The Worst and Best of Times

After giving birth to her second child, Anna Downes turned the plot notes she'd jotted down two years earlier into action and wrote a book. How did she balance creativity and motherhood? 

By
Anna Downes
8-minute read
the safe place

Just the other day I caught up with a friend who had recently given birth for the second time. We sat in her kitchen and drank peppermint tea while she breastfed her baby, and we both watched her four-year-old lead my two children, ages three and five, in a rowdy game of dragon battles.

“Congratulations on your book,” she said, shouting over the noise. “How on earth did you manage it?”

Blushing, I batted the compliment away, but my friend persisted. “Seriously,” she said, “I can’t work it out. How did you write with kids around? I’m so tired, some days I can’t even see straight. I couldn’t imagine a worse time to be creative.”

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I paused, trying to think of a way to respond. I looked at the shadows under my friend’s eyes, at her unbrushed hair and the vomit-stained muslin cloth slung over one shoulder, and I felt the weight of her exhaustion. I recalled the skin-tingling, semi-stoned sensation of sleep deprivation—the nausea, the inability to make decisions, the complete lack of control over your own mind and body. I knew exactly what it felt like to break down in the cereal aisle, completely overwhelmed by the choice between two different brands of oatmeal. Viewed in this light—or any light, really—my friend’s point is solid. How had I managed to write a book in that state? And why had I even bothered to try?

When I decided to give writing a proper go, my daughter was eight months old—but the idea for my novel had been swirling around in my head since before she was born. Interestingly, I’d made my very first plot notes when I was pregnant with my son, who is almost two years older. So why didn’t I start then, when life was quiet and relatively simple? Why did I wait until I had minus time, when mounting responsibilities and lack of sleep had all but broken me?

I had playdates but no hobbies. Nothing defined me but the kids.

Like many babies, my daughter was a terrible sleeper. And like my friend, I was so physically depleted that I couldn’t see straight. Every time I went to the supermarket, every time I got behind the wheel of our car, I thought, I’m not fit to do this. Not drive, not shop, not talk, not walk, not anything. Even worse: outside of being a mother, I had no idea who I was or what I was doing in the world. My identity had crashed. I felt like I had fallen through a wormhole and landed in another universe. My husband was, and still is, a wonderful and very hands-on dad, but his life hadn’t changed much, comparatively speaking. To the world at large, he was still a teacher, a surfer, a golfer, and an all-round great bloke to have at the pub. My role, however, had instantly become that of nappy-changer, dairy cow, and designated driver. The holder of tiny hands and the shusher of crying mouths. I was the Maker of Lunches, Issuer of Commands, the Queen of the Washing Machine. I had a part-time job, but nothing that felt sustainable or fulfilling. I had playdates but no hobbies. Nothing defined me but the kids.

Don’t get me wrong, I chose that role freely, and I continue to be grateful for it. Today and forevermore, I love nothing more than holding those tiny hands. But, as I quickly realized, I need something else, too.

Many years before, I’d given up a career in acting. Long story short, the work was great, but the lifestyle just wasn’t for me. So, I decided to take a break. I upped sticks and traveled the world. I replaced performance and storytelling with true love and sunshine and great adventure. I moved to a different hemisphere and forged a completely different life. My career "break" became my new normal. I made babies, and I was happy. But without any creative outlet, I felt like half a human. I became so unmoored from the person I’d always been, so untethered from any sense of direction, that I fell into a deep pit of despair. Add sleep deprivation to the mix and I was done.

Without any creative outlet, I felt like half a human. I became so unmoored from the person I’d always been, so untethered from any sense of direction, that I fell into a deep pit of despair.

The only good thing about this whole phase was that my imagination was running wild. I was swimming in outlandish ideas. On the rare occasions that I slept, I had crazy dreams that stayed with me for weeks. Eventually, I saw a therapist who suggested that one way to combat the chronic anxiety and monkey-brain that comes with severe insomnia was to write down my worries, especially in the middle of the night.

“Get out of bed,” she said, “and write down anything that comes to you.” The point of the exercise was that once my fears were on paper, I would then be able to see how irrational they were, how abstract. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face them. Every time I tried, I came up with a blank. So instead, I started writing a story. Chapter One. Chapter Two.

And then one day I looked down and realized I’d followed the therapist’s advice after all.

Until that point, I’d never written anything except for a horribly precocious diary when I was thirteen. But once I started turning my ideas into fiction, I remembered how I’d always used storytelling of one kind or another to make sense of myself. In the darkness of my living room, my fizzing anxieties became characters and dialogue. My feelings played themselves out on the page.

And I started to feel better. I felt more fulfilled, more in control, more at peace. I remembered who I was.

Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. Parenthood is a practical and logistical shit fight. It is hard all of the time and trying to find opportunities in those early days to do anything that doesn’t directly involve your kids is straight-up impossible. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier in the months and years that follow. What if you work full-time? What if you can’t afford childcare? Even if you could justify a creative pursuit, how on earth would you fit it in? Housework, laundry, bills, groceries, the incessant noise, and oh god the guilt.

“No one can write with a child around,” Doris Lessing said in a 2008 interview. “It’s no good. You just get cross.” Amen to that. For a long time, I juggled a baby, a toddler, and a job, and I can tell you there was not a spare second left in the day.

And I started to feel better. I felt more fulfilled, more in control, more at peace. I remembered who I was.

But something had to give. And, when I actually sat down to do it, writing made such a difference to my mental and emotional well-being that both my husband and I knew that, somehow, we had to make room for it.

At first, I wrote in short bursts when my kids napped. When they dropped those naps, I wrote in the evening after they’d gone to bed. I wrote while my husband bathed them. He took them to the park on weekends so I could finish a scene. I scribbled notes in the back room at work. I went to bed early and got up at 4:30 a.m. Yes, I was still tired. But rather than kneecap my creative impulses, the strange fug of early motherhood seemed to pave the way for them.

In an article that appeared in The Cut in 2016, writer Kim Brooks recalls asking a girlfriend why, exactly, creativity seems to be in direct conflict with parenting. “Because the point of art,” the girlfriend answered, “is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”

Well, of course, it’s no one’s goal. But it is our reality. As mothers, especially new mothers, we are disturbed. We are unsure of what is comfortable or safe. We are living in a twilight zone, caught between real life and something else. And those of us who suffer through acute sleep deprivation are literally tripping on our own fatigue.

I don’t mean to glorify the dark side of motherhood. The tough times are truly awful. Baby brain is real—the bubble exists. But, as it turns out, this fugue state is extremely fertile ground for an over-active and under-utilized creative mind. The gloaming of those kaleidoscopic days and hallucinogenic nights opens us up to new truths, new desires, and new capabilities.

I wrote because I had two babies, not in spite of them. I wrote because I couldn’t help it.

And who’s to say that the practical obstacles of motherhood can’t sharpen our focus? If anything, my time constraints made me more productive, not less. If I only had an hour in which to write, I would make that hour count. I wouldn’t always produce my best work, but I would get it done.

Back in my friend’s kitchen, my friend was giving me a strange look. I was still pondering her question and my peppermint tea was getting cold.

“I’m not sure how I did it,” I said at last, and it was true. In much the same way that my brain has blocked out the pain of childbirth, I can’t remember exactly how I wrote my book. (That’s not to equate the writing process with the pain of labor; writing for me is largely joyful, not torturous.) I don’t know how, in the random fragments of my chaotic days, I came up with the words or how I put the story together.

But I do know why.

I wrote because I had two babies, not in spite of them. I wrote because I couldn’t help it. I wrote for the same reason that Jane Smiley has penned twenty-three books in the same time she’s had five children. For the same reason that Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith, among many others, have all churned out books while raising multiple kids. For the same reason, even, that every pregnant woman I’ve ever met has been in the middle of home renovations. Because, for some women, some kind of creative labor is necessary. Because, without it, we don’t know who we are.

My friend seemed satisfied with my answer. Or rather, she was distracted from thinking any further by a wail of hunger, or a scraped knee, or a poo explosion, or all of the above. We cleaned up and said our goodbyes. But on the way back home, my friend’s words kept echoing in my head: I can’t imagine a worse time to be creative. I thought about it while I hustled my kids into the house, cooked their dinner, chased them around their bedroom, tickled them, put them in their pajamas, brushed their teeth, kissed their sleepy heads, and collapsed on the sofa afterward—because I get it.

All new mothers are harassed, knackered, and very busy learning to cope with enormous change. But we are also thirsty for self-discovery, for healing, and for magic-making. We are time-poor but heart-rich. We have unplumbed depths, and our savage minds need something to bite.

Dear god, I get it. There really is no worse time to be creative. All new mothers are harassed, knackered, and very busy learning to cope with enormous change. But we are also thirsty for self-discovery, for healing, and for magic-making. We are time-poor but heart-rich. We have unplumbed depths, and our savage minds need something to bite.

So, if you are sitting somewhere with a child on your lap, with circles under your eyes and avocado on your shirt; if you literally don’t have time to wipe the tears of exhaustion from your eyes, but you do have a million bubbling ideas, or a chattering, scattering monkey brain; if you have an urge to put pen to paper, or a need to dust off those old paintbrushes—don’t tell yourself you can’t.

Don’t tell yourself the timing couldn’t be worse. Because, as Erika Hayasaki said in an article for The Atlantic in 2017, “diaper changes might cut into the time spent on creative work, but they don’t cut out the drive to do it.”

Because acting on that drive is hard, but not impossible.

Because, creatively speaking, sometimes the worst of times are in fact the best.

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