July 11, 2014

Five Tips for Creative Mothers

By Miranda Hersey

Making-ArtWe are all familiar with the widely held convention that being creative – an artist – and being a mother, are incompatible. We’re raised on successful artists and writers who were childless: Mary Cassatt, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, the Brontë sisters, Georgia O’Keefe, Zora Neale Hurston, Frida Kahlo, Anaïs Nin, Dorothy Parker—and on and on. In the infamous words of Cyril Connolly, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

From the moment we give birth or adopt, we feel we have to choose between these dueling parts of ourselves and feel guilty about whichever area we’re neglecting at the moment. It’s no wonder that many creative women enter creative hibernation upon the arrival of children. Time, self, and space are in short supply, and trying to be creative is too often an exercise in frustration. Maybe being a “good” mother means moving art to the bottom of the to-do list, or sacrificing it altogether.

I used to buy into this worldview. I also used to be unhappy with my creative life, rarely finding time for my personal projects while raising five children and growing an editorial services business. And yet I knew that whenever I was feeding my soul with creativity—writing, photography, painting, drawing, or mixed-media work—I felt a sense of well-being. I also recognized that this well-being made me a better mother. So why was creative practice so elusive?

I could see that other mothers seemed to be living happily creative lives without neglecting their children. What were they doing that I wasn’t? I decided to find out. I started interviewing creative mothers, compiling reams of notes through several dozen interviews with women who were creatively satisfied. I became so intrigued with the subject matter that I started a blog for creative mothers and a few years later became a certified creativity coach. Here are five tips that have proven most helpful to my readers and clients; I share them with you as a way to kick-start or re-invigorate your own creative endeavors.

1) Focus on process, not outcome.
When you open to possibility, you became less focused on outcome and more interested in creative practice for its own sake. It is a process—a sacred practice for those who make meaning through art. The point is to develop a creative practice because it matters. Through creative work we find ourselves—and make sense of the strange experience of living. If something brilliant comes out along the way, well then, terrific.


Photo courtesy Ellen Olson-Brown

2) Use the time at hand.
Being committed to a creative practice does not mean that you need to lock your office door and bang away at your laptop for hours while the children bang away on your door. Creativity guru and author Eric Maisel, one of my former teachers, encourages us to create in the middle of things and make do with what we have on hand. Sure, you’d rather have five hours of uninterrupted quiet to work on your project. But you don’t have five hours. This is no time for idealism. Let go of the superlative and embrace “good enough”. Ellen Olson-Brown, children’s book author and mother of twins, adopted the practice of drawing one portrait on a sticky note every morning. Her collection is impressive. You can’t write for three hours every afternoon? Settle for 30 minutes during the baby’s nap. If you wrote a mere 250 words a day, you’d have a full-length novel written in just over a year.

3) Be creative on the go.
Brainstorm a list of five things you can do as part of your creative practice when your children are around. Select activities that you can pick up when your child is happily doing something else, and easily put away when your attention is required. Think of things that feed your primary art form: sketching, listing ideas, browsing art magazines, etc. Create a portable toolkit with a small sketchbook, an inspiring magazine, a few great pens or markers, a glue stick, and a small pair of scissors that you can carry with you in the car, to the playground, a playgroup, or even into your children’s playroom.


“Nest” by Miranda Hersey

4) Shift gears when needed.
If you don’t have much childcare and you’re a potter, sculptor, oil painter, jewelry designer, glass blower, or woodburner, or work in any other medium that involves chemicals, fire, small parts, or equipment unsuitable for mixing with young children, come up with at least five lateral shifts to media that can become your temporary practice. For example, Iris Milward, a potter in The Hague, worked in a detached studio when her kids were at school. But when a child was sick or on vacation, going out to the studio wasn’t possible. So Milward took to knitting, which she enjoyed and could do on the couch next to a sick child. During summer vacations, Milward devoted her creative energies to her garden, which gave her much satisfaction. As the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh noted so elegantly: “And when I cannot write a poem, I bake biscuits and feel just as pleased.”

5) Work together.
If your child is beyond infancy, list five projects or activities you can do together that you enjoy. These can be projects that you create collaboratively or side by side. Being creative with your children is excellent modeling, and can be a worthwhile part of your creative practice. If you’re a fine artist, set aside the aesthetic standards you developed while earning your MFA. Play and create with finger paint, clay, or crayons.

These tips will keep your creative practice alive. This means that when you do have an opportunity to spend several hours alone, you’ll be far more inclined to jump right in. When you haven’t kept your practice alive by creating in the middle of things, the prospect of returning to your primary discipline may seem as appealing as diving into a frigid ocean. With active practice, you’re always ready and always working, even when you’re at the park catching a laughing toddler at the bottom of a slide.

Truth: You are always an artist—just as you are always a mother. Create and be well.

Miranda_Hersey_2011Miranda Hersey is a writer and editor, certified creativity coach, and host of the blog Studio Mothers. As a business owner and the mother of five, Miranda is passionate about helping others live deeply satisfying, creative lives. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston Globe Magazine, Wild Apples, Sun Magazine, Bay Area Parent, the Parent Review, and Exceptional Parent, among other publications. Her short story, “Learning to Cook,” was shortlisted for the 2004 Raymond Carver Short Fiction Award. She lives in rural Massachusetts, happily overrun with people, books, and animals. Connect with Miranda at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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