Not so long ago, it felt like all I did was write books and have babies. There was almost no time for anything else. This year, for the first time, all three kids are at school and I occasionally feel as if I have time to do other things, but I’m still in a place where everything I do is outcome focussed—I go to yoga to stay relaxed, I swim to keep fit—and I can’t think of anything I do besides take the very rare bubble bath that is simply just wasting time on me (and just to note that I don’t think this is unique to me; I expect many other people feel exactly the same).
And so when I began to read Rachel Power’s book Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart, I felt an almost visceral response to it. It said things I had felt but never put into words. It spoke about the way “creativity and motherhood are both intrinsic to a meaningful life” but that at the same time, creativity and motherhood can often be completely at odds with each other. So I was moved to write a kind of response to what I’d read in Powers’ book, about my own experiences of motherhood and writing.
Stuffing Writing Into Tiny Splinters Of Time
I’ve always written around my babies. I’ve often spoken about spending the last eight years of my life writing books between 12.30 and 2.00pm each day when whichever children were too young for school had their nap times. When my first book was published, I had a four year old, a two year old and a six month old. I’d started writing the book virtually at the same time I fell pregnant, although I didn’t know it at the time. Yes, I was crazy enough to think that having three children under the age of four was a good idea! And that’s just the thing. It was a good idea. As Claudia Karvan says in in her interview in the book:
“I don’t think I’ve sacrificed anything [because of having children]—I think I’ve gained everything. I’ve sacrificed loneliness and purposelessness and the kind of unknowingness of being in your twenties—but I wouldn’t call that a sacrifice; I think it’s a relief.”
And that’s the crux of it; being a mother is a net gain, no matter what. There is so much joy and such a deepening of emotional range and these things can only be of huge benefit, ultimately, to anyone’s creative work. If I hadn’t had children I would never have been able to write my second book at all because that came out of some particularly searing experiences of being mother to a child who spent a lot of time in hospital and at medical appointments.
There Is Always Time To Write
Motherhood made me realise that there is no ideal way to write a book. That you can write a book in small chunks of time. That to complain about having “no time to write” was a cop-out because there is always time. Time goes on and on. It’s just that you have to steal that time away from something else. I stole it from myself.
Because in the one and a half hours of the kids’ nap time, I could have sat down with a magazine and a cup of tea. I could have watched television. I could have had “me-time”. But there is no way that watching television or reading a magazine will ever fulfil me the way writing does. So it wasn’t really time stolen from “me-time”. Yes, at the start I had to make myself sit down and do it. But then I began to look forward to it. And now, I can’t imagine not writing. So the writing is now the time that gives me something I don’t get from anywhere else in my life.
Me and My Belly Go to a Writing Residency
But there have been plenty of times when I’ve wondered if I’m mad. For instance, I was awarded a residency at Varuna, The Writers’ House to work on my second book. And I knew I had to grab that residency with both hands because I was about half way through my second book and I was also three months away from having my third baby. The clock was ticking.
I had to finish the second book before I had the baby because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write for the first couple of months after it was born, that life with a one year old, a three year old and a baby was going to be all I could manage. So I went on the residency when I was thirty-three weeks pregnant and I think every single mouth at Varuna fell wide open when I walked in the door. Bear in mind this was my third baby and it was due in 7 weeks. My stomach preceded me into rooms.
It was another one of those moments where I realised that what I was doing was strange, abnormal even, and many of the women Powers interviews in her book also feel this way at times. The lovely people at Varuna said they’d never had such a pregnant woman stay at the house before for a writing residency. Why not? Surely I wasn’t the only pregnant woman in Australia writing a book?
I’ve travelled to regional writers’ festivals with my husband and kids in tow because I was breastfeeding and I couldn’t leave the baby for two days. I’ve had to give talks about my book with a belly so pregnant people have jokingly told me to make sure I don’t go into labour while I’m on the stage. I vividly remember giving another talk and knowing I was leaking milk everywhere and praying desperately that it wouldn’t soak my dress and become obvious to the audience.
Why was I so embarrassed? Because of all the comments people made all the time about my pregnant belly and my children and the apparent unusualness of being able to write and have books published at the same time as bearing children. I wonder whether women in other jobs experience the same thing?
Being in “The Zone”
Many of the mothers in Powers’ book also talk about the huge mental shift needed to step out of the creative work at 2.30pm to go and get the children from school. And I’ve really felt it this year for the first time because I’ve been able to be a bit more obsessive about my writing as the kids are now at school.
In creative work, there are obsessive times. When I’m about halfway through a first draft until I reach the end is an obsessive time for me. Structural edits are an obsessive time. Final drafts are an obsessive time, times when the story literally inhabits me. It is all I can think about, there are voices in my head and scenes in my head and to talk to the kids about what toy they should show the class at news or to help them write a report on Australian convicts or to show the right amount of enthusiasm over their discovery that the school library stocks Horrible Histories books is sometimes hard. And this is the thing I feel most guilty about.
Living with kids is all about living in the present moment. It’s about taking the time to listen and laugh and hug because they will only be little and all mine for such a short time and I know I should eat up every moment I have with them. That I shouldn’t be thinking about how to orchestrate the plot of my book so that Evie and Thomas do eventually end up together. But sometimes it’s so hard to do that. As Joanna Murray Smith says in her interview:
“I’m not very engaged with mothering when I’m totally absorbed [in the work]. I’m buttering toast but I’m thinking all the time about where the story’s going.”
So, the upshot of all of this is that if you are a mother and you are involved in any kind of creative work you should read Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart. It was a book that made me nod my head and realise that everything I had thought and felt over the last nine years was shared by others. It was a book that reminded me of the joy of both creating and of being a mother and that I would not exchange either of these joys for anything, and that I never have to do them perfectly, I just have to try my best.