Saturday, April 3, 2010

Art & Motherhood

Where do “Art” and “Motherhood” intersect, or do they? Are they mutually exclusive? Does one enhance the other? Can they exist in one person’s life harmoniously?

For many of us artist-mothers, the place they intersect is guilt. Neither role – artist or mother – is ever enough in itself so we are perpetually feeling badly or negatively about what we are doing and how we are doing it at any given moment. Especially with babies and toddlers around, any time spent focused on art can feel to the mother, selfish. In a society whose history is miserably misogynistic, where women taking part in an enjoyable activity for the sake of enjoyment is downright sinful, even the most ardent feminists find the “line” between the needs of self and the needs of their children not a line at all. And depending on which side of this blurry division we settle on in any given moment, we will feel negatively about ourselves in some way.

I am an artist so I can’t speak to the feelings of women who don’t “make things for fun” but I’m told the tension between the needs of self and the needs of one’s children is similar. Whether the self’s need is to paint, read a book, embroider or take a walk, the activity means the same thing: me carving out a space for myself in my life that has nothing to do with my children. What that space looks like differs from one woman to the next. And of course there are those who genuinely enjoy their career in this way and are “fed” by it in a similar way.

My experience is complicated, as every woman’s is. I can describe it best as a series of tensions:

- Encouraging independent play and education vs. Hands-on mothering and teaching

- Doing the art that makes me happy vs. being selfless and thinking about my children’s needs

- A desire for my girls, especially, to see me as an individual, rather than a role vs. a desire for my children to feel my presence is a “given” and something they can rely upon

- A desire to nurture myself vs. a desire to nurture my children

- Modeling a creative, spontaneous and artistic way of living vs. the supposed security of having me at their beck and call

- Connecting with other artist-mothers via the internet vs. ignoring the computer until they are in bed

I could go on. You have your own list like this: your needs on one side and your children’s on the other with a line between them that is so faint you can’t even find it. This guilt-inducing, stressful tension exists between so many of our priorities in a way we didn’t feel as childless women. It can feel as if we never do anything well. And when we do something well, it is at the cost of forfeiting something on the other side of our “line,” so we don’t even get to enjoy our successes.

My art and my business are mixed up with one another in a complicated way, as well, which further muddies the water. I very often feel guilty about the work I do when my children are awake but when I think about not doing this work, I feel as though my heart is being ripped out. On the other hand, I don’t like the feeling of half-heartedly, distractedly caring for my children. What to do?

Though I struggle with this “tension” daily, there is something that has helped me handle my feelings in a way that is kinder to me. I think we artist-mothers walk a tightrope of needs. The air on one side of the tightrope is our children’s needs; the air on the other is our own needs. We know that diving into just one will be disastrous for many reasons, so we are constantly trying to keep our balance on the tightrope, often shaking with the exertion. But just as a real tightrope-walker would do, we sway to one side now, to the other side later, constantly correcting our balance.

It has helped me to realize that the fact that I am willing to walk that tightrope at all means I am a good mother and that I am caring for myself and for my children. I could just hop right off the tightrope to one side or the other. And there would be a way that would be “easier.” I wouldn’t have to decide what to do today, how to handle this situation tomorrow or wrestle with my priorities the following day. I’d have a default mode and in many ways a script of how to go through each day.

Neither of those are acceptable to me. I can’t be content jumping one way or the other. The only hope of contentment, self-respect and success clearly lies in a balance of these two. It means my leg muscles get toned, my abdominals become stronger and I mutter expletives under my breath when I nearly fall off the tightrope altogether. But that exercise of righting myself, leaning one way and then the other, constantly, is, at the end of the day, where I want to live.

This feeling was confirmed by the amazing Mary Englebreit who spoke at a conference called “Silver Bella” that I attended a little over a year ago. A friend of mine asked Mary how she balances her work and her family. She paused, smiled meaningfully and said simply, “I don’t.” She described that tightrope well: some days you go and do work; other days you do your husband (her words!). She has grown children but intimated that the period of time with little ones at home was challenging. She is woman who must draw. Must. It is as necessary as water.

If, as an artistic mother, doing art is something that feeds my soul, helps me process the world, touches others and in general, adds to my emotional health and well-being, why is it so difficult to give myself what I need? I understand perfectly that when I am taking care of a newborn, it will do no good to invest all my resources, time and money in feeding my child, while I go hungry. Eventually I will starve, leaving the helpless child without an avenue through which to be nourished. My emotional health is just as important as my physical health. And yet…I feel myself guiltily. I give myself the nourishment I need with the sick feeling that I am taking food from my own children’s mouths.

What is a mother to do? I think recognizing, acknowledging and accepting our needs is the first step. Deep inside our knowing place we have heard, perhaps in a whisper, the truth: we must do art. As long as we silence our “knowing place” or “seat of wisdom,” or “gut,” or whatever word you choose to use, plugging our ears to the soft, gentle wisdom, we will be at odds with ourselves and with our life. Time spent nurturing our children will feel more like work and we will experience it primarily as inconvenience, as our children “taking” something from us, and as something slowly killing something inside of us. Our deep wisdom knows this is no way for children to be parented!

To start with we must each sit with ourselves, just as we would one of our children. Imagine, if it helps, holding yourself on your own lap, wanting to know what this dear one needs. Ask her. Listen to her. Don’t judge or qualify. Don’t interrupt her with “shoulds” and “shouldnt’s.” Give her time to speak, uninterrupted.

After you ask her what she needs, ask her what she would do if she were given permission to do so. What would she create, make, sew, paint, alter or otherwise apply herself to? What makes her heart beat faster to think about? What materials would she like to have at her fingertips? Perhaps she will tell you she needs a “place” that is all hers, in which to do her art, even if it’s a corner.

Just listen…don’t tell her what is practical, what she has time for, that the materials are too costly, or that others won’t understand. Allow her to dream aloud.

Stop there. Just sit with that artistic “you.” Again, think about her as your beloved child. If your child were to sit on your knee and tell you a fantastic dream of a beautiful playhouse, painted pink, full of child-size furniture in which she could host tea parties, you wouldn’t tell her that was stupid. If your child were to come to you with a sketch of her ideal bedroom – a bunk bed shaped like a castle, a slide coming out of it, a toy unicorn on which to ride and a specific shade of pink for the bedding, which of course would feature princesses – you would smile delightedly in the knowledge that your child has a sharp and creative mind. There would be no talk of practicality or feasibility. You would validate her imagination and love her all the more for the fabulous ideas she has.

If that dear child came to you with such beautiful, imaginative dreams, what would your response be, after the child left the room to play? You would ponder her dreams and ideas…is there a way to make this happen? You might google castle bunkbeds or pink playhouses. You would perhaps tweak the budget a bit so that even a part of your child’s dream could come true.

After all, you remember being a child like her, a dream fairly bursting out of your mind and heart. You love her. Of course you will do all you can to not just meet her needs, but to fulfill her dreams.

Give yourself this same gift. Make your own dreams and creative ideas a priority. Give yourself permission to be who you know you are inside. Your inner “knowing” will tell you that that woman, fully alive, is the best mom your children could hope for.

The other day my daughters were talking to one another about what they are going “to be when they grow up.” One said a zoo-keeper or a vet. The other said a vet or a doctor. But then she added, “Or an artist like Mama.” My eyes welled up. These beautiful little girls are watching me come alive as I create. They witness the way a pile of “stuff” becomes a piece of art that is beautiful and significant. They understand that art touches others in deep ways. They experience the real me…and they enjoy this me enough that they want to be like me. Amazing.