“In giving birth to our babies, we may find that we give birth to new possibilities within ourselves.”
– Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Maya Angelou once described her mother as “a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colours of a rainbow.” Let’s imagine for a moment the ominous spectacle of the first analogy: ferocious and unyielding, an unstoppable force of staggering strength and velocity. And then the tender loveliness of a crown of pastels gently descending through the ether, still and resplendent, an ephemeral shimmer of visual opera. Two of nature’s most awe-inspiring phenomena, and yet on her spectrum of tricks they sit at opposite ends with such divergent qualities they could never hope to share a metaphor. Except here. Because to be a mother is precisely this paradox: the power of a perfect storm that could tower the sea and flatten a city, and yet the softest space in one’s own soul, the aching vulnerability of a heart cracked wide open, bleeding tenderness like the falling colours of a rainbow.
The lattice of strength and vulnerability that characterises motherhood is the stuff of myth and legend. We’ve all heard some version of a mother’s miraculous leap into action at any hint of threat to her child, summoning the brawn to lift an upturned truck if she must. Accepting the role of mother calls for strength of mind and softness of heart – for both fluidity and stability. It demands no less than extraordinary fortitude and near superhuman capabilities. A mother has endured the agony of labour, foregone sleep for months on end – sometimes years. She has surrendered her body, her own needs and desires, the freedom to inhabit her space and occupy her time in any manner she chooses for the noble and selfless act of creating and nurturing a human life. A mother will ensure the tribe is fed before she fills her plate. A mother will take bullets, confront giants (or worse, schoolyard bullies), fight to the death for the babies that cling to her, and breathe fire upon a world that would threaten them. In the animal kingdom there are none at once more loving and deadly than a nursing mother. “Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws,” wrote author Barbara Kingsolver. And it’s true. It’s the kind of enduring truth that sits at the core of our collective knowing. Mothers are badass, this much is clear.
I hesitated to have a child and one of the reasons was this: the archetype of the Mother Almighty is reduced to lovely but empty rhetoric when taken to the realities of the modern world.
In this context the overriding message is: motherhood is akin to a vice that constricts a woman’s potential to grow and prosper in most other areas, namely professional and creative. For an enterprise that builds more resilience, demands more multi-tasking, calls on more inner resources and requires break-speed acquisition of new life skills, motherhood is generally treated by modern society as a kind of handicap, an obstacle to bridge in resuming a full and multifaceted life. We see a mother’s laboured stride as she pushes a pram up a hill to the grocery store wearing a milk-stained T-shirt and a glazed, sleepless stare and what we see isn’t the force of a hurricane or the grace of a rainbow; in the most unjust of terms, what we see is mediocrity. Life at its most mundane, its most creatively and intellectually impoverished.
One of the world’s most recognised female artists, Marina Abramović, has openly confessed to having had three abortions because she was certain bearing children would be a “disaster” for her work. “One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it,” she said. In her book Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly wrote: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
I’m sure we’ve all seen intelligent, creative, driven women struggle after the birth of a child – with the strangulation of their time and options, their bank accounts and professional status, their sexuality and spirit. As their bodies wondrously expand everything else inversely shrinks. Which, to be clear, is not to suggest that all mothers fight this battle; many women are perfectly content devoting themselves solely to the full-time job that is motherhood, and to these women, I salute you – it is a monumental (and extremely undervalued) endeavour in and of itself. But those who have the desire to forge ahead in other areas can and do feel marginalised after the birth of a baby. It’s often hard to return to work and pick up where you left off let alone get ahead or embark on a new venture. For a lot of women there are financial limitations to how far they can extend themselves with the hefty cost of child care. Mothers describe a perpetual tug-of-war between conflicting demands and the associated guilt and niggling dissatisfaction at having to choose one or the other, or split time and attention between both. There’s never an optimal balance. There’s never a perfect ratio. So, as someone who enjoys my work (and needs the corresponding pay cheque) and has always craved creative engagement, it’s no surprise that when I stood at the juncture of the most important choice an adult will ever make – to bring or not to bring a child into the world – I stalled, and stalled again, and kept stalling. But the question niggled at me: is it really necessary to compromise (or forfeit altogether) creative expression and professional fulfilment in order to experience becoming a parent? It just seemed so inhibiting, so boring.
So I went in search of renegades, for women who don’t simply ‘juggle’ motherhood with other pursuits but women who have scaled new heights.
I looked for women who have run headlong into a whole new ball game and smashed it out of the park. And, of course, I found them – lots of them.
I discovered a significant contingent of women who had entered into motherhood as a baptism of fire, initially broken down, reduced to the vestiges of an old self pulverised by the magnitude of the ordeal. And then, like the fable of the phoenix, rising anew from the debris of an expired paradigm like mystical alchemists. I saw women I knew personally, who may have been flailing a little in life – making erratic, half-baked attempts at projects, businesses, travel plans etc. – suddenly struck by an unprecedented gust of energy and confidence to make their dreams a reality. They seemed to inhabit a renewed sense of self-creation and set about building full and brilliant lives without a moment’s hesitation. Not that it looked easy, it clearly took a monumental restructuring and reevaluating of priorities, but it did look completely doable and, dare I say, exhilarating.
Vicki Lee, a Sydney-based artist, is one of those women whose professional and creative trajectory is testament to the life-enhancing potential of motherhood. Before the birth of her first child three years ago, Lee was working on an online business she co-founded, selling homewares. She enjoyed aspects of the business, but it wasn’t her true calling. “I learnt a lot working on the business before I was pregnant with my first daughter and also through the pregnancy. Then she arrived. And so much of my life as I knew it changed,” Lee says. “The main thing was being confined physically and in turn having to face myself. My ‘demons’ were easy to take along for the ride when life was afflux. I was always on the move. When my daughter came into my life, I was bound. Anchored. Really stuck with myself. And a lot of processing went on through the pregnancy but also in the first few months of being a new mum. There was a mourning period of an old life and the magnificent rebirth of a new one. Through this process, I realised I was an artist. I have a deep and insatiable need to express myself visually in abstract forms and colours. It felt like coming out of an artist ‘closet’. I felt like I’d lifted a massive weight off my shoulders by admitting to myself what I’d known deep down my whole life.”
Since resolving to exit a business she had invested a substantial amount of time and money in to fully inhabit herself as an artist, Lee has sold out five exhibitions, along with her partner and collaborator, Ted O’Donnell, and now makes a comfortable living solely from making art. And to test the theory even further, Lee gave birth to another daughter at the start of this year, doubling her parental responsibilities. Recently she gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, dashing home to pump breast milk shortly after, proving that, yes, perhaps you do have to divide your energy as a creative who also has children, but what you can achieve in an evening multiplies. “I’m one of those people that just works better under pressure. Like a bottle of fizzy water – I dare you to shake me and build that pressure!” she says. “Before having kids I spent a lot of time daydreaming and contemplating abstract ideas while looking at the ocean. I don’t have time to do anything close to that these days and I think it’s for the better. Life now is about action. If I have an hour and a half to paint while my youngest daughter sleeps, I have to use every second of that time, as I may not get another chance for a few days. My mum used to joke that one stolen cookie will taste that much better than being allowed to eat an entire packet without restriction. Time these days is stolen and hard fought for and I am going to run as far as possible with it.”
What Lee has been able to achieve as both mother and artist in a relatively short amount of time is pretty extraordinary – she hasn’t taken an easy road, but she also isn’t an anomaly. Another friend of mine, Julia Ashwood, is the founder and creative director of travel and lifestyle website The Vista. Since the birth of her daughter last year the business has flourished at an accelerated rate by anyone’s standards, and she now travels the world as part of the gig with her partner and adorable little sidekick in tow. “I have never felt more creative,” she says of the months following the birth of her daughter. “My mind was racing with wonderful and harebrained ideas. I loved that time.” As well as feeling creatively inspired, Julia felt a sense of renewed motivation to really make things happen after becoming a mother. “Naturally you want the very best for your little ones so you almost step it up a level,” she tells me.
“You of course have much less time, so care less about the small things and focus more on goals and future accomplishments – motherhood is certainly a newfound perspective on getting shit done!”
It’s testimonies like these that make me wonder, what sets these women apart? Why are they so profoundly fuelled by the experience of motherhood while others feel stifled by the bias that motherhood shrinks our options in life? Is it about access to resources? Does it come down to unique circumstances, number of children, physical health or a supportive spouse? Or is it simply a choice and a defiant belief that it can be done? A couple of months after the birth of my own child (yes, I eventually got there) I was feeling overwhelmed by the all-consuming task of being a new mother, so I went to see a therapist who told me something really interesting. She explained that there are a few crucial times in a person’s life when a process called ‘synaptic pruning’ occurs. The ones commonly known and heavily researched are early in childhood and in adolescence when the brain begins shedding extraneous synapses in order to make room for building more productive connections, thus making the brain more flexible in order to maximise learning and integrate new information. Via this process the mind is attempting to adapt to its environment and form an understanding of how to function and thrive within the context of an individual life – what will work in service of it and what won’t. This is why these periods are characterised by exploration and curiosity, pushing boundaries and testing limits – our brains are ripe for experiencing new things because of their readiness to integrate new neural connections and discard what is deemed unnecessary based on sensory input. But new research in neuroscience suggests there’s one other time in a person’s life when this process occurs on a significant scale: pregnancy. Based on a major study led by neuroscientists in Barcelona, it’s been found that a dramatic remodelling of the brain occurs from the moment a woman conceives a child and persists for at least two years after birth. The research shows that when a woman becomes pregnant her grey matter begins to shrink, which isn’t a bad thing. What it indicates is that the pregnant brain is potentially pruning irrelevant neural connections, once again making it more adaptive and open to change. These findings are further supported by studies out of the University of Richmond in Virginia which suggest the maternal brains of rats experience enhanced cognition, less memory decline and sharper motor skills, making the mother rats more capable of adapting to new environments and more efficient problem-solvers. If, as these studies suggest, pregnancy and motherhood provide an opportunity for cognitive new beginnings, the choice for the individual lies in using this to full advantage by consciously designing a fresh way of being and a new version of life – an upgrade if you will – while the brain is open and malleable.
This moment of effortless neural pruning in adult life appears to be unique to a woman and offers an anomalous opportunity to streamline her life and really get clear on what she wants – her goals, inspirations, priorities – and act quickly and decisively. The wonderful thing is, every new mother is a living repository of this potential, she just has to choose what she wants to do with it.
This discovery was incredibly timely for me. Those moments of hopelessness that so many mothers talk about – the worries and doubts about my place in the world – had begun circling. Like, how was I ever going tap into that spontaneous, explorative creative space within me with the persistent pull of the domestic duties that now dominated my days? But this new development in scientific research, for me, offered a modicum of hope: what if we could change our perspective, see things a little differently? What if as opposed to a time of self-splintering, motherhood might be seen as a time of expansion and integration in which having a child serves to consolidate life experiences and enhance creativity and professional performance rather than hinder it? In her book Motherhood & Creativity: The Divided Heart, Rachel Power relays the story of the prolific 19th-century Scottish writer and mother of six Margaret Oliphant. “Though it paid the family’s debts, Oliphant felt great guilt about her passion for writing, and so her creative life was conducted entirely in the kitchen: the work, as she put it, ‘subordinate to everything, to be pushed aside for any little necessity. I had no table even to myself, much less a room to work in, but sat at the corner of the family table with my writing book, with everything going on as if I had been making a shirt instead of writing a book.’ And yet it seems that her writing profited from the difficult, chancy connection between the art work and the complex set of skills and tasks called ‘housework’.” Over the course of her life, as a mother of more children than I can fathom, Oliphant wrote more than 120 works, including novels, histories, books of travel and volumes of literary criticism. Was her creative produce so abundant and rich despite the conflicting demands on her time and attention or, as Power suggests, because of them? Could it be that the intense boot camp that is motherhood, the level of sheer physical and emotional strength and stamina required to keep a totally dependent human alive and happy, engenders new superpowers? Like doing twice as much in half the time for which mothers are famous. Or the deepened level of empathy and heightened intuition that comes from having to read a baby’s cues and anticipate her needs. Or the Zen-like patience a mother needs to cultivate to keep from internally combusting at regular intervals throughout the day. Or, simply put, the ability to efficiently expel the bullshit from one’s life because there just isn’t the time or energy for it. A roster of life skills that should take pride of place on any resume and be a bragging point in any job interview. Or at the very least hatch the inner confidence to tackle a creative project or new business with an assured sense of capability.
A 2008 study by the US-based Pew Research Centre found that of the 2250 people polled, the vast majority felt that female leaders far outranked men in key leadership traits like intelligence, honesty, compassion and creativity. The respondents felt that women in leadership roles would be more adept at “standing up for one’s principles in the face of political pressure; being able to work out compromises keeping government honest; and representing the interests of ‘people like you’”.
As mothers we are never not giving. We are never not problem solving, multi-tasking, thinking creatively, and acting decisively. We are never not putting others before ourselves and working tirelessly for the greater good.
However we channel this, what motherhood offers is possibility – the opportunity for growth and a chance to draw on new life skills to expand, to self-actualise and create something extraordinary.
Motherhood and creativity do not have to sit at opposite ends of a long table; they can connect, collude and draw from one another. If a pram in the hall is the enemy of art, well I say let’s wheel that thing right into the studio, the home office, the boardroom, and the stadium (I’m looking at you, Beyoncé) and let the enemies collaborate. “Connecting to the larger-scale female power has given me a confidence I hadn’t accessed previously,” says Lee. “We make limbs and organs inside our bodies. We give birth. We make milk! We are amazing. I love being a woman. I feel like I’ve connected with female strength, my own and also in the universal sense and it is very powerful.” The narrative of the Mother Almighty is ours to own. Every mother – every woman – is the hurricane and the rainbow, the ordinary human with the badass superpowers.