Motherhood and creativity: some thoughts on time

Marilynne Robinson and her sons James and Joseph
Marilynne Robinson and her sons James and Joseph

One of the most positive things that has come from motherhood for me is the sense of time and ritual. Before kids, my life worked on the principle of spontaneity – whatever I wanted to do in a particular moment I did. No timetables for me. But as a mother, I have found a new appreciation and mindfulness of time: the seasons, and days passing. I’m not talking about the obsessive scheduling of afterschool classes, but the joy that children take in the changing of the seasons and weather: a more spiritual and mindful life. Mindfulness is a particularly important word, because children force you to live in the moment too. Like the lovely, greedy babies, they are hungry for whatever is near them. You find yourself appreciating food, a simple walk, imagining, play, and sleep. Is this kind of life such a bad thing for the artist?

Like Kim Brooks who praises tortured male artists in her recent article for The Cut, I am sentimental about the nobility of suffering: Brooks tells us that ‘the point of art is to unsettle,’ and ‘that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.’ But is this a false problem? When Brooks suggests that ‘People make art for exactly the opposite they make families,’ I would ask, why do the projects need to have the same creative energy? Why can’t we create a steady family life alongside art that questions and disturbs? Because being in close contact with children, with their vulnerability and joy, can only bring into focus the wrongness, the dysfunction of the communities in which we live.

On a more practical level, Brooks rightly points out that children are demanding. One mother (interviewed in the article) complains how when she is writing, she becomes distracted, and her daughter is resentful. I know exactly what she is talking about, and I sympathize, but I have also found that being forced to come back to the present moment can be positive. Before kids, I used to write with an obsessive intensity, but now, I have to be present. I have to take breaks, and focus on others, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Moments when you have to stop working can be productive, for example having to stop to breastfeed my son. What this means, however, is a different way of working.

I’m not saying that being a writer and a parent is without its challenges. Time can be a huge problem. When so much time has to be earmarked for children and the running of domesticity, this is a hard thing. But it is a political issue too, because mothering does not happen in a vacuum, and fathers or other parents have a responsibility too to play their part, let alone the issue of access to childcare, and the need for better and equal maternity or paternity leave.

Altogether, as a mother, I know that I’m improved: tougher, hungry, and determined. In spite of all obstacles, when I do sit down to write, there is no prevaricating, no procrastinating about what is emerging. I know that this might be the only moment I have. There can be no excuses: now is my time to write.