Exhaustion and Rest: Motherhood and Creativity
My seven-month-old daughter army crawls around the apartment with no apparent destination. She pulls at the corner of our living room carpet to examine its frayed edges, then drags herself diagonally across the floor to the bookshelf. From there, she zigzags around in a seemingly random pattern, stopping to inspect tiny crumbs and anything else that happens to be in her path. Her explorations are part of her rapid development, of course, but she is not chasing a particular goal. Her movements, my partner recently observed, are antithetical to capitalism.
When I write poetry or essays like this one, I often begin without a clear final product in mind. I open my spiral-bound notebook (I start all my creative projects writing by hand) and see where my words lead me. Sometimes they go nowhere, so I do not always have the sense that I will be able to produce a publishable text, or that my words are of any value to anyone. Creative writing is not a practical endeavor. “Gold for your dust, sir. Pearls for your pigs,” as poet Sabrina Orah Mark recently put it. When I was younger, I explored the world without a particular goal, and I gave myself space to write in a way that seemed impractical and, according to the logic of capitalism, unproductive. At some point, however, perhaps around the time I began graduate school, I stopped working on projects that seemed unlikely to help me find a job. Motherhood has added new obligations on top of my full-time job. Yet becoming a parent has also allowed me to disengage from other pressures, and that has allowed me to return to creative projects I had abandoned.
Before the birth of my daughter, I wrote a dissertation, academic and journalistic essays, and translated poetry and prose. Those tasks, of course, were not easy, and most of them earned me little or no money. Nevertheless, I was always confident that I’d be able to fashion my essays and translations into some sort of coherent product—and that they would be useful for someone, if only for the small circle of people in the world interested in my particular area of research. I also felt that those publications would advance my career. I was following what a poet friend once described as “the measured path” of academia. In graduate school, even my reading was regulated. “Illegal reading,” a professor said to me, half-joking, when I told him about a book that had nothing to do with my field of study. Despite the demands of teaching and research, there were many points when I had time for creative projects: the year I spent in Brazil on a Fulbright grant, for instance, or the year I worked as a visiting professor in rural Washington state and lived alone in a little house that seemed perfect for a writer. Yet I gave myself little space for projects unrelated to my scholarship. Any time I sat down to write a poem or personal essay, I scolded myself: I should be turning my dissertation into a book; I should be putting together a grant proposal; I should be writing about pedagogy. I wanted to do creative work, but was afraid to feel too much, afraid of being unproductive, afraid nothing I had to say mattered. It had been years since I sat down with a blank notebook.
When the pandemic shut everything down, my partner and I began working from home and stopped sending our daughter to daycare. We still have no childcare help, so we take hour-long shifts, alternating between working and watching our daughter. I never have more than one uninterrupted hour to work, and even that is rare. As I sit revising this paragraph, my partner has come in to put the baby down for a nap. In our two-bedroom apartment, my office is also her nursery. Yet, despite the restrictions on the time and space I have to write, I have produced more creative work than I have in years, in part because motherhood has changed how I feel about the ways in which I fit—or don’t fit—into the capitalist system.
I spend a lot of my day now performing tasks that cannot be commodified or marketed: attaching myself to a breast pump five times a day, doing mountains of laundry, pureeing vegetables to make baby food, reading the same picture book over and over, singing the same songs, and sitting on the floor stacking colorful rubber blocks and counting while my daughter giggles. She waits until four, five blocks, then swats her little hand at them to watch the tower tumble. I begin again, but I never feel like Sisyphus. While all of these tasks take time away from writing, they have also given me permission to sit with a notebook and no clear product. I am better at quieting the voices that tell me I am not being productive because I spend so many hours now being happily unproductive.
Decades ago, a friend told me a story about a famous writer who lived in Paris. This writer, whose name I wish I could remember, was once asked how she balanced motherhood and her career. Having a child, she’d replied, had not been an obstacle. In fact, if it had not been for the baby, she would have lived the sort of bohemian life her friends did. And with all that time spent in cafés and at parties, she would not have given herself the space to write. I spent my twenties and thirties childless and in constant motion: exploring the world, meeting interesting people, dancing, working nonstop. I took on freelance projects on top of my full-time job. I went out with friends at night and trained for triathlons in the morning. I had an enormous amount of freedom, but I couldn’t focus on creative work as well as I can now. I wonder if it isn’t just time we need—but permission to create. When we’re already doing so much labor that is neither economically productive nor sexy, it’s easier to ignore the voices that pressure us to prove our utility.
I have been reading Memories Pretend to Sleep, a book of poetry by Julia Gjika, translated from Albanian into English by her talented poet/translator daughter Ani Gjika. One of the poems, cited in Nina MacLaughlin’s review in The Boston Globe, describes geese: “Their white bellies / glided through the numerous hues / the firmament had stolen from the season. / In an instant, exhaustion and rest became one.” While the poem, titled “Autumn Afternoon,” is not about being a parent, I interpret the reference to “exhaustion and rest” as a metaphor for motherhood. Caring for an infant, especially one that has learned to crawl, requires an exhausting level of hyperawareness. While we have childproofed the apartment to the extent possible, my daughter, like most children, has a knack for finding peril. When she picks up a speck of something with her newly developed pincer grasp, I rush over to see what she’s found. I’m wiped out by the end of every day, then awake again at 3:00 a.m. to rock my little girl back to sleep. I never have uninterrupted time, and I must grade and plan classes in the fragmented hours when I might otherwise be able to relax.
Yet motherhood also brings rest. The need to be constantly alert to protect my daughter (mostly from herself) also helps me appreciate the details around me. For a baby, even the most mundane objects—the cardboard box filled with recycling, the plastic saucer under one of our houseplants, the TV remote—are fascinating. She helps me to be more fully present, and less plugged in. I check the news in the morning, but when I’m with my daughter, I don’t want to be on social media or scrolling through The New York Times app on my phone. And when I am looking at a screen, she often army crawls over to me and taps on my leg to get my attention. Lately she has been raising one of her hands in front of her and rubbing her fingers together, observing and practicing her fine motor skills. She looks like a little actor delivering a soliloquy, the way she stretches one arm straight out in front and looks up with a sort of confident intensity.
In the evenings, I sing to her. I don’t know many lullabies. My father used to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to me, but he only ever sang—or I only remember—the first verse. Rather than singing the same few lines over and over, I sit with her in the dark and invent others to the same tune. Night after night, rocking her in the nursery, I am tired, but not tired in the way I feel when I am constantly tuned in to the relentless twenty-four-hour news cycle, to work, to social media.
When the world feels like it’s burning, my daughter helps me to be still. Yesterday, I sat at my desk with her on my lap. I was not on the computer. Instead, we sat facing the window, which gives us a good view of the street. I narrated the scene for her: the man unloading packages from a UPS truck, the man in a blue shirt walking by with his toddler, the woman walking her dog, the traffic light changing to red at the end of the block. The window was open and the summer breeze blew through the plants on our windowsill. That’s a cyclamen, I told her. In the breeze, its white petals reached out in all directions like little fires. As a result of these peaceful moments of observation, I am more productive when I find bits of time to sit and write.
Of course, I fully acknowledge that I have the luxury of sitting by the window with my daughter and finding snatches of time to write precisely because I have a stable job with relative flexibility and summers (mostly) off. I am not on the tenure track, which means I am not required to publish peer-reviewed articles. And I have a supportive partner who does half (sometimes more) of the domestic work. Right now he is sitting on the floor reading ¿Dices Mu?, a book about animal sounds in Spanish in order to let me write. From the other room, I can hear him ask, “¿qué dice el caballo?” and whinny like a horse. I realize that I am incredibly fortunate. Yet I have had some of these things before—flexible employment and supportive partners—and I did not give myself permission to write without a final product in mind. Having my daughter has relieved me of a lot of expectation. I care less about how much I publish, and I am able to give myself the emotional and mental space to write in a way I haven’t in years.
Rest is connected to creativity, and there is scientific evidence to support that. In an article on motherhood and creativity, Erika Hayasaki writes that becoming a parent gives us more time to engage the brain’s default-mode network, which is necessary for creative processes. The default-mode network is most active when we are not focused on completing particular tasks. I have heard this state referred to as “active rest.” Hayasaki’s argument may seem counterintuitive, since raising a child increases the number of tasks we need to perform. However, much of the domestic work required by parenting does not involve a high level of cognition. Citing the work of neuropsychologist Rex Jung, Hayasaki writes,
Each person needs to find their own way to give their mind the rest time that is essential for creativity to flourish. For some it is a long bath, a walk, a nap. For Jung it is mowing the lawn. I try to kick the default-mode network into gear by listening to podcasts or audiobooks while driving to swim lessons, doing dishes, or mopping banana-crusted Cheerios off the floor.
I spend the day filling and washing bottles, changing diapers, and cleaning up after my daughter has tossed her spoon from the high chair, splattering pear puree everywhere.
Motherhood has changed my perspective on domestic tasks I once scorned. During my pregnancy, I was afraid. I had wanted my daughter, had suffered through years of failed fertility treatments before I could have her, but I was afraid of giving up my freedom, afraid my conversations would revolve around the domestic, afraid that I’d adopt a tedious perspective that my mother used to call “local.” I do, in fact, now engage in many conversations about the domestic—and find them useful. In a text exchange with other new parents, we discussed strategies for introducing solid foods to the babies. Last night I spent 40 minutes (more, if I’m honest) looking for summer hats for my little girl and researching the best brand of infant sunscreen. But I’ve also been reading more poetry. Eavan Boland concludes her poem “Domestic Interior” with these lines: “But there’s a way of life / that is its own witness: / put the kettle on, shut the blind. / Home is a sleeping child, / an open mind // and our effects, shrugged and settled / in the sort of light / jugs and kettles / grow important by.” I have learned to value those things—the jugs and the kettles, the infant sunscreen.
Motherhood has not destroyed my creative life; it has renewed it. Being a parent is exhausting in ways I was not quite prepared for, but it has also brought me rest: the rest that comes from performing tasks with no economic or professional benefit, the rest of disconnecting from social media and the relentless news cycle, the rest necessary to activate the default-mode network, and the rest that comes with the happiness I feel snuggling with my daughter by the window. And that rest, in all its forms, has allowed me to create again.
7 replies on “Exhaustion and Rest: Motherhood and Creativity”
Such a great piece Victoria. Congrats on motherhood! – Joe Cardinale
Loved this article by Victoria Livingstone. She really takes us on location as we connect to the changes she has made in order to accommodate her lovely and curious daughter. I am sure there will be future articles on this subject of scholarship and motherhood! I will look forward to reading them.
This article is incredible. Trying to defend the decision to lead a fulfilling but “unprofitable” life remains challenging in our consumerist society. To be a mother today is to question yourself as you fashion your personal and professional identities in the context of the needs of your children. Very few of us feel completely secure and justified in our career and other choices. We are bedazzled by the unprecedented range of options that our mothers never had, and oppressed by the pressure they create to strive for maximum productivity in mothering and everything else. Thank you, Ms. Livingstone, for reminding us that it is possible to give ourselves permission to create. Your piece made me feel heard and valued. I savored it.
Thank you, Rois, for taking the time to read and comment on this piece. I’m glad it made you feel heard and valued— so writing is productive, after all.
What a beautiful and insightful essay! I love the way you connect your experience with your daughter to an awakening about capitalism. Like you, I’m a mother, an academic off the tenure track, so I related to a lot of what you had to say — and you said it so well! Creative writing may not be a practical endeavor, but isn’t it wonderful the way that reading the words of a stranger can make a person feel seen.
Thank you, Kathryn, for your comment! I’m glad this piece resonated with you.
I enjoyed your article very much. Thank you. As a somewhat new mother myself (my daughter is two), I agree that the disconnection with the world allows for creativity to flourish. I have been able to be inspired even when I am physically tired.