In 2010, Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show together as part of a series on women rock icons.
“She did tell me also not to have babies,” Crow said of Nicks’s advice to her, “’cause you’ll never write a great song again.”
Nicks protested, aghast, as the audience laughed. “I did not!”
The exchange has stuck with me in the 12 years since it aired—a decade before I found out I was pregnant with my son. Nicks has long been candid about her choice not to have children, in part because they “would get in the way of being a musician and a writer.” She has often said she could not give either children or writing as much attention as they deserved.
The notion that motherhood and creativity are incompatible has been echoed by women in the arts over and over again. Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt said, “There’s only one thing in life for a woman; it’s to be a mother,” and women artists must be “capable of making primary sacrifices.” Although Cassatt expressed this over a century ago, it’s a sentiment shared by some women creatives even now. In 2016, performance artist Marina Abramović attributed the gender divide in the arts to motherhood. She said bluntly, “In my opinion [children are] the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. There’s plenty of talented women.” Of her choice not to have children, Abramović said, “I had three abortions because I was certain that it would be a disaster for my work,” and, “One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it.” Visual artist Tracey Emin said, “There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”
These opinions reflect the assumption that creative mothers must choose between our children and craft, incapable of having both. This is a choice with which fathers are presented rarely, if ever. Male creatives are not expected to prioritize parenting to the extent that mothers are, and as a result, they are also not expected to abandon creative work in favor of fatherhood and do not discuss feeling that they must choose one over the other.
This black-and-white narrative is pervasive, worming its way into pop culture too, like the recent Netflix series Inventing Anna. Working moms—particularly in creative-leaning fields like journalist Vivian’s—are depicted as frazzled and distracted, pouring more time, attention, and even love into their work than into their children. This characterization is meant to be jarring. The mainstream cultural image of mothers is that of nurture and devotion, and, when mothers in pop culture channel these traits into anything other than their children, they’re presented as neglectful, even apathetic. These tropes offer a bleak view of what happens when you want both a child and other pursuits, be they professional, creative, or recreational. The implication is that these women are bad mothers, and who wants to be a bad mother? In pop culture, it doesn’t get much worse.
Pop culture sold me a bleak view of motherhood, and I bought it. When I was pregnant, I worried that when my son was born I would have limited time to myself and that my attempts to carve some out would be considered selfish and neglectful. I was supposed to lose myself in him. I knew my life would change drastically, and I worried that meant being unable to enjoy much of what I had before. Worst of all, I thought, what if something about motherhood inherently killed creativity? What if I actually lost part of myself, a piece intertwined with my identity? It seemed inevitable that my writing life would slip away. As with many things, the negative messaging made a stronger impression on me than the fact that women I knew personally continued to write after having children. They and other famous mothers discussing the positive impacts their children had on their work didn’t stay with me the way that decade-old Oprah conversation had.
Despite a lifelong love of writing, an English degree, freelancing work, and a few published pieces, I imagined that the loss of my writing life would happen naturally, a consequence of becoming a parent, and not necessarily because of a lack of time. My child wouldn’t take the place of my writing so much as my desire to write would magically disappear, zapped away, never to return, and with my time occupied by mundane tasks like diaper changes, I wouldn’t have anything to write about anyway. And then what? Who would I be? I’m not me if I’m not a writer.
Shortly after Abramović’s comments on being unable to be both an artist and mother, artist Hein Koh went viral with her response, a photo of herself breastfeeding her newborn twins as she typed on a laptop. Koh credited motherhood with making her a “better” artist. “I learned to be extremely efficient with my time, prioritize what’s important and let go of the rest, and #multitask like a champ,” she wrote in the photo’s caption.
Despite my fears, in reality, my experience and attitude ended up being more like Koh’s—although I am not so dedicated to multitasking. I have learned that the choice between motherhood and writing is false. While exhaustion and frequent nausea during pregnancy did put my writing life on pause, I have continued to write in the two years since my son was born, and I have never felt more prolific or productive. Settling into life with a newborn meant finding time to write in between the seemingly endless cycle of feedings, diaper changes, and naps. Like so many aspects of life as a new parent, much of my writing from that time is a blur. Some days, “writing” meant staring at the same piece over and over again without changing a word, and there are pieces long since finished and published I barely remember writing. And yet balancing writing with being a mother—and for most of those two years, a working mother—has not been the struggle I expected. While I do find it hard to multitask, spending time with him while getting to the meat of a personal essay for example, I steal a few minutes here and there for brief revisions, like tweaking word choice, and save the bulk of the work for naps and after he’s gone to bed. Most inspiration strikes in the middle of my sacred nightly bubble baths.
Rather than feeling that the creative well has run dry, I feel like my mind is constantly firing. My iPhone notes are packed with ideas and lines I jot down over the course of my day—and while I’m leaning over the edge of the bathtub—something I attribute to a combination of luck and circumstance. I am fortunate to have a husband who is not only an active and involved parent, but who understands as a writer himself how important it is to me, freeing up both my time and my mind. As for my son, he was a calm, pleasant baby—an “easy” baby—which made my transition to being a writing mother that much smoother. Still, it wasn’t without its challenges. Sometimes even now, I’ll feel the desire to write but lack the energy, focus, or headspace. Sometimes, the best thing I or any new mom can do, creatively and otherwise, is step away and take a nap.
Other creative moms have described similar experiences. Children’s author Diana Wynne Jones is perhaps the best, most impressive example of a mother whose creativity wasn’t stifled. She turned to writing while caring for her 4 children for her “sanity,” as she put it, and went on to write over 40 books at a pace of almost one new release every year. Singer Alanis Morissette said, “I always knew that marriage and motherhood would inspire me.” Singer Maren Morris recently called her songwriting “more raw and vulnerable” since becoming a mother.
Sheryl Crow, for her part, proved Stevie Nicks wrong, which is perhaps why Nicks was so shocked when Crow repeated her advice during their Oprah appearance. At the time, Crow was already a mom to her two sons. She has said she takes “pride” in “finding balance” between her career and motherhood. “I love making music and I love raising my boys,” she said. “I find time to make both a priority.”
In an article for The Atlantic—which also addresses Koh and Abramović’s opposing viewpoints—writer and mom Erika Hayasaki puts it beautifully, writing, “Diaper changes might cut into the time spent on creative work, but they don’t cut out the drive to do it.” But perhaps no mother has been as blunt about this than writer Zadie Smith, whose thoughts on the matter dominate Google search results: “The idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd.”
Being a writing mother has also been beneficial for me in that staying connected to my creative side and keeping it active makes me feel fulfilled, thereby making me a better mother. I have never felt that one is pulling me away from the other, that trying to balance the two has been an experiment gone wrong. I am proud of both the final product on the page and who my young son is becoming as he approaches his toddler years and his personality starts to shine through. Writing about motherhood and my son in particular—even if I don’t share it publicly—is like a snapshot, a glimpse of a specific moment in our lives that we can hold onto.
I hope, too, that this is a way in which I can lead by example as a parent. In continuing to write, I hope my son sees a model for perseverance, openness, and vulnerability, not losing one’s sense of self in the trenches of parenting, and handling rejection with grace.
But perhaps above all, I hope I and those mothers who have gone before me can serve as an example to other expectant mothers worried their creative life will soon end.