Is motherhood really incompatible with creativity? Neha Kale speaks to three artists with children to find out if being a mother can deepen the ability to realise artistic ambitions and live a creative life.
Joan Didion regularly told her daughter Quintana, “shush, I’m working.” Josephine Baker choreographed performances involving her 12 adopted kids. Patti Smith put her work on hold in the eighties to live with her family in the suburbs of Detroit. Women with children have always done whatever it takes to reconcile the demands of motherhood with the drive to write books, compose music or make art. But how do you carve out the time, energy and room for failure that creativity demands in a world that tells us that motherhood means surrendering a part of yourself?
Saman Shad, a playwright and writer with two young children and an eight-week-old baby, writes when her kids are asleep, in pre-school or daycare and trains herself to make the most of the time she has.
“I’ve realised that when my kids are around, it’s better for me just to focus on them,” says Shad, who aired Mum In Progress a radio show on multicultural motherhood last month. “When you have that gap of time, you become super-efficient, even if you just have an hour or two. But I have to be realistic about my responsibilities to my family. Now, that I have an eight-week-old, I need to be able to say that I can’t be a writer right now and know that it’s okay to give myself that time without feeling guilty.”
For Hiromi Tango, a visual artist whose intricate, woven installations can involve months of physical labour, juggling her practice with her children means letting go of expectations about what an artist’s life should be. “I wake up at six every morning, iron school uniforms and take my children to their after school activities but I always carry coloured pencils, yarn and needles to I can make work whenever I can,” explains Tango, who splits her responsibilities with her artist husband Craig Walsh. “Before exhibitions, working without a break for 12 hours a day for a couple of months is common so my children fit around my workload. But two years ago, I became unwell by neglecting my health so now I set clear boundaries. Otherwise, I’m no good to anybody.”
Kim Bowers, a musical director and composer who performs under the name Busty Beatz and co-founded Hot Brown Honey, a critically acclaimed hip-hop cabaret that’s about to travel to the Edinburgh Festival, believes that accepting logistical hurdles has helped her nurture her eight-year-old daughter while investing in her artistic dreams.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle — when I’m on tour she spends time with her dad or I work my schedule around school holiday time,” says Bowers who was born in South Africa and grew up in Sydney. “As an artist, you have to fill that well to make sure you have inspiration. There are times when I have to do a school run but have been up all night and that’s just how it rolls. I’m lucky because at Hot Brown Honey we work with single mums so there’s lots of negotiation.”
In ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom’, an April 2016 article in New York magazine, Kim Brooks suggest that this conflict arises because mothers strive to create a stable life for their children but artists are defined by the opposite impulse — the drive to create work that will unsettle the familiar and question the things we know. But for Shad, a former BBC scriptwriter who couldn’t travel for her job after having her daughter in London and started writing novels and short fiction, motherhood sparked a new period of creative exploration. “I was always going to be a writer but it was about finding new ways to work towards what that aim is,” she says.
And for Tango, reconciling the demands of motherhood with her artistic practice is about abandoning beliefs about what a good mother is. “I [rarely] bake and wonder what it would be like for my kids to grow up with home-made biscuits in the cupboard. But I design my life around my art and my family accepts it,” she says. “My seven-year old told me, I love you mum as you are my only mother’ and I thought what a strange thing to say!”
Bowers owes her approach to reconciling creativity and motherhood to her own mother, who lived in South Africa under Apartheid and came to Australia as refugee in 1973. “My mother wasn’t allowed to take ballet classes because of the system and when she moved to Australia, she was like ‘I’m going to enrol my children in everything and now she has three daughters who are artists!” laughs Bowers. “She gave up everything she could for us and dealt with the trauma of moving countries. We want our kids to [understand issues] to do with self-esteem, race and body politics and instil in them that being a creative human is really important.”