The Unexpected Creativity of Motherhood
Issue Three / 2019
One of my earliest memories is of sitting underneath my mother’s desk, filling notebook after notebook with scribbles that were imitations of her words, fulfilling a primal desire in my heart to make meaningful marks on that page before I even knew my alphabet.
I have known the desire to write for as long as I can remember; it has always been one of the strongest impulses in me, one which calms me when I feel anxious or agitated or sad, which helps me gather and organise my thoughts and feel at peace with myself and the world around me. When I was younger, I never really thought of this impulse as a gift or calling from God—it didn’t occur to me to question the deeper meaning of something that feels as natural and necessary as breathing.
As I grew up, however, I was astonished to discover that not everyone loved to write, and I started to understand this impulse as part of a higher calling, an important piece of the unique identity God crafted for me. Now, whenever I hear people talking about using your gifts to glorify God, I know that I’m being asked to use words to bring myself and others into closer relationship with Him, if I possibly can.
The strange thing is, as clear as this calling to write has always been for me, I’ve never had that sense of clarity about my vocation to motherhood. While I enjoyed playing “grown ups” when I was a child, I was just as likely to be a nun as a mother in my make-believe games. I dreaded being asked to hold babies, felt awkward whenever I had to babysit (what do you talk to younger kids about? what should you do if they start crying?), and only really enjoyed playing with children when all I was required to do was tell stories and make up complicated imaginary worlds for them.
I’ll never forget standing in the vast “Vocations exhibition” tent in Sydney at World Youth Day in 2008, feeling utterly lost and a little scared about the prospect of figuring out what to do with my life. Was my lack of maternal instinct a sign that I had a religious vocation? A nun enthusiastically waving a fistful of flyers at me thought it might be.
The truth is, when I thought about any vocation back then in my early twenties, I encountered a huge blank emptiness within myself. I thought I should feel something, some kind of emotional response that would act as a clue, as I considered marriage and motherhood, or the religious life, but I felt nothing. In the abstract, any vocation is just theoretical; it’s when we encounter God’s calling in the form of a specific person that we know we’re being called to marriage, and that’s what happened to me when I met my husband. Ah, there you are, I thought to myself; meeting him felt like coming home to a place I hadn’t realised I had been searching for. That should have been my first clue that God would lead me quietly, gently towards the things I never knew I needed.
Likewise, motherhood, rather than being something I chose or actively sought out, was something I fell into when I fell in love with—and married—my husband. It has been a trial of fire for me, as I’ve edged forwards blindly, just trying to follow the sound of God’s voice as He calls me to make the next little step along a path I can’t see.
One of the hardest questions I’ve grappled with over the last six years of early motherhood has been, what does it mean to respond to the call to write, alongside my vocation to motherhood? Are the two callings compatible?
At times, I’ve seen my maternal and my creative selves as being in conflict with each other, and felt fragmented by the tension. But slowly, over the years, I’ve been learning that they’re complementary parts of the story God is writing for me. He put the desire and instinct to write in my heart for a reason: He wouldn’t have put it there just to frustrate me. He also called me to motherhood: because He knows my heart more intimately than I know it myself, and He knows that this is the path that will lead me to Him.
For all that it’s filled with many moments of joy and beauty, it’s hard to get around the fact that motherhood involves a daily death to self. At times it feels like a purgatorial fire, stripping away the trappings of your old life and ways again and again, until you know you must either change, or be destroyed by it. With the birth of a baby, everything about a new parent’s life is broken and remade, starting with the mother’s body, and continuing with sleep patterns, daily routines, all the way through to cherished personal habits.
People talk about motherhood as if it’s something so deep and instinctive that it always comes totally naturally and spontaneously. You don’t need to think about the sacrifices involved, you just go along with it. It was a shock, then, in the early days, to be jerked awake by the crying of my first child, having temporarily forgotten that I had a baby, all maternal instincts apparently having vanished into the darkness. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect to be sleep deprived as a new parent. What surprised me was how the type of sleep deprivation that parents experience differs from any sleep deprivation I had ever experienced before. It isn’t like staying up late to work or socialise, or even insomnia. This type of sleep deprivation is more akin to the form that is sometimes used as torture: unrelenting in its inevitability.
The study of sleep reveals it to be a powerful and mysterious thing: on the one hand, the US Justice Department claimed that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who were subjected to sleep deprivation torture remained relatively unaffected by the process: “Surprisingly, little seem[s] to go wrong with the subjects physically,” a memo reported. On the other hand, when the scientist Allan Rechtschaffen conducted a series of experiments on rats in the 1980s he discovered that after 32 days of sleep deprivation, every single one of the rats died. The interesting thing is that, despite the obvious correlative connection with sleep deprivation, researchers couldn’t agree on the exact cause of death—namely, why the sleep deprivation had killed them.
Sleep seems to have alchemical properties, lowering levels of stress-related hormones and promoting cellular regeneration and growth. Extreme sleep deprivation, it has been noted, mimics the symptoms of psychosis; when Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old American high school student, set the current world record for the longest scientifically observed period of time without sleep in 1964 at 11 days and 24 minutes, he reportedly experienced hallucinations and paranoia, despite being able to win a game of pinball and speak without slurring or confusing his words even after 10 days without sleep.
When we are forced to stay awake too long, the brain experiences a series of rapid blackouts called “microsleep” for such fleeting periods of time that the person experiencing them might not even notice. New and sleep deprived parents, then, are battling one of the body’s deepest and most mysterious biological needs. No wonder it feels like a crash-course in selflessness; you are quite literally fighting the body’s self-preservation instinct so that you’re able to protect and provide for your helpless baby.
In those early weeks when my first daughter was a newborn, my husband and I took shifts with her when she cried. Miraculously, we never lost it at the same time, always finding an impossible gentleness within ourselves just when we thought we had nothing left to give. I realised then that I don’t know myself, or my husband, or anyone at all, really. What unexplored depths, what uncharted territories we contain.
The same thing applied to my “other” vocation: writing. What seemed at first like an insurmountable roadblock to being able to write, I now realise was the true beginning of my life as a writer. For now, at last, I was knee deep in life: ripped out of my comfort zone, I came face-to-face with human nature and love and all the ingredients a good writer needs to tell a meaningful story. Even though at first it deprived me of the time, freedom, and ability to concentrate that I needed to write, in the long run motherhood has made me a better observer of human nature. It has deepened my self-awareness, and enriched my interior life.
Sleep deprivation was one challenge, and sitting still to feed the baby was another. By my rough estimation, over the first year of my daughter’s life, I spent approximately 875 hours, which is equal to 36 and a half days and nights, simply sitting still, staring into space, feeding her. If only I could write without using my hands, I used to think. Even reading was hard, because when you are nursing, it is tricky to hold a book, and the tiniest movement might upset the fragile peace of the balancing act you are engaged in, nurturing your child. Sometimes I caught myself not thinking about anything at all, and I worried that my brain was getting lazy, that it would begin to rot and that I wouldn’t be able to find and sharpen it back up again for use when I next got around to trying.
But even this intense stillness and boredom is, it turns out, a training ground for imaginative thinking. Perhaps counter-intuitively, doing nothing with your mind for short periods of time can sometimes be the best kind of preparation for work such as writing. Research collected together in Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything suggests that our brains need a break “to stoke ingenuity”, and that certain types of daydreaming can increase productivity and creativity. It also ingrains in you an intense form of mental endurance, which will be necessary to see any kind of complicated task like writing through to the finish.
The modern writer and mother Katy Carl describes how the parent who stays at home with small children needs to have “the patience of the surfer of the waves of boredom”, “a kind of flow that transcends patience: an attentiveness to and delight in minutiae that others don’t seem to notice.” She quotes David Foster Wallace:
Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find… and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.
Creativity, greater endurance, heightened powers of observation, and honest self-awareness: as I get older, I notice more and more touch points between writing and motherhood. In a mysterious way, I’m discovering that writing is training for mothering, and mothering is training for writing. I am not divided between two separate callings as I thought at first, because they are inseparable from each other. God has His eye on the bigger picture, and I can trust Him to make sense of it all in the long run.
Now, still in the early stages of motherhood with my second child, I usually write in short snatches. I’ve noticed that the best ideas come to me while I’m with the children and engaged in some repetitive task, my hands busy and my mind still. I’m learning to surf the waves of boredom, to look into the depths of the human soul without flinching, to observe quietly, to stop worrying that I’m getting behind or that I’ll forget all my good ideas if I don’t write them down right away.
As a kind and wise older mother-writer once told me, these early years of marriage and motherhood are a season of hidden growth; mysterious things are happening underground in my heart and mind right now. I may not see the fruit of it for many years, but I need to keep trusting that something is stirring inside me, that in God’s divine economy nothing is wasted.
Marriage, motherhood, and the craft of writing constantly require me to surrender myself to the process, to accept slow and steady growth. In my relationship with my husband, my children, and with others and myself through my work, I feel called, again and again, to resist the urge to run away or turn inwards, to open my heart wider, and orient myself towards the other. It’s in this act of surrender that I can most clearly hear God’s voice, calling me onwards. And, it’s in His presence as the source and summit of all creativity that I feel the various conflicting parts of me become whole, and I feel the great peace in the knowledge that He is the author of my life, and He knows what He’s about.
Sophie Caldecott is a freelance writer and founder of A Better Place Journal, living and working with her husband and two daughters in the UK.
Keep reading! Next comes William Hamant's "How to Be a Gentleman."