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In 1972 my mother’s piano professor failed her senior recital because she was pregnant with me. She was a married woman, and that recital was one of the best performances of her life; however, the man had a point to make. A pianist as brilliant as my mother had no business changing the diapers of a squawling little brat. There wasn’t room in the art world for the distractions of motherhood.
She went home and cried until she nearly miscarried; yet because more trauma would have put me in danger, she didn’t fight the grade. Instead, she redirected her goals and focused on protecting the life inside her.
Years later, when I was a little girl living in in Ohio, Mom decided to finish that degree. She spent long hours memorizing Kavalevski and Schumann while I curled up near the piano in a thrown rectangle of sunlight, listening to her practice.
Almost forty years have passed since then. I am now a mother and a writer, and I often find it a struggle to balance my art with my maternity. On days of intense creation, I feel like I should be doing something more hands-on with my children. When I focus on investing only in my kids, I feel like I’m being a bad steward of my ability to write.
I never know if I am managing that tension well, so I’m constantly trying to read my children’s faces for signs that something is lacking. Once my youngest son drew a crayon picture of me sitting at my computer. I felt so guilty when I saw it that I put the laptop away, and we made crafts together until I felt redeemed. Meanwhile, my oldest son insists that he has always had far too much attention, and he wishes I had given him a little more space in his early years. I can see his point, too.
But how do we know when we are doing too little? How do we know when we are doing too much? Sometimes I daydream about five little video game hearts floating over each child’s head, and these hearts light up when I’ve done everything right. I want some sort of rubric to show me what to do, because parenting is the most important job I will ever have, and it is also the easiest to mess up.
When I get down in a hole over this struggle, it helps to look back on what my mother, the artist, taught me. Her pursuit of music was part of her parenting. There wasn’t an iron divide between her life as a pianist and her life as my mother. In fact, nothing she could have done with me during the hours she spent practicing could have been more helpful to my own growth. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll give you some specifics on what I learned from her work. My hope is that these concepts will encourage other mothers who are trying to figure out how to chase beauty while investing in their children.
First, by listening to my mother play the piano, I learned artistic depth. Humans are complex beings, and music unpacks our wide emotional range. From my earliest years, I was nursed on the stormy explosions of the Romantics, the holy and disciplined glories of Bach, the relentless chasings of Liszt, the longings and grievings of Chopin. Those musical pieces painted landscapes for me; they grew my empathy, my imagination, and my love. They showed me that this world is reaching thirstily for another one.
Later in life, when I began to need words for poems and stories, I could fall back into the framework music had given me. Here I could retrieve scope and cadence for whatever I was creating. Though the medium was different, the message was the same, and my mother’s practice had given me the template.
Secondly, in my mother’s practice, I learned the value of artistic tenacity. Mom would go over a difficult measure three times, ten times, add a new measure, then play both twenty times. Over and over again I heard the same notes used differently, and this showed me how pressing a single finger with different intonation can change a whole message. I learned articulation and the meaning of silence between phrases. I saw how long it can take to figure out how to say exactly what needs to be said. Because of her commitment to beauty, I have never expected anything less than devotion in the making of my own art. Sometimes I will make between sixty and a hundred revisions of a single essay before it is published, and I never resent that work because of the dedication I saw in my mom.
I don’t mean that writing has to be done this way. In fact, I am an advocate for the lavish, messy, modern graces of free writing. I love the explosion of bloggers that is part of our new world, and I think it’s fabulous that almost anyone can have a worldwide readership at the push of a button. Art works as a healer in places that it might never become a technical masterpiece. Besides, who knows what God might use? The Bible is full of stories about short, bald guys; and second born children; and second rate towns; and fishermen with bad grammar as vehicles for the gospel. His chosen are rarely fabulous in the world’s eyes, and however that principle translates to what people are writing in 2015, glory be. We live on a battlefield where the simplest art can be Lucy’s cordial.
Still, I’m grateful that my briar patch was a world of intense revision, thankful that I was shown the delicate balance of humility and ferocity that often produces strong art. When I first read the advice of Annie Dillard, Robert Henri, Brenda Ueland, Dorothy Sayers, Stephen King, and others who describe the ruthless, meticulous process a professional writer must employ, I wasn’t surprised. From the beginning, my mother demonstrated that focus is a means by which good art is made, and her focus gave me mine.
Thirdly, in my mother’s practice, I learned how to reengage with art after rejection. My mother was treated unfairly by her professor, but she didn’t let that loss determine her path forward. She had the selflessness and the love to step outside the ring and nurture my delicate life for a season. Then, when the time was ripe, she fought that same old battle a second time.
Because of this, I know the risks of art. I understand that readers may have violent reactions to me and to my writing because of their own wounds and insecurities. Certain critics may not be willing (or able) to see the whole picture of my life, and I could easily end up in the middle of a battle that has nothing to do with me at all. If that happens, it’s going to hurt; but time will pass, and new venues will open. All will not be lost because all was once lost. Being misjudged will not be the end of the world for me, just like it wasn’t for my mother.
Finally, in my mother’s practice I learned that though family is important, it is also a launching pad from which members are to move outward in creativity. Conservative writers have already warned us about the dangers of distracted mothers, but it is rare to hear about the opposite danger of inwardly-focused mothers.
This danger is difficult to describe, because there is an early season of childhood that should be rooted deeply in the safety and security of home. However, as those years wind down, mothers need to begin slowly releasing their children. From what I’ve noticed, this release can be particularly difficult when mothers are lonely, lack confidence, or haven’t found another calling to pursue. Yet especially in such cases, we must resist the temptation to hold our children too tightly to our chests. It is unfair to need them to need us.
I haven’t done this transition perfectly, because it can be difficult to tell whether my motive is fear, greed, or legitimate caution. Our oldest son will leave for college this summer, and my excitement for his launch is tinged with deep grief. I enjoy his company dearly, and knowing I won’t see him very often from now on is devastating. I’m trying to be brave and positive, but the truth is, I’m sad. I have been for months. I don’t want to let go, even though I know God has a bigger plan for his life than my little home.
I know the temptations of the inwardly-focused mother because I could be one so easily. This sort of maternity appears domestic, gentle, winsome, and tender while drawing children into more and more dependency upon itself. The inwardly-focused mother may even find herself subconsciously sabotaging the independence of a child so that she can remain the center of his world.
Thankfully, my mother resisted this. She kept her interest in art alive; she got out in the world and did things with it. She encouraged us to get out and do the same. This taught us how the internal realm segues to the external.
I will never forget the day, early in my own parenting, when I was exhausted from trying to be all things to my toddler son. Mom insisted that I go put her grandson down for a while and find some ways to reconnect with my own creativity. I said something stupid like, “But I’m afraid he won’t be intelligent if I don’t teach him all of the major composers by age 3!” Mom told me to go get a playpen, to fill it with board books and toys, and to use it a little while every day while I chased my own art.
“When you were little, I didn’t play with you every single minute,” she said. “I had a life!” It startled me to hear that. Of course she had a life. It was an important life, bigger than me. It was a life that I needed to see.
But what about the mother guilt? Brenda Ueland writes, “If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say; ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.” As a mother of older children, I agree. You can tell a child a thousand times to go make the world beautiful, but I don’t know how he is to believe you without watching it done. Whether your art takes a traditional form like music or painting, or whether you are an artist in chemistry, cooking, gardening, politics, or befriending the lonely, that part of you still matters. It matters for your children to see that it matters, too.
Yesterday I sat down with my youngest son and helped him start to write a story. It was rainy and dark outside, so we wrapped ourselves in a big pile of warm blankets as we worked. If you have ever written a story, you know how hard it is to figure out which words go next. Over and again we got stuck in his plot, but we charged through the challenges together, tossing around all sorts of possibilities. Finally inspiration hit, and he wrote down an entire sentence at once. A hot flush of joy ran through me, because my son was learning to master the creative process, and we were making something beautiful together.
After forty-five minutes he was tired, and he asked if we could come back to finish the next day. I said that would be fine, and I got out my laptop to work on another project. When he came bounding back into my room five minutes later, wanting me to come play Legos, I said, “Mosie, I can’t right now. I’m writing. If you will give me a little while to work, I will play with you when I’m finished.” My refusal piqued his interest, and he crawled around the bed to see what I was doing.
He stared at my screen while I added words and removed them, carefully deciding which ones should go into my sentences. I was working just like he had been working moments before. Without speaking, he jumped down and ran to pick up the book he had started. He carried that little stapled project with him as he went to play with his toys; his body language declaring that being an writer meant something important. My focus had validated his. What an odd thing for that to have mattered, but it did.
I don’t know what sort of art you are inclined to chase. Maybe you ache for an hour spent with piano keys, or laptop keys, or mathematics problems. Maybe you dream about working on science experiments, investing in social change, healing the sick, or learning a new language. Maybe you want to learn how to garden, sew, or bake French pastry. Maybe you want to train for a marathon. I hope you don’t feel guilty about these desires if you have them.
Certainly motherhood may limit your participation in certain endeavors, and there are some years that moms mostly just have to survive. We don’t want to abandon our kids when they need us. However, if you are reading a site like Story Warren, my guess is that you are already highly committed as a parent, and that commitment frees me up to remind you that your passion and curiosity matter. There’s nothing selfish about working toward your artistic interests as God allows the time. In fact, your children can benefit from watching you model discipline and discovery, so don’t give up on your art, invite your kids into it. Let them watch you conquer little pieces of the world so that they will know how to tame their own chaos one measure at a time.
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Featured image: A selection from Vilhelm Hammershøi – “Interior with Ida Playing the Piano” (1910)