"Thomas, is there any way you can check in so that I can check out and write for a second?"
(*)He said yes, Lily ran off crying, and so here I am. And that's how it goes. Each time I choose to work, I am also choosing to not be present to my children, and sometimes the children cry. And sometimes I decide never mind, I'll check back in, and sometimes I lock the door behind my back and secretly cry with them, but sometimes I tell guilt it's just going to have to take a seat in the back for a second because damn it, I have shit to do.
I wrote a long blog post a few days ago about being a mother artist. About how deeply I am craving other mother artists to tell the truth of their days.
I kept trying to publish it, (*) but the internet simply wouldn't let me and eventually I ran out of "artist/writer time" and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had to be made and towels had to be folded and so I saved it and tucked it away for another time.
I'm going to share parts of it now because I truly want to convey just how enormous the magic of this morning, and what happened when Jami Milne emailed me, is.
If one more person sent me a copy (*) of Big Magic as a gift, I wasn't sure what to do with myself. There are only so many times you can show up to the library with the same book to donate to the annual book sale.
I used to love this kind of book. I used to hang on the words of people telling me how they do things better than everyone else. And then I met someone who writes these kinds of books, like up close and personal, and I saw (*) how completely full of absolute shit she is, and how her real life could not be more different than the advice she throws into the world, and I kind of lost my faith in these kinds of things. Sort of like when I was working as an intern at Disney World and first saw Mickey Mouse with his head off, having a smoke break. Except so much worse because at least Mickey Mouse isn't pretending to be an expert at something as important and sacred as being good at life.
I've read the book, twice. (*) And I really think there are parts of this book that seriously resonate with my artist heart. Especially the shit sandwich chapter. I could read that one every morning as prayer. I appreciate this book and I felt empowered by this book and there is wisdom in the pages to be sure. But here is why I keep it at a safe distance. I AM A MOTHER. And again, while I think this book is filled with fun stories and valuable lessons, after my run-in with the self help author from hell, I am super extra careful about fully digesting these kinds of things. Plus, I am the type of gal who learns how not to skin my knees by either A) falling 13 times on my knees or B) hearing about how someone else fell 13 times and then figured out the way to not fall. And right now, and since the day I became a Mother 15 (*) years ago, my knees are most bruised from the act of living life as a mama artist.
I flip and flip and flip the pages, hoping and praying someone will be like, "And then my child came in, screamed, and pooped their pants, so I had to put the paintbrush down and wash their underwear in the sink and by the time that was done, it was dinner time, so chopping vegetables it was because when you're a mother you don't get to choose to skip meals and just paint yourself (*) into a frenzy or the state will come and declare you are starving your family and drag them away forever..."
Hear me out. As I'm reading Gilbert's words about running after the muse no matter what, or dropping everything to devote 100% of your whole being to an idea or else it will find someone else, I keep seeing this one scene in my head over and over and over. It's a Mother who is breastfeeding her new infant, getting inspired by a big magical idea, ripping the baby off the boob, tossing the child onto the living room floor, locking herself into her bedroom and typing until dawn with the child lying there screaming the entire time, neglected and starving. When you are an artist and a Mother, it isn't always a choice. Gilbert seems to think it is and this is where my heart feels incredibly conflicted when reading her words.
Glibert hammers into the reader time and time and time again that in order to live a creative life we must be brave and dedicated and diligent. We must abandon the farm and let the crop be overgrown so that we can have silence and don't miss the opportunity to live a life of passion. And sure there are times she says to just give 30 minutes or an hour a day. But for the most part she keeps rehashing that if we don't take the time to get dressed up and put on lipstick to please our muse, we are useless and the muse will find someone else. (I can't really even go into this as much as I want to, but seriously, WTF). She backs this all up with other authors who have said the same thing. And that's all fine and dandy, but where does that leave me? The mama? The point is, Motherhood does not allow for that. I cannot just abandon my babies in the middle of bubble bath time to write, curl up my hair, throw on heels, put on lipstick and seduce the creative gods while I keep my fingers crossed they don't slip and drown. "Hey sweet baby, listen I know you can't swim or anything but the muse just struck me, and I have to find a pen and scrap paper real quick, or type this on my phone, so just hang tight and try not to inhale too much water. Brb."
Just. No. (*)
Maybe her muse is a douche-bag man who leaves the second she's not dressing up as the latest society-induced fantasy, but fuck all of that. My muse is a badass primal elderly woman who has wrinkly, leathery wind worn dark skin and alligator skin bracelets with snake eyes instead of diamonds in her rings. She sits around huge fires by herself and lets the smoke wash over her endlessly long grey hair. She loves me when I am dirty and exhausted and my kids are clinging to my yoga pants. She doesn't give a shit if I have to wait an hour or a month or five years. She sits and loves me and waits patiently.
Even right now as I am typing this in my bed, (*) in my camper, Lily has come over to me ten thousand times asking, "Can you be done soon? Can we go soon? I want ice cream? Did you call Paula? Can you hurry up?" And my muse knows that it's all part of it. She nods. The patron saint of mother artists.
And I know this sounds quite dramatic, and these examples seem absurd to the point of comedy, but the truth is, I cannot count how many times an idea has struck me, when I absolutely cannot drop everything. It was not a choice. I am a Mother and more times than not, I am responsible for keeping other small humans alive and loved and well. And yet look at me. I am a successful artist. I am living a life of creative passion and making a good amount of money doing it. I am not sitting on the bus stop of life watching the cars zoom by with motherless drivers waving in my direction.
There is more than one way to do this thing called creative living. And I just really think that's important to know.
I also think it's dangerous to take advice from non-mothers when you are a mother sometimes. In fact, I almost never do anymore. (*) Being a Mother changes the game entirely, and so I can't really benefit from a non-mother's playbook.
So what does it look like for me? How do I write and photograph and teach, while putting my role as a Mama first? I fail nonstop. I am a hot mess. Before my children were old enough for school, I hired help. Babysitters and house cleaners. Even when we had almost no money, I hired a babysitter to come whenever I could and I did nothing but create and work at my creative businesses while they were there. Lots of mothers I know who are successful artists either have full time nannies or part time babysitters, or parents who help, or husbands who don't work at all who do a ton of the parenting stuff. I don't know why they never share about this. But it's the truth. I also have an awesome therapist. I married an incredible partner who listens when I say, "I need 30 minutes today to check out." I have my groceries delivered whenever possible. I accept that I won't be able to ride the waves of every single idea that strikes like lightning, but I do my best to choose one or two things to give some energy to. I take an iron supplement to have more (*) energy (Floradix). I take naps instead of answering emails and have an auto-reply to allow for this. Instead of taking showers, I take baths so that I can read and write while getting clean. My hair is pretty much always dirty because of this. I make lists of gratitude for the gifts being a mom brings to my daily life. I make lists of things I need to do for my business and my art, and I cross them off and get things done while I'm on the toilet, or waiting in line at the grocery store, or waiting in the carpool lane. I cry a lot. I loose my shit to my closest friends a lot. I chart my periods and ovulations so I know when I'll need to be extra gentle with my inner critic. I feel overwhelmed and anxious and exhausted a lot. And then I don't. And then I do. And then I don't. I apologize to my children when I feel like I've been neglectful of them in order to focus on my creativity, but I also always explain that if I didn't have this outlet I would actually be the worst mom in the world, not just feel like the worst mom in the world. I also know that by saying no to them and being selfish, I am granting them permission to do the same. I feel like the worst mom in the world a lot. And then I don't. And then I do. And then I don't. I wear leggings and white t-shirts and no makeup and flip flops every damn day because it's easy, and because I realize that I feel the most beautiful the more I look like my muse. I cook meals with 5 ingredients or less because it's faster. I rent a nice apartment so I don't have to worry about yard work or fixing things or keeping things up-to-date. I have no credit card debt because I refuse to work for a bank with every move I make. I order my tampons (*) and toilet paper and juice boxes and just about everything else from Amazon prime. I meditate for five minutes when I can using an app on my phone called Headspace. Or I just sit and breathe deeply with long exhales with my eyes closed and pretend I'm on a tropical island alone under a palm tree. I fail so much. I burn so many bridges. I snap when I should be polite. I swear like a sailor. I forget everyone's Birthday. I outsource my color-correcting for my wedding images. I have a studio manager. I wake up for a snack at 5:30am and read and write until someone wakes up needing a Mama. I love being a Mama. I avoid advice from non-mamas because they make me feel like I'm doing it all wrong. When in reality, I'm OK. I'm just fine. I'm stumbling and fumbling and choosing my creative projects very carefully and wisely, and I probably have my shirt on backwards, but I've got this, thankyouverymuch.
Are there mothers who do it better? I'm certain. Are there mothers who are so devoted to their work and creativity that they put their children in full-time daycare from the day they are legally allowed to? Absolutely. Are there mothers who can afford all the help in the world so that they can look fabulous and take ten pilates classes and paint murals at sunset each evening? I bet there are. And you know what? I would LOVE more than anything to read their damn books. To read page by page how the heck they do it. How it feels to be them. How they deal with Mom-guilt and a brilliant creative idea banging down your door in the final minutes of of the championship pee-wee soccer game. I feel like if I could just read a bunch of their honest stories, from their different walks of life and ways of creating, I'd be able to patch together the reality quilt of my own in a way that is so much more forgiving and empowered and valuable.
I was once asked to write an editorial piece on a very, very, very famous and wealthy female artist centered around how she does "it all." But within three seconds of the call I realized she doesn't. She has a nanny and a live-in au pair and a chef and a personal assistant and and and. She spend very little time with her children. great. Awesome. I love it. She is doing her thing, and doing it well. When I asked my editors if I could include all of that in the piece, I was told absolutely not. I was told this was supposed to be about mothers who balance it all and do it all, and that by sharing (*) about all the help she has, and how little she is involved with her family, I'd be insulting her.
Dang. How fucked up is that? Sure her choices look nothing like my choices, but I had so much respect for this powerhouse lady and I was dying to tell the world about how badass she is. But nope. Her reality wasn't maternal enough. The piece never ran.
I also once read an online class written by a fellow photographer about balancing family life and photography life, and not once did this person mention her nannies or the fact that her and her husband are helped out financially each month by extremely wealthy parents. She was teaching a class to other mothers and she didn't mention this ONE TIME? I mean. No. Just, NO.
I don't know how to end this blog post. Except to say that if you are a mama artist, I'd love for you to be honest about how. I would love to hear your beautiful and ugly strung together in sentences. Even if it sucks. Even if it's incredible. All of it. This is my cry out for your voices. That's all. Like if you get a check from Daddy each month so that you can pursue being an artist and have six maids, why not share that? Or if you feed your children oatmeal in paper bowls for dinner so that you can have more time to paint in your studio, freaking tell me. Please. Because if I have to read one more book about being fearless and brave, I might pass out. I don't need to know how to be brave, I carried human beings around inside my actual body with my organs for nine months and then birthed them into the world. I think I've got this whole brave warrior thing down pat. What I need to know, and I think I'm not alone in this, is how to not look homeless at the PTA meeting covered in clay and olive oil and guilt. For now, I'd be happy reading an honest story, or ten, about how one professional artist Mama manages to do that.
OK, so, I wrote that and then never posted it. I went about my life. I made more mistakes and made more beautiful things and even learned to knit washcloths. I thought about that blog post once and decided it was better left unsaid.
And then today, as I was watching the Bachelorette and knitting washcloths, I got a notification that Jami emailed. When Jami speaks, I sit up and listen. Carefully.
And in her email she sent this link:
And this is what I wrote back after reading what I think is the most important (*) and brilliant piece of writing on being a mother artist EVER WRITTEN IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD:
fucking shit jami. i have no words.
i am seriously sitting here, stunned.
i was knitting a dishcloth while watching the bachelorette in bed when you sent this to me. i was doing that because i feel defeated and torn in half and also alive and also secure -- all at the same time. and i have been journaling about this so much during this trip because i have labeled myself a walking collection of paradoxes. each morning i wake up and with every step i take, the creek in the camper floor is saying, "paradox, paradox, paradox." I am making tea, I am thinking about applying for an MFA. I am planning a birthday party on the phone while doodling drawings of a new photography project i am doing on my own where i explore what i will look like as a dead person.
and all the while i am repeating, like a monk going bead to bead to bead on his mala, "it's ok to be this way, it's ok to be this way." but i am not sure i really believed it was ok.
and especially this last week.
and that's why i picked up my knitting needles and my yarn and my bachelorette because sometimes a girl just needs to check the fuck out when it feels like too much.
and then you sent me this.
and just like that, the greatest gift i think a friend can give to another friend, i realize it is ok. not only is it ok, it's a gift. and not only is it a gift, but it's a gift that allows you membership to a secret club of really incredible other mother artists who are dreaming and dying and loving and washing dishes and doing it all at the same time, together.
suddenly, the choreography of my daily dance is beautifully complex and not complexly awful.
and my gratitude for you and for your sisterhood, is eternal.
And then she replied,
we are living and dying and secure yet locked up and free and tormented.
and somehow, that is who we were meant to be. because perhaps the only thing worse than feeling every emotion, all of the time, is feeling nothing at all.
i am honored the universe gave me a path into the threads of your beautifully knitted story. and i silently support every inch of that creaking camper, that undecided MFA and that beautiful corpse.
love is confusing. but i feel so much love for you.
And I need to show this to you because this is sisterhood and magic and all of it. Gilbert is wrong by omission. She forgot to add that her way is not the only way. She forgot to include the Mothers. You don't have to be anything other than yourself heartily and let the magic in. You can be emotional and not diligent and a hot mess. You can be knitting while watching trash TV. And look. Look what happens. A beautiful friend will email you a beautiful article that answers the very unpublished blog post you wrote a few days before. This is Mother artists loving and supporting other mother artists. And I think we need to share more of this. Because this kind of love is perhaps the most sacred and powerful I have ever known. (*)
And I just need to take the time, (even though (especially because) now Lily is fully melting down, screaming and kicking her feet, "I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR TWO HOURS! I REALLY NEED TO GO HAVE ICE CREAM!") to say this:
We are not alone us Mama artists. And if you need to replace the standard muse with my gorgeous, strong, unflinching mother to a million children creative goddess, than I really need you to do it. Because while Gilbert was right about a lot of things in her book, she was wrong about some very important things too. And I need, need, need for you to know that when you are ready to create, and when you feel so serious doing so because IT HAS TO BE SERIOUS BECAUSE YOU ARE IGNORING A SOBBING CHILD TO DO IT, and when you let it go into the world but then hesitate (ten million times) because you also have other humans to think about, and when you can't trust that everything is going to be ok because you can't garden for a year because you have to make money and make it to ballet class on time, She will still be there, warming her face in the flames, smiling and nodding.
We are collectively marching, with paintbrushes and cameras and pens in our hands and babies on our hips, and with each step we are contradicting the last, and it is the most beautiful thing in the world. And it is worth it. And it is worth it. And it is worth it.
(In case you were wondering what all of the (*) things are, I decided about a year ago, to make that mark in my writing each time one of my children interrupts my writing. It's always rushed and I'm always going fast, fast, FASTER. I never edit because (****). Sometimes I have to put it away for a minute, sometimes a week, sometimes I never go back. My writing is always clumsy and sweating a little bit. And I usually delete the (*) when I share or publish anything. But this time they stay. This time, I think, It's most important, that they fucking stay. It's beautiful. All of it.)