What to do when motherhood is crushing your creativityFeatured

What does it mean to be creative?

As a professional freelance writer who also happens to have two pint-sized humans at home, it’s a question I’ve been asking a lot lately. Somehow, it feels to me like motherhood and creativity are frustratingly incompatible. Becoming a mom leaves us little time for our passions, little time for self-care, and, crucially, little mental space for creative thought.

You see, I’ve always loved writing. And words just used to come. I’d be going about my day when suddenly a line of poetry would fly out of nowhere and smack me on the head. Now that only happens with wayward bricks of Lego.

I feel like, as a mother, there’s literally no space in my brain for that poetic magic to happen. I’m in survival mode. Always. And I miss the way my mind worked before. I miss the feeling of being brimming with words; of wanting to write something beautiful for its own sake.

Any other mommas out there who can relate?

Your brain on motherhood

Well, get this: Brain scans reveal that motherhood really does change our brains. And (sorry to say) those changes appear to be irreversible.

Here’s what happens.

Much like your house, your brain architecture gets remodeled when your first baby is on the way. Stuff from your pre-parent life gets tossed in the charity bin—or, in the case of your brain, cut away. Gray matter volume reduces, and synapses (connections between neurons) are pruned back. This process is supposed to help you focus on the task at hand by removing what’s unnecessary.

Apparently, my brain thinks creative writing is unnecessary. 🙄

I know mothers in other creative fields—visual artists, photographers, designers—who feel the same.

So, what can we do about the motherhood-creativity problem?

One thing we can do is shift our thinking. We can change the way we think about our motherhood-induced brain changes. And we can rethink what it is to be creative.

Paradigm Shift #1: Your Mom-Brain Is A Superpower

Knowing your “mommy brain” has a physiological cause can be helpful. Why? Because knowing this allows us to accept what we can’t control and focus on what we can.

Like seeing the positive side of things.

Animal huntresses become faster and fiercer once they have offspring to care for. And we do too, in our own way. As well as KonMari-ing out the stuff we no longer need (like the name of that actress that frustratingly now escapes you), your brain also enlarges some areas—like those related to planning, learning, emotional regulation, and empathy.

Your senses also get finely attuned to your baby. If you’ve ever had your ears prick up at a tiny noise that everyone else in the room is oblivious to, that’s your mom antennas at work.

“Research has shown pregnant women and new moms often are better than nonpregnant women at everything from distinguishing between subtle color differences to riding out stressful events like earthquakes,” says Abigail Tucker, author of Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct. She calls our cognitive advantages “something of a superpower.”

So, by restructuring itself, your brain is actually just honing its focus onto the most important creation you’ll ever make: your children.

Paradigm Shift #2: You Are Creative—Just Not In The Same Way

I’m 100% sure that, as a parent, you do way more creative thinking than you give yourself credit for. You sing songs, make up stories, build towers, turn kitchen utensils into musical instruments and sheets into superhero costumes.

And you use creative problem-solving. Daily. In a plethora of unglorified, unsexy ways.

Figuring out how to open the apartment door while carrying a sleeping child in each arm may not feel like creativity in the same way that improvising music does, but it’s creativity nonetheless. So, give yourself credit for it.

And don’t lose faith that those more exalted forms of creativity won’t return, in some form or another. Perhaps all you need is time.

5 tips for getting your creativity back

So, in saying all of the above, I do believe that shifting your mindset and cutting yourself some slack is a good place to start.

However, that might not be enough if you really want to get your creativity flowing (or need to because your livelihood depends on it). Now, I’m not a lab-coat-wearing scientist that can give you research-backed answers, but I can tell you what’s been working for me so far.

Hopefully, some of these tips will work for you too.

Just start.

Who was it that said, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”?

Don’t wait for the Muse to touch you on the shoulder. Sit down and start working, and oftentimes that act will be enough to beckon her over.

Oh, and if starting feels hard, just start small. Write one word, draw one line, play one note. Breaking things down into their smallest parts means you won’t feel overwhelmed.

Harness the power of deadlines.

Remember Parkinson’s Law? The more time you have to do something, the longer you’ll take to do it. So, if there’s no deadline at all, that means you’ll finish that project in approximately… never.

Setting yourself deadlines helps, but committing to an external party is every bit better. (Hello, this deadline for Elpha which has me sitting here typing right now 😉.)

This starts by acknowledging that open timeframes are a trigger for procrastination. If you’re the same, try committing to a deadline with an external party, even if that means taking on voluntary projects outside your normal scope of work.

Where there’s a will deadline, there’s a way.

Check your creative diet.

Remember when the hungry wolf of creativity inside you would demand food and you’d answer by reading books and going to art galleries and listening to fascinating podcasts? Yeah, me too. Now spending that time feels like a luxury.

But you know what, it’s not a luxury — it’s a necessary part of your creative work. Give yourself permission to dedicate time to consuming content that inspires you. Input is output, as I always say.

(And as a side-tip, breastfeeding is a great opportunity to chow down books like there’s no tomorrow. After all, if you’re a nursing mom, you’re going to spend the equivalent of a full-time job sitting around with a baby on your boob. Resist the urge to waste that time mindlessly scrolling.)

Draw inspiration from motherhood.

I sometimes feel like everything there is to say about motherhood has already been said. But that’s not true, because it’s a unique experience for every one of us.

Try reflecting on how motherhood makes you feel (even the negative stuff) and turning that into art. Or, maybe it’s the things your kids say (what child is not a pocket-sized philosopher?), the imaginary worlds you create together, or the way they look at everything with curiosity and wonder. There’s bound to be some inspiration in that.

Be patient.

If there’s one thing you’ve probably learned as a parent, it’s that we just have to be patient. Things move in phases. We see this with our kids all the time. Looking back, we can see that we needn’t have worried so much about some behavior because, yes, it was just a phase, and it passed.

Maybe, if we start small, embrace imperfection, and find ways to feed our creativity, it will start to return to us. It may look different to the way it did before, but hey, maybe that’s okay. We’re growing and changing and moving through phases, just like our children are. It’s worth remembering that not only are we creating them, but they’re creating us.

How do you feel about motherhood and creativity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and any advice you have in the comments, so please join the conversation!

This has been super top of mind for me too. Just published this piece with lots of resonance with yours!
That’s an interesting study about gray matter in parents. I wonder if it was done on any regular meditators. I’m skeptical that changes are not reversible. The brain has been shown to be quite plastic. I do agree that surprise creative inspiration is more reliably hitting at 3 am than in my pre-parent days. But now I’m awake then and can write them down, so it all works out.
Interesting question, meditation definitely also makes lasting changes to the brain so it would be fascinating to study that.
I am the mother to 3 now adult children. And I felt the exact same way when they were young. By the time they were in bed at night, I was too mentally drained to write much of anything.I would second the advice on reading while nursing, and also patience! I got my writing time back when my kids were in school. Did it take a few years? Yes. Until then I picked up other creative things that required less mental focus. I learned to knit, bake bread, grow vegetables. I don't do any of that now, but for that period if my life, it gave me something to do outside of mothering that I could dive deep into and explore and get excited about.I am a much better writer and person from being a mother--it's worth it but it takes time!
Thanks so much for your comment Sagha, it's so comforting and inspiring to hear that! :) I love the idea of doing other creative things that are directly related to mothering/running a household. I definitely do much more baking and cooking and gardening and hadn't really considered how that is a type of creative work. Thanks again.