Your brain on motherhood
Motherhood 'takes' a lot things – time, energy, the ability to pee alone. But often when we discuss what it 'gives', we rarely do it in the context of what we gain as creative individuals.
We're constantly fed the idea that motherhood and creative work are incompatible. But what if science is saying the opposite?
We are only just starting to get a glimpse at the monumental changes mothers' brains go through during pregnancy and following childbirth (thanks, patriarchy), and while lots of these present all sorts of challenges, it's also fascinating to see what changes for the better.
As writer Leslie Jamison says in this lovely interview: “...I feel really nourished by stories of how they can feed each other rather than being these warring gods, motherhood and art.”
So that’s what we’ll explore in this edition. Let’s get stuck in.
How motherhood changes the brain
You lose your mind when you have a child. Quite literally. Studies show that there are ‘significant grey matter changes’ happening for at least two years after birth.
It's been an area ignored for centuries, but more and more studies are finally looking into the astonishing changes women go through when they become parents.
In this eye-opening Refinery 29 piece, novelist Emma Jane Unsworth explores not just the huge changes occurring within women’s brains during pregnancy and early motherhood, but how little we know about them, and how they can affect so much of our early experiences as mothers:
Could this help to explain the heightened anxiety many new mothers feel? The forgetfulness of some things and the hypervigilance when it comes to others? The unmooring from our sense of identity?
Most research so far has focused on how these brain changes affect a mother and infant’s attachment, but I was blown away by this piece looking at the neurological link between motherhood and creativity in The Atlantic.
The piece interviews Kelly G. Lambert, a professor of behavioural neuroscience, and cities studies suggesting that women may indeed become more creative after having kids. Some choice cuts:
On brain changes:
“…a mother’s brain requires cognitive, emotional, and behavioural flexibility. This helps us adapt to new environments […] flexibility and thinking outside of the box—isn’t that what creativity is?”
On the urge to create:
“Diaper changes might cut into the time spent on creative work, but they don’t cut out the drive to do it”
“My own creativity these days may come out in a thought tapped and auto corrected on my phone at 2 a.m., or it could come out in a method of bathing three small kids without anyone drowning.”
In the same piece, artist Hein Koh (the person behind that viral breastfeeding Instagram post) weighs in on that all-too-familiar work/life balancing act:
“I feel like I can’t get my ideas out fast enough. Sometimes it causes me pain to leave. At the same time, I love going home to my family, switching gears and going into mom mode – it helps normalize me.”
Seeing the world in a new way
I loved this interview with writer Leslie Jamison and artist Mika Rottenberg, particularly when Leslie spoke about taking her daughter to Mika’s exhibition:
“…I was learning how to see the world, including galleries, in a new way because I was experiencing it with my daughter and I felt like I was re-training my attention in all of these different ways.”
On how motherhood can deepen understanding:
“On a creative level, I feel like becoming a mother has totally deepened and expanded my writing practice. It’s opened me up to thinking about caregiving as a subject with a new kind of focus, and not just caregiving within the boundaries of a parent/child relationship.”
On the parallels between the grind of motherhood and creative work:
"Making art is also just doing the work, so that’s also boring sometimes. It’s more mentally exciting maybe than changing diapers or something like that, but I see the similarities in that sense."
Creativity with a big C
I’m also still learning that a big part of the problem lies in how we view creativity itself, and the assumptions and stereotypes that surround it (see issue two for more on this).
Anyone who parents knows what intensely creative work it is; but when we talk about motherhood and creativity, we are talking about what Psychology Today calls “Big C” creativity – that is, substantial, ‘important’ or publicly acknowledged or celebrated contributions to a creative field. But that doesn’t mean mothers are being any less creative:
“Much of the creative work that mothers complete may be called acts of everyday creativity, or “little c” creativity. These acts may not be recognized with a Pulitzer, Oscar, or Fields Medal, but as developmental psychologist David Feldman says, these “little c” creative acts are equally as important as “Big C” creativity for the “preservation, enrichment, and continuity of culture.”
I always felt injecting creativity into day-to-day things like snack-making and toy-tidying were ways of keeping myself sane – it's comforting to know there's also something bigger at play.
Things I read and loved this month
“The key as a parent is just making sure your creative pilot light never goes out” – Jessica Hische hits the nail on the head with this Twitter thread (and creates a Discord server for parents to boot).
"I thought I was going to have to pass on the assignment all together, which felt particularly ironic": Beautiful, intimate portraits of mothers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, all shot remotely thanks to the creative thinking of a breastfeeding photographer.
Such a cool idea: OwnTrail, a platform that lets you visualise different women’s work and life paths (and create your own), with the goal of advancing women "through the scalable owning and sharing of the trails we blaze through life”.
A new book features the work 227 authors who became mothers during the pandemic.
This looks like a great new newsletter series aimed at dads.
I'll leave you with...
How did I miss this before? As a lifelong Alanis Morisette fan, this video from last summer of her performing a beautiful new track about being a parent (with her kid in tow) brought lots of feels.
Like so many, I’ve often connected with the parts of Alanis Morisette lyrics that help me process and understand difficult and painful experiences: breakups, estranged parents, bad relationships.
So there was something so powerful and moving about the unbridled hope and positivity in Ablaze. Seeing her beautiful lyricism applied to parenting is such a gift. The official video is a tonic too.
So: can motherhood make you more creative? For me, the answer is undoubtedly yes. After all, this newsletter – and the incredible connections, conversations and ideas it has sparked – wouldn’t exist without it (even if it does mean I wrote most of it to the white noise soundtrack coming from the baby monitor).
That’s it for this month. As always, if you have any feedback, article recommendations or just want to say hi, I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading, and see you next month,