It’s easy to forget that we even have imaginations once we’re adults. Who has time to feel creative, when there’s a job to go to, groceries to buy, car trouble, or emails to write?
Thank God for children and their surprising flings of fancy.
I wasn’t planning to become a mother. Until I was thirty years old, I had imagined many lives for myself: as a doctor who performed miracle cures in remote corners of the world, a painter, a social worker, an advertising executive, a science teacher, a public relations specialist, a potter. I tried out some of these things before settling on becoming a writer. At no point in any of these imaginings did my fantasy life include children, simply because I couldn’t see a way to be a mom and pursue any kind of artistic life.
And then, quite by accident, I got pregnant. Even so, I thought of myself as the sort of mother who leaves her child in the care of someone else so she could resume having adventures. Just before that pregnancy, for instance, I had trekked in the Himalayas and traveled by train through India; for my next creative jaunt, I intended to take a train from Boston to Patagonia, just like writer Paul Theroux did to write THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS.
The joke was on me: I fell in love with my baby. I couldn’t leave him even for a weekend, never mind a trip to Argentina. So I figured out how to combine motherhood with the one kind of work I could do that gave me enough flexibility to hang out with him for part of every day: freelance writing. I have continued to work as a freelance writer ever since, through the birth of my second child, my divorce, my second marriage, the incorporation of two stepchildren into my life, and the birth of our fifth child, making ours a “yours, mine, and ours” sort of blended family.
I never did make it to Argentina. As anyone knows who has tried it, you can combine work and parenthood most days, but having energy left over for creative endeavors—like pottery, painting, or writing novels—becomes more difficult. How can you fit creativity into your life, too, when you’re so busy during the day that you can barely keep your eyes open long enough at night to finish the dinner dishes, put the baby to bed, help the big kids with homework, and walk the dog?
“I’m not planning to have kids,” one young writer told me with great confidence recently. “Kids will just get in the way of my writing.”
True. Children certainly provide stumbling blocks to free time. On the other hand, they are a brilliant, infinite source of creative energy. I’ve found that tapping into that energy, just by listening to my children, can infuse me with fresh creativity. Children see the world in ways that adults often cannot, blinded as we are by the fog of daily responsibilities. For instance, a few years ago I took my youngest child to a greenhouse, where I turned around to find him staring deep into a flower blossom.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
He shrugged his skinny shoulders. “I’m not looking at anything. I’m wondering what the flower is looking at. I wish I could be that flower.”
My new novel, THE WISHING HILL, has a key scene in it based on something my daughter said once. Claire, one of the main characters, remembers taking a walk with another of the main characters, Juliet, years ago, when Juliet was a child:
Juliet had run ahead just then, pointing to the hill in front of them. The sun was at the right angle to bathe the hillside in light. The dandelions were nearly glowing against the jewel green grass, their fuzzy heads as pale and fine as white gossamer. The seeds were taking flight in the breeze.
“Look, Mommy, a wishing hill!” Juliet cried.
Juliet and her mother, Desiree, pick dandelions and start blowing on them, making wishes in a way Claire feels she can’t do, because she has lost all hope of finding love or having a better future. In the novel, the wishing hill represents that time of innocence during childhood before we experience betrayals and tragedies, disappointments and a shutting down of our imaginations as we lose hope in the future ever being better than the past or present.
Yes, it is sometimes tricky to balance motherhood with work and artistic passion. On the other hand, when our imaginations flag, our children can inspire new ideas and give us hope that we’ll leave the world a better place than we found it—and find love along the way.