All growing up, if you asked me what I was going to be, I’d answer without hesitation, an artist. Ever since I could hold a crayon, I’ve been drawing. Ever since I could talk, I’ve been telling stories. Ever since I could write, I’ve been committing those stories to paper. I believe that the finest artistic works are akin to worship, I believe the vocation of an artist is a holy one indeed, and I believe that beauty truly can save the world.
Now if you ask me what I do, I’ll answer that I stay at home with babies. I still hold lofty artistic aspirations, but reconciling art and motherhood is difficult even as it is beautiful. The miraculous nature of being a co-creator and steward of human life is one of the most artistically stimulating things that can upset your life. Yet, it is precisely the thing that makes the inner silence needed to be an artist difficult to come by. Every hour of my day I am on-call to a fussy, nursing newborn. Any time I start floating away on an inspired trail of thought I am stopped by toddler screams heralding needs rational or otherwise (if intelligible at all). Welcoming babies means it’s no more simply about fighting my deeply phlegmatic nature to show up and hack at my artistic pursuits whether I feel like it or not that day. It’s about having the luxury of the time or mental space to indulge in them at all.
Often I catch myself thinking about what my life would have meant if it was cut short. What would these years mean–mired in spit up and temper tantrums and me never having really cultivated my talents. And of course, this was not a purely hypothetical situation for so many women throughout history. I recently read that two of Jane Austen’s sisters-in-law die in childbirth after years of having back to back babies. Austen, herself, had the opportunity to marry and yet chose to remain unmarried and free to write novels. But what of any of those women who harbored artistic impulses? What of their ambitions outside of mothering that were laid to rest with them?
Losing your identity to motherhood is something no woman wants, and it is undoubtedly bad to cease to exercise necessary self-care or to permanently and unhealthily become a martyr to motherhood. Yet, despite my ache to fully realize the role of an artist, this losing myself to motherhood, this temporary dimming of my interests and shedding of my individuality, this drowning in babies and being incapable of doing much else, seems to be precisely what’s being asked of me right now.
When I look to another group of women seemingly relinquishing their individuality, I glean some wisdom about the limitations of my life as a stay-at-home mother of small children. Religious sisters revoke their individuality in dress and in name, accepting what is given to them, doing what is asked of them by superiors, becoming one in a sea of women tying their wills to unwavering vows. And the lives, particularly of cloistered contemplative nuns, appear to lack any individuality, freedom, or usefulness to the outside world. But contemplation, while not useful in any worldly sense, is a channel into the divine life of God in which a person finds herself most liberated and fulfilled in her identity.
As I said before, even as motherhood is impossibly immobilizing, it’s just as creatively and contemplatively stimulating. The wise look of my sleepy newborn. The emotional molting of my toddler. His little voice singing–a transcendental sound of hope to my anxious self. Being present to these wonders makes me want to transfix them in art, and perhaps at some point that will be my work. But right now my primary work is just to be present to them. Flannery O’Connor writes in her prayer journal, “I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” This also seems an appropriate prayer for the woman struggling with her loss of identity in motherhood. Right now, I am meant to be hidden within motherhood, to contemplate without action, to push myself out of the way so that I may know God.
Whether I die young and this time, fertile in thought and dry in deed, results in nothing in the way of art, or if I live long, write much and write well to the glory of God, and even my children see me as something other than their mother, I hope I might still say that I was present at this feast, taking it all in, more concerned with being a witness to the great mysteries before me than validating my identity to the world.
Anyway Milton said it well four hundred years ago:
“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”