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Managing your creativity can be difficult at the best of times, never mind when you’re juggling the host of tasks that come with raising little ones. To find out more, Mothers Who Make writer and theatre maker Crystal Stewart shares her own personal experience of carving out time for creativity endeavours…
I first became a mother at the age of 40, and had my second child at the age of 43. I had up to that point been something of a procrastinator. Time was something I thought I had plenty of, together with mobility, freedom and independence. I was a voracious consumer of culture, was comfortably networked in to Manchester’s thriving theatre scene, and wrote and produced two plays, the last of which, Peacock Boy, toured whilst I was pregnant with my first.
My daughter is now 8 and her brother is 5. In those first few months of their lives, the hours and days seemed to run amok. Time was no longer a free for all, to do with as I pleased. In fact it felt like I was living and re-living every second of every day, whilst struggling to introduce a sleeping and feeding routine. Time became a blur, punctuated by milestones such as weaning, teething, crawling, and eventually walking. I was viewing the world through a fog, for those first six months at least. When the routine eventually came, it was something of a relief. But by then fatigue and exhaustion had taken its grip. I would sit in a chair in the small hours breast feeding my son in semi darkness. Trying to keep myself awake, I would think up ideas for stories and plays, desperate to hold on to my creative identity. But my resolve would evaporate the following day as the routine asserted itself again. Before becoming a mum, I could pick and choose my moments, revise my schedule, fly off the seat of my pants if I needed to. Now I felt like a thief stealing minutes that weren’t rightfully mine.
Somehow I expected to carry on being a writer, as if nothing at changed, and up to a point, it hadn’t. When my son was six months old, I found myself sitting in a room with actors and a director for two days, developing an idea for a children’s play. I discovered I could carefully carve away time to write, if I didn’t expect too much too soon. Most importantly I could still hold my own in those creative conversations about protagonists, antagonists and inciting incidents. This was a relief, as for the past six months I had been engaged in conversations about remedies for colic, teething and mastitis. Enormous credit should go to those Bumps and Babes groups who have gotten me through a lot of tough and uncertain times, but I often felt like a nameless invisible woman in that environment. I didn’t want to talk ‘shop’ all the time, I had ideas for characters and plays I wanted to write. I had begun researching an idea for a drama about the Chernobyl nuclear accident at the time. Okay, I couldn’t quite get it all on a piece of paper but I still wanted to get excited about the possibilities. I found I could see through the fog, if I looked far enough ahead.
Since joining Mothers Who Make in the Spring of 2016, I’ve been able to share some of that excitement again, and to become excited about other people’s creative epiphanies. Creativity is contagious. And I don’t need to over-explain the challenges of being an artist and a parent. It’s a given, a common understanding, a shared frustration, a grief even, for a part of us that can so easily become lost in the day to day.
I think motherhood is a little like writing a play. It becomes a lesson in structure and routine, although it often starts out as messy and chaotic, like you’re getting nowhere fast. Keeping the house clean, the pots washed, the washing pile to a reasonable height is a constant challenge. There is a beginning, middle and end but those variables can change at any point. It is always, I mean always, a work in progress.
Since last September, some time has been handed back to me, not on a huge silver platter, but served in carefully compartmentalised portions. The children are older, now both at school, they are their own little works in progress. Through the support of MWM I have gathered up enough confidence and momentum to go for a number of writing opportunities and even manage to hit some deadlines. Only in past six months have I realised that the best time for me to write is for a few hours up until lunchtime, leaving the afternoon for domestic stuff. In the evenings, when the children are asleep I can catch up on any reading or research.
I find that magically, over night, this haphazard heap of material somehow takes a tangible form that I can start to run with the following day. I would never have worked in this way before becoming a mum, and to be honest I find this self-discipline refreshing. The urge to extract all that I can from the little time I have has become something of a survival tactic. I definitely spend less time thinking about things, for example, I get to the crux of a scene I’m writing faster than when time stretched ahead of me like an perpetually vacuumed carpet, uncluttered by toys and stray socks.
My creativity once felt like an illusive shadow, and I guess like in the film, Peter Pan, it became separated from my own body for a time. Though it was still a part of me, it would flit from wall to wall, tantalising and taunting me, using my previous life as a reminder That shape shifting silhouette is starting to find its way back, although for a long time, I really wasn’t sure it would. It may only recently have been stitched back on, but the stitches will disappear eventually. I may not be the wandering, meandering Pan I once was, with the freedom of the heavens at my disposal, but I am infinitely more grounded, sharper, more focussed. I think all artists believe that Never Never Land exists, and they know where to find it, to uncover and express the magic and wonderment of being a child. Motherhood is a daily reminder, and I continue to hold on to that, for my life.
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