The decision to not have children is often regarded as a necessary sacrifice for a successful creative career, especially for women. In a 2016 interview for German paper Tagesspiegel, Marina Abramovic infamously said, “In my opinion that’s [having children] the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. There’s plenty of talented women. Why do men take over the important positions? It’s simple. Love, family, children — a woman doesn’t want to sacrifice all of that.”
It’ll come as no surprise that her statement stirred up quite the debate in the art world and beyond. Are domesticity and caregiving really incompatible with creative thinking? Do women really lose a sense of self when they become mothers, inadvertently setting themselves back in their careers? Or is it possible that while having children inevitably causes logistical obstacles as well as unavoidable stumbling blocks, it can actually enrich one’s creativity?
Jennifer Dasal, a contemporary arts curator and host of Art Curious podcast, says that through the first wonderful but difficult year of parenting, she was stripped of the ability to do little but the smallest of necessary tasks, with creativity serving me only for problem-solving.
“After the first year, though, my excitement to re-establish myself within my professional workspace bubbled up so much that I felt both inspired and unafraid,” Jennifer says. “I had already dipped into the terrifying world of motherhood and had survived! So launching an entirely new project didn’t feel scary. I began the ArtCurious podcast in 2016, when my son was just over a year old. He’s now almost 7, boisterous and gleeful, and ArtCurious – in its myriad forms – is now my full-time gig.”
Jennifer makes a good point: the courage it takes for ambitious, career-focused women to leap into the unknowns of motherhood is seldom recognised. After all, parenting is a job that is most often done when no one is looking, and usually comes at a cost of the ‘motherhood penalty’ (women who have children earn, on average, up to 45% less than those who do not). The other difficulty with having a creative career and children is that the professional trajectory is often non-linear, unpredictable, and takes longer to establish. Not having the traditional conventions of a 9-5 job, such as income security, bonuses and pay rises, means that artists who consider having children feel extra vulnerable.
That said, some mothers found that having children actually inspired them to take the plunge and pursue a creative career.
“I would never have started writing before having a baby, because my mind was too full of my day job, and actually that left no room for creativity,” says Helen Chandler, writer and author of A Thoroughly Modern Marriage. “When you are caring for a baby/toddler, you have a lot more time for your mind to wonder. I also think having a creative outlet made me a better and more patient parent.”
Artist Punam Sanghrajka-Patel agrees. “For me, having my son, sparked my love of painting again. I started and built my art practice – that was in 2016. I now have regular collection released to my online audience, have exhibited my work in Edinburgh, London and New York and I have collectors all over the world! I have continued to grow my business whilst raising both my kids and I feel more fulfilled for it,” she says.
“I learnt loads from my kids – still do. I think I would have struggled to let go of perfectionism if I hadn’t watched how free my kids were when creating their pictures. They inspire me and their pictures have inspired poems I have written,”says illustrator Jacqui Mulvagh.
Sarah Davis was a primary school teacher who was inspired to write children’s poetry during 3am baby feeds. “By the time my son was 8 months old, there were 40, light-hearted and mostly rhyming poems. My book, ‘Baby Daze,’ was recommended in ‘Mother and Baby’ magazine’s ‘3 of the best funny books’ feature and sold over 1,000 copies,” Sarah says. She has also retrained as a copywriter.
But doesn’t the endless to-do list that comes with parenting and the all-consuming work that goes into simply keeping a small human alive leave one with little to no time for any creative endeavours?
‘I find that as a result of ‘domestic drudgery’, mothers become masters of multitasking and, as a result, we become more productive,’ says children’s party organiser Tamsin Ryan. ‘In the precious little time mothers have, where we are not wiping up sick or packing school lunch bags, we absolutely make the most of it. We appreciate every minute and put it to use. So far from hindering our creativity, motherhood means we utilise the time we have to open our minds and explore things we may never have previously thought of,’ Tamsin says.
Artist Trudie Thorp feels that the drudgery of a lot of the tasks associated with motherhood gave her the time to think about what she would rather be doing. “The creativity has always been there, but the need to prioritise it and make sure it is a bigger part of my life has become more of a priority,” Trudie says.
No one can deny that becoming a parent changes you, and sometimes, that means spending more time reassessing your values and the importance of what you do with your time and your life overall. Artist and photographer Lucy Levene struggled with this.
“It’s really hard to make creative practice ‘important’ or ‘valid’ next to the work of bringing up children. I feel like it’s taken me a long time to feel it’s important again,” Lucy says.
Jewellery maker Tara McIntosh feels that it’s very important for her to maintain her artistic practice, because that’s where she gets to be ‘Tara the Artist’. ‘My children have definitely inspired me. I pay more attention to the little details by seeing things through their eyes,’ Tara says. ‘But I would also say that my artistic practice has been my safe space and outlet when I feel like I’m losing my identity in being ‘mum’.
The myriad of women that are both mothers and successful artists goes to show that creativity absolutely can and does flourish when kids are in the picture. Laurie Simmons, Annie Leibovitz, Toni Morrison, Julie Mehretu, Marlene Dumas, Cecily Brown, Chen Peiqiu and Zadie Smith are just some of the names that crop to mind.
The idea that women must sacrifice the pleasures of motherhood for the sake of an artistic career reflects toxic double standards (after all, do we ever ask male artists whether they’re thinking of having children?) and reveals the stereotype that artists must sacrifice something in order to be a ‘good’ artist. All women have the right to choose to have children, or to choose not to have children, but it is without a shadow of a doubt that women artists who choose to have children shouldn’t feel like they have to sacrifice their careers to do so. After all, most creative parents say that once you adapt to the challenges of parenthood, the experience makes you more efficient, focused, and inspired to think in ways you hadn’t previously thought possible.