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On Being an Artist and Mother

I fought the mom guilt to make time for creative pursuits. And doing so brought me closer to my children

By Brooke Lea Foster

I was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard when I had the idea for my first novel. My six-month-old was taking her morning nap in one of the shingled Victorian’s tiny bedrooms, and I was flipping through a local real estate magazine on the overstuffed couch, perusing tidy shuttered houses that I could only dream of buying. 

After coming across one particular storied mansion on the island, I dog-eared the page. What if I based a novel in that very house? With my baby rustling through the tinny speaker of the monitor, I daydreamed up the characters and began sketching out the general storyline of the novel, seeing an actress and a Rockefeller-like family entering into the scene. I saw a young nanny arriving on the island, too, but what would happen next? 

“Mommy, I want apples. I’m hungry.” It was my then six-year-old barreling into the wicker furniture in the living room, rocketing onto my lap, red-faced and sweaty from running after a kite on the Village Green across from the rental house. In an instant, I put down the notebook, rose to enter the kitchen and rinse his favorite Honeycrisp, slicing wedges and plating them in a pinwheel shape on a patterned plate. 

Who do you think you are trying to write a novel? You’re a mother! A wife! A journalist.  

It was that voice I sometimes heard  inside my head, telling me how silly it was to come up with pretend stories. How frivolous it would be to stop taking paying journalism assignments, to take time away from my kids and husband and do something as indulgent as writing fiction. As creating art. 

That same voice told me that women don’t write serious fiction. Men do. Women don’t create serious paintings; they dabble. It’s men who make real art. At least that’s how it seemed based on what we see in pop culture. Case in point: One 2019 study examined the collections of 18 major US art museums; they discovered that 87 percent of the works were made by men. There was a similar trend in acquisitions during the 2008 to 2018 time period, when only 11 percent of art purchased by museums was made by women. Too often fiction written by women is considered flimsy, called a “beach read,” or placed in that nebulous category called women’s fiction — frustrating enough that best-selling author Jennifer Weiner protested the fact that the major newspapers will review Stephen King and mystery writers but rarely romance, which is often considered a women’s category.

And still, even as I chopped those apples on Martha’s Vineyard that morning, my imagination reeled on, forcing me to ignore the voice telling me mothers couldn’t be artists. I would dabble in fiction. I would try to write my very first book, even though many artists themselves have been outspoken about not being able to juggle motherhood and creative expression. And still, my writer’s mind has continued to dream up stories several years later, even though my kids are now six and 12 and aren’t always happy about their mom disappearing into a world of imagined friends. 

I got the idea for On Gin Lane when my daughter was four and no longer napping and I barely had time to blow out my hair every day, but the story rang so clear from the start. A young woman whisked off to the Hamptons in the summer of 1957 by her fiancé and gifted a hotel as an early wedding present. Two days later, the hotel would mysteriously burn to the ground. But as fascinating as the plot was, I remember playing with Calico Critters toys with my daughter on the sunroom floor and thinking, Where will I find space to write this book? It’s not just time that challenges a mother who wants to create, it’s the real estate in your head.  

Being a maker or creator of any kind — whether you’re throwing a pot or designing the next must-download app or writing a book — is all consuming. When I’m deep into writing a novel, my head is overrun with so many ideas and so much dialogue that I have to make a conscious effort to tune into my family when I’m with them at all. We’re driving to the farm stand to pick up fresh blueberries, and I’m imagining my characters having a spat in the parking lot. My son carries in the mail, and I imagine my character gets news in the form of an unexpected telegram. (I write historical fiction, so a telegram feels right.) 

Before I got pregnant, I swore that I would fit my child into my life rather than build mine around juice boxes and Sesame Street. But from the minute I had my son and then my daughter, I struggled with returning to my freelance writing job. I hired a babysitter so I could get back to work and found I had to leave the house just to focus; one cry from my baby and my mom radar would go up. Should I go downstairs and see what’s wrong? Was I selfish to finish out the book that was due on deadline that afternoon? Was he sick? 

“Welcome back to us,” my husband said to me after I finished On Gin Lane a year ago. He was truly grateful; he’d missed me slipping off into my imagination or centering our date night conversation about what Everleigh (my main heroine) would do next. And yet, as we hugged one another that morning, my husband congratulating me about another book project complete, I felt a sinking feeling forming a pit in my stomach. Had I been so consumed that I’d been shirking my duties as a wife and mother? Had I slipped away so much that my absence had registered, and did my kids feel that same distance? The thought that my 12-year-old might avoid talking to me out of the assumption that I was “too busy writing” is a mother’s ultimate horror.

And yet, as a woman trying to balance artistic expression and motherhood, what I’ve realized is that I have to let go of mom guilt. I’m entitled to escape into a fictional world just as much as my husband is entitled to spend an afternoon playing guitar (his creative pursuit). I’m also not hurting my kids in the process. I’ve simply had to make adjustments to what I believe makes a woman a good wife and mother. 

For one, I’ve accepted that I will never be perfect. In order to make space in my head to create, I have to stop trying to do everything. When I’m writing a novel, the laundry may pile up. If I’m deep into revision mode, I might let the breakfast dishes sit until dinner clean-up. I let my life get a little messy. Even if I show up at school pick-up a bit bleary-eyed from writing since I dropped my youngest off, even if it’s a bit challenging to snap back into the role of mommy, I work hard to “turn off” my imagination sometimes. To be as fully present as possible when the kids or my husband need me to be. It’s the other stuff that I let slide: chores, volunteering for the PTA, lunch dates with friends, keeping the house freshly vacuumed. 

Because what I’ve realized is that writing is just who I am. I’m a creative, and my kids are getting to know the real me. Not the me that runs around packing lunches and carpooling them to soccer. That’s a small sliver of being a mother; the real lessons come in our example.

Now when I get that glazed-over stare making clear I’m in my head, and my kids know I’m thinking about something other than them, I share the part of my book I’m trying to work out. They give me ideas or we’ll talk out plot points. I’ve involved them in my artistic process, which brings them closer to me, an intimacy built on something deeper than me slicing them apples. 

Ultimately, I can see now that I’m teaching them the greatest gift of all: The importance of following through with your dreams. Even if they never write a book of their own, they’ll always know that it’s okay to slip away from the present, to dream up an idea. To make their dreams happen. 

An award-winning journalist, Brooke Lea Foster is the author of On Gin Lane and Summer Darlings.  You can keep up with her on Instagram or Facebook.

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