Monday, March 31, 2014

WholeSelf-Image and Creative Expression

In our recent interview, author Dara Chadwick talked about women’s tendency to equate how we look with who we are. Even when we're promoting self-acceptance, we often treat "self-image" as synonymous with "body image," ignoring other aspects of self—thoughts, perceptions, emotions, intuitions, personality, aspirations, and values, to name a few.

Motherhood is a whole-self proposition. Our physical selves are undeniably altered by pregnancy and childbirth, but less visible changes—priority shifts, emotional responses, identity adjustments—may be more profound. Psychiatrists Daniel N. Stern and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern summarize these changes in their book The Birth Of A Mother: How The Motherhood Experience Changes You Forever:

When you have a baby, it will determine for a certain period of time what you think about, what you fear or hope for, and what your fantasies will be. It will influence your feelings and actions, and even heighten your basic sensory and information-processing systems. Having a child will redirect your preferences and pleasures, and most likely will realign some of your values. In a most startling way, it will influence all of your previous relationships, and cause you to reevaluate your closest associations and redefine your role in your own family's history.

The authors note that while a "motherhood mindset" is most dominant shortly after childbirth, the changes they describe are to some degree present for life.

It's tempting to focus on managing the physical effects of motherhood. Our bodies are tangible and at least somewhat responsive to our struggle for control, when other aspects of motherhood might feel out of control. But when we limit our attention to our bodies, we neglect feeding and exercising our minds and spirits. What's more, talking about motherhood as primarily a physical transformation discounts the experiences of adoptive mothers.

In my personal experience, a healthy relationship with my body begins with nourishing and exercising my mind and soul. And creative expression is a primary way I accomplish that.

When you are busy with the work of motherhood, along with the other work in your life, creative work feels like an unaffordable luxury. We tell ourselves that motherhood is creativity. Jessica Simpson informs us in a Weight Watchers commercial that she loves her body because it "made two amazing little human beings." It's one thing—and, yes, an amazing thing—to bear a human life, but it's a different thing to bear our own creations.

When left to their own devices, our children will create for the sake of creating. We understand it as part of their play. Gradually, they'll start censoring themselves, comparing their work to the work of others, equating creativity with talent, and avoiding activities they haven't mastered. By adulthood they might decide, as most of us have, that creativity is reserved for impractical dreamers and the lucky few with viable careers in the arts.

How sad! I contend that far from competing with or distracting us from "real life," creativity makes life real. Creative expression—responding to the world around us by crafting or performing something from our unique perspective—helps us tune into the reality around us, discover our real thoughts and feelings, express our real selves, and connect with other people as they really are. We get to pause from consuming manufactured reality and engage in producing more honest and diverse alternatives.

Notice this doesn’t sound much like Pinterest—which, after childbirth, is where we most commonly ascribe creativity to mothers. Pinterest celebrates the photo-worthy and is designed to facilitate imitation. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the kind of creative expression I'm describing.

Here's what I'm suggesting we do. These suggestions are both simple and infinitely variable. And I humbly propose that following them will make us better mothers and better humans.
  1. Pay attention. Slow down and notice what's around us.
  2. Respond. Create something. Write, draw, build, paint, dance, make music, film, sculpt, whatever. Free yourself to express your perspective in some tangible form.
That's it. Someday you might share some of your work, but the creative process has value regardless of the product or outcome. Make time for creativity even if it’s "just a hobby." Disparaging hobbyists, people who endeavor without pay, is not unlike disparaging mothers. It's mean and it hurts, but we don't neglect our children because our culture doesn't value our work as mothers.Why are we so willing to neglect our souls?

Happily, there seems to be growing recognition of motherhood itself as a source of creative expression. I'll share some examples in my next post. How about you? How do you express yourself creatively?

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