Captain's Log: The Strange Voyage of Motherhood and Art

I was an artist long before I was a mother.

Long before I even understood what I was doing, I offered up my songs willingly, like little pieces of my child-soul, to anyone who would have them.

In my twenties, when my peers either turned famous or got day jobs, I refused to formulate a plan b. I would continue being an artist. Then... I had kids.

Now, by some miracle - a decade of mothering behind me - we're still sailing. Was is fair winds? I assure you, no. And even though I don't have a blueprint or even a tourist guide, I wanted to write a small meditation. I write this with the mother painter, dancer, poet and sculptor in mind. Whatever you medium, whoever your muse. This is a contemplation on the strange voyage of artist mothers.

* * * * *

Here’s how it goes down every day. If I didn’t drink too much red wine the night before, I get out of bed before dawn, sneak down to my studio and sip coffee as I write a page. (Maybe two, if things are really flowing.) When I hear the kids stomping out of bed, I realize I must’ve lost track of time and gotten into my flow. (Sweet!) But as my minions rummage in the cupboards for cereal, (and possibly Oreos), I retreat and climb the stairs, my brand new pages in tow. The ones I just wrote. I need them. The rest of the day, I will refer to my captain’s log while I crave hose lonely hours in the studio.

When I became a mother, I was made captain without being offered sailing lessons. I arrived at the harbor and stepped onto my very own ship, loaded up with precious cargo. The ship is my yoke, but also my offering. My ship is my mother-load. It’s everything that means anything to me.

The sea is my art, and those distant islands are where I want to bring my art. They’re my audience. My job as captain is not only to determine our destination (how do you define success as an artist?) but also speed (where do you see yourself in five years?) and the course (how exactly do you intend to do this?).

I’ve learned to love the sea-spray in my face and even grown accustomed to the rocking and swaying. Sometimes I see Land, ho! But then I’m called back to untangle some ropes and decipher the use of mysterious knobs and pulleys. I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of starboard and leeward. Any day that passes without a single soul getting heaved overboard, I feel miraculously in charge of my fate.

* * * * *

But as we sail on, the islands remain unreachable. I decide that what I need are other brilliant captains’ logbooks, filled with genius advice. On my ship I have internet, so almost every day a new book comes in the mail. The kids drag it ungratefully from the mailbox crying, “Mom, how come all the packages are always for you?”

I read every title that even slightly hints at my predicament. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk. Untamed by Glennon Doyle. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The Motherhood of Art by Heather Kirtland and Marissa Huber. How We Do Both by Michi Jigarjian. The heap of books never stops growing, and their words do offer comfort. I recommit. Another morning comes and down I go, hot coffee in hand.

* * * * *

But this is America. A storm is always brewing ahead. Because of our current, very subpar system of maternity (and paternity) leave, and also because of the pandemic, mothers in this country often have to choose whether they want to be good mothers or good at what they do. No one cares, really, if my crew and I wash up at our destination with a broken mast, ripped up sails, zero remaining supplies and one less mate, who may or may not have succumbed to cannibalism.

Mother artists don’t succeed. Right? At least not when their strange journey toward self-actualization involves carting little people from harbor to harbor. My little skipper and helmsman are the reason I’m even on this ship, but I keep telling myself it’s just for a season. My older sister has been through this. She tells me that motherhood is a blip. She reminds me that the kid-stage will be over soon, and I’ll regret it if I get sidetracked from my big goals. Stay the course, she rallies.

She’s right. Now is not the time to lose faith and party at Pleasure Island, even if they serve free Mai Tai’s and unlimited glow sticks. It’s time to learn how to use that damn compass and toss guilt overboard. Lose self-doubt. Filter my insecurities.

* * * * *

And then, a small miracle emerges. Little by little, I start to see that the magic is in those early morning hours. In the words I’m writing to myself. I begin to appreciate the small gems that I manage to procure during our bizarre voyage.

I get excited to reach a new distance, disembark, and lay them all out on the warm, sunny rocks. I’m scared shitless. Raw and bare. But man, it feels good to give from the depths and storms through which I’ve just sailed. Here’s what I’ve made. The kids watch from the helm as Captain Mom stands ashore with her goods. Wheeling. Dealing. Helping someone see the world in a new way.

* * * * *

Our own captain’s log is magic for mother artists. It’s the record of our stolen moments of creativity, of each time we asserted this: I am an artist. I have work to do. The log charts our commitment to figuring out, to mining for gold in our souls.

And that’s why I keep writing my captain’s log. For my kids to see me living out my purpose. To remember having journeyed and not drowned. But also because my practice is often the only thing that keeps this ship from sinking when the ocean swells and crashes around us. Putting my words down, showing up to make my art, and continuing my practice is what keeps me afloat.

The art we make is both the journey and the destination. It’s the ship, the sails, the sea and the harbor. It’s more than the groove behind our vessel, that we carve onto the water’s choppy surface. It’s all the ripples that go on and on and on. In the end, our art is bigger than we thought, when we first crossed that ramp and boarded, blue-eyed and grinning, thinking, I’m a new mom! And I’m still an artist! Godspeed!

Keep stealing those hours. Keep logging, Captain Mom.