I didn’t have much time left. About a month. My pregnancy had been surreal thus far. The baby felt like he was doing skateboard tricks on the insides of my abdomen. In Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, the pregnant Elizabeth sat in her rocking chair day after day, and someone had the nerve to call her idle. Steinbeck followed up the accusation with a retort assuring that her inactivity was not useless, but creation in the making: bone casting bone, flesh forming flesh. I sat in my rocker alongside my sister-in-law, Marybeth, on my patio. Both of us were expecting. Little people factories, we were.
I had only ever imagined being an actress on Broadway or writing some fabulous book or pursuing my dream of being a songwriter. I had never wanted children, matching linens, or a white picket fence.
No one had ever told me that becoming a mother might resemble an artistic endeavor and turn out to be the greatest creative undertaking of my career, or I would have included it on my list of life’s irresistible possibilities.
“I still haven’t figured out why people even have kids,” I said to my sister-in-law over the hammering of the new housing tract construction below.
“Once you have one, you’ll know!” Marybeth asserted, as her snotty nosed, toe-headed toddler wound around her shoulders and legs like a slimy salamander.
I was young: twenty-three. I knew that child bearing was the Natural Order. So was disease (as my childless brother had often pointed out). I knew that I didn’t want to be alone in my seventies, and I knew that statistically, I was headed for parenthood regardless of my personal plans. I went along with it partly because I knew it was inevitable, and partly because I knew I wanted to get it over with.
What I didn’t know was how it would change me, how I would be recreated myself, as I co-created new life. I had no idea what would take place physically and how it would connect me to all women of all time who have chomped tree stumps and pushed out screaming infants.
I had no inkling that the act of childbirth could bring me that close to Perfection, to the Divine; that the daily discoveries experienced by my newborns, my fairies, my toddlers, my children, would expand me again and again—like the belly that billowed before me.
I had no idea that they would become my gurus into the world of the imagination and unseen truth; that they would be the gauge for my spiritual health, the yardstick to track my inner transformation against their own growing, thriving bodies.
Marybeth was right. Once I stepped over into the world of motherhood, I indeed knew why most of us were destined to procreate. Procreation was like the process of a creative masterpiece, beginning with conception, then gestation, formation, and culminating in reception. On a Wednesday, in the early afternoon, after vicious contractions and hours of concentration, I delivered Jordan James. Maternal love filled my saggy womb the instant his frame was pulled from mine. His own heartbeat set the cadence for mine. His hungry body fed on mine. It was a mystery, played out before me, and I had very little will or control over the happenings. This was the whirl of creativity at its most powerful: intuition tangibly formed, allowing me a glimpse of the transcendence that can stretch from one body to another, one soul to another, both inseparable from the glorious Idea who conceived the incredible process.
Like an artist paints for hours without concept of time, increments of existence fell away as I nursed on one side, rolled over and nursed again, with no concern for tomorrow, or the next day.
Stroking Jordan’s jet black hair back and around and back and around, I could finally admire my unseen labor, and touch the secrets that had pulsed inside of me for those many months prior.
One child was not enough.
I would be filled to the point of overflowing three more times, brimming with joy, exasperation, awe and appreciation—on top of placenta, eight or nine pounds of pink flesh and puddles of swarthy blood. I guess four children could be considered a lot, but not in comparison to my great-grandmother who experienced the magic of childbirth eleven times over, or even my sister who conceived, carried and delivered six children before the age of thirty-eight. My husband, Jim, wanted more children. I confess I would have agreed to have more babies would they not grow into teenagers, because tying my tubes and closing the door to an experience of this magnitude could never have been my preference; it was too life affirming!
Most artists will tell you that creativity is a work of love. Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle In Time and a grandmother, actually likens the act of creativity to the incarnation of Christ. “To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birth-giver…the artist (male or female) should be like Mary, who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command…I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’”
In a very real sense, the act of creating and the act of childbirth are the same, considering that one creates life, and the other creates representations of life. Cells come from mommy and daddy, and paint comes from a tube, but both activities are creation in
the making. I am certain that most women would agree with me when I say there is nothing spiritual or artistic about hospital nurses inserting cold instruments in my cervix and absolutely nothing profound in the strapping of my legs onto stirrups. If I remember it correctly, it is painful, messy, awkward and miserable. But it produces the opposite.
Childbirth and artistic expression draw from the ultimate source of life and inspiration, whether we are fully conscious of it or not. When I labored with my last child, it was so difficult that I would have rather gone home and given up. All the doctors in the world could not have stopped that baby from his destination, regardless of his mother’s desperation. During childbirth, dilation and delivery reveal a power greater than ourselves, a power that plunges into our muscles and corpuscles; that does the work without our willing of it; that produces tiny miracles without our cognizance. As many inventors and artists have expressed, the inception of an idea, or a motif, or an invention comes as an ‘aha’ moment from somewhere outside of themselves. Great novels, poems, paintings and films are said to have an inexplicable presence.
Many artists have relationships with their work, like parents do with their children. Leonore, a writer and friend of mine, has admitted to actually arguing with the characters in her novel, as they assert their way of doing, their way of being, not hers. Almost fluently, the characters will develop before her very eyes, perfectly supporting the novel’s theme and purpose.
My friend Michael, a musician and composer, feels depressed and homesick when he is separated from his guitar, much like a mother or father when separated from her or his child. The relationship between the creator and the created is symbiotic, each needing the other for fulfillment. When I was an engorged nursing mother, I was just as happy to see my suckling infant as he, in his frenzied state of hunger, was to see me.
Often, creativity is used as a means of understanding life. The greatest questions regarding life, death, cycles, seasons, and meaning have yet to be answered by human beings; however, it is in the asking that artists and scientists instigate the growth and wisdom of mankind. Art and creativity can be practiced as the kind of therapy that connects a person to his inner self. When analyzing a sketch of a stick figure, psychologists can decipher what kind of personality the participant displays: logical-sequential, intuitive, etc.
The birthing experience also mirrors this function of creativity in our psyche, because it forces us as parents to revisit our own childhoods, grapple with our own clunky conclusions.
I had forgotten that pink sponge rollers even existed until I twisted them into my daughter’s wispy hair and simultaneously relived my original experience with the things, almost smelling my mother’s Winston’s cigarette over my shoulder in my mind.
Our memories are stored somewhere in the depth of our souls, and having a baby allows us to re-collect them and be changed by them whether they are faint or vivid.
This cycle of procreation makes us humble; it keeps us asking questions; it moves us toward understanding. Good art proposes the same goals, as does any act of invention, originality, or scientific breakthrough.
Creativity expressed through childbirth reveals the nature of creativity in its purest form. Human beings have been reproducing for millennia, yet not one child has ever managed to exactly mimic another, not in thoughts, or genes, or mannerisms, or feelings, or life experience. Most parents find it amazing that their children are so diverse in spite of the fact that they derived from the same DNA pool. The formula for making babies has been simple, unchanged, untampered with. That there is no end to this resource of creativity suggests that there is also no end to the inventions and artistry that we create. As a species, we continually master our creativity through the cycle of life itself.
Scientists can pinpoint the moment an embryo’s fingernails sprout; ultrasound can observe the twitch of an eyelash; doctors can measure the intake of nutrients to the newborn’s body; genes can be split and sent to a chromosome and analyzed on a molecular level. But no one can explain the life force itself.
Similarly, experts on creativity can research the artists, interview the scientists, run brain scans on highly productive creatives, and trace childhood histories, but no one can reach into the depth of what Jung calls the collective unconscious and determine its make-up or discern the Might which incites creation.
It is as profound as childbirth, an activity in which once we are fully engaged, eliminates our own will, providing a channel, like the birthing canal, for an idea to emerge, for insight to inspire, for beauty to be felt.
Once I experienced the overwhelming phenomenon called motherhood, I felt a deep satisfaction with my life. I had to wade through thirteen daily dirty diapers and dustpans full of Cheerios to find it, but contentment breathed in between the stacks of dishes and layers of snot. My crazy aspirations for artistic productivity seemed to disappear as each day managed to offer a fulfillment of its own. It was as if I was content to connect with a higher creativity, and abide in the kind of significance that reaches beyond time, generations, cultures, symbols. When appreciating a great work of art, or piece of literature, one must take into account the historical references and cultural metaphors in order to properly interpret the work.
But everyone recognizes the divinity of a baby, and everyone reaches out in the supermarket or at the park to reflect on and recommence with that which has become lost in the shuffle of adult life. Babies, toddlers and children follow the heartbeat of creativity—the imagination, and it isn’t until they
grow up that they replace it with logic, systematized thinking, and safety. Only brave creative spirits break through the adult bondage of society’s sleepy train-rides to pioneer their own way. But babies remind us of what we once were, each one of us, and their slobbery reminiscence comforts us in the world of reason and daily grind, confirming that at our very core, our essence, we are them. If we don’t have the
courage to become artists, or inventors, or writers, we can bear children. We can experience the enormity of inspiration and the grandest level of creativity, and so we do.
When Stevie, my fourth child, turned one-year-old, I felt a finalization of my fertility. The flow of creative juices via human reproduction was over.
I ran out and bought a potter’s wheel.
“Why?” my husband inquired, lugging the enormous kick wheel from the truck with the help of two men. “You’ve never done ceramics a day in your life!”
“They gave me a good deal.” I justified. “And they threw in the kiln for fifty bucks.”
It was just my way of keeping the channel open.