How Motherhood Affects Creativity

Cultural messages tell women that making art and having children are incompatible pursuits. But science suggests that women may become more creative after having kids.

A mother figure with one crying eye holds out a heart to a child figure
"Heart Tug" (Hein Koh)

Her labor begins, and she leans back on her bottom, pulling the first baby out of her body with her own hands and teeth. Within five minutes, another newborn arrives. Soon, her babies are squirming around her, squealing and desperate to suckle.

Although the mother rat has never given birth before this, she is now responsible for a dozen lives—so she hits the ground running, instinct as her compass, biology as her map. She has already stockpiled the materials for a warm nest. She uses what she can find. Strands of hair, dried grass, twigs, paper towels, furniture foam.

Her brain is closer to a human mother’s brain than that of a mouse or a dog. It has the same neurochemicals as a human’s. Her cortex is more like a person’s than it is different. She has a hippocampus, an amygdala, and the structure of her brain cells also resembles human cells, with their neurons and glia. During pregnancy, her neurological circuitry already started reprogramming itself. As a new mother, she will choose her babies over cocaine (even if she enjoyed cocaine before becoming pregnant). She is bolder than before. She will hunt during the day now, even though it is more dangerous—because her babies need her at night.

Prior to becoming a mother, she might have chased a cricket for food, “hither and thither, a haphazard pattern,” attracting predators, according to one study. Even after catching the cricket, it might have clumsily slipped from her grasp. But as a lactating mom, her method is “more direct and lethal.” She captures the cricket in 70 seconds—four times faster than non-mom rats—and does not let it go. She does not have time to waste. Her brain’s motor and sensory systems have sharpened.

Even as her offspring grow and learn to fend for themselves, the neurological changes of motherhood persist. She will experience less memory decline in old age, and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes. She is more efficient, making fewer errors. She finds new and unusual ways to get tasks done—problem-solving approaches she had not considered before giving birth.

“Rats outsmart me every day of the week,” said Kelly G. Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, who studies their maternal brains. Once, a wild rat built a nest in Lambert’s office from shredded paper from a university magazine and little pieces of sheep brains that the professor had left out for a class dissection project. “That was weird,” she said.

Whether rodent or human, a mother’s brain requires cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility. “This helps us adapt to new environments.” After all, she added, “flexibility and thinking outside of the box—isn’t that what creativity is?”

Neuroscientists do not yet understand what impact pregnancy and childbirth might have on the processes of creativity in the human maternal brain. But the inner workings of maternal rat brains might provide a clue. Science shows us that rat moms are inventive, dauntless, resourceful—essential ingredients for creativity. Yet when it comes to human moms, our culture reinforces its own ideas about creativity and parenthood. A piece for New York Magazine’s The Cut last year argued that the drive to make art and the drive to make families are diametrically opposed, asking as many have before: Is motherhood the enemy of creative work?

When musician Amanda Palmer announced in 2015 that she was pregnant with her first child at age 39, on a crowd-funding site for artists, she received an email through her web site from a fan asking: “Are your patrons paying for new music, or are they paying for a new baby? Is what you’re doing really fair to your fans? When will the music happen?”

In a parenting issue of Harper’s Magazine, Sarah Manguso wrote: “I used to believe that maximizing the number of hours reading, writing, and thinking about writing would make me the best writer I could be, and that my friend who had chosen to have three children just didn’t value being a writer as much as I did.”

It may be one of the most uncomfortable questions facing any woman wondering if it is possible to balance both identities. When it comes to merging motherhood and a creative life or fulfilling career, one message resounds: They are incompatible.

* * *

I was 22 weeks pregnant when a shirtless woman popped into my Facebook feed. She was sitting on a bed with a five-week-old girl in a peach onesie attached to her left breast, while a second newborn girl in blue suckled at her other nipple, tandem style. It was the perfect double-football hold position—except instead of cradling each child with her hands, this mom’s twins were balanced upon a gigantic nursing pillow as her fingertips tapped away on a propped-up laptop.

James Horowitz

The photo was candid, taken by her husband. In her early weeks of motherhood, she posted it privately to friends on social media. Then in July 2016, the artist Marina Abramović, who once spent 750 hours sitting in silence and staring at visitors at the Museum of Modern Art, said in an interview that she had three abortions because having kids would be a disaster for her work. “One only has limited energy in the body, and I would have had to divide it,” Abramović said. “In my opinion that’s the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world.”

Hein Koh, a Brooklyn-based artist, decided to repost her photo as a response to Abramović—and this time she switched her privacy settings to public, writing: “Becoming a #mom (of twins no less) has personally helped me become a better #artist—I learned to be extremely efficient with my time, prioritize what's important and let go of the rest, and #multitask like a champ.”

Her photo, which had already gone viral when I came across it, garnered 7,800 likes on Facebook and 2,300 shares, as well as headlines from Working Mother, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times. With a single social-media post, Koh had become fodder for another round of debates over whether motherhood curtails careers, ambitions, and creativity.

She received hundreds of comments like “Get it girl!” and “You are my hero,” along with breathless headlines: “This artist proves that motherhood is not the death of creative life.”

But it also drew backlash: “Poor babies! Poor mother!” wrote a commenter. “You are missing out on the wonderful intimate moment.” A Scary Mommy blog post asked if Koh was setting up impossible standards for the rest of us: “Moms that can still function, with newborns, and kick ass at work are superhuman,” wrote Maria Guido. “But do we want to be superhuman?”

Koh was already known for her art: a gigantic sculpture of a vagina made from porcupine quills, burnt canvas, and polyfill. An acrylic design of a man’s oversized blue balls made from pantyhose and rocks. “Every decision you make as an artist is both conceptual and psychological, even if you don't completely understand what you are doing,” she told ArtFile Magazine, before she had twins. “I think it’s okay to not completely understand and maybe eventually you will figure it out.”

Koh told me that in her 20s, she did not consider herself particularly maternal. She was wary of how children would affect her work. In the art world, “I would hear awful things, like ‘You shouldn’t have kids if you want to be taken seriously.’ Or how a prominent art dealer didn’t rep women because ‘they just get pregnant.’”

She married at 31, and wobbled between focusing on her career and trying to have kids. Seven years later, with no babies even after going off birth control, she made a proactive decision. She tried in vitro fertilization, and by the summer of 2014, Koh was pregnant, and grateful for it. On April 8, 2015, feeling cramps, she took a cab to the hospital, still wearing her paint-splattered clothes from her studio. Koh was 32-and-a-half weeks along, and in labor. One baby was stuck on its side in her womb. At the doctor’s orders, Koh had a C-section. Her twins were born weighing three-and-a-half pounds each, and ended up in neonatal intensive care for five weeks.

“Sleep Deprivation” (Hein Koh)

Koh pumped every three hours; her girls’ mouth muscles were not strong enough to suck. One twin “had difficulty latching, and would cry at the sight of my breast.” She kept on. When both babies cried at once, she tried nursing them together. “I wasn't doing much else besides breastfeeding,” she said. It was exhausting, and at times mind-numbing. During feedings, she learned how to balance her computer, a book, and her emotions. Sometimes, she took out a piece of paper and started to draw. “That kept me sane,” Koh told me. “I was just trying to survive.”

Amid the haze of sleepless nights, she sketched what came to her, images that would become works of art in colored pencil, china marker, pastel, or charcoal on paper, like “Radiant Milk,” (dripping rainbow breasts), or “Sleep Deprivation” (bloodshot eyes staring ahead as two smaller pairs of crying eyes look up toward them, seen above).

* * *

Professionally, there is an undeniable tension between creativity and motherhood, but “there is nothing biologically to suggest that women are less creative than men,” said Anna Abraham, a professor at Leeds Beckett University who studies the neuroscience of creativity. When it comes to “pure aptitude,” there are no gender differences. But it cannot be overlooked that “the time women are supposed to be productive professionally is also often the best possible time to have children.”

Along with structural sexism, this may contribute to women’s poorer representation in creative fields. Since 1902, there have been 822 Nobel Prize Winners, 48 of whom are women. Female artists make up less than 5 percent of major permanent art collections in the United States and Europe. And only 16 percent of Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism over the last century in journalism are women. Some are moms. Many are not. With children or without, women contend with gender bias in their fields.

When Abraham became a mom (her son is now 8) she realized she had to change her habits and daily patterns. She knows that fostering creativity often involves changing how you look at the world. “Being a mother gives you a different perspective,” she said. “You’re dealing with a wholly novel situation. You’re discovering a side of yourself that is completely new. All of this could be useful to creativity—which is about novelty.”

In 1953, the psychologist Morris Stein defined human creativity as the production of something original and useful. Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico who studies creativity and the brain, takes that definition a few steps further. For an idea to be creative, it must also be surprising, he says.

Creativity requires making unusual connections. At its core, Jung said, creativity is original problem solving. This is an evolutionarily derived process that is important to survival. Humans who achieve high creativity usually have endurance and grit, Jung said. Creative people take risks, Jung said. They are bold, and adept at finding new and unusual ways to get tasks done.

“In this period of extreme pressure, when mothers are going through massive changes in their bodies, diets, and hormones,” Jung hypothesized, “that is when creativity should emerge as a highly adaptive reasoning process.”

* * *

When I first came across Koh’s bare breasts and baby heads online, I felt uneasy. And not just because the photo itself was startling. The image triggered an anxiety that had been swelling inside of me for three months.

It started at my 10-week neonatal checkup. I was sprawled out on an examination table as my obstetrician adjusted an overhead monitor so my husband and I could get a better look at the sonogram.

We already had a 3-year-old daughter, and since her birth, little about my journalistic life suffered. In fact, during those first years as a mom, my writing had flourished. I published a book. I took my daughter along on book readings and freelance story assignments. The two of us rode across the country on an Amtrak train when she was six months old. I drove with her into the middle of corn country in the bitter cold of a Midwest winter to report on people drowning in grain bins. She flew on my lap to Seattle, New York, Chicago. Once she sat quietly snacking on chicken bites and coloring with highlighters in the back of my classroom.

“Double Duty (Tandem Breastfeeding)” (Hein Koh)

My second pregnancy immediately felt different than the first. It came with nonstop I-could-eat-my-arm hunger. My pants stopped fitting after a month. I was 37, which meant, unlike with my first daughter, I was classified as having a “geriatric pregnancy.” We had not used fertility treatments, but I knew that twins ran in my family. Still I denied any possibility that I was pregnant with two children. Even when my husband suggested, “Maybe it’s twins?”

Raising a toddler, writing, and teaching was hard enough. Adding two more little humans into the balancing act that was my life? I would not even entertain that thought. “Not funny,” I responded to my husband. “Don't even joke like that.”

“There’s the head,” my doctor said.

“See, I told you not to worry,” my husband said. “It’s not twins.”

“Wait,” the doctor said, still probing my uterus.

“What?” I asked.

She did not respond.

“What is it?” I began to panic. “What’s wrong?”

She took another moment to be sure, then said: “I see two.”

I looked at my husband. A giddy grin had swallowed his face.

At first, I felt a flicker of exhilaration. Two strong heartbeats. Two tiny bodies. Then a gut punch. I buried my face in my palms. How am I going do this?

“I’ll give you a minute,” the doctor said.

I did not mean “How will I nurture and keep them alive?” My husband would help with that. I meant: How would I manage three kids, even with an all-in partner, while also keeping up my journalistic life? I only had so much energy. I would have to divide it. What portion would each family member receive? What portion would that leave for my work? It was not just about energy. It was about divvying up love. I am a better mother, a happier mother, when I am also able to carve out time to write. I am a better writer, a happier writer, when I am also an involved mom.

I already felt nauseating guilt whenever I left my daughter (which is why she often traveled with me). There was one time I left for four days to report a story in Mexico City. She was 8 months old, and I had to store my pumped breast milk in the hotel restaurant’s kitchen fridge. I later carted all 50 ounces of it on ice across the border, feeling like a smuggler from the booby brigade. I Skyped with her from Mexico, knowing she was well cared for by both her father and grandmother. Still, when she saw my face on the screen, she cried so hard her nose bled.

Koh’s picture made me want to learn how to balance my computer while double-breastfeeding. It also made me wonder how on earth I ever would double-breastfeed, let alone work on my computer at home again. It made me feel guilty and naïve for thinking I could balance any of it. Someone would get shortchanged.

* * *

“That deep anxiety you felt looking at her picture is a product of your drive,” my friend Leslie Schwartz, another writer-mom, told me. “It isn’t just, ‘How am I going to do this?’ It is, ‘How am I going to live?’” The umbilical pull of a child is strong, she said. For many of us, so is the pull toward creative work.

Leslie began writing her second novel while she was pregnant with her first (and only) child. During pregnancy, she told me, her sensory awareness intensified. “Food is better. Sex is better. Life is in Technicolor,” she said. “I couldn’t stop writing ... and then my baby came and I still had that creative bliss, but she was literally sucking me dry. The irony is you have this wealth of creativity, it’s like you’ve been plugged in, but you can’t really do the work because the child is there, taking from you.”

She found a way to write still, fighting through extreme fatigue and finishing her book in the spurts when her baby slept. Her creative drive did not let up. Diaper changes might cut into the time spent on creative work, but they don’t cut out the drive to do it. That is partly because there is a powerful genetic component to levels of motivation within people. In fact, twins have taught us this.

One study of 13,000 fraternal twins (like Koh’s, who share half of each other’s genes) and identical twins (like mine, who share all of each other’s genes) from six countries showed that motivation levels of identical twins were more alike than fraternal twins. The researchers estimated that 40 percent of differences in motivation appear to stem from genetics—while shared environments like home life, parents, classrooms, and teachers mattered little.

There is still much that scientists do not understand about why motivation varies from person to person, said Abraham, but we do know that within our species there is a strong need to express ourselves. “Creative outlets provide us some way to be heard, seen, known in some way,” she said.

In a mother, there also resides an equally, if not more powerfully, intoxicating drive to adore and tend to her child. Hormones like progesterone flood a mother’s body at levels beyond anything that she has ever experienced, even in puberty. Mothers’ brains prepare for their infatuation and intense attraction to their babies.

“In a normal brain, activity in the amygdala grows in the weeks and months after giving birth,” Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic in 2015. “This growth, researchers believe, is correlated with how a new mother behaves—an enhanced amygdala makes her hypersensitive to her baby’s needs—while a cocktail of hormones, which find more receptors in a larger amygdala, help create a positive feedback loop to motivate mothering behaviors. Just by staring at her baby, the reward centers of a mother's brain will light up.”

While some parts of mothers’ brains grow, other parts shrink. We moms lose gray matter in regions involved in social cognition, and these reductions remain up to two years after giving birth, according to a recent study of the brains of women before and after they became first-time moms in Nature Neuroscience. These areas are involved in helping humans socialize with other people, by reading or interpreting their emotions.

There are no clear scientific explanations yet for why this shrinkage happens, or how it affects a mother. It might be that those social-cognition network connections, which usually help people relate to others, are pruned to allow other connections to grow, which help mothers become more in tune with babies’ minds and emotions.

The drive to nurture. The drive to create. At times, it feels like both internal steering wheels are turned toward each other, about to careen.

In the months after giving birth to my twin boys in December, I tried to connect with family, friends, colleagues, strangers like before. But I mostly felt off. My thoughts crumbled into pieces. In conversations about the fragile state of the United States and the world, or about science, or about writing, my mind would meander back to my babies, and my toddler, who was figuring out where she fit in a household that had suddenly become quite crowded. I would go to a café for a couple of hours, or hole up in the backyard shed purchased from Home Depot that we converted into an office. With my children out of sight, I would try to turn up the volume on my creative drive. But in the background of my mind, I still heard their cries.

Perhaps I should not have written the previous section in past tense. My twins are eight months old now, my daughter 4. They are away from me as I write this section. I hear them still.

* * *

“Heart Tug,” is a charcoal illustration, two tiny figures clutching onto a red heart. The only other color in the piece, a blue tear falling from the mother figure’s eye. She is also attached to the heart, her arm outstretched toward it, her armpit hairy. These are the images that Koh sketched in 2015 while nursing her twins, or while they slept. There is also “Late-Night Feeding,” and “The Story of Your Birth.”

By 2016, Koh was back in her studio, creating sculptures: “Making Popsicles Great Again (Murica),” a melting red, white and blue popsicle; “Swimmingly (Ride the Wave),” a yellow ducky on blue water; “Little Twin Stars (Hugging).” She used acrylic, Aqua-Resin, chicken wire, fiberglass, glitter, spandex, and sequins. They are colorful, dark, fun, and infused with her children’s influence. Since becoming a mom, Koh feels like she has been creating some of her best work.

This sculpture, “Sun and Moon with Teardrop (For Ami and Oni),” is dedicated to Koh’s twins. (Hein Koh)

“I always have a million ideas I’m thinking about, and when I’m with kids, a moment of inspiration will strike, and I will file it away,” Koh said. When she gets into her studio, she dives in, intuition her guide. She pays other people so that she can do her art. Childcare is costly. Time is limited. “I feel like I can’t get my ideas out fast enough. Sometimes it causes me pain to leave. At the same time, I love going home to my family, switching gears and going into mom mode—it helps normalize me.”

Creativity takes time and periods of reflection, and a willingness to let go of ideas that don’t quite work to move on to better ones, Jung said. I keep a list of story ideas in my iCloud notes. It would take me years to finish them all, even with no children. I push through the ones that follow me into the shower, or into the kitchen as I blend mangoes into baby food, or into REM sleep. Pushing through, Jung told me, requires an interplay between two neurological processes. You might think of these as the drunk writer and the sober editor.

The brain’s default-mode network (the drunk writer) involves parts of the brain important for perception, imagination, and episodic memory. It plays a role in social cognition and the ability to put yourself in someone else’s experiences. The default-mode network also allows you to lose yourself in a novel, a song, in your imagination or daydreams. It is implicated in mind-wandering, spontaneous free thought, and the kind of mental stimulation that sparks glimmers of ideas, still unfocused and undetermined. The unrepressed swirl.

For full creativity to occur, the default-mode network also needs a brake pedal. This is the job of the executive-control network (the sober editor). The executive-control network is involved in decision-making, directed attention, planning, self-control. It checks and directs the swirl of ideas.

Brain scans of jazz musicians and rap artists have shown that parts of the executive-control network become less active during music improvisation or lyrical freestyle. The brake pedal is released, allowing for spontaneous creativity. In another recent fMRI study, poets were asked to generate new poetry, and then revise those poems. Cooperation between the default-mode and executive-control networks increased during the revision process—but not the writing process.

When Koh was doodling, sketching, or reading while nursing, she was engaging her default-mode network. Jung said that each person needs to find their own way to give their mind the rest time that is essential for creativity to flourish. For some it is a long bath, a walk, a nap. For Jung it is mowing the lawn. I try to kick the default-mode network into gear by listening to podcasts or audiobooks while driving to swim lessons, doing dishes, or mopping banana-crusted Cheerios off the floor. The mundane moments of my days were transformed after I discovered the Pocket app will also read aloud any article, essay, narrative, or paper that I save online. Reading always triggers ideas in me, but I have realized that listening has a similar effect. To get my internal editor working, I need time alone, like in my shed.

Privilege plays a role in generating creative work. Some of us can afford to pay for childcare during studio or shed time. Some of us moms can carve out time for creative endeavors (even if it feels like there is never enough). Which brings us back to the maternal rats. In Lambert’s lab, researchers have been studying “low–and high–socioeconomic status” rats. They have asked: What happens in the brains and behavior of the maternal rats who can easily find food, safety, or shelter versus the maternal rats who cannot? In the best world, once her pups arrive, the mother’s “cortex will get thicker, her neurons will become more complex, with more connection points,” Lambert said. “Having offspring can be enriching.”

But take away resources, and a mother rat’s world goes into disarray. “It’s not enriching, it’s incredibly stressful and traumatic,” Lambert said. Her lab found that under-resourced maternal rats were slower to respond to their pups’ needs, had less neuroplasticity (new brain connections), and were slower to learn.

For the next couple of years, I will pursue more story ideas closer to home. My writing may slow or change. My interests may shift. There will never be enough time.  There will be many sacrifices. But my husband and I, both descendants of first-generation immigrant parents, refer to these as “first-world problems.” We live in a culture in which you are taught that what you do is who you are. But identity is far more complex than that, and like creativity, it exists in a state of revision and flow. The competition between raising children and creative output is real. It may be impossible to balance in the ways society expects us to. But I don’t believe that parenting is the enemy of the work.

Getting older and more set in our ways might be a more formidable enemy, since creativity tends to decline with age. Learning to look at the world through the eyes of my children is not a bad way to flex my own thinking. My family recently returned home from a road trip to see the solar eclipse in Oregon. My daughter woke up in her car seat on the way back and said, completely unprovoked: “Remember the day there were two mornings? And we saw a diamond ring in the sky?”

A long time ago, I would have told you I didn’t really want kids. Now I am so in love with my kids it is terrifying, because with that love comes fear of losing them, or losing myself. Ruining them, or ruining myself. My own creativity these days may come out in a thought tapped and autocorrected on my phone at 2 a.m., or it could come out in a method of bathing three small kids without anyone drowning. Biologically, this capacity and need to problem-solve and express ideas seem to stem from a similar place. I am looking at the universe differently now, and I am seeing new pathways for getting my most meaningful tasks done.