The divided heart: art and motherhood

I went to an extraordinary theater event tonight by Golden Thread featuring four playwrights/artists of Middle Eastern heritage – Denmo Ibrahim, Jennifer Jajeh, Rohina Malik and Maryam Rostami – in celebration of International Women’s Day. Each woman spoke in a voice utterly her own, in a male or female character of her own creation. I was struck again by the power of storytelling & the way it builds unexpected bridges of understanding between people as well as epiphanies within oneself.

At the end of the evening, the talented women, the theater directors and groupies (including me) walked next door from La Pena to Cafe Valparaiso to chat over empanadas and tea. And then it struck me. I had to get home. Now.

Much as I wanted to discuss topics like the unfolding dialogue between audience and writer and how each impacts the other; the different ways of connecting to one’s ethnic heritage beyond immigrant nostalgia; or facing the story inside you that terrifies you and yet still yearns to be told – the truth was that I was exhausted and had a two-year-old who was going to bounce out of bed bright & early in the morning and expect an alert, patient and compassionate mother to be his companion all day.

So, I left.

And thought about what I was leaving behind and what I was returning to without resentment – but with a longing, backward glance. I understand that my life is different than it was when I called time my own, that my needs and responsibilities are built around someone else right now.

At times I struggle with this, and I know I will at some point soon again. Being a mother is an incredibly exhausting and also creative force in my life. Sadly, I rarely did anything creative with the immense amounts of time I had before I had a child, but somehow I managed to put a book together with a toddler in the house.

That “somehow” of course encompasses flexibility and support from family & friends (as well as paid nannycare when needed), but is also a testament to my newfound ability as a mother to focus, be disciplined, and creative for my own sanity’s sake with the time I could snatch during his naps or absorption in play.

I read Rachel Power’s book The Divided Heart: Art & Motherhood and felt both relief at knowing that I was not alone, and frustration that motherhood and art are a constant balancing act for every creative woman. There is no silver bullet. Money helps, but in the end these women are driven by the desire to create. One refrain that stayed with me: Never use your child (or children) as an excuse for why you didn’t create or do something you truly wanted to do.

In a conversation with NPR’s Michael Krasny, Eavan Boland speaks beautifully about being Irish, a mother and poet – juggling multiple identities as we all do. She said that during the years she was raising her children she did not write much poetry but only had time to quickly draw an image, scrawl a few words, anything to briefly capture that day or emotion.

Years later, she returned to those images, sentences and notes to begin to craft poems about that time, saying “[Motherhood] certainly takes a lot of energy & time but it also opens a lot of windows that I’m not sure would have been opened [otherwise]. There definitely was some element in the life I lived, that was really a life capable of revelation & vision, & I didn’t want that to be apart from the poems I wrote.”

That’s what I’m trying to remember, and what gives me hope: that this state isn’t forever and that it holds its own unique blessings and challenges. I looked back at the table of laughing, excited, talented (& mostly childless) women and walked back to where I am needed right now, no matter how much my heart longed to stay.

Today’s feast is set at another table.


Ayesha Mattu is a writer and international development consultant. Her writing has appeared in CNN.com, The Huffington Post, the International Museum of Women, Religion Dispatches,  and the award-winning blog, Rickshaw Diaries. She was selected a Muslim Leader of Tomorrow by the UN Alliance of Civilizations and the ASMA Society in 2009. Ayesha is working on a memoir about losing faith and finding love from which The Opening is excerpted in Love, InshAllah. She lives with her husband and son in Northern California.