“Take a quick shower,” she said as I tried to calm my colicky one-month-old. “When she won’t stop fussing, it’s okay to put her in her bassinet outside the bathroom door so you can jump in the shower.” With a knowing smile, my new friend Stefani added, “The running water blocks out most of the crying. She’ll be safe in her crib, your nerves will get a break, and everyone will feel better afterward.”
I needed to hear these words, and I needed to hear them from an experienced mother of five whose eyes radiated maternal compassion. Gentle Stefani did not seem like the “tough love” type, so if she said it was okay to do something as audacious as take a shower when it was just me and my newborn at home, then maybe it really was okay. Like many new moms, I feared letting my baby cry for more than two seconds and worried she’d be irreversibly scarred if I did not respond instantly to her every noise and need.
Now if “mom guilt” can strike such a blow when it comes to something as basic as personal hygiene, you can imagine the self-doubt that settles in when a young mother tries to carve out time to write, or paint, or compose. For women who have a vocation to pursue the arts in addition to their vocations as wives and mothers–or even for women who simply enjoy doing something creative every once in a while–it becomes painfully clear in ways it never was pre-baby that most of the arts come with a few weighty requirements:
Solitude, for example. Head space. Silence. (Hence the special place that is the shower.)
These rare gems can be so difficult to mine during the early years of raising children that some women may decide it’s not worth the inner turmoil, so they put down the violin or stifle the desire to write poetry, vowing to return to what has begun to feel like a selfish indulgence “when the children are older” (and while some women will, I fear many don’t). Others may decide to wrestle with the guilt that comes with loving their children deeply, but also loving their identity as a maker of little beauties that take the form of song lyrics and photographs, watercolor smears and words. But are the two things really so opposed–creating children and making art? Bearing tiny souls within us and then spending the remainder of our lives seeking to birth more beauty into the world?
The first 18 months of my writer-turned-mother journey has been a rough road at times. It’s left me broken, frustrated, and sobbing in heap on the floor on more than one occasion, in part because my strong-willed, achiever personality has finally met its match in my equally determined daughter (who seems to know with this freaky sixth sense whenever I set my alarm so I can get up early to write, that way she can make sure she’s awake even earlier!). Despite this stretching of my heart–a painful pruning more often than not–I’ve come to believe the vocations of motherhood and creative living are meant to go together, given that both pursuits take us to a place where the illusion that we are “in control” is stripped away. Just think of how often we use metaphors of “giving birth” to describe the creative process–an act we take part in and contribute to, but ultimately a force we are swept up into (and sometimes the Holy Spirit is more avalanche than tranquil stream). The key, I’m learning–and something I must work on anew each day–is that both vocations must be given up to God and done in a service of love. This is precisely the place motherhood brings us to as sub-creators and artists–to the place of surrender. Sometimes radical, I-can’t-do-this (how-has-ANYONE-ever-done-this?) surrender. If you’re anything like me, maybe you discovered your gifts and had the luxury of pursuing your creative work independently prior to having children and took this blessed time for granted. Yet it only takes a few sleepless nights with a newborn to realize that novel is never getting finished without a lot of grace and most likely some outside help.
And that’s where Stone Soup comes in.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the classic children’s book by Marcia Brown, Stone Soup is based on an old folktale found in multiple cultures. In most versions, three soldiers enter a village and ask the locals for a meal to fill their empty bellies, but the villagers have squirreled away what little food they have. The clever soldiers convince the villagers to help them make a delicious soup out of stones instead, “but, of course, one must add a carrot or two.” One by one, the villagers begin to contribute a turnip here and a potato there, and before long they’ve put together a filling soup that satisfies everyone in town.
If we are to be creative cultivators of life, we need to be anchored in communities that know how to make stone soup. Mothers, of young children especially, may feel they do not have the time, energy, or resources to pursue their artistic vocations. That’s one of the reasons I plan on starting an online community for women called to both motherhood and the arts. (Interested? Learn more here.) God made us to do both because both are pursuits that come from the same place–the divine imprint on our souls to spark imaginations through the creation of beauty. Yet we were not meant to create–or to mother, for that matter–all on our own.
A community willing to make stone soup has been vital to my own creative process in these early days of parenting. I would probably find a million reasons not to write this piece if I hadn’t been invited to take part in The Cultivating Project. The prospect of writing an epic historical novel during the first year of my daughter’s life (my initial insane goal) was much too daunting, but knowing I could contribute a small “turnip” each season of Cultivating that would assist in building up another beautiful issue has been motivating…and doable.
It’s also reminded me that all we can ever do with our vocations is plant or water the seeds given to us–it is God who makes them grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
My sweet friend Stefani–the one who offered me the showering advice above–also gave me the book Stone Soup as a baby gift and included the following inscription:
This book has long been one of my favorites because it reminds me that with creativity and community we can make amazing things from what looks like nothing. Generosity is the key!
I rediscovered this thoughtful note the week Stefani departed our broken world following a long battle with cancer. It produced more than a few tears, along with a spring of gratitude for the gift this woman has been in the lives of many. Like stone soup and as with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Stefani’s generous soul enlarged the room and made others long to fill the space with whatever humble gifts they had to offer. A mother and a cultivator to her core, Stefani’s hospitable heart communicated a warm welcome to every person she encountered. I trust the Lord has responded to her with a resounding Welcome Home.
The image of Stefani Carter is courtesy Lancia E. Smith.
The beautiful image of asian soup is courtesy Stacey Doyle of Unsplash.
Ashlee Cowles is an author, teacher, and world traveler. Her debut novel Beneath Wandering Stars is a coming-of-age story about two teens who walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. When she isn’t writing young adult, historical, or speculative fiction at a local coffee shop, Ashlee loves exploring the Good, True, and Beautiful with her students, who constantly remind her of the power of imagination.