• Freelance writing seemed like a better use of my time, but part of me still longed for the canvas. (Getty Images )
Having small children has cured me of artistic perfectionism. If I want perfection, then I will never create anything.
By
Raidah Shah Idil

29 May 2019 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2019 - 9:39 AM

Writing, sketching and painting has given me so much joy. As a kid I used to draw pictures of mermaids, and gift them to my favourite Year 2 English teacher.

When I was in high school, I used to spend long hours experimenting with paints, learning from books I borrowed from Bankstown Library. But with the crunch of the HSC and then university, my artistic life took on a more practical turn, and I chose writing.

Freelance writing seemed like a better use of my time, but part of me still longed for the canvas. When inspiration struck, I would reach for my charcoals, pencils and paints, but those moments felt rare.

Now I’m thirty-five.  I’m married with children, and living in Kuala Lumpur. After attending my friend’s daughter’s art exhibition. I was struck my how much I missed painting. Mulaika’s paintings were visceral, vivid, and arresting. At the exhibition she described how she completes most of her artwork in one sitting, without stopping.

My first thought was, “Wow. That’s painting without kids.” Inspired, the following day, baby and stroller in tow, I braved the midday Malaysian heat to go to Mulaika’s favourite art store.

And then my baby threw a tantrum on the shop floor.

I quickly grabbed soft pastels, acrylic paints, new brushes, canvases, had lunch, fed my baby, and started the drive home. I started sketching at the red light, and finished all four 10’’ by 10’' canvases before my husband came home from work.

That’s what motherhood does to my art - it can make me ruthlessly efficient, and open to inspiration. My babies slow me down and help me notice the wonder saturating my daily life - their cheeky smiles, the vivid green of the leaves in my garden, and the tumult of emotions in my own tired heart.

My babies slow me down and help me notice the wonder saturating my daily life. Their cheeky smiles  inspire and deepen my art.

Before motherhood, I used to wait for the perfect image, the perfect canvas, the perfect anything, really, before committing to painting. As a result, I didn’t paint much. My perfectionism stopped me from approaching art with the carefree and playful attitude that I used to have as a child. And then, I became a mother, and everything changed. 

I’ve been pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum since 2014. In the year following the birth of my first daughter, I was stumbling about in a haze of newborn love and sleep deprivation. I had always carved out time to write, paint and sketch but the birth of my first baby had exploded my artistic routine. I no longer had luxurious hours to write or paint, and whenever I did get any time to myself, I was too exhausted to do anything else other than sleep, or binge on Netflix.  Beneath my exhaustion, lay the undercurrent of missing my writing and my art.

A friend gave me the book “Black Ink”, and it helped me understand the importance of continuing to write and sketch, even as my time was so limited. Writer Elif Shafak’s solution was to hire nannies so she could write. I started, in small snippets, to let go of my baby, and entrust her care a few hours a week to my husband and mother-in-law.

But still, I used that time to engage in paid teaching, and only used a fraction of that time to actually write or draw. Teaching felt like a better use of my precious time. I felt guilty asking for babysitting just so I could write, or worse - paint. It just didn’t feel practical.

 I finally accept how important it is for me to take the time and space to write, paint and sketch, even if I feel guilty for doing so.

More time passed. I had my second baby. I came across the book The Rainbow Way by Lucy H. Pearce, and reading it felt like an epiphany.

I devoured stories about mothers like me who would sculpt/paint/write/sew in little bits because they needed an artistic outlet to process the relentless experience of motherhood. As their kids got older, their time to create expanded, too. I clung onto that. It was time for me to let go of everything else, because my time to write was already so limited.

I remember meeting a male artist in one of the few times I had gone out at night with my husband and my first baby. I was excited to meet a fellow creative - okay, I was excited to be talking to another adult. I asked him how his art changed after becoming a father. He gave me the strangest look, before explaining that he’s lucky that his wife looks after his kids while he works in his studio.

Ah. Of course.

I don’t wait for inspiration anymore. I show up at my laptop, or with my canvas, and make it happen.

That is the crux of the challenge that comes with being an artistic mother. The bulk of child rearing lies on me. I am not the breadwinner in my family - my husband is, and he is my pragmatic, logical and non-artistic partner. He supports my passion for writing and art, but he works full-time, and can only look after our kids when he’s home from work or on the weekends. That’s when I make a run to my home office or the nearest cafe.

Now that I am pregnant with my third child, there is no turning back. I will be in the trenches for motherhood for a good another few years, and it’s time for me to surrender to my new artistic life. I finally accept how important it is for me to take the time and space to write, paint and sketch, even if I feel guilty for doing so.

On my bad days, I think of how motherhood has destroyed my art. On my better days, I realise how much motherhood has transformed my art, the way it has transformed me. I can make space for both the awe that comes with growing, birthing and raising little humans, as well as the frustration.

Having small children has cured me of artistic perfectionism. If I want perfection, then I will never create anything. I am reminded, every day, if I want to write, paint or sketch, then there is no better time than when my daughters are asleep, or when my eldest is at preschool.

I don’t wait for inspiration anymore. I show up at my laptop, or with my canvas, and make it happen.

Raidah Shah Idil is a freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil. 

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