For almost a decade now, I have drawn something almost every day, filling up over 35 sketchbooks. Over the years, whether I drew or not each day became somewhat of a lifeline. I got into a habit of measuring the “success” or “worth” of each day by whether I had drawn or not. It could be a completely awful day, but as long as I had drawn something, then the day had been worthwhile.
Then came motherhood. And Covid-19.
In October 2019, I gave birth to my first child, Butterbean. One month later, I was diagnosed with Postpartum Depression. Five months later, the world shut down as we entered a global pandemic. I suppose we’ve all changed a lot since then.
For me, it’s not an understatement to say my drawing output tanked over the past year and a half. It started when Butterbean was born. I was struggling to adjust with my new identity, responsibilities, and schedule. I didn’t have the energy, motivation, or time to draw. All I could manage in those early newborn days was sleeping, eating, and feeding the baby.
It took me about 4 months to make peace with that and readjust my definition of what made a day “worthwhile” or not. I learned a lot about myself during that time, and after a whole lot of struggle, ended up growing heaps of self-compassion and a broader, gentler outlook on time and worth. By the time Butterbean was 4 months old, I fell into a comfortable groove as a new mom and artist. I felt grounded and at home and in love and creative. I felt more myself than I perhaps ever had before. And I was back to drawing daily in my sketchbook.
That was February 2020.
So then March 2020 happened and everything flew up in the air again.
Suddenly, all the lifelines I had built were broken. I could no longer go to the new mom support group meetings I attended. I wouldn’t get to take Butterbean to the swimming lessons I had planned. We wouldn’t get to go on playdates with the other new parents we had met. My extended family wouldn’t get to see Butterbean begin to crawl, walk, and talk. Drawing became a slog, and my creativity tanked—again.
From April 2020 through April 2021 is probably the least I’ve drawn in my sketchbook since… well, since I can remember. I was most definitely not drawing every day. I perhaps filled up one sketchbook. Other years, I’d fill up 4-5 sketchbooks in that amount of time.
And so, this pandemic experience has required yet another major readjustment. I, like the human I am, first fell into waves of guilt, self-criticism, and doubt. I saw myself as a lazy artist for drawing so little. I saw myself as a worthless artist for not being excited to draw. And I saw myself as a fraud for not making enough art.
But now, it’s the middle of May, and I’m coming out of the fog. Last week was the first week in a long time that I drew 7 days with the weekly #MightCouldDrawToday theme (though I chose not to share one). My excitement and motivation for drawing is coming back.
So now, I’m finally in that calmer space where I can look back on that year and see it for what it really was. It wasn’t an year of laziness or worthlessness. It was a year of, what Jessica Hische would call, “energy save”.
Last week, the lettering designer, Jessica Hische, shared a series of messages on Instagram about being a parent and ambitious creative:
Her messages immediately resonated with me (and thousands of other parents). For me, they crystallized how I had felt for the past year. Particularly when she said:
“When I see other artists doing huge ambitious projects or pushing themselves a lot artistically I shrink a little, because it has been a while/will be a while until I’m capable of that.”–Jessica Hische
Now perhaps you’re saying: well, wait a minute… I’m pretty sure Jessica Hische has written, illustrated, and published 2 children’s picture books and maybe other “huge ambitious” projects since her own 2 kids were born. And perhaps you might say that about me too. I was in the middle of illustrating one graphic novel when Butterbean was born, and have finished a series of 4 since then.
I can’t speak for Jessica Hische. But for me, it was an intense struggle to finish those books as a new mom. I finished them and am extremely proud of the work, but it was so, so hard. I was constantly exhausted from having to always be “on”. And I was constantly guilty that I was sitting at my computer drawing go-karts, cupcakes, and sea creatures, rather than being with my daughter.
My own “ambitious work” is to both write and illustrate my own stories—my own books. And that, during this last year, felt totally out of reach. I was pouring everything I had into either being with Butterbean or illustrating these 4 books. So at the end of the day/week/month/deadline, I just had nothing left to give.
And so, that habit of measuring the “worth” of a day (and likely, the “worth” of myself) came back. It didn’t matter if I had just drawn for 7 hours on my book deadline. If I didn’t draw something in my sketchbook, it was—creatively—a waste of a day. Each day, it felt harder and harder to draw. It felt like my identity as an artist was slipping further and further away.
And that’s where Jessica’s final message really hits me:
“The key as a parent is just making sure your creative pilot light never goes out. The system is running on “energy save” for a while. There will be a time when you can crank it up again and it’s easier to turn it up if it’s not entirely extinguished.”–Jessica Hische
For this past year, my creativity has been on “energy save” mode. After the intensity of a book deadline, it turned itself to “energy save” mode, with no juice left for my own book projects or sketchbook drawing.
When I started looking back on this past year that way, it all came into focus. I was able to see my creativity and my art in a whole new way. It was as if I had blinders on before and all I could see was the one blank page open in my sketchbook. When, in reality, that single blank page was not a full representation of my creativity or artistic output.
My light was not burnt out. It was just flowing out in different ways, so it could stop itself from being totally extinguished. Because if I had forced myself to do everything I was doing that year AND draw daily in my sketchbook, my creative pilot light surely would have burned out.
Instead, I’ve learned my creativity is more ingenious than I thought. In a year of uncertainty and change, it found new ways to seep into my life. I didn’t have the mental energy to sit down and draw an entire page of imaginative doodles. So my art radiated out into other parts of my life.
That realization has shown me that my art is not just one thing. Being an artist is not just what you do when you sit down at your desk. Being an artist is a way of living. It’s a way of being. And even when we’re going through a once-in-a-lifetime-identity-change or a once-in-a-century-global-pandemic, our creativity is still there inside us. And it will find ways to come out.
I didn’t draw nearly as much as usual this past year. But now I can see, with gentle love and compassion, all the things I created. And it has forever changed the way I think about art, creativity, and the things I make.