A quick Google search of the terms “creativity” and “motherhood” reveals more than 170 million hits in less than a second. Among these, it’s easy to find articles on motherhood as the source of artistic creation, instructions for inspiring creativity in one’s children, and essays likening art-making to pregnancy and birth.

In recent years, the relationship between motherhood and work, including creative work, has clearly become a topic of interest — even more so since the pandemic has shined a light on the difficulties mothers face shouldering domestic tasks and child-rearing as they attempt to hold on to careers or simply earn enough to support their families — but much less attention has been paid to the essential creativity of mothering itself.

I stopped writing fiction for 10 years after becoming a mother. Increasingly embarrassed by my inability to produce anything beyond a shopping list, I struggled to understand why. I had the time and space. My husband took on much of the child care, and I had an office at the university where I work. I had, as Virginia Woolf said, a room of my own — and I still could not make progress on the book I had been writing. I told myself that I was utterly exhausted or that my time was taken by teaching in and administering our creative writing program.

Later, I convinced myself that the old project no longer held meaning for me. But no matter the excuses I contrived, I could not write. In the summer, I had no classes to teach but I still stared at the cinder block walls of my office, or out the window at the Cascade mountains. I only left to trudge to the building next door where I could use the industrial strength breast pump for free, and still I got nowhere — except into spirals of guilt and self-blame.

Only once my children were older and I made up stories for them every night did I realize that my imagination, rather than my body or mind, was exhausted. They were exacting editors, and the parallels to relationships I’d had with fiction editors led to a lightbulb moment: I was still a creative person, but I was using my creative energy in different ways.

In addition to creating bedtime stories about stuffed animals visiting ever more elaborate mini-golf courses, I was negotiating disputes between siblings; inventing ways to sneak veggies into an otherwise white diet of pasta, butter and sliced turkey; mapping a path to complete all my errands while my daughter napped in her stroller; inventing polite but firm responses to the well-meaning but rude parenting advice given by strangers; planning how to fill the hours between my son’s early rising and the zoo’s opening; and determining how to comfort a weeping child whose best friend had wandered off to play with another.

It’s time to stop branding these activities as instinctive by-products of mothers’ supposedly innate nurturing qualities. They all require intense creativity, even if they don’t fall into the categories we usually label as creative. Rethinking the relationship between mothering and creativity means expanding the definitions of both terms. It means thinking of mothers as active mediators, on-the-fly chefs, creative problem-solvers. It means thinking of creativity as any act of finding a new solution to an old problem, not just those resulting in works of art or in a negotiated peace between long-conflicted nations.

While we no longer automatically dismiss “motherhood” as an uninteresting topic, we still have a long way to go to recognize and reward the everyday creativity of mothering.