What Georgia O’Keeffe taught me about being a creative mom

By Kris Ann Valdez

“Georgia O’Keeffe never had children because she didn’t want them interfering with her art.”

My friend, a multi-disciplinary artist, tells me this as she admires the ferris wheel her daughter just created using construction paper and crayons. We share a glance— in it, a look of understanding passes between us. Being artists with small children is an incredible task. 

I am staying for the weekend because she and I are attending a small literary gathering to talk about what it means to be artists. Not mothers. But I have just flown into Colorado with my six-month old in tow. He will also come to the two-day event, and even, he will be in my arms (or hers) for a 1.5-hour presentation. 

I am nervous. Will he fuss? Is it unprofessional to bring a baby to these sorts of things? What if I have to walk out of the room because he’s a distraction?

At the gathering, I connect with a few other authors. Most of them are retirees. Poetry/memoir is their beloved hobby, or their post-career career. 

“Did you write when your children were young?” I ask one. She is in her sixties, well-spoken and intelligent. 

“Oh, no,” she says, “I knew that I needed time to process and if they interrupted me, I would become tense and resentful, so I put it away until they grew up.”

Her words ring in my ears. 

Tense and resentful. 

I think of all the times I’ve typed like mad, racing the clock until school pick up or the first soft cries of nap time signaled an ending to my endeavors. Of nights that belonged to a sick child. Of days when I could only type with my left hand because the other held a baby. How scattered sentences and trails of thoughts disappeared like fog when I could finally pen them. How, in the chaos of raising three children, I am hopeful for one hour to write per day.

Some writers have six/seven/as many as they want for their expression. I have one. Two if I am lucky. Sometimes, often, none.

All too well, I am aware of what the words tense and resentful feel like in my body. The tightening jaw. The stomach pit. The curling of my fingers. The hard, long sigh. A tone of bitterness. 

Guilt creeps into my thoughts. Should I put away my writing until my children grow older? Do I model resentment to them? 

I bite my lip, remembering moments I’ve waved the children away. Ignored dinner. Forgotten something because my brain was lost inside a paragraph. Sat with them in their room late at night because they couldn’t sleep, but on the condition that I would pull out my laptop and type while they drift off

The fire to create burns inside my veins, pushes me to keep going despite the sleuth of distractions and tasks that are mine to carry. The children who are mine to raise. 

If I wait until I am older, what potential will I miss cultivating now? 

During the presentations, my six-month old is a model baby. He sleeps. He smiles. He charms. My fears dissipate.  I am glad I went and took the risk.  Even if he’d made him walk outside for ½ of it, I do not think I’d feel differently. 

Back at my friend’s house, she lets out a familiar hard, long sigh. “I ignored the laundry all week to paint, and I feel guilty.” 

Laundry for a family of five is no small mound—it takes up the entire ping-pong table in the basement. 

“Let me help you,” I volunteer.

She finally stops protesting and we get to work. I make stupid laundry jokes and she hands my baby a toy to keep him occupied on his stomach. 

“I know what it’s like to fall behind on the housework,” I say, recalling how I spent three hours on a recent Wednesday deep cleaning, scrubbing grout in the bathroom shower and baseboard grooves long ignored. Because, while many people would spend their baby’s nap time tidying, I choose to spend it writing. 

That is the way with artists. 

Yet, I know that in the struggle of raising a family, there is something Georgia O’Keeffe missed out on. And it’s by far my favorite word on this page—inspiration. 

My children have changed me. Deepened my philosophies on life and love and what it means to be humble, raw, vulnerable. In short, human. 

The hard moments of parenting are fodder for my work. Only having one hour to create sends me into hyper focus mode. I do not have the luxury of procrastination, and that works to my advantage.

I inspire my children too. Watching me pursue my goals teaches them to do the same, even in the face of obstacles and rejection. The zest I have for literature is shared with them. Last week, my ten-year old son wrote a prologue that began with “the long, bending shadows…”

In times when I want to give up, they encourage me. Once, when that same son was five, he illustrated and “published” a picture book I wrote.

“See, Mommy,” he said, “it’s not hard to get published. I just did it for you!” 

Georgia O’Keeffe wasn’t wrong to remain childless. Of course, they would have slowed her down, and likely, her early/mid 1900’s era critics would not have taken her seriously with them in tow. I am grateful for the path she forged for female artists. 

Still, I cannot help picturing a small child in her lap, their chubby fingers intertwined in hers as they hold a paintbrush together, small strokes of cobalt blue swirling across the paper.

“This is how we paint sky,” she might’ve said.

The child, rebelling, dips their finger in orange and presses their mark onto the canvas. “Bird.” 

Georgia’s eyes might have misted over, seeing not a clunky, blob of a bird, but the unique indents of her child’s fingertips forever pressed into the canvas— her heart. 

And later, when the child brought her another creation and said, “Mommy, I made this for you,” Georgia might have hung it proudly next to her own drying canvases. 

Just as my friend hung her child’s ferris wheel next to her work in their shared studio. 

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most celebrated artists of the Modern period in American art history. 

Likely, I will never be that prolific. But I have “potential” and confidence that I do not create despite having children, but because of them. That I am not just a homemaker, but an artist. And in some small part, I can thank Georgia for that. 

Kris Ann Valdez is a desert-dwelling, adventure-loving Arizona native, wife, and mother. She writes personal essays about mothering + womanhood and novel-length work for middle-grade + young-adult readers. Connect with her via Instagram or her website

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