Motherhood

Making space for a creative home

This blog entry is a repost of an article I wrote, which was published in Grounded Magazine in their Autumn 2014 "Make" issue. I'm revisiting it on this Spring Sunday morning, as I listen to my now 3rd grade daughter in her singer-songwriter creative zone in the other room. Unfortunately Grounded Magazine is no longer being published, and I wanted this piece to live on, so I will share it here with you. Wishing a spacious and creative day to you and yours!

creating-with-kids

My second grader and I linger at the table after breakfast on a brisk Autumn morning. I sip my light and sweet slow-drip and watch my mind fill with a Sunday to-do list: return emails, grocery shop, send birthday card. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a twirl of our handmade driftwood mobile near the window. For the next few moments, my thoughts flip-flop between warm days along the coast and plans to pick up butter and stamps.

Meanwhile, my daughter is grabbing a jar from a nearby shelf and is intensely engaged with acorn caps she collected on a walk yesterday. With profound focus, she is stacking them, lining them up, closely studying their shape and texture. She perches one between her thumb and pointer finger, declaring, “A perfect size for a fairy hat! Hey Mom, let’s make flower fairies!” Her proposal abruptly snaps me right back into the present moment, waking me from nostalgia for days passed and plans for the day ahead. One of the most profound gifts our children offer is reminding us to return to the present moment.

“Let’s make flower fairies!” is my daughter’s way of inviting me to enter her world of imaginal play and creation. She wants to connect in the most natural way children know – through immersion in the flow of creative expression. It’s so sincere and beautiful, and my iPhone is buzzing and there are dishes from breakfast and wet clothes to be dried and.. and.. and…

As both a mother and a mindfulness-oriented art psychotherapist, I have learned the deep, lasting, and mutual benefits of making art alongside our children. I can say, from personal and professional experience, this practice is not easy in modern parenthood. When we sit down to draw with our children, it’s either the ding of our inbox or the relentless voice of the inner critic distracting us from true absorption in the activity.

Slowing Down

A creative home life requires making mental space and time much more than it demands an expertly appointed craft room. Cuddling on the couch with a bag of seashell souvenirs and a spool of yarn from the junk drawer to create a garland will be meaningful as long as we are able to be fully present in those moments. Our undivided attention is what fills children up most. The added benefit is that if we really show up, it can be deeply gratifying for parents, too.

The best way I know how to enter into creative space with children is to slow everything down. Slowness is the antidote for the modern din, like an inverse yoga pose to balance all the rushing around. We can use the slow pace of the natural world as inspiration for the rhythm of our creative home lives. Step out for a family walk to absorb the colors, light, and offerings of each season, opening all senses to the experience.

Dancing with the earth models deep, meaningful living for children, reaffirming that each beautiful detail is worth honoring. When we experience the world through a child’s perspective, we are able to tune into the hundreds of colors on the skin of an apple. We can recall the magic of watching yellow and blue paint mixed to a vibrant green for the very first time. Slowing down each step validates a child’s inborn need to investigate the process. In preserving this innate gift, we challenge our own glorification of efficiency and multitasking. Bringing mindfulness to our experiences heightens the ordinary into something extraordinary. It allows space for us to feel something and to respond to it. This is what art is meant to do.

Making is our birthright as human beings. Children are aware of their inherent ability to create and are visibly enthusiastic about the life-affirming magic of putting something new into the world. Often adults have abandoned our inner makers for more socially sanctioned pursuits. The gabby inner art critic we carry can rest when we dive into a project with our children because they don’t expect us to be Martha Stewart or Wayne Thiebaud. Above all, they want to connect with our smiling eyes and benefit from seeing our committed engagement with the creative process.

Setting the table

Art materials are food for the soul. When preparing a creative activity, whether for my art therapy adult clients or for my young daughter, I imagine I’m hosting a special dinner party with an intention of making my guests feel cherished. Much like a chef pairs specific flavors so as not to clutter the palette and overwhelm the senses, I edit the selection of materials. The menu varies, but the setting is always deliberate and the meal nourishing.

I prepare the space with intentions of simplicity, beauty, and rhythm. I let in natural light and fresh air, assessing the space for distractions that could pull my family away from creative absorption. I turn off and cover electronic screens. I sweep away clutter that interrupts the eye. If I’m distracted by the worry that the “meal” will be messy, I simply cover the floor with an drop cloth, put butcher paper or oilcloth over the table, and we don smocks. If I still find mess to be an obstacle, I don’t cancel the party; we dine al fresco instead.

Just as I would select food at the market for dinner, I incorporate natural materials that are local and in season into our buffet of creative offerings. This reinforces a child’s attunement with the rhythms of the earth and helps parents come back home to these inner movements of the soul. Natural objects account for half of the “art materials” in my home. We gather acorns, sticks, shells, stones, leaves, flowers, and pine cones and store them in large, clear jars on a dedicated shelf.

Rather than a huge collection of art supplies, I invest in fewer, high-quality materials that promise a powerful sensory experience. Aside from basic paintbrushes, scissors, and glue, a few of my favorite art media are Stockmar beeswax crayons, liquid watercolors, Lyra Ferby colored pencils, wool roving, a variety of yarn and string, and white paper (140 lb. for painting and 80 lb. for drawing.) Knowing each type of art media holds an inherent metaphor, from the yielding way watercolors blend together to the resistance of a sharp pencil on paper, I purposefully select materials that will help balance the current mood.

Combining earthy items with traditional art materials makes for an elegant creative provocation — an art invitation without the intention of a specific product, inviting experimentation and free self-expression. I sometimes set up a provocation before my daughter comes home from school or prepare it before bed, so it greets us in the morning. Some favorite pairings on our art table that offer limitless possibility are:

  • leaves + clay
  • driftwood + acrylic paint
  • smooth stones + ink
  • acorn caps + wool roving
  • twigs + yarn
  • flower petals + clear contact paper
  • pine cones + colorful pompoms
  • a wildflower bouquet + colored pencils

Trusting the process

Children feel held when there is rhythm and appreciate a time each day or week devoted to making. Co-creating a ritual to mark creative time as sacred will bracket the experience as heightened and special, like lighting a candle or ringing a bell to begin and end art sessions.

Embracing an experimental mindset when making with children helps us to honor the process. This doesn’t always mean letting go of the idea that we might create a product or a useful craft; rather, it allows for meandering, messes, and mistakes along the journey. I trust that the art materials will tell us which way to turn next, and I listen to them with focus and wonder so my daughter might do the same.

Like all cycles, each creative process winds down to completion. Together, we clean our materials with respect and care. We set aside time to reflect upon what we have made, as this part of the creative process allows for integration and meaning-making. A child’s art holds his or her stories, emotions, worldview, and self-concept, so we treat the art with the same respect as the artist. I withhold my opinions and projections, being responsible to ask my daughter open-ended questions about her process and her creation.

When the candle had been snuffed or the bell has been rung, my daughter is often recharged and seamlessly moves into solitary play. My to-do list is still waiting there for me, and I face it feeling more balanced, satisfied, and connected. In my maker-momma bones and my art therapist heart, I have intimately come to know the value of mindfully making creative space where flower fairies can fly.

Paradise Lost: The experience of disillusionment for the child/inner child

The topic of disillusionment seems to be coming up a lot for me these days, as a mom to an almost 9-year-old, as a therapist, and as an adult woman consciously walking the path of healing my own inner 9-year-old. Disillusionment is defined as the absence of illusion, or a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be. Anthroposophical philosopher Rudolph Steiner put forth the idea that, much like Adam and Eve being banished from paradise, there is a "waking up" (sometimes a rude awakening) and a "fall from grace" that occurs in a child between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. In anthroposohy, the term for it is "the 9 year change."

At this time of life, children are becoming more embodied (literally, inhabiting their bodies) and grounded in the realities of the world around them, rather than floating in the imaginal realms of early childhood. In making that shift, the child experiences great inner turmoil. This is an age where a child may lose interest in toys that used to be fun for them, feeling (and acting) torn between toddler behavior and teenage behavior -- trying on both sides. At this age, children question the existence of beings like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and even the idea of magic itself. This is the age where they begin to see that their parents are not the superheroes they once believed, but mere fallible mortal beings who make mistakes -- and that can be a huge let down. This is the time when children are waking up to their sense of self in relation to the world around them, and trying to find where they fit. They may feel they can depend only on themselves, and anxiety becomes a dominant emotion. They may be quietly tuning into their inner world for the first time, and perhaps experiencing their own shadow side freshly.

Some common markers of this transition can include irritability, hypersensitivity, fickleness, difficulty falling asleep, fears of the dark/crime/intruders/death, spontaneous emotional releases (sobbing, yelling, hitting, tantrums,) feeling like the world is not fair, feeling isolated, self-conscious, and unloveable. Children begin testing their parents, as closest people to them, to make sure they will still be loved even when they show their darker sides and express anger, sadness, jealousy, neediness, hatred, and mischievousness. Psychosomatic symptoms are very common during this time - common ones being heart palpitations, headaches, and breathing problems. Nightmares can become more frequent and vivid, often involving being chased, robbed, in an accident, fire, or even being murdered. Ideas of right and wrong and of evil and death come to the forefront. They expect honesty and authenticity from everyone, especially from themselves.

Traumas or wounds that can really go deep at this age are ones involving lies, mixed messages, verbal abuse, criticism, not being allowed to "talk back," only getting praise or affection when being a "good girl" or "good boy," or being within a family system where there is a cycle of addiction (the "don't talk, don't trust, don't feel" unspoken rule.)

Overlaying anthroposophy's concept of the "9 year change" with other developmental models in psychology, this time correlates to the development of the fifth chakra (expressing one's truth,) Freud's latency period, Piaget's concrete operational period, Erikson's "Industry vs inferiority" period, Maslow's self-actualization stage, Wilber's middle egoic personic stage, and the conscious self stage of psychosynthesis.

Acknowledging and having compassion for the struggle at this (and every!) stage of development is key for a therapist, a parent, and a human being living on the earth with fellow human beings. I am a woman with a rich connection to my own inner 9-year-old and a mother currently parenting a small human being through this time. Even though I'm a therapist who works exclusively with adult clients in my practice, every adult brings their inner child into the room with them in some way. If there was wounding around this stage of a person's development, the therapist may serve as the "magical stranger" (as its known in the Hakomi method) providing the experience that was missing in this person's childhood, or the therapist could be called upon to "reparent" this younger part and/or aid a client in reparenting their own younger self, meeting needs that were not met in childhood. In doing so, the therapist may more directly dance in realms of transference and projections of the fallible parent, and take on the feelings of not being good enough, open enough, understanding enough, or giving enough. As always, the therapist's own mindfulness of their body, experiences, and triggers (in and out of session) and processing their own countertransference (outside of session) are ethically imperative to the work.

So, what do the 9-year-olds inside of us and out among us need? They need to know they are lovable unconditionally - no matter what emotions or behavior they display. They crave for their feelings and experiences to be validated. They need a solid, confident, care-giving presence who consistently and warmly enforces rules and boundaries. They need to see love, unity, and community modeled for them in the midst of their isolated feelings. They need a private space of their own (children at this age are often are moved to create forts and other shelters to burrow into.) This is a stage where children want to feel capable, so giving them the ability to do very useful, productive things for themselves helps them feel like they belong and are safe in the world. Even in wanting more independence, self-sufficiency, and privacy, it's important for children to feel warmth, connection, and support from adults nearby (but not hovering adults...)

You see, the line the adults walk (tiptoe?) around this is a delicate one.  We won't and can't always get it right, but we can own our mistakes and in doing so, model honesty, humanness, and humility. In doing so, we can become a different sort of superhero, one who is accessible and relatable and on the ground instead of admired while soaring far up in the sky.

Personally and professionally, my heart is cracked wide open around the issues involved in this crucial time of personal growth. One of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, really captures the essence of the 9 year change in this poem:

On Turning Ten

The whole idea makes me feel Like I’m coming down with something, Something worse than any stomach ache Or the headaches I get from reading in bad light – A kind of measles of the spirit, A mumps of the psyche, A disfiguring chicken pox of the soul. You tell me it is to early to be looking back, But that is because you have forgotten The perfect simplicity of being one And the beautiful complexity introduced by two. But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit, At four I was an Arabian wizard. I could make myself invisible By drinking a glass of milk a certain way. At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. But now I am mostly at the window Watching the late afternoon light. Back then it never felt so solemnly Against the side of my tree house, And my bicycle never leaned against the garage As it does today, All the dark blue speed drained out of it. This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself, As I walk through the universe in my sneakers. It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends, Time to turn the first big number. It seems only yesterday I used to believe There was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I would shine. But now when I fall upon the sidewalk of life, I skin my knees, I bleed.

If you'd like to read more on the 9 year change, here are a couple useful places to start:

Ending the cycle of mom comparison

Do you mommas ever feel like all the other moms around you have it all together while you're just struggling to get through the day? I wrote a little guest post over on Rookie Moms detailing three quick actions you can take TODAY to break the cycle of mom comparison. Visit me there, and please do leave your thoughts on the topic in the comments section of the Rookie Moms blog.

Recommended inspirational reading on this topic:

Momma Zen: Walking the crooked path of motherhood 

Interview: Art as therapy and as ritual

I recently was interviewed by Open Path Psychotherapy Collective, and had the opportunity to talk about what happens in an art therapy session, who benefits from art therapy, and how art can be healing when used to mark transitions and sacred times. I have reprinted the interview below for your convenience, or you can access it here on Open Path.

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Open Path: I would wager that many “classically trained” therapists have a murky understanding at best of what an art therapist does with their clients. I'm curious if you can describe some of the portals you use for integrating art into the therapeutic relationship, and how this work typically moves forward in your work with a client.

Jen: I am so grateful to have an opportunity to answer this question, as there does seem to be some degree of mystery around the practice of art psychotherapy.

When I tell people I'm an art therapist, most assume I either work solely with children or with artists. While many art therapists do work with children, and some of us have clients who are trained artists, art therapy is valuable for any age and for all artistic skill-levels. In my current practice, I work with adult clients, the majority of whom have hardly picked up an art material since grade school.

Although some clients specifically seek out an art therapist to support their process, many adults come to my office initially for talk therapy, while expressing an apprehensive attraction to engaging in art. A simple invitation to make a mark on a page is often enough to open the door to the part of a client that has been thirsting to create, as creation is our innate birthright as human beings. Many times, I've witnessed intensely therapeutic processes unfold by my merely making enticing art materials available and giving permission to play. In other cases, clients prefer a more directive approach, so we work together on integrating applicable art activities into a treatment plan.

In practicing art therapy, there are various approaches and materials to apply depending on the client’s background, presenting issues, and stage of therapy. This is where an art therapist's unique and specialized training becomes necessary to determine which art materials and interventions are indicated, and when they are appropriate.

Open Path: I'm curious if you can tell us how you define art therapy, and maybe clear up some other misconceptions that might exist about the way it is practiced?

Jen: In 1951, Florence Cane, an art therapy pioneer, put forth the idea that art makes the unconscious conscious. I define art therapy as the use of art materials to externalize one's inner world for the purpose self-inquiry, transformation, and integration. One has the opportunity to reauthor past experiences, make meaning of the present, or envision the future when using art materials to bring concrete structure and form to what were previously nebulous feelings and emotions.

Another common misconception about art therapists usually comes by way of a suspicious sideways glance and this question: "So, if I draw something for you, you can interpret it and diagnose me?" When looking at art a client has created, I exercise my training in mindfulness to suspend my own projections and impulses to interpret, thus allowing the client's image to arrive with freshness into my awareness. Unfolding meaning from the image is a collaborative process between the client and the art therapist, held in the safe container of the therapeutic relationship. It works beautifully when I can witness my client creating art in session, followed by hearing the descriptions and stories about the image being told by its creator.

Open Path: It must be such a relief for clients when they realize their work is not going to be judged or interpreted. Judging and interpreting so often bring us away from our deeper self, or unconscious mind.

Jen: The adult intellect can be adept at keeping habits or homeostases intact (even ones that keep us stuck) when communicating verbally in therapy. Art offers a way to safely deepen into the unconscious behind a safe veil of metaphor, all while relating to the image. I view the art a client creates in session as being similar to a dream a client might bring into therapy. Just as dream "decoder" books are not universally applicable, there is no one interpretive guide for art images. As an art therapist, I cannot presume to know more than the client does about his or her art; however, I am trained to help midwife meaning and insights through the art, and aid my clients in understanding what the image has come to reveal and teach. It directly accesses and honors a client's inner wisdom. In an art therapy session, we stay within the metaphor of the art—witnessing, describing, or dialoging with the image. Art bypasses the verbal defenses, allowing the ah-ha moments to come sooner and in a way that feels safe. I feel so blessed and humbled to explore these images alongside each client, only shifting out of the metaphor when the client is ready to make the leap, and integrate the new discoveries into his or her life.

Open Path: When you talk about helping to “midwife meaning,” it leads me straight to one of the functions ritual plays in providing a context and language for accessing certain depths of our experience—in other words, how we, as a species, are capable of making the profane sacred. I'm curious about the role ritual plays either in art therapy or other areas of your practice?

Jen: Practicing art as ritual is a cornerstone of my work. Ellen Dissanyake describes art as making the ordinary special or holy, pointing out that this need to “make special” is inherent in our species. In my human and artist bones, I know this to be true, and I joyfully practice from this place of knowing.

Our modern American culture doesn’t necessarily encourage pausing to reflect, connect, commemorate, and create. Often when people come to therapy, many describe feeling lost and seeking to find direction and meaning. When feeling disenchanted and dulled in the day-to-day, we need a way to reawaken and remember the sacred in the ordinary. Bringing mindfulness to everyday moments, noticing details, and recognizing their innate sacredness is a gift of art therapy. Rhythmically bracketing a therapy session with a simple lighting and snuffing of a candle, to honor the inner work being done, is an example of a seemingly small gesture that makes a big impact. In a session when we make art—whether it’s a drawing, a clay bowl, a beaded necklace, a painted stick—there is a ritual transference onto the art object, where it can become empowered as a talisman, carrying previously unseen emotions. Relating to this self-created talisman can be profoundly healing.

In addition to my private practice, I officiate blessing ceremonies for moms-to-be  where the woman crossing the threshold into motherhood (via any path -- pregnancy, surrogacy, adoption) is surrounded by her community of loved ones to participate in art rituals that help to celebrate and integrate this transition in a supported way. Together her tribe may offer a natural object to a birth altar, contribute a bead to a birthing necklace, string flowers into a crown, or write a blessing on a belly cast, all while sharing food, stories, fears, and wishes.

In both the therapy room and at a mother's blessing ceremony, I witness the light coming on when people remember the magic in the mundane by way of creating art (creating the Self!) and discover deep meaning through that process. Really, what else are we here for?

Let's talk about art: Working with the finished product

Many of us parents spend messy mornings making art with our children at home. We delight in watching them swirl finger paint across a page or squish dough in their tiny hands. However, making art is only the first step in the creative process. Art includes many subtle stages: contemplation of what to make, preparing materials, creating, cleaning up. Yet there is another important step in the creative process we often miss: unfolding meaning from the image.

The images any artist (aka: your child) makes contain the stories, emotions, intellect, and worldview of the artist. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage in uncovering the gems embedded in the lines, shapes, and colors that come from your child’s imagination. Not only will you learn something about your child, but this step often helps your child’s idea come full-circle and be integrated into his or her everyday life.

Here are some respectful approaches to talking with your child about art:

Active Observation

While your child is making art, support the process by reflecting back only what you see happening on the page.For example, reflect verbally by saying something like, “I see yellow lines across the top of your page.”  If making art alongside your child, try to mirror the same types of marks s/he is making to to communicate the idea: “I see you. I am paying attention.”

Decoding Symbols

It’s never safe to assume you know more than the artist about what it is or what it means.For one kid, a pig might represent the scary boar he saw at a state fair. For another kid, a pig could mean the sweet, soft, cuddly stuffed animal friend he hugs when he goes to sleep at night. So try to hold back from interpreting a child’s images until you hear their story.

Describe What You See

To keep an objective attitude about your child’s art, one easy way to begin is simply to ask your child: “What do you see?” Trust the artist’s words about their own art. Your conversation may lead into a story from the child about who is in the picture and what is happening on the page. Allow meaning to arise organically. You don’t need to translate art into what it must mean in the life of the child, at least not out loud. If you have a younger child who may not yet have the ability to describe the art, you can plainly tell about what you see. Be careful not to interpret what the image “must be” or what it means. Merely describe the lines, shapes and colors that you see. Try “I see a yellow circle up there” instead of “I see the sun.”

Dialog with Art

Another fun approach is to talk with the art itself. Kids are great at using their imagination to pretend in this way, so suspend any adult self-consciousness and disbelief and go for it with them. For instance, one way to begin might be to say, “If the duck you drew could talk, what would he say to us?” (Only after the child has identified that her picture is, in fact, a duck.) Then you, your kid, and the duck can engage in a conversation. Stay within the metaphor, behind the safe veil of play.

Sublimation through Art

Try to curb your own inclinations to change, brighten, or smooth over content that may seem angry or violent or negative — art is a safe playground. Art provides an opportunity for working with of the darker side of being human. If your child seems to be looking for a way to ameliorate a dark situation in the art, you might follow his/her lead and provide assistance in moving the story along. Allow space for the child to exercise internal resources to arrive at his or her own unique solution and make choices. Curbing your parental instinct to “save” the situation here fosters confidence and autonomy in your child.

Withholding Opinions

When looking at someone else’s art, always check in with your own biases and opinions. If you were a child-centered art therapist or a play therapist, the convention would be not to criticize and not to (get ready for it) praise the art. Though as a mom, it’s understandably difficult not to say, “That’s a beautiful flower you drew, sweetie!” While it is most important to be your authentic parent-self,keep in mind that as nurturing as approval can be, compliments alone do not provide the solid type of positive reinforcement the examples above can give to your child.

Being witnessed and feeling “seen” are huge confidence-builders for any human being, especially our little friends who are forming their sense of self in relationship to the world. Reflecting upon the art process allows parents a concrete way to give children the affirmation they need.

Also published as a guest post on Kiwi Crate and on Sofia University's Community Center for Health and Wellness Blog.