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Space to do whatever
How letting go of being productive with my time made space for creativity
Hi all! Thank you all so much for being on this Tech and Tea journey. I recently re-launched this newsletter, previously named Jean’s Newsletter, as Tech and Tea, with paid subscriptions. I was really touched by the many messages of support from new subscribers, as well as people who have been following my writing for many years. I’m still working out how I’ll separate out paid and free posts, but I roughly intend to gently ramp up post frequency, and to have most of my writing be available for free. Thank you for your support and for being on this ride!
Months ago, I went to an art exhibit with a friend, and was really inspired by the outpouring of creativity, especially the prolific nature of experimenting with different mediums, themes, and styles. As my friend (a fellow mom) and I left the show, I noticed myself feeling a bit despondent, and I said something like: “I can’t help but think how much less time I have as a mom.”
Back then, the idea of carving out any consistent space to create, to experiment, to play felt near impossible.
Around that time, I joined a local co-working space and creative life lab for moms called Mothership Hackermoms, and a few weekends ago, I participated in my first art exhibit, an annual Hackermoms show for any members who want to participate.
As I stood in the space, surrounded by tapestries, paintings, photographs, ceramics, and jewelry, I was struck by the monumental effort, work, and collective carving out of space the exhibit represented. Through weekly “Failure Clubs” (run through Hackermoms), I knew the backstories of many of the pieces of art, including one piece which was started 3 years ago, and finally completed, despite a slew of winter illnesses, kid’s sick days, and more.
The exhibit represented a community of moms supporting each other, as they, against societal expectations of motherly self-sacrifice and the patriarchy, carved out space from the many demands of their everyday lives, to create. To create slowly, to make space to play, to be ok when life got in the way, to provide words of encouragement things didn’t go as planned.
Last year, I had decided that I wanted to make more space for myself for creative pursuits, but I felt stuck. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to create, so it felt silly to make space for it…what would I even be making space for?
But as I observed myself stuck in this state, I realized I needed to invert my approach. Having been in survival mode for quite a few years, I realized that I hadn’t really had the space to dream, to think of what I wanted, to follow impulses and desires of things that might bring me joy. My practical mind had been so restricted by the logistical and financial constraints of life, and knowing myself, I wouldn’t be in a mindset to think of what I might want to create until I had ample space to do so.
So I trusted that if I carved out the space, creative desires would emerge to fill it.
Like coaxing a cat out from under the sofa, I felt like I was telling the little girl inside of me who loved to draw that it was ok to come out to play.
As I looked back on the many stages of making more and more space for creative self-expression, it reminded me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and I thought it would be interesting to look at this from the lens of Hierarchy of Needs for Space.
Here’s an overview of the stages I went through:
Space to not be exhausted
This was a foundational need, without which I couldn’t have built on top of. To satisfy this need, I needed space to sleep, to not be running ragged between work and childcare.
With young kids and their many hands-on demands, it can be extremely challenging to move past this stage.
I remember a period dropping both kids off at daycare/preschool, commuting to SF, managing a team of 15 aka coordinating and supporting people all day, and then returning home to a scramble to feed the kids before bedtime (sometimes crackers and yogurt), bedtime, then scrounging up something to eat, before going to sleep and doing it all again the next day. Weekends weren’t much better.
The sleep deprivation that comes with young kids also proves challenging here, though at some point, my kids were sleeping through the night, and revenge procrastination and claiming “my time” at night were the only reasons that I wasn’t getting enough sleep.
A few years ago, after listening to Peter Attia’s interview of Matthew Walker, my husband Naveed and I doubled down on sleep quality, and almost always getting 8 hours of sleep has been a foundational improvement in our lives.
Space to do whatever
This stage is all about having actual spaciousness so that I could let go of spending my time optimally.
I felt a lot of self-judgment when I spent a few hours at night watching Netflix or browsing Reddit instead of the many things I wanted to do that I deemed more “productive.” I had some time every night, so why wasn’t I doing something with it?
Without some buffer room to do whatever, though, the pressure to spend free time optimally is just too high.
For many parents, the rare day off when childcare is still available or a babysitter-assisted date night is so scarce that the pressure to make the most of it is so immense, dooming it from the start.
When I got through this stage and let go of my self-judgment around not making the most of my time, I started to feel a little more like myself again.
Space to enjoy
Once I was consistently well-rested and had some true spaciousness to do whatever, I found that only then did I have the space to spend time on activities I enjoyed. With the covid pandemic and big changes these last few years, this part has honestly been a bit of re-discovery.
What do I enjoy? The previous stage of letting go of “being productive” with my time was essential, because in the past, I’ve not pursued things I might enjoy because I would immediately jump to internal thoughts of, is that a good use of my time, how can I make it profitable, or what’s the point of doing that?
Letting myself follow small impulses, I found that I really enjoy gardening and doing tedious garden tasks like weeding. I found some pleasure in getting back into crochet and making crochet stuffies. Having the space to get creative in the kitchen, beyond the often tiring chore of getting food on the table, has also been a source of joy.
Having the space to play, to try new things, and to reconnect with old hobbies—without the pressure for it to lead somewhere—was critical to creative endeavors feeling fun and not just something I should do.
Space for creativity
This is the stage I feel like I am just peeking into, and the recent launch of this newsletter feels like a milestone that signals this stage’s arrival.
This is Unicorn Space, as described by Eve Rodsky in her books Fair Play and Find Your Unicorn Space. In Fair Play, Rodsky outlines a process to distribute household tasks, with the ultimate goal of each person having equal amounts of unicorn space.
Unicorn space is explicitly not self-care, not time to get a haircut or massage, not adult friendships, not time to do chores. Those are all categorized separately and are an important foundation for creating unicorn space. Unicorn space is “the active and open pursuit of creative self-expression in any form that makes you uniquely YOU.”
When I read both of these books, I was probably in the stage of Space for doing whatever, and the idea that finding a better distribution of household chores would give me space for self-expression seemed a bit lofty.
Only when I first had space for those more foundational needs, did the desire to create and put something out in the world emerge strongly, and the form it took was unsurprisingly, not a completely new hobby, but writing this newsletter. What I was looking for was right here all along.
I’m not entirely sure what comes next, or how hard it’ll feel to stay in this space consistently. I’m sure there will be progress and setbacks, but I’m excited to explore this space and share what I learn.
Stay tuned for my next post on some things I learned about myself, and how I carved out space when it seemed like there wasn’t much space to carve from.
I’d also love to hear from you in the comments (or via email)—what’s worked for you? If you’ve also made a similar journey, do these stages seem familiar or was it different for you?
Update 4/17/23: Check out Space to do whatever, part ii
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