Tonight I watched a creative genius at play. And I was humbled.

//penelopeillustration.com

Over the summer, I’ve been writing a book proposal about motherhood and creativity. Most of my focus has been on women who are creative in the arts—writers, songwriters, dancers, and the like. I’ve included the occasional chef or body worker and paid homage to the ways in which we express ourselves less professionally, such as in journals or gardening. Though I know that creativity is a vein that runs through the best-run businesses, schools and nonprofits, I’ve shied away from focusing on these arenas. “They have so many of their own books,” I think, seeing heavily weighted shelves in the business section of the bookstore, “We have so few.”

What I haven’t sufficiently explored, however, are the creative gifts that women bring to motherhood and, dare I say it, domesticity. Partly, this is for lack of language to talk about domestic work in a way that is interesting, much less inspiring. Women’s work has been degraded and so has the language and images that surround it.

Multi-tasking is probably the most heralded of women’s domestic skills. Sarah Palin appears to be the wunderkind of this: A baby on one hip as she schnoodles the snow mobile dude, reels in a fish and signs a bill. It reminds me of a story I once heard Cokie Roberts tell on NPR about her mother, a former Republican Congresswoman, who was watching over a house full of kids while canning pickles and talking to the Senate Majority leader on the phone about an upcoming vote. No matter what your politics, you’ve got to admit, we are sort of incredible compared with our tunnel vision, one-thing-only-and-take-your-time brethren.

With the beginning of the school year, I’ve also been reminded of the creativity women bring to the ways in which they nurture. I’ve watched every morning as parents–more mother than dads–drop kids at school, and have especially noticed a friend who tries a new method each day for extracting her kindergarten son from her leg. She’s a single mom, too, and I fully appreciate what she’s done all morning just to get herself and her kids to school before the final bell. She sing-songs them awake but when that is only met by groans, she prods and finally succumbs to deal making—TV after school, say—in order to coax them to the kitchen fully clothed. She tosses a few boxes of cereal on the table. “What about a spoon?” one whines, just as she’s reaching into the silverware drawer. Thinking of the bills that need to be paid, the dentist’s appointment she’s dreading and what’s up with the dog’s eye, it looks swollen, she smears jam on a slice of bread. Damn, it’s moldy. She cuts off the crust—no one’s the wiser—then begins the daily ritual of frantically grappling through the drawer of plastic containers to find a matching lid. Why don’t I ever clean this out? I’m so lazy, she’ laments. Her half-awake brain scans each child’s schedule: Is it library book return day? PE, which means sneakers? Looking outside, she gauges the temperature to decide the right footwear and coats, a project that becomes ever more complicated as the seasons progress. Then she trundles the kids into the car, hitting her head as she ducks to buckle the youngest’s seatbelt. Finally, they get to school. The little one clings. He whimpers. God, he’s gotten so heavy. She musters patience and tenderness as she tries to get him to stand on his blue dot with the other five-year olds. The bell rings. Finally. She gives him a smile that says she will definitely be there at 3:00 sharp and will think of him and only him in the meantime.

Having a mother is much better deal than having a lover. It’s unconditional, plus it comes with homemade lunches and folded laundry.

Some version of this morning scenario gets played out all over town, all over the country, all over the world. The fact that at 8:32, just after the child enters the building, this mother, and thousands like her, lets out a sigh of love and relief before hustling to her desk, or dentist appointment or the Laundromat is another matter. It’s a matter, in fact, of how quickly mothers shift gears. We feel a soaring, heart-splitting love along with resentment and exhaustion. We are so inexorably needed and yet, sometimes, so wholly alone. It’s the slam dance of emotions, one that men don’t do.

And yet it is mother genius that keeps so many kids, schools, families and communities glued together. I am not against fathers. Some of my best friends are fathers—awesome fathers. (Patrick, you’re reading this, right?) But I increasingly believe that it is the creative backbone of mothers that make everything tick. Today at the “Room Parent Tea” — an event that despite its uppercrust name is just a chance for harried nearly-all female teachers to pass off information to harried all-female parents — there was only one man in the room. The principal. He’s a young guy, new to his job, and he nervously read his remarks aloud from notecards. Although everyone in attendance was perfectly cheerful, I could feel a restlessness to the room. There were artists among us, an engineer, a lawyer, a business owner, and, yes, plenty of stay-at-home moms. We all had other things to do and this was an imposition—a welcome one, perhaps, but an imposition nonetheless– to our highly choreographed lives.

My day had not been so monumental in terms of output, and so I was especially antsy. I’d spent the morning trying to get a new operating system set up on my laptop so that I could video conference with someone on the west coast about a project. Waiting for it to download, I dropped off materials to a designer with whom I’m working, and ran to the bank, library and grocery store. While I ate lunch, glancing at the interminable download bar on my computer screen, I read a book proposal that I’d been asked to critique, and then walked the dog. A very short grant for the PTA was next on my docket, and I dashed it off before starting to make dinner for my kids and another family, our Tuesday night ritual. Finally, I set off to school for the room parent meeting. No moose were killed. No legislation signed. But a multi-tasking day, nonetheless.

Two hours later, while scooping noodles onto plates and handing them to my friend as she helped arrange the table for all eight of us, I decided to take my therapist’s advice. Explaining that my therapist, in trying to help me overcome relatively small things that have been paralyzing me, suggested I ask for friends’ help, I ventured gingerly: “If I were to ply you with tea and chocolate, would you possibly ever come over and help me sort all of my plastic containers and lids?”

It sounded ridiculous. And yet I felt as though I’d just asked the world. The task was one I’d avoided for nearly as long as I’ve lived in this house and the tangle of lids frustrates me on nearly a daily basis. Without the least bit of teasing, my friend smiled and agreed.

Following dinner, my daughter was hankering for a bike ride while the rest of the kids just wanted to play in the yard. So Bella and I took off into the sticky night for a ride, while Rhonda stayed behind. When we returned, I found the kids in the yard making a pretend car and Rhonda in the kitchen, surrounded by old yogurt containers, mason jar lids, store-bought plastic canisters, and even a lone baby food jar. Broom in hand, she was sweeping out the bottom of my pantry. To my great shame, I knew this meant she was seeing the dropped cereal and rice, as well as the thick dust that I’d been neglecting. For anyone other than a college kid living solo for the first time, the mess was inexcusable.

I moaned and covered my face. Rhonda kept sweeping. “Do not be embarrassed,” she intoned, her voice so firm that I had no choice but to believe she would still be my friend even after seeing this horrible side of me. I might be able to video conference and write a small grant in one day, but I sure keep an ugly house.

Once the garbage was taken out, as well as a bag of recylables and another for Goodwill, Rhonda introduced me to my new system. In the amount of time it had taken Bella and me to ride to her school, circle the building a few times, and return, my friend had not only cleaned and sorted but come up with an entirely new organizational principal. I was amazed. Bowing at her feet crossed my mind, but I decided she might be embarrassed and not come back to tackle bigger tasks. Think what she could do with my linen closet!

“This would have taken me half a day,” I admitted. And it would have. I would have become so overwhelmed by the sea of lids and the grime that I’d have put the task aside several times in favor of email or even laundry. Anything but that level of disorder.

Looking at Rhonda, who keeps an impeccable house on a limited budget and has three wonderful kids who are like nieces and nephews to me, I’ve known them so long, I thought of the limited way in which I’d been defining creativity all summer. A musician who has more or less put her art aside while her kids are young, Rhonda has clearly brought her skills to bear on other areas. Who is to say that matching lids and a clean cupboard floor are less important that an exhibit that will last a couple of months. And why don’t we have language as poetic as the terms for the arts to describe these talents and give them ample respect? The point isn’t which is more important, but that the former binds us together at some elemental level. It may not be as satisfying in the moment as a comment by a grateful reader or applause from an audience, but there is a sweet stickiness to it, like honey, that connects us. It is not to be underestimated.

“Sweeping” by Penelope Dullaghan, http://penelopeillustration.com/