Motherhood Guilt and Mary Poppins - What does your guilt look like?

 It follows after the season of goodwill: the season of guilt. It is traditional in January, either because we overindulged at Christmas - spent, drank, ate too much - or because we have already broken our New Year’s resolutions, a mere two weeks since we made them. Apparently, however, it is what most mother-makers feel the whole year round. At every Open Space event that I have hosted under the Mothers Who Makebanner someone has called a session simply entitled, “Guilt” and whenever the word is said out loud there is an audible reaction – laughter, sighs, clicks of the tongue.

           Guilt: as a mother and a maker I get a double dose. It is so normal, so much a part of the fabric of my everyday experience that I take it for granted, as constant as the sky. If I check into my own guilt-list from the last 12 hours alone it contains the following items: failing to get my daughter to eat any fresh foods; looking at the computer when I should have been clearing up the supper; snapping at my son when he was jumping up on the loo and postponing brushing his teeth (actually I was snapping at him because I was already feeling guilty about my mother and how I think I have inadequately supported her around the sale of her house); not managing to get the children into bed before 9.15pm; taking a phone call at 10pm which kept my son awake; not getting myself into bed before midnight; still not having caught up on my emails since before Christmas; still not having managed to re-establish my daily writing practice; still not having got back to writing my novel, which is what I am really supposed to be doing…..and this is by no means the complete list. Nor does it include the long-term list, the kind that make up the formula, “Because I did X (e.g. ate too much sugar in my pregnancy/ breast-fed too long/ too short etc.) my child has turned out Y (hyperactive/ violent/ addictive etc.) - the list that lays everything at the mother’s doorstep and makes me think I should be saving now for my children’s therapy later. 

           If I take a step back it saddens and outrages me. The mothers and makers that I know and with whom I have connected through the growing MWM network are the hardest working people I have met, the most crazily underpaid, attempting to do vital, if unrecognised work – raising the next generation, reflecting on the state of their own. They are trying to do nothing but good in the world. There is a ludicrous mismatch between the amount of guilt they carry and the important and positive work of caring and creating with which they are so deeply engaged. What is going on?!

           My two year old daughter is far more practical than me and currently, when faced with any quandary she heads for the tool box. She knows where the screwdrivers live. I will follow her lead and reach into my creative toolbox now – there are two things in there that might come in handy.

           The first is an understanding I gained about the dynamics of guilt from training in Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Guilt is a form of self-judgement, as differentiated from shame, which focuses on other people’s judgements. Guilt entails an internal critic (though there may be a ton of shame and plenty of external critics hanging about as well!), the kind of self-talk that starts off with phrases like, “You should have…” “You are rubbish because…”. However, dip beneath the judgements and there is a value at stake, a principle that you hold dear, a need that your actions did not manage to fulfil. Look a second time at your actions and you will find that there is another need, equally precious, which you were trying to meet by doing whatever you did. So, for example, when I snapped at my son at tooth-brushing time, I did not act in accordance with my deeply held belief that children deserve respect. I did not speak to him as I would wish him to speak to me. At the same time I had some other, equally dear needs, that I was trying to look after when I snapped – wanting to tend to my son’s health and teeth (which are not in a good way!), wanting him to get into bed in time to get enough rest, longing for some space for myself to be able to process the day, including my care for my mother. This was a moment – 5 seconds – and yet it is all there, and when I recognise and name the needs I was attempting to look after, and the ones I failed to look after, I feel sad rather than guilty. If underneath all guilt there are unmet needs, cares, and strongly held beliefs, seemingly pitted against one another in the moment, it is no wonder that the mothers and makers of the land feel guilt-ridden. Passion and care are part of our job description. There is so much that we are each holding. So many strands. So much potential for guilt. What to do?

           I am going in for the second tool in the creative toolbox. This time it comes from the Process Work that I have done, working with Improbable. Instead of seeing the guilt, the internal critic that holds great power, as a problem, there is an exercise you can do where you find out how it might become your ally, a force to support instead of an energy that drains. I am going to try to do this fast now, in writing. Here goes…..

           My guilt, in the bathroom with my son, besides the toothbrushes, takes on a form in my mind– she is a perfect woman, upright, always kind, smiling, wearing a stripy pinafore, whilst she tells me, in no uncertain terms that I have failed again. I look down at her feet, and they are sharply turned out. She is taking out a tape measure and measuring me – she tells me I measure up as, “Trying hard, but not good at boundary-holding.” She measures herself: “Practically perfect” she says. To my great surprise my guilt-critic has morphed into Mary Poppins. We watched Mary Poppinsat Christmas with the children, and then went to see Mary Poppins Returnsat the cinema on Sunday. My daughter keeps requesting that we sing, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” together. As I slow down and imagine being Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, holding her tape measure to prove it, I can also feel a tug inside my chest, like the pull of a kite string. It is at once related to the pain, the pull of guilt, and it is also its exact opposite, because a kite string, on the wind, tugs upwards not down. “With your feet on the groundYou’re a bird in flightWith your fist holding tightTo the string of your kite…”

           So here is a kind of answer for me tonight, an image to which I can connect in the next moment that I need it, a way to remember the incredible forces, the longings, strong as the wind, which are out there and in me. I remember how I wrote at the start of this piece that my guilt was as constant as the sky. Now this strikes me as a strangely positive image – a place of flight, where wonders can happen, where practically perfect nannies and carers can appear. What I love about the Poppins’ kite song is how we get to stay on the ground and be in the clouds, how our hands are in fists and yet also in flight. When I next close my hand into a fist to beat myself up, I will try to feel the pull of the kite string inside it, the upward tug of all the things I care about. 

Here then are your questions for the month, your homework – don’t feel guilty if you don’t answer them. Or do, feel excessively guilty, and find out what that’s really like and where it is tugging you:

What are the items on your guilt-list?
What are the needs and longings underneath them?

What does your guilt look like? Can you imagine it as a figure?

If you slow down, what wisdom might that figure be holding for you? How could it be an ally to you?

This time last year……

I help my 2 year old daughter find the right number day on her Gruffalo advent calendar: no 8. I get the edge of it to poke up, ready for her to lift. She scrunches forwards, using her whole body to perform a tiny movement of her fingers. Inside she finds a squirrel in the snow. Meanwhile I am more struck by the words on the inside of the folding out bit of card that accompany the snowy image: “17 days to go,” I read out loud. To my daughter the number is a game. My son, aged 6, understands it and thinks it is a loooooong time to wait. I think of all the things I have to do between now and then and it seems crazily short. It strikes me as one of the biggest changes, from childhood into adulthood – our relationship to time, our experience of how it moves through us and we through it, how deeply the structures of the clock and the calendar press into us. 

           As I write this I am sitting in the dark of the children’s bedroom. Carols are playing on my computer – my son’s choice of bedtime music. If, for a moment now, I can take up a little more of my children’s sense of time and set aside the December to-do lists, then Christmas could feel profoundly helpful. It is a marker – human-made but not like my ical. It’s more like a weir in the flow of time – a temporary obstruction that both pauses and intensifies the current of the days. Useful because of this, because inevitably every year I think about “this time last year…”

           This time last year I was writing a blog a day as part of the Mothers Who Make crowd-funding campaign, having just heard that we had got our Arts Council funding and needed to match it. The point of ‘this time last year…’ is to see how much has changed. Here I am, in the same place, at that weir again, and yet everything is different. Sometimes I have made myself write down everything that is different. Sometimes instead of the ‘to-do’ list it is useful to write the ‘have done’ list. It is almost always surprising. The list this year is long, or at least the items on it are hefty: completed crowd-funding, recruited a new MWM producer, opened 11 new hubs, branded MWM, built a website, went on Woman’s Hour, completed our first round of artist commissions. Amazing, glad tidings of joy – so why am I not gladder? 

           I don’t think it is simply a lifelong habit of focussing on the negative, on the undone and to be done, rather than the done. I think it is to do with many things and here a different kind of list opens up in me – the things unsaid, or half said, quietly acknowledged: there is still the taste from our commissioned artist event, which moved me to tears because I loved the work but which was shared with a tiny audience and I felt it deserved so much more. There is the fear I feel underneath everything of the warming weather and the wondering about what the world will be like this time next year and the year after that, and after that, and on while my children grow. There is the commitment I have made to live with my mother, and accompany her through the last chapter of her life, and the way she gets tired some days now and goes to bed at half past eight, even before the children. There is the way that the work I do for MWM, and the more I do of it, reveals how much more needs to be done on a deep, wide level in the world. I think of Jenni Murray talking about MWM as if it were a nice and privileged enterprise, a hobby for middle class mums whose husbands can support them to do some creative work on the side, against the far-reaching conversation I feel is really at the heart of the movement, about motherhood and care and how we bear and raise our children and ourselves in this aching world. 

And then there is Christmas itself, which has always been a bittersweet festival for me, like the orange peel I associate with it that we used to dry on the top of the woodstove. There is the dark and the cold, and the hard bright star, and then the baby, and the mother in the midst of it all who often looks tired and sad. To this day, when I no longer call myself a Catholic, carols make me cry. Something about the incredible hope mixed with longing, the high dream - the piles of presents, glittery lights and the bands of angels, and then the lowly story, the travellers in the snow without a room to sleep in. My son asked me why so many carols are slightly sad and I didn’t know what to say – maybe for the same reason I often feel sad on my birthday, I said, because of how much has happened, and how much I hope might happen and sometimes being really hopeful can be quite close to being really sad. Not the excited hopeful of Christmas morning, but the long slow hopeful that understands the arc of time, not 17 days to go but 17 years, and then even 70 years, and holding up that much hope for that long can feel almost unbearable and enough to make anyone weep.

           And now, just past midnight, I will slip back into the ical version of time, and prepare to get up at 7am because school has to happen and there will be another window to open and it will say ’16 days left to go’ which is good, because I have not done my shopping yet. 

           Here then is my question for you, can you stop for a moment as the Christmas countdown happens to ask yourself this: what is your list of ‘have dones’ this year? What are your tidings of joy? What are your sadnesses? And what are your hopes?

Look at me! Can I Do It?

This month I am delighted to invite Heidi Hollis, mother, writer, dramatist and Bristol MWM hub facilitator, to write our ‘Question for the Month’. Over to Heidi…..

I’m deep in thought, trying to communicate with someone via my mobile phone about an issue at my house while 60-odd miles away. 

And then the voices tintinnabulate. (Yes, I used the internet to find that word – a light clear ringing sound like bells. The unmistakable peeling of children’s voices multiplying as their chirps resonate in my already full head.) ‘Mummy, look at me!’ 'No Mummy, watch me! Watch me do this!’ and 'Mummy will you help me?’ 

My just turned seven-year-old twins are climbing around on the playground structures. The notice at the gate says this playground is for children 8 and up, but my two feel capable in themselves at the outset, and want to have a go. 

And some of it is challenging. My eldest is short for her age, and so her legs don’t reach quite so far as her sister’s when attempting to traverse up a triangular frame onto a platform. She struggles. And if I divert my gaze back onto my screen, she is quick to express her need for my attention, even though we are all pretty confident that She Can Do It. I watch and praise, ready to suggest alternative footing or handholds. She is working it out. And yes, she does it. Without any real assistance. 

Except my gaze. I’m watching. This is essential. Her sister regularly interrupts with insistence that I watch her too, and I know this is not just sibling rivalry – they are setting themselves the test of doing something under the pressure of an audience, not knowing yet if they are capable or not. They want to test themselves, how quickly or effortlessly they can do it. It’s the watching they want. 

Later the eldest tackles a set of high bars requiring balance to shift back and forth in order to get across the length of the apparatus. 'Can you help me?’ she asks. But it’s clear she needs no help really. She doesn’t need me to hold her hand or coach her. She needs me to watch. To witness, to honour her effort and be ready to help if she does need it. To invest my attention in her learning and doing. Mostly, just to watch attentively. 

For me this connects directly to so many conversations I’ve had with other Mother Makers recently. They say so many things about not being sure of their capabilities, despite knowing deep down that they are capable. But are they capable in the context in which they find themselves? I know for me it feels very daunting territory. 

Some things I hear, or have said to myself: 

I’ve been out of the studio since she was born – that’s nearly 2 years now.

I’m worried that when I go back to my work, I really HAVE to produce something. I can’t just muck around. 

Am I any good at it anymore? 

Will I have any ideas for my next project? 

Will I have time to do anything justice? 

How will I manage to focus on the creative work when all I can think about is how he’s getting on with whoever is looking after him?

How will I know if it is any good? 

Some of this is the natural territory of the creative, particularly the creative freelancer. But all these questions take on a heightened status after children are in the context. And children are of course not the only part of life presenting challenges – there may be housing issues (seems like this is a current theme), elderly parents, health issues for children, parents, self or spouse, and not forgetting the spouse and all the things he/she may bring as another human facing challenges. 

In these contexts, it can be a very awkwardly brave thing to say 'I am capable! I Can Do It!’ 

It seems to me that the pressure to produce professional standard work when we feel we have not enough experience of doing so within the current context sets us up for all those self-doubtful conversations we might have in our heads. 

Is this so different to stretching physically and attempting to scale a new structure with which we have no experience? 

So … what if my kids have got the right idea?  What if being visible during the making process is an essential part of the creative development of a piece or project? Especially when it’s territory we’ve not been in before. 

Here is a possible conversation to have together with other mother/makers, with yourself in your own space, or with a close associate. 

·      What about your work needs to be seen and witnessed? 

·      How would this visibility help? What effect will it have on you for part of your process or work-in-progress to be seen? 

·      What audience (person, group, institution) can you trust to show the raw, unfinished, messy stuff that you are working with? 

·      What kind of visibility do you crave? Can you create that? 

·      Do you see connections to others who might need visibility, and can you provide it to each other? 

For me, I feel some comfort knowing that it’s ok to not have everything polished and perfectly presented. In fact, the idea of 'finished’ work seems quite alien somehow… more and more of my work feels just like more work-in-progress, sometimes further along and sometimes less. It is the visibility that matters. Marketeer Seth Godin calls this 'Shipping’ – yes I need to do my homework, hone my craft and create my product, but at the end of the day I have to Ship It. Make it visible. The only questions are about when, and how often, and to whom I make it visible. 

I don’t want to let invisibility become an option.

How do you do it?

Here is a funny thing: despite being the founder of a growing national initiative called Mothers Who Make, I still don’t really know how anyone else does it - how they mother, how they make. It strikes me that this is another parallel between mothering and making – they are both intensely private activities. There are thousands of books that tell me how I should be mothering. There are another thousand that tell me how to make, how to be an artist, how to write my novel. Yet despite all these books, many of which I have gone out and bought, I still do not really know how other mothers mother and other makers make.

With the mothering, I get glimpses: I have done the school pick up and am walking up the stony path that leads away from the school. There are many children running ahead of me. One little boy falls over. His mother rushes up to comfort him. I watch how she lifts him to his feet, how she kneels down, bends her head and puts it against his. I listen in on what she says to soothe him. All the while I feel like I’m spying. Later, in the playground, I watch another mother whose little girl does not want to leave to go home. I listen to the ways the mother tries to persuade her daughter, to the talk of supper, to the countdown she gives her. I give the mum a smile of solidarity and support but she is too busy, and the interaction is too private for this to be received. 

Making, of course, is often highly collaborative, depending on the art form within which you are working. Yet there is nonetheless something secret about it, about the goings on in the rehearsal room or the studio, and certainly in the dark of the evening into which everyone goes at the end of their day of making together, the invisible thoughts on the way home, the dreams, the wonderings and worryings. 

Last week, at the end of the Mothers Who Make meeting that I was running in South London I asked if anyone had any requests for this month’s question or theme. One mother said she’d love to hear about other people’s creative processes, how they get from A to Z, from initial image to final result. It seems I am not alone in having no idea how other people do it. I was thinking I should start by telling you how I do it, and in the process of trying to articulate it I found myself looking to my mothering in order to describe to you my making. I am continually surprised by how helpful I find it to align these two things, to see how my approach to both compares, overlaps, differs. 

Here is what I can tell you: I am full on, even somewhat obsessive, about both. I mother and make almost all of the time. This is not necessarily a good approach or a way of doing things that I would recommend – it’s just what I notice I do. For me what this means as a mother is that I have gone for the full on ‘attachment parenting’ set of practices – children on my back, in my bed, on my boob. As a maker it means that I work on things in the back of my mind for all of the day, and that, like my children, the work gets into my bed with me at night. The challenge with this way of working and being is that there are precious few boundaries - there is no time that is reserved only for one activity and no other. I breastfeed whilst sitting down to write this blog; with my right hand I text myself an idea I have for my novel, whilst I am carrying my daughter with my left arm and walking to pick up my son from school, back down the stony path. 

As a maker I have looked to others to set my boundaries for me. I dragged out being a student for as long as possible because in a formal learning context the teachers and courses set up safe holding structures. Even as an independent artist I have tried to figure out ways to make myself accountable to external bodies. Now as a mother, I am the one that has to provide the boundaries – it isn’t my strong point. I am learning on the job, but it has forced me to experience in a new way how important those containers are and to work on the holding of them for myself as a maker. In practice right now this means that I am taking a step back from the sprawling novel that I improvised my way through, and looking as methodically as possible at its structure. As a mother, I am trying to help us all eat our meals at the table (as opposed to on the floor, sofa, bed…), at roughly the same time each day. Basic stuff I know, but, as I said, it’s not my strong point. The advantage, I suppose, is that I do not find it hard to think outside the box – the hard bit is building the box in the first place. One thing of which I am sure: those thousands of books on parenting and on creativity may be helpful at times, but there is no ‘right way’ to mother or to make. Everyone has to figure out what will best work for them and their children, but perhaps it is useful to share with each other how we do it, to make it a little less of a secret. 

You can come to a MWM meeting to share and listen to how others do it. Find your local meeting here: post how you do it on our Facebook group here:

What to do about Granny?

Mothers. Not you. Yours. The one who brought you into the world and/or brought you up. My mother is on my mind. She is in my house. She is in our house. We’ve just moved in together.

The theory sounds wonderful. She helps me look after the children and then in turn we help look after her. My mother is in good health for now but she has Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, and so at some point in the future her health will deteriorate. To use her own words she is ‘glad to know what will get her.’ As a result of receiving her diagnosis she has made the tremendously courageous decision to pack up the family home after 55 years and buy somewhere small with us. She has bought a little house in Sussex, near a Steiner school for the children. My husband has to be in London for work, so we are going to try out ‘Daddy-time’ at weekends. Meanwhile the children get Granny (and Mummy) time through the week. The idea is that my mother can enjoy being a fully active granny and then I can be there, beside her, to care for her when the time comes. Sounds good, huh?

And the practice? I have just moved in with my mother. Over the last six years the children and I have spent a great deal of time at granny’s house and she has been a regular visitor at ours. But this is different. Something we have never done before. I have lived inside her as a baby, with her as a child, but I have never lived beside her as an equal adult. And how is it? It’s only been a week but so far I am touched by how awkward it is. How much difficulty there is as well as ease. Two women. Too similar, very different.  Housemates with a history. I am struck by how many quiet judgements fly back and forth between us: she thinks I am taking too long over choosing a bread bin; I think she should not have packed that small ottoman from her old house. She is cold (even though the house she has left had only three rooms in it with central heating and was often freezing). I am not. I offer to put on the heating. She says, “No, no don’t worry” but looks uncomfortable. I delay but then put it on. She wants everyone to be having a wonderful time in our new home. I do too but her eagerness polarises me into holding onto the un-wonderful parts so that when she asks me whether my husband is enjoying it, I reply emphatically “No!” and then soften and explain that it is too complicated for him to be simply ‘enjoying it.’ These tiny moments. Flickers of defensiveness, impatience, sadness. 

And yet. And yet it is also wonderful and I know I am incredibly lucky. My mother is the only grandparent my children have and she has been amazingly supportive of us all. No making and no Mothers Who Makewould have happened without her. She is the grandmother of this whole movement. Every clunky, awkward, tense and anxious moment is worth it. In fact they are a part of the value of this time with Granny, not a thing with which I must put up in order to benefit from her support. 

Grannies. I know there are many of you that don’t have one: women whose mothers died long ago; women whose mothers live in another city, country, continent; women who are mothering in such a different way to how they were mothered that it makes the relationship too fraught to be a source of support; women whose mothers are already in need of too much care themselves to be able to do any caring; women whose mothers do not want to engage with their grandchildren as they are keen to have some child-free years at last. Whatever your situation it does not take away the need for the ‘Granny role.’ 

I have a dream that at every MWM meeting there should be a granny in the room, whether she is a maker or not. Sometimes there has been and I have loved their contribution. They play with the children. They sit and listen and don’t say much, but they are there, proof that there is life beyond the crazy intensity of the early child-rearing years. It is a relief to have their perspective present, a momentary view from wiser, wider, higher ground, whilst I am stuck down in the crammed streets of the days, managing meals and laundry. We need this. We need the grandmothers and it can be hard to find them. Hard also to foster situations in which intergenerational support emerges as the mutually beneficial resource it can be.

I am struck as I navigate all the tender, awkward, difficult moments of starting to live with my mum by how radical it is. How such an ordinary thing as living with one’s mother can be rare and strange. It’s simple radicalness reminds me of Mothers Who Make, of how a space for adults that welcomes children is a rare thing. How a space that recognises and celebrates more than one role at once is also unusual. Can we make it a space that can hold another generation too? One more layer of roles? I will invite my mum along to the next meeting, so I will be a mum, a maker and a daughter too within the room. 

There are two parts to my question for the month. Actually I am giving you some homework, if you want it. Below is your ‘Grandmother Project’      Commission:

1)   Do you have a granny in your life, actual or otherwise? An aunt? A godmother? A neighbour? Someone else’s granny? Could you invite her to a MWM meeting? Or just round for tea? Whom do you know that might enjoy this role?

2)   Maybe there is no one. No granny or no one you know. Even holding space for the dream of such a role seems worthwhile to me. In my husband’s favourite picture book of all time, How Tom Beat Captain Najork,Tom frees himself from the tyrannical ‘Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong’ and goes off in search of a new aunt. He puts an advert in the newspaper and finds himself “Aunt Bundlejoy Cosysweet.” He tells her, “No greasy bloaters, no mutton…and I do lots of fooling around. Those are my conditions.” What would your advert for a granny be? Write it down. State your conditions. Give her a name. Maybe one day you can be her and, for now, whilst you need her support, you can dream her, make her up – and making, as we know, is a powerful thing.


This month the questions are coming first – read them, even if you don’t read the rest of the blog. I want to hear your answers. Here are my three questions:
1)    What sustains you?
2)    In what way does MWM sustain you? And how could it sustain you better?
3)    How could MWM, as a movement, itself become more sustainable?

We would really love to hear your answers - you can send us an email (, write us a postcard (Mothers Who Make c/o Improbable, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA), or answer us on social media (Twitter @MothersWhoMake or on Facebook here) - you can even use #SustainingMWM

           Sustainability: it’s a new word invented for our times – first used in the 1970s because so much of what we were and are doing isn’t it, so we needed to start being able to talk about it. The roots of the word are of course much older: sustinere, the Latin word, made from sub (up from below) and tenere (to hold). As with many words to sustain carries paradoxical meanings: both to be nourished and supported by something, as in ‘the food sustained us’ and to endure something, to suffer it, as in ‘she sustained an injury.’ It can refer therefore to the thing that both upholds you, and the thing that drags you down, the thing that keeps you going and the thing that nearly stops you but you manage to keep on anyway. Sounds like motherhood to me. Sounds like making. Sounds like caring for children and sounds like trying to make some art. I am interested in this paradox, this doubleness, how something can be both a challenge and an ally, a drain and a support, because somewhere in the midst of this alchemical contradiction I think the golden goal of ‘sustainability’ is probably to be found.

           There is a term that has been coined even more recently than the word ‘sustainability’ but it is meant to help us achieve it: ‘me time.’ It’s not just mothers that are meant to sustain themselves by making sure they have some ‘me time’, but certainly we are one of the categories of people that apparently most need it. I have a strong reaction to the phrase because it seems to override the paradoxes and complexity inherent in the quest for genuine sustainability. Don’t get me wrong - I am as desperate for some time alone as the next mother (even as I write this I can hear my daughter coming up the stairs to look for me) but however desperate I may be I still want to resist a paradigm that implies that my time with my children is not for me but for them, that splits ‘me’ up in this way and does not celebrate the many ways in which my children sustain me – hold me up from below – even as I strive to sustain them. I want to resist a paradigm that measures resources, divvies up time into mine and theirs, because things are so critical, so unsustainable at present in my life and in the world at large, that I know we need to turn to renewable resources, to the ones that come freely and that keep on giving no matter what and that don’t involve my knowing my times tables up to 12, and how to divide the hours of my day up by the number of members in my family.  

           So what’s the new paradigm? I do not know – I’m feeling my way towards it. I know it’s the one that underlies Mothers Who Make, one that acknowledges the complexity of our work. In a MWM meeting everyone has their turn, their time, but it isn’t ‘me-time’ so much as the renewable, reciprocal resource that is shared time – time to share what is holding you up or pulling you down, or both. One of the questions with which I am grappling at the moment is whether this simple ‘shared time’ structure is the best one for all MWM meetings or whether we should diversify and explore different ways of supporting one another. I’d love to hear your answers to this and the other questions with which I opened. I know that hearing each other’s answers is itself a big part of the sustainable answer…. I will end, for now, by giving you mine:

1)   What sustains you? My children. My husband. My mother. My friends. Sleep. Food. Writing. Reading. Moving. Climbing. Being near or in water. Being near or in the woods.

2)   In what way does MWM sustain you? And how could it sustain you better? It provides me with a community, actual and virtual. It enables me to articulate and understand my daily experiences and challenges in a wider context, beyond the immediate one around me, which is often just me and the children, playing out on the pavement before the house. 

MWM could sustain me better by being solidly, reliably there – an established thing that I do not need to keep inventing. A local and national resource.

3)   How could MWM as a movement become more sustainable? More funding would help, but as well more connected-ness. I need to give it over to more of you to sustain it, to sustain ourselves, in the paradoxical way that I believe it can.

Where are the images of us?

           We are building a website for Mothers Who Make – it is both exciting and revealing. We need images to populate the site. Images of us, of mother-makers. This is proving hard. Images of mothers – no problem. Several millennia of imagery from which to choose, across diverse cultures and continents, from the Virgin Mary to Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, with her latest baby outside the royal palace. Images of women engaged in their creative work – a slightly less extensive library of options but still a wealth available, from Hildegard of Bingen to Frida Kahlo. However, look for images of women engaged in the visible practice of both roles at once – being simultaneously present with their children and engaged in their work – and the pool of options dramatically shrinks. You could argue that this is because it is hard to do, that this lends force to the argument that children and art are indeed incompatible and that you have to make your choice - you can’t do both at once. However I don’t believe this is true. There are images of women mothering and making at the same time, but they are not of women based in the UK, or anywhere near it. I am wary of the potential of stereotyping women from other countries or cultures, but the very existence of the image of a woman with a baby on her back, or beside her, at work in the fields, at home, in this instance seems relevant to my quest.

           A year ago when, without funding, I first began to search for a visual way to represent Mothers Who Make, for a while the newsletter was headed with an image of a cave painting of many hands. I liked it because it connected to the grassroots, collective peer-support nature of MWM but also because it is one of the earliest images of art in the world, and recent research suggests it was made by women – that women, some of them mothers, were amongst the first artists there ever were. 

          We looked into the image of hands when exploring the building of the website, but nowadays, a couple of million years later, hands connote ‘messy play’ - child’s play, not adult art. Meanwhile images of western women at work with children present are purposefully incongruous – the woman in a neat suit, beside a computer, awkwardly holding her baby.          

         Our culture does not support us to inhabit both our mothering and our making roles fully. Even if you are not someone who wants to sling your child on her back and take them to work, even if you want to keep the roles as separate as possible, in time, in space, on some level you must still hold both at once, and what you are doing is invisible – you are, quite literally, not seen.

           Mothers Who Make began because I wanted to create a space in which I could be visible and valued in both roles at once – there was no space in which this happened. Everywhere, I had to be one or the other. In a rehearsal room or a meeting I was meant to be a maker and if my son was there I had to keep him as ‘on the edge’ as possible. At the playground I was meant to be a mother and when I engaged with other adults in this context there were clear parameters around the exchange – we talked about sleep, or the lack of it, breastfeeding, weaning, the things that are meant to be on a mum’s mind, not what the structure of my novel might be, or how to define the heart of its story.

           I have heard women talk about how visible they felt in pregnancy – the fact of the growing bump, right there wherever they went so that, for better or worse, everyone knew, could offer a seat on the bus or feel they had the right to pat, comment, question. In London there is even a badge you can wear, to ensure people know if they happen to miss the bump, or if it is not yet obvious: ‘Baby on board’. 

And then suddenly, post-birth, the momentous reverse, the invisibility of motherhood, right at the point when you most want recognition, applause, support. Invisible either because you are ‘just-another-mum’ on the bus and none of your other identities, dreams, desires can be glimpsed, or invisible because you are alone, someone else is looking after your child and no one would know what an extraordinary transformation you have been through, that you are a mother now and not the same woman you were a year ago. I have been dreaming about making a new badge, not ‘Baby on board’ but ‘Baby elsewhere’ – because s/he is out there, your baby, in the world and the world needs to know it, because it too has been changed by this new presence.

           Everyone needs to be seen. Naomi Stadlen, whom I have credited before as an inspiration for this group, brilliantly titled her book ”What Mothers Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing.” That’s it. Looking like nothing. It is time to look like something. So I am setting you a creative challenge for the month and also making a genuine request from MWM HQ :

Your Month’s Commission: Making Yourself Visible.

Do you have an image of yourself engaged in your creative practice with your child(ren) present – inside, beside you, helping, hindering, playing, running away, watching, being bored, ignoring you, laughing, crying, sleeping? Or could you create one? Could this in itself be a small creative project, to create a portrait of yourself, of your double identities? Please do this, send it to us and help us populate our website and make ourselves visible, because we are here, quietly changing the world.

How to send your image:

·     Please send up to 3 images by email to:

·     Please credit yourself, your children, your making and the photographer

·     Please state that you give consent for Mothers Who Make to use this image on our website, social media and marketing materials.

·     Please send us your image/s by the end of July.

·     We may not be able to use all images submitted on the website but will endeavour to honour and celebrate them all in a gallery online or on social media.

·     We’d also love you to post your picture on the Facebook group to share your experience and encourage others to send us a picture.

Announcing the Mothers Who Make Commissions....

Mothers Who Make is delighted to announce our exciting commissioning initiative.

Emerging out of the National Theatre R&D group that Matilda ran last year, 7 London-based artists who are mothers have taken on a micro-commission to make a piece of work.

So without further ado, we are delighted to introduce these 7 artists and their projects. DRUMROLL please……..

The List of Mundanity - a show in the making

By Rachael Spence, actor and theatre maker.

Rachael has become preoccupied with the divvying up of everyday tasks within her home. She wants it to be fair. It isn’t. She has started to make a list of everything that needs to be done. The problem is that the list keeps growing – and growing. Will she ever reach the end of it? Might some algorithms and data analysis help her in her quest for domestic equality? If she turns her list into a show, who will carry out all the tasks at home while she is on stage……?

Unstoppered – a podcast

By Gemma Kerr, theatre maker and director.

Gemma is curious about women’s experiences of ‘leaks’ in their lives, from getting your period at an inopportune moment, having night sweats during the menopause, to lying in puddles of breastmilk and wee. So Gemma is sending out a message in a bottle - through an open invitation, she would like women to write her an anonymous, leaky letter. These stories and confessions will be used to create a podcast to celebrate female ‘leaks’ and help break the taboos about the things that women’s bodies do.

Story Works – a story workshop

By Julia Gwynne, actress, storyteller and writer.

Julia loves stories.  She loves telling them, hearing them and writing them.  She loves the way stories connect us, inspire us, excite us and are part of us.  She loves the way they can help us cope with tricky times and the way they communicate with children (and adults!).  Julia will write a small collection of stories for her son (and anyone else who would like to share them) and will run a series of gentle workshops in a local school that offer a step by step guide for mothers on how to write, create, act or draw a story for their child/ren.  Some images and excerpts from the group’s stories will appear on the MWM website in the autumn.

The Sounds of Motherhood: a graphic score

By Delea Shand, singer, music educator, performer.

Delea has been composing with her children, focusing on the daily practice of mothering and the creativity involved. They haven’t been writing down fixed pitches and durations, as in conventional musical notation, but instead they’ve been making graphic scores, with images, pictures and symbols. This technique is a great way of engaging children and empowering adult ‘non-musicians’ to compose together. Delea will share her approach through a community workshop, on the MWM website, and will perform her finished score in the autumn.

Mother Record Book – a DIY book

By Zoe Gardner, writer and performer.

Why do we only track the baby’s development? What about the mother’s no less momentous change? Born of a desire to mimic, deface and remodel the Baby Record book format, Zoe’s Mother Record Book is an intimate object and a sociable project: a book recording Zoe’s personal experience of motherhood (poems mainly written in the dark while breastfeeding,) with extending/retracting tabs: prompts and invitations for mothers to respond with their own creations. Through workshops at her local community centre and other child-friendly venues, Zoe is making a living installation, piecing and stitching it together while engaging in conversation and mutual support of the process.

Picturing Mother Makers and Making Mothers – a photographic exhibition

By Miriam Nabarro, artist and theatre designer.

Miriam wants to record the often silent, uncelebrated histories of artist mothers and mother artists. She will turn the camera on their creativity, resilience, endless juggling and survival. She will highlight the intergenerational knowledge and wisdom that as yet has had no place to be gathered. This mother artist archive project will involve a series of interviews on creative practice and mothering, alongside photographic portraitures.

This Year Will Turn – a novel

By Matilda Leyser, theatre-maker, writer.

Matllda has been writing a novel for six years. She knows it has been this long because she began it when her son was born, and he is now six and a half. She wants to finish it before he turns seven. It is a novel about motherhood, inspired by the great mythical mother, Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest, and the story of love and loss that surrounds her and her daughter, Persephone. Alongside finishing the book, Matilda will interview other mother-writers about their experiences and aims to hold a family-friendly writing retreat.

Each of these artworks will act as a resource and participative invitation to other mothers, through workshops, digital engagement and a live sharing at an event in London this autumn.

Mothers Who Make will share news of public workshops, showings, blogs, resources and other ways in which you can get involved over the coming months on Twitter and our national Facebook group. The whole project will be archived on our new website which will launch in autumn 2018.

We want these mirco-commissions to set a precedent for future commissions that will be open to mothers and makers based anywhere within the UK MWM network.

Introducing Some Wonderful Side Effects…

Halfway through the Mothers Who Make Crowdfunding campaign that I ran back in December, a startling challenge to the campaign’s output appeared on the MWM Facebook page:

Where is the sense - for the outsider - that all this isn’t just tea and toddler natter? You have pictures of kids, and kids’ toys, and mothers and kids - but where’s the ART?! Where’s the visual sense of the extraordinary capabilities in need of being nurtured here? (Nicky Singer)

            It was a very valid and vital challenge (thank you Nicky!). Once confronted in this way the truth seemed stunningly obvious – yes, of course – where was the art?! I had been so focussed on MWM as a process, as a peer support network that involved creating safe, well-held, pressure-free, diverse spaces, welcoming to any woman who identifies as a mother/maker, that I had not even considered representing the outcome, the art, within our campaign.

            Ultimately my ambition for Mothers Who Make is incredibly simple: I want it to do one thing really well. I want it to provide support. I want it to be welcoming to the many of us who do not feel confident about our status as ‘makers’ or artists. I want it to be accessible to someone who has made nothing but soup for ten years. Or someone who has simply made it out the door, has managed to arrive in the room, or on our page online. No one is going to stop you at the entrance and demand to see your CV or latest artwork. As I have said before, if you feel the need to be there, if you recognise why such a thing as MWM exists, you can come.

           One of the strongest links for me between my mothering and my making is that they are both practices. By this I mean nothing glamorous – I mean I have to show up everyday and do them. The emphasis for me will always be on this, on the practice, the process of turning up, of listening, of holding space, for my children, for other mothers and makers, for myself but – “Where’s the ART?!”….. Focussing on practice should not become an excuse to hide away, an avoidance tactic. Putting stuff out there is a critical part of the practice, the process, the unfolding conversation – without it the conversation only circles in on itself, and grows smaller, not wider, richer, deeper. I have realised that to do that one thing well, of providing support, Mothers Who Make needs to put out some art.  

           Last year, in the foyer space outside the Olivier at the National in a fantastically apposite space, on the margins of the prestigious, like some small protest camp that had been given legitimate rights to set up our stall, 8 mothers and makers came together. I had put out a call for participants to engage in a MWM R&D, 4 sessions over 4 months, with homework in between. It was unfunded. I would not charge but nor could I pay, but I wanted people to commit to all 4 sessions so that there would be a consistent group of us meeting. I wanted to go further, deeper than I felt the regular monthly peer support meetings in London, run on a drop in basis, enabled me to go, to research how mothering can inform making and vice versa.

           The homework I set – notice what you notice in your mothering days - was inspired in large part by a writer, graphic novelist and heroine of mine, Lynda Barry. The one thing I told everyone they must bring along to our sessions, outside the Olivier, was a notebook. Over to Lynda Barry on the power of the notebook:

I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I started my first notebook. I had no idea that nearly 40 years later, I would….still be using it as the most reliable route to the thing I’ve come to call my work….a place to practice a physical activity – in this case writing and drawing by hand – with a certain state of mind. This practice can result in what I’ve come to consider a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call ‘a work of art,’ although a work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity. What am I after? I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

           In the midst of the practice, some things appear we can call a work of art. This is what happened as a result of our R&D group last year: I am building up to announcing Mothers Who Make’s first set of commissions, some wonderful side effects……

           One more thing to acknowledge: I am one of the commissioned artists. I want to explain why this is. I included myself in the R&D group as a participant as well as a facilitator, as I do in all MWM sessions. MWM is a peer support network. I may have started it, but I am, at the end of the day, a participant, a peer. I am a mother and a maker, trying to figure out how on earth to do these two things, and finding it hard right now to eke out any inch of the day for my making, hoping that I can find a way for MWM to support rather than exhaust me. Also I think I should be willing to do whatever it is I am asking of others. This involves my being prepared to feel vulnerable.

At the start of every MWM group I ask people to name “What they make or what they are dreaming of making.” I can answer this – I say I am a theatre-maker and a writer. It is a stock answer that it is no longer hard for me to say. BUT to tell people what I am actually making, let alone show any of it to them is another matter. Over the last six years I have breastfed my children well into their toddlerhoods, brazenly getting out my boob in public in front of countless strangers. No problem. During the same amount of time I have been writing a novel, which I have revealed to almost no one. I think it is time at last to answer that intervention: Where’s the ART?!

           All of the MWM commissions have a participative/ invitational element – it was part of the brief. Watch out for these. Take them as invitations to engage, to practice, to make, to share and show. And this is also my question to you for the month. What are you making right now? It could be epic or tiny. A book, a show, a play, a song, a composition, a picture, a sculpture, a design, a pot, a poem, or just an idea, a sketch on the back of a napkin or a nappy, or simply in the back of your mind – a flicker of something in between the shopping lists and laundry.

           Come to a meeting to share it in a safe, supportive space, post it on FB, tweet it with our hashtag. Let’s show each other and the world where the art is….

Go here to read about the MWM commissions:

Mothering/ Making - but what about the Mating?!

           Spring has sprung at last. The bluebells are out in our garden. The apple tree is in blossom and a pair of wood pigeons that nest there are clearly busy. It is the month of May. The mating season has begun.  

           Mating. The thing that often, though not always, precedes mothering. A mate: your partner; your other half; your significant other; your wife; your husband; your spouse; your girlfriend; your boyfriend; your man; your woman; your dear one; your queer one; your ex. Have I left yours off the list? Please add them in….

           I feel nervous as I sit down to write about this. I have said before that I aim to challenge the ‘professional versus personal’ paradigm around which our lives are organised and via which the personal gets a poor name. But isn’t this theme getting a little toopersonal? It is okay to talk about mothering – it’s personal but valuing it is what I am advocating. It is okay to talk about making – it’s both personal and professional – that’s the point. It straddles both. But your mate? Your partner? Isn’t that a step too far? It feels like a ‘hot spot.’ It is tender, difficult, awkward, and yet it is huge. An elephant in the room, or a father/ mother/ non-binary other, just outside it. All the more reason to brave it. Here goes….

           In part I am nervous raising this topic because in doing so I could summon up the image of a group of mothers sitting round having a moan about their men. This is not my aim – quite the opposite in fact. It is also not the only reason why I feel nervous. Inevitably this is where I need to get personal….

           I have a husband. I still flinch slightly when I use this term. I like it because I love my husband and I loved our wedding. I want to honour the seriousness of my lifelong commitment to him. I do not like it because of the plethora of assumptions it brings with it about who I am and how my life is organised. It makes me a participant in the ‘proper world’ of marriage and all it brings – for better, for worse. I participate in the ‘properness’ and yet I also identify myself as outside or even against it, certainly not one of its unequivocal proponents.

           Back to my husband. We met whilst making. We made a show together. Then another. Then we made a home, and then, a baby.  I remember when our son first arrived I did not feel the instant overwhelming maternal love that some describe – the love grew later - but I did feel protective at once, responsible for this raw bundle of life with such palpable needs. This has continued. The children and my care of them – we now have two – are, for me, a given. I cannot not respond to them. If anything this is a confession, not a boast. Judgements aside, I am simply noticing that the children’s place in my day, as part of my time, is unquestionable.    

           I am in the extremely privileged, and weirdly traditional, position of being, for the most part, supported by my husband financially, which means I have been able to be a full time mother. I love it. I never resent the fact that I do most of the childcare, but I might if I had to give up my creative practice to do so. Along with the children being a given, it has felt essential for me to keep making – the critical quality of this need is the origin of Mothers who Make. So, I HAVE to mother, I HAVE to make – these two take up more than all my time, but what then of my marriage?

           Mothers Who Make acknowledges the challenges, as well as the joys, of mothering alongside making, but if I am honest the truly fractious, difficult fault line, or conundrum for me since becoming a mother has not been how to sustain my creative practice, but how to sustain and care for my relationship, for my mate. At night in the tiny window of time after the children are asleep (they go to bed late) I often have a choice: do I see my husband for an hour or do I do some work? At weekends we take it in turns: I give my husband some time to work while I am with the children, then we swap – no time for us. All too often the making and the marriage feel pitted against each other, even though I know that in fact the latter grew out of the former and the two are inextricably connected.

            Mothers Who Make meetings and events are adult-centred spaces but the children are welcomed and integrated. Such spaces are rare in our cultural topography yet whilst I am busy broadcasting about these to the world, showing that it is not only possible but good for all of us – adults and children alike – I do not manage it at home. At home we are child-centred and the adults needs are marginalised. We squeeze in our needs around the edge of the children’s or we don’t get them met at all. It is not how I wish it to be, but it is difficult to change. There are several reasons for this, some personal, some to do with the children we happen to have, some connected to our patterns of work  - working in the arts our work spills out into every corner of our lives, demanding its own nurturing, and in subtle ways makes it harder for us to assert our adult-connection and ownership of the home space.

           Another key reason, not particular to us, is the shortcomings of the nuclear family structure. Within a Mothers who Makemeeting a small community is formed for the duration of the session. Mostly there are more adults than children present in the space, and collectively, sitting in a circle, it is possible to hold the structure of the meeting in place, to keep the space adult-centred even whilst the children interrupt, shout, cry and run around us. With a circle of two, at home, it is harder. I am not saying it is impossible – for some it works, but I believe we need a greater diversity of structures around which we could build our lives. The royal fairy tale goes: man meets woman, they fall in love, marry, settle, have two or more children and live happily ever after.  We know it is not real or even necessarily desirable, and yet it is amazing how potent it still remains, how far we compare ourselves against it, so that any other narrative becomes a daring deviation or, worse, a failure.

           Whilst the bluebells and the apple tree may be blooming in the sunshine, the carrots that my son planted in one corner are only tiny shoots, barely showing through. Allotment gardeners talk about the month of May, when the winter brassica’s are over and the summer’s first broad bean’s have not yet come in, as ‘the hungry gap.’ There is little or no fresh produce, whilst everything grows. After our initial season of courtship and mating, my husband and I are in ‘the hungry gap’ – we’ve been in it for a while. The children are young and growing but not yet grown, and there is almost no time to feed our relationship. I trust we will come out the other side into a late summer romance, but it is a struggle. I wish we could find another gentler, more joyful way through, not just buckling down and bearing it. We are in the midst of trying, seeing if and how we might house my mother, the indomitable granny, who is as close as we can come to an extended family model, seeing if and how we might be able to reconfigure our home/ work spaces to better meet our needs.

           Here then are my month’s questions for you all: what’s your way through? How does it work for you? How does it not? What is blooming? What is struggling to grow? We need a plurality of stories, diverse gardens, a new sustainable ecology, within which to nurture ourselves, our work, our children and our mates be they men, women or queer - they are all dear.


           Space: mental, emotional, physical. I used to be someone who needed a lot of space - at least that’s what I thought. A room of my own and lots of time alone in it. Whole days, preferably several at a time. However, since becoming a mother six years ago I have had none of this. I feel lucky at present if I get a chance to visit the loo unaccompanied, and invariably, even if I have managed to sneak off unseen, one of my children will come find me or holler to me that they need something urgently when I am still mid-pee. I am still somewhat shocked and perplexed by this, by the contrast between my pre-motherhood identity, as someone who required a great deal of space in order to survive, and the reality of my life with children – days and nights of constant company. I have even managed to dispossess myself of a room in our house – at the moment I sleep in the children’s room so that my son refers to the other bedroom as “Daddy’s” – Mummy doesn’t have, or apparently require, a space of her own.

           The image that comes to my mind is of  Wile E Coyote, that cartoon character famous for running off the edge of cliffs. He keeps running in mid-air and only falls when he looks down and realises the ground is no longer beneath him. I feel like this about motherhood – I ran off the cliff edge and kept running. Six years later I have not yet begun to plummet – I am still running, legs whirring, not daring to look down. The funny thing about this image is that it is of someone hovering mid-air, surrounded by nothing but sky – loads of space. It helps me understand what is perhaps the key to my strange ability to have survived this long with minimal time alone. I realise that what I mean by ‘space’ – a wonderfully vague and overused term- is actually place, ground, earth, and that even though my children have indeed taken away my alone-time, they have given me a keener sense of place than I ever had before.

           Perhaps it is because children are so fantastically present. Mine force me to stop and notice the fuchsia growing in the neighbour’s front garden, scarlet flowers waiting to be popped open, the tiny walnuts that have fallen on the pavement, the letters printed on the manhole cover at the end of the street. I have to engage with the places I inhabit far more fully than I did before. The map of everywhere changes on becoming a mother, the landmarks shift forever – the river is now somewhere to stop and see whether we can spy any bubbles coming up from the fish. The parks, cafes, shops, libraries, swimming pool, take on new meanings, become places to head towards, small islands that set our compass for the days.  

           Mothers Who Make in part began because of my new heightened awareness of the places I was moving through with my son and how they were segregated into child-centred ones (playgrounds, playgroups) and adult-centred ones (rehearsal rooms, meetings) with no children present. Mothers Who Make meetings aim to model a third kind of space –adult-centred but child-friendly. It is still the biggest challenge in setting up a new group – what space can a venue give us? I want a room of our own. I don’t want a public foyer. Suitable spaces are hard to find. And it is of course an issue that comes up again and again within the meetings themselves – the struggle to find space, to create, to dream, to unwind, or, as above, just to have a pee.

           Right now I am finding it helpful to ground this ‘spacey’ question through the notion of ‘place’ rather than space. So this is my question for the month: what are your places? What are the particular convergences of time and space that give you a moment to dream? Mine are the landing outside the children’s bedroom before they wake up in the morning, and the cargo trike ride that I do with them along the river. Sometimes the dreaming is only for ten minutes, or even five, or only one – nonetheless it helps. It stops me plummeting off the cliff edge, or rather it enables me to land well, where I am. How about you? Where are your places? The morning shower? The late night kitchen table? The walk to the park? ……post below or come to a meeting to share.


Why Don’t Breasts Make More Noise?

“Beep beep”, says my daughter, gently, but still annoyingly, prodding the nipple she has been feeding at. And I think of the “Honk honk” breasts have been assigned more traditionally, by grown-ups in their less grown-up moments.

But it’s a fair criticism: breasts have a fatal flaw. They are an almost-complete multi-sensory experience. From birth a baby uses their most developed senses to find what they need most; skin-to-skin helps them use Touch and Smell to navigate to the nipple, and there are remarkable videos of newborns using innate reflexes to find their way there.

Taste must follow hot on the heels of these first two senses. I did once dip a finger in some expressed milk, out of curiosity, and found it to be a rather foul musty flavour, but each to their own. Human milk is sweeter than cows’, presumably giving us a taste for a lifetime of syrupy lattes, and giving the hot sweet tea, prescribed to those suffering from shock, its comforting kick.

At some point later, the visual appearance of breasts becomes apparent, and it’s definitely their least important quality in the eyes of an infant – ironically, considering that for their mother appearance may well have been the breasts’ most important quality up until now. But nevertheless, the look of a boob or two is a tempting prospect – a plunging neckline catches the attention of red-blooded adult and infant enthusiast alike. I am careful to wrap myself in a towel after bathing, these days less due to modesty than because I’d like to get dressed without exposing my equipment for an opportunistic nibble.

But what of the audio element? Did God forget? Run out of time? From an early age my daughters sought to make up for this deficiency by supplementing the nursing experience with a sort of idle mouth-full yodelling. Whether an appreciative hymn or a summons to make the milk flow faster is unclear, but it certainly drew accompanying percussive huffs and puffs from their sleep-deprived father.

I can’t help being glad at the taciturn nature of the mammary gland. Even without my boobs playing a tune, breastfeeding a toddler attracts more attention than I’d like. Only because it somehow feels too public a declaration of my parenting choices, as if it’s something I’m doing stridently, almost aggressively, challenging others to find it offensive, rather than the natural continuation of my relationship with my child. (I think this feeling was uppermost in my heart when I warmed to Elena Ferrante’s recent column about women having to be careful not to be ‘too much’ of anything. We have our own internal spies keeping us in line, holding us back from transgressing, I’m not sure when mine were first appointed, certainly before puberty.) Like all the positive parts of motherhood, I am wary of discussing breastfeeding because it can seem smug or gushy, and I don’t think I’m alone in this reluctance. Before I had a child I knew I wanted one desperately but wasn’t sure why as I’d barely heard a good word said about motherhood. Maybe I filtered it out, but maybe happy parents were careful to self-censor.

It turns out motherhood is tiring and requires sacrifices – or choices as they should rightly be called from a position of privilege. Choices that sometimes bring feelings of ambivalence. None of this has surprised me that much. What I have found surprising is both the extent to which I have enjoyed motherhood and the extent to which that in itself has felt like a thorny issue. I was shocked to hear David Byrne describe his embarrassment at the conventional act of pushing a pram. Every moment of my experience of motherhood has felt like the opposite of slotting in to the prevailing culture, often uncomfortably so. I never felt so much of a rebel as when putting caring for my children before other concerns – financial stability, personal development, creative fulfilment. I’ve shied away from actually joining organisations like Mothers At Home Matter (which presumably yolks together the extremes of Right and Left wing beliefs about how these mothers can stay at home, either by having secured funds by virtue of birth/marriage/hard bloody work – otherwise don’t breed, or by having access to a Universal Wage of some kind.) You can probably guess which camp I fall into but I am secretly an adherent of the general uniting principle and yet am too scared to meet these women who alienate their sisters on the middle of both Right and Left wing belief by suggesting that by being with their young children full-time they might not be sacrificing their full worth. It’s just too outrageous a claim. How dare they even say it in public? I certainly won’t.

Ferrante suggests that men are jealous of women’s ability to grow new life. Perhaps this is true. Certainly our society is constructed so as to bestow little value on the worth of caring for infants – think how often the cost of childcare is bemoaned – how can such lowly work be paid so much? And there must be a reason behind this.

But I think there is a deeper reason why breastfeeding in particular feels such a weirdly countercultural act. It’s intimate. There’s nothing more intimate. And we live in a culture where we are used to access all areas. We expect it. I am very ill-travelled, have rarely ever boarded a plane, and I console myself with the thought that I can see the world through my screens, hear others’ travel tales. I’m pretty sure my adventurer friends know this for the self-deception it is. The internet also promises intimacy, a panacea for loneliness. Nothing gives the lie to this more than the sight of a woman and infant nursing. We feel it when we see it, the presence of a communing dyad from which the observer is excluded.

There is some truth in this. I’d never heard of the word ‘dyad’ before I breastfed – I’d never needed it. ‘Couple’ is the closest I’d come, and it’s not the same ( – admitting that feels like a betrayal – not just of my partner and his predecessors but of a cherished concept of fulfilment in sexual monogamy.) Breastfeeding is a visible, hearty, outward show of the bond that exists between any infant and their primary carer, whether breastfeeding or not; a bond that needs words we lack. Old English had dual pronouns for just two people – an ‘us/we’ meaning ‘both of us’ and a ‘you’ meaning ‘both of you’. When my younger child was a newborn, her sister started calling us Mummybaby. “Is Mummybaby coming with us?” she would ask, understanding in her two year-old wisdom what I could not have explained: that her baby sister and I were for the moment one unit with interdependent needs and wishes that could not easily be untangled each from each. This is almost impossible to articulate in an age that requires us to be productive units, rather than a mini self-nurturing community, producing nothing of ‘worth’ while somehow making/consuming free food. Go, as they say, figure.

But on the other hand, since having babies I’ve never felt more connected to the rest of the world, in particular more certain of the neediness of all of us. And despite having studied literature and having a continued fondness for words, I’ve never trusted them much as a fully functioning means of communication. (99.97% of interesting animals agree with me. And mynah birds are complete dolts.) So, breastfeeding, which feels like body language at Olympic level, provides an opportunity for me to briefly enjoy communicating in the way that feels far more real than, say, writing a blog about it. And although I don’t necessarily welcome involved conversation while breastfeeding, it’s already something that puts me in a bit of a hippie trance of love for my fellow human, and, creepy as this would have sounded to me before having kids, I’d be happy for pretty much anyone to join us and bask in the silent communion. It’s not watching. It’s listening.

Breastfeeding is not silent anyway. When it ends, which I suspect it will soon, the most potent memory pang remaining will be an auditory one – the glug-glug of someone swallowing from me. The sound of my temporary superpower. A music that like no other taps the source of my favourite drug, oxytocin, and sends it coursing through my veins. The sound of my heart melting.

Why don’t breasts make more noise? Because they don’t have to. They already speak (unquantifiable, liquid,) volumes.

Thank you Zoe Gardner for this. Zoe was the mother who told me about the archaic dual pronoun, which inspired my last blog.

Motherhood - Before and After: I, Wit and Me Now….

           “Getting your body back” is a phrase that is currently targeted at new mothers via adverts and articles detailing fitness regimes, diets, antenatal classes. I have heard it too in anxious exchanges between mothers. I googled it just now and, “10 easy ways to get your pre-baby body back” came straight up. I have a strong response to this. I want to retort loudly, “I don’t need it back - no one has taken my body away! It’s still mine! ” In fact it feels more mine now than it ever has, no longer needing to conform to others’ images of how it ought to look. The experiences of being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding have given me an extraordinary new sense of my body’s capabilities. Motherhood has changed me irrevocably. I want that change to be a cause for celebration, stretch marks and all, not a thing I should be trying to reverse or hide, a secret source of shame. I spent much of my pre-motherhood life working within circus as an aerialist. Circus, for all its alternative kudos, is nonetheless a body-controlling industry and I struggled with chronic anorexia throughout most of those years. Motherhood at long last cured me of this, made me glad, proud even, of my body’s fat and its amazing creative potential. Hence my fierce reaction to the imperative to “get your body back.”

           However, there is another deeper question that lies underneath this phrase that means I cannot altogether dismiss it, despite my strong feminist politics of the body and its ownership. It is to do with the profound and complex shifting of identities that a woman often goes through on becoming a mother – who she was, who she is now, how the two connect or don’t.

           At our last Mothers Who Make meeting one woman shared how she had recently learnt of an archaic English pronoun, wit meaning ‘we two’ or git, ‘you two.’ In other words not ‘we’, which could refer to any number more than one, but a ‘we’ that specifically meant two - me and one other. She said how helpful she would have found such a pronoun during her days of early motherhood, when her baby was still so new as to be always with her and still dependent on her presence for survival, how they were still ‘one unit’ even though the baby had now arrived on to the outside of her body. I love this – the idea of a two people pronoun. I love how clearly it articulates the complexity of the transformation we go through, from the ‘I’ of pre-motherhood, to the ‘we’ or ‘wit’ of mother and child, to the changed ‘I’ of a new mother. These things take time. Different lengths of time for different mothers and different children. I am still breastfeeding my daughter of 21 months, still sharing my body with her. My son at 6 still needs his cuddles - so do I. There are no ‘10 easy steps’ to take as we move back from ‘wit’ to being only ‘I.’

           I do not want my pre-baby body back. I do not even want my pre-baby self back, but there are things I miss about who I was. I miss spending time with my partner. I miss spending time by myself. I miss going for a swim alone and the feel of my arms, cutting through the water. I miss stepping out of the house with nothing but a set of keys in my pocket. The other day I was in a playground with my children (and lots of bags – I always leave the house these days with many more things besides the keys.) I had an impulse to see whether I could still swing across the monkey bars. I could, just, but as I swung from the cold metal rungs, the air under my feet, I felt a kind of ghost or genie of who I used to be unfurl from me and drift up over the play equipment. Then my daughter wanted to be lifted onto the swings and the moment was already over. It was an exhilarating, whistful, sad second. Something gone/ not gone. Something still a part of me, that makes me who I am, something still informing the kind of work I make, the kind of mother I am, but also something I will never be again: I am not going to hang from my aerial rope 10 meters in the air anymore.

           I know I am not alone. I have heard many other mothers/ makers expressing something similar – how they felt lost as to who they were after becoming a mum, had to reinvent themselves and their creative practise, how this has been both wonderful and incredibly hard. It is where MWM began, from this shaky, uncertain place of wondering who I had become.

           So here are my questions for the month: How has it been for you to go from the ‘I’ you were, to the ‘we’ of you and a child, and on to the ‘I’ of whoever you are now? What do you miss? What do you celebrate? Since becoming a mother how are you both the same and different in yourself and in your making?  Post your answers on the Facebook forum, or come to a meeting to share….

Mothers Who Make: A Letter of Invitation to all the Producer Job Applicants and Everyone Else Too....

Dear Kandy, Courtney, Charlotte, Benjamin, Ben, Eleonora, Grace, Hazel, Kimberly, Otto, Clarrisa, Debbie, Keltie, Anna, Cameron, Delea, Ellen, Helen, Jenny, Laun, Lucy, Mandy, Mary, Rachel, Rebecca, Ruth, Sherona, Tina, Toyah, Claire, Genine, Georgie, Heidi, Kate, Li, Michelle, Noemi, Rebecca, Rhiannon, Sarah, Victoria, Becca, Ray, Ruby, Sara Marie, Viccy, Suzy, Jenna, Rosie, Leonie, Cariad, Cristina, Faith, Hilary, Lily, Liz, Lizzy, Lydia, Sam, Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca and everyone one else too,

           There is something that I have noticed happens increasingly in both professional and commercial contexts: “Dear Matilda,…..” begins the email, letter, text which is trying to sell me something, persuade me to join a cause, or tell me that my story has not been short listed. The script that follows is the same script that is being sent to thousands if not millions of others. It is not in truth addressed to me but by using my name as an opener it makes it sound as if it is personal, as if someone, somewhere cares about me enough to write. Sometimes the cause is a good one but nonetheless it bothers me, this co-opting of a personal tone for professional ends, because it seems hypocritical – the personal gets such a bad name, until it is useful. It makes me think of the wolf, dressed up as grandma – looking sweet, ready to pounce. So I thought I would try to do this differently, to be transparent about writing the same words to all of you. I intend to write you individual replies but it is going to take me a long time because there are many of you – 65 in total –and I don’t want to leave you waiting months. Anyway there are some things I want to say to all of you. Here they are……

           Firstly a huge thank you. It has been extraordinary to receive and read your applications for the role of producer for Mothers Who Make. It has been moving and startling. You made me laugh, cry, feel outrage, passion and amazement. Above all it has been incredibly humbling, again. I say ‘again’ because this has been the story of Mothers Who Make all along. I set out to do something small, low impact, straightforward  – start a local group for some creative mothers, raise some funds, recruit a producer – and the response each time was such that the process became profound and far-reaching. I never expected so many applications. I never expected so many people to want the role or to understand the initiative with such depth or to engage with such generosity and commitment.

           Not all of you are mothers. I was impressed by the men who applied and by the women who are not mothers but who have the vision to support this mother-centred movement. Most of you however are mothers, and there was one thing that struck me about you - the same thing that often hits home when I am sitting in a Mothers Who Make meeting. It is simply this: how much you are doing. Often the mothers in a meeting are apologetic for how little they are currently making and then as they talk further it transpires that they are engaged in epic endeavours - training for a marathon was one example from the last meeting, but it is a good one because marathon-running is such a symbol of heroic effort and so many of us have figurative marathons to run. The phrase a ‘mother producer’ is a tautology. Mothers are producers – we produce milk, meals, clothes, wet wipes, stories, songs, comfort. We produce people. It is a staggering feat. But on top of that, on the basis of your applications, I know that you are also producing plays, dances, books, companies, websites, records, workshops, exhibitions, venues, networks, art galleries and more – there is a stunning breadth of skills, experience and abilities amongst you. I would, seriously, love to hire you all.

           However, at present I can only pay for 1 producer so there are 64 of you who will be disappointed. In a professional context what I am currently writing is referred to as a ‘rejection letter.’ It strikes me now as a strange phrase since it sounds intensely personal, ‘rejection’ being the word used when an offer of love is turned down, when a suitor is jilted or spurned. You have, many of you, made me an offer of love and the very last thing that I want or need to do is to reject it. Quite the opposite. Since I am in the business of re-inventing how business might be done, what I am writing to you now is a letter of invitation, not rejection. I am not trying to dismiss any disappointment you may feel in not getting the role of MWM producer. This is not a booby prize (though why the word ‘booby’ has come to connote a poor comfort instead of a rich result is in itself revealing!). I am entirely serious in my invitation to you. In many ways the role of producer is a small one – 5.5 months. The role which I am inviting you to take on is far more vital and longer term than that. Let me explain…

           I have been thinking about the ‘Me Too’ campaign. A common ‘me too’ narrative is this: a man in a position of power has been unprofessional, has ‘got personal’ in an undesirable way. Until recently this was acceptable. People turned a blind eye. The ‘Me Too’ campaign is the process of un-blinding us all. But there is another kind of blindness still at work. When a woman is labelled as unprofessional, as having ‘got personal,’ a likely narrative is this: she has become emotional, or she has become a mother. In other words she has introduced an element of care into a less-than-caring context. MWM aims to begin to foreground and give credence to this form of ‘me too’ narrative and to ask what what it would be like if ‘getting personal’ in this way could be reframed as positive, rather than it also being deemed as undesirable or even offensive. My invitation to you is to engage with me in this research.

           As I explained in my ‘unoffical job ad’ letter, I never intended to found a national network. It has been powered entirely by you – people-power. We now have a tiny injection of funds. The money will not last long and while I hope we will use it well to achieve a great deal it is not the thing that will make MWM grow. You will. Your stories. Your engagement. Your valuing of your mothering and your making and of each other. You are the ones who will be the producers of MWM, along with everything else that you are already, incredibly, producing.

           I am inspired by La Leche League, the international organisation, that supports women through the many challenges of breastfeeding. It is run by volunteers, by women who care enough to show up and help another woman learn to breastfeed. It began with a small group of women at a picnic. Two of them were breastfeeding and the others expressed an interest and said how they were sad they had failed to breastfeed their children. Now it is huge. In the last year alone over 25000 women have been supported by it across the world, via meetings, helplines, online enquiries and more. Maybe MWM will one day have a reach this grand, or maybe not, but either way I believe passionately in the power of the impetus that lies behind both LLL and MWM.

           So here are some things you can do – both practical and then less tangible.  Some of you, I know, are doing them already. If you are a mother you can attend a MWM meeting. You can start a MWM hub near you. Whomever you are you can tell others about the movement. Many of you have said that you are good at all the things I am not so good at, like social media. You can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – all of this, to spread the word.

           And then here is the less tangible, yet even more extraordinary thing that you can do. You can be unprofessional, by which I mean you can care with pride. Value your care for your children, for your making, for each other, for anyone. Sweeping statement coming up…..I really believe that if anything is going to save the world it will be this: an incremental yet momentous shift in valuing long-term care over short-term gain.

           I read a stunning blog this morning by a mother who is also a climate scientist. It was about the sea, about how she takes her son to the beach on the train and how she knows that in doing even this much she is participating in a system that is warming our oceans, how this will impact on her son and how terrifying this is. The sea is on my mind. My daughter is on my lap, breastfeeding. It is another Saturday in another coffee shop, as it was when I wrote to you before with my ‘unofficial job ad.’ I may not be inviting you to be my producer, but frankly that is a drop in the ocean. I am inviting you, collectively, to be the ocean - a sea of change. We need it.

Thank you.

Matilda x


When I talk to people about the parallels between my mothering and my making, my standard quip has become, “They both keep me up at night.” Whilst this is a joke it is also utterly true.

“Are you getting any sleep?” is the question people ask of new mothers. As someone who has never been good at sleeping I experienced those first few months of motherhood as something of a relief – at last, apparently, I had a legitimate, publicly acceptable reason for being tired and having disturbed, difficult nights. That period of legitimacy lasted for roughly six months. After that the nights of a hundred ‘shoulds’ began…..

Your child should be sleeping through the night. I am 43. I still do not sleep through the night. I never did – ask my mother. Your child should be in bed by 7pm. Mine are still rampaging round the house at 9, only just settling down at 10, asleep by 1030ish. Children should be getting 12 hours sleep a night and adults should be getting 8. My children get about 9.5 hours. I get about 6 broken ones. Your child should be able to get to sleep on their own – they should be able to self-soothe. I have breastfed my children to sleep. I have breastfed them back to sleep throughout the night. I have still not learnt the art of self-soothing myself – I will consider it an accomplishment if I have sorted this out by the time I am 50. Your child should be sleeping in his/ her own bed. Mine are in their own bed but I am in that bed with them. Once the children are asleep you should: a) catch up on your work; b) clean the house; c) have sex; d) go to bed yourself so you are well rested. It is a rare night when I manage to do any of these.

The list of night-time shoulds goes on…. The above is a sample of the main ones I have encountered but there are many others. Why so many? Why so much judgement and therefore shame around this most fundamental of needs? I think it is in part precisely because it is so fundamental  - it makes such a difference to our days, and it takes place at night. It is our vulnerable time. The time when we curl up into ourselves. The time when we dream. The time when we worry. The time when we close our eyes and all the things that we have stored away behind them come out to meet us – fears, hopes, grief, hurt, anxieties.

As I mentioned the skill of self-soothing that our babies are supposed to master is still one that I am working at in my middle age. So far I have found my work as an artist the most soothing thing that I can do – being engaged in making something. There is a poem by Alice Walker that I love called How Poems are Made, A Discredited View. It goes;

“There is a place the fear must go. There is a place the choice must go. There is a place the loss must go. The leftover love.”

Yes, I recognise this. My making work both keeps me up at night and yet it can also give me a kind of rest, a place for the fear / loss / love to go. It can resource me. Sometimes I think it can make up for my broken, short nights – a kind of dreaming while I am awake. But not entirely…. When at last I get some rare time in the day when the children are being cared for by someone else and I sit down to do my making, I find that in doing so I have to check in to how I truly am and as soon as I do that I realise I am exhausted - all I can do is to lie down.

So what am I asking? I know what I am not asking. I am not asking what the answer is. I am not asking what your tips and tricks are to get the kids to sleep through, to self-soothe, to go to bed early. I am more interested in asking this: how can we be kinder to ourselves and one another about our nights? About how much or little sleep we and our children have? About how tired we are? And if we were, if we were to ‘shush’ the many ‘shoulds’ out of the bedroom what would we do? How would that be? What would you dream of then? What would you make?

Mothers Who Make: The Unofficial Job Ad

           Mothers Who Make are recruiting. You may have seen the job ad we put out for a producer. ‘We put out…’ - I always find the use of the 1st person plural uncomfortable in a context like this. It feels like a grand lie, because the truth is that it is just me, sitting here in a café with the baby asleep in her sling, on a Saturday, which is when I do my writing. It was while the baby was asleep that I wrote my proper job ad for MWM– I had never written one before. I had no idea how to do it and so I had to crib from another, roughly equivalent, job advert that Improbable’s Executive Director was kind enough to share with me. Since then, rather to my surprise (what did I think would happen?!) I have begun to receive very properly worded applications. They start with things like, “Dear Sir/ Madam” and end with, “Thank you for your kind consideration of my application.”

           On the one hand I am glad to be going down this official route, glad to be accessing new networks by advertising the post properly, glad to be giving the position status. On the other hand the process runs counter to the very principles that underlie Mothers Who Make. I have written about this before but it strikes me with new force now: as a culture we polarise the personal and the professional, and the personal gets a bad name – it is ‘unprofessional,’ somewhat embarrassing or downright outrageous. Motherhood is hopelessly personal. It is messy and emotional – I was in tears only this morning because I am tired, my son was being difficult and I had run out of patience. I have a literature degree, a circus diploma, two M.A.s, several teaching qualifications but I have no qualifications for the work that is taking up most of my time, of being a mum, because they are my children and I did not have to train to get them. I had to do the far more awkward thing of falling in love, leading to that most intimate and unprofessional of all acts – sex. As I said, motherhood is hopelessly personal.

            However more and more women are handing over their children to ‘professionals’ to do the caring, so that they themselves can maintain their professional identities.  Mothers Who Make aims to challenge this strong cultural trend. We – and I do mean ‘we’ this time, because there are increasing numbers of groups being run across the UK – hold rare spaces to which women are welcomed and are valued as much for their mothering as for their making, as much for the nights they have spent helping a child back to sleep, as for the famous play in which they have performed at The National. I want “5 years spent in the role of full time mum” to be something any woman could be proud to put down on her CV, instead of it appearing like a worrying hole, a time in which she ‘dropped out.’ So I am simultaneously grateful for the applications I am receiving and disturbed by them.

           Today then, to counter the proper job ad, I thought I would write this. This is the unofficial job ad. This is the lonely hearts/ lonely arts ad because it feels like that – I am internet dating. I am looking for a partner to support me with MWM. In fact what I really want to write is not an advert at all – I am not trying to sell myself or MWM. I want to write you a letter.

           When I turned 40 I vowed I would write more letters – I got a proper writing case, not professionally proper, but proper paper, a proper place for a pen, for addresses, stamps. I love letters because as a genre I think they can most wonderfully dismantle the great ‘professional versus personal’ divide of our times. They are by someone, a person – me – for someone, a person – you. They are personal. And yet there is a kind of formality that comes from the process of writing that feels not so much ‘professional’ as in someone wearing a suit, but as in someone with a profession – someone engaged in doing a thing they care about enough to sit down and write about it. Here then is a letter to you, whoever you are, the person I am looking for….

Richmond, London, 3rd Feb ‘18

Dear Ms Right,

           I am calling you ‘Ms’ – I do not know whether you are married, single, in a civil partnership, broken-hearted, in love, gay or straight. I am however right now imagining that you are a woman or someone who identifies herself, more or less, as female. I did not put this on the proper job ad. I have already had some men apply – I applaud and welcome them. But right here and now I am thinking of you as female because MWM involves, in part, holding women-only spaces, for reasons I have written about elsewhere, and I would love for you to be able to come to our meetings. I hope that you are someone who would want to be there anyway.

           The odd part about a proper job ad is that it requires you to tell me about yourself, but I feel it is only fair that you know at least as much about me. Let me start with the basics. I am small. I have short dark hair and brown eyes. I am 43. I have a tattoo of a snake on my left shoulder. I am married. Instead of sending over my CV I will simply give you a list of the main roles or identities I have assumed in my life, not in any strict chronological order. Here they are: daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, teacher, collaborator, dancer, aerialist, actor, director, writer, facilitator, lover, wife, and, for the last 6 years, mother.

           I have two children. They are 6 and 1. You will meet them. There is a point in a new romantic relationship when you are taken back to ‘meet the family.’ This usually happens a few weeks in, at least. I need to warn you that with me it will happen right away. When we first meet I am likely to have my daughter with me and I will breastfeed her through our discussion. She will be shy but glad to meet you. I may have my son with me too – he will be loud and rude, which is his way of being shy. He will probably refuse to tell you his real name and may sing, “I am the Walrus” from the Beatles to you too loudly. Or he may have chosen to be with his Granny, my mother, who you will also meet very soon – she is amazing. Mothers Who Make and all the work I have done since becoming a mother is entirely thanks to the support of my mother. So you see why I am passionate about mothers – in part because of my own, and the difference I know committed mothering can make.

           You will also meet my husband, Phelim McDermott, though not for a while because this morning he left for New York for six weeks, to do a show there. He helped me to run the Mothers Who Make crowdfunding campaign before Xmas. He encouraged me to write this blog. He started Devoted and Disgruntled, the revolutionary Open Space events for the performing arts community, without which Mothers Who Make would also never have come into being.

           What I am trying to tell you is that I take my family to work with me. I firmly believe there can be no single solution to the current ‘how-to-do-it-all’ crisis in which many new parents find themselves, but for me the ‘drop the kids off at a crèche/ nursery/ nanny’ model has never worked. They have come with me to meetings, rehearsals, shows, conferences and workshops.  I have felt first hand the shame of it, of being ‘unprofessional’ by bringing them along, as well as the radical pride – because it is possible.

           I was recently asked what my workdays are, and I did not know what to say. It was a perfectly valid question that comes from the ‘normal’ world – the one that labels roles as professional or personal and calls one work and the other not. I do not have any workdays and every day is a workday. I work weekends. I work evenings. I work nights too. All day long, every day I am working on my mothering and my making. This means I am both highly organised and extremely disorganised. The house is a mess. I struggle to get the laundry done, the hoovering, the dishes. I try to do most of my emailing at weekends – it means you may have to wait a week to hear from me but you will hear. I can hold onto the thread of a conversation for a long time and whilst many other things interrupt it. Did I warn you that we will be interrupted? The children will do this but we will still get the work done. I promise you it is possible and if you do not like the sound of this then that is good. I am trying to scare you away. If you are still interested by the end, then this job is for you.

           What else? I should probably explain that I never intended to found a national network. MWM is a response to a need. I started a small local group and it grew. Like any mother I am making it up as I go along. I am growing new skills along the way – that is what mothers do: we do what you can, we do what the next part of the job seems to require, we often feel out of our depth. I feel this right now with MWM, which is why I am seeking your help.

           Let me tell you my strengths and my weaknesses. I am an artist – I like making things up. I like writing things. I like listening to people’s stories and sharing my own. I like asking questions. I care deeply and that makes me reliable: I will respond; I will turn up; I will make stuff happen. I am not however very good at numbers. Budgets scare me. I leave bank statements unopened for weeks. I am not good at sleeping either. I get over tired, overwhelmed. I am not good at spending too much time on a computer  - it exacerbates the insomnia.

           So what would I like from you? You do not have to be a mother, but it would make sense if you are. I would like you to be good at some of the things I am not good at – budgets, planning, evaluations, emails, the ‘professional’ stuff. But under it all, at the end of the day, through most the night, it comes down to the personal, it comes down to love, to the old meaning of the word ‘professional’ – what you profess to do, what you care about. I want you to care about the things I care about. I do not however want this work ever to get in the way of your caring work – of whoever is in your care. Please put them first. Then do the rest, and let it be work that you love.

           If you love the sound of all this then please be my Valentine. Send me your application by Feb 16th, or before. You can send me your C.V. but you can also write me a letter. I asked for this in the proper job ad too – a covering letter. Let it cover whatever you want me to know about you. And if by any chance you missed the official job ad, you can find it here:

           Thank you for reading my covering letter to you.

Yours sincerely professional, faithfully personal and radically questioning,

Beyond Resolutions.....

           After the razzmatazz of Christmas with its clear rituals of trees and tinsel, stockings and turkey, my son asked me on Dec 31st what the rituals were for this “New Year event thing.” I told him about staying up till midnight and he was distinctly underwhelmed, so I went on to talk about resolutions, about people giving up unwanted habits for the coming year. In the process I realised that since I became a mother making emphatic resolutions is the habit I have given up.

           I no longer like the idea of New Year resolutions for two reasons. Firstly it implies that change happens overnight, literally, from Dec 31st to Jan 1st.

In my experience lasting change happens slowly, over many days and nights, or if it comes in a rush it is only because it has been brewing for months beforehand. The kind of transformation that happens fast is rarely trustworthy. Ask Cinderella and she’ll tell you how all your sparkling coaches may turn back to pumpkins on the stroke of midnight, not even lasting until the new morning.  Linked to the question of how lasting is the change, is the other problem I have with the idea of setting resolutions: within the concept lies the potential, even the expectation of failure. To me there is a hard-edge-ness to the idea of resolving something, a macho quality of gritting teeth, pushing through. Can you hold your resolve? What is your level of endurance? The implicit danger is that you may succumb, you may weaken - words sometimes pejoratively gendered female.

           So what is the alternative? I prefer the idea of inviting change, not overnight, but over 365 nights or more. Such a concept comes directly from my experience of motherhood. At no point in my mothering journey have I felt the role to be a passive one – not in pregnancy, certainly not in labour, and never beyond, and yet I did not make my children. I have been instrumental to their growth and their survival but I cannot take full artistic credit for them. It is the same with any significant changes that I have undergone – I was instrumental to them happening but I did not ‘do’ the change. I did not resolve it. Rather it turned up. Like my children, it arrived. And once such an arrival has come about there is no need for any grit-teethed resolve to keep it in place – it is an irreversible presence.

           So here are my questions for you as January begins: what change would you like to invite into your mothering and/or your making this year? What change are you courting, as if it were an old-fashioned lover? What wishes flirt with you? And, to take the romance further, to consummate your dreams, what new forms might you conceive? What might you birth in 2018? If it appeals, let these invitations replace your resolutions.

A Post- Script: where it all began....


The first blog I ever wrote about MWM, back in 2014.  

Mothers: they’re everywhere. And nowhere. On the one hand there are phenomena such as Mumsnet that have never been more prominent or more influential, with its pronouncements making TV news. On the other hand, having been a mother for two years now, my own experience and that of others with whom I have spoken is still often one of isolation and under confidence. When I travel into central London during the day with my son, Riddley, I rarely see other mothers around. There are pockets of them, in designated toddler-friendly spaces – parks, playgrounds, certain cafes – but they are not out and about at large. When I do cross paths with one, getting off a train, or standing by the pedestrian crossing waiting for the green man, where Riddley likes to press the button, we often exchange a look, a cautious smile of recognition, as if part of some dangerous underground movement, not Mumsnet, but some quieter, more diffident network.

Here is a game I play on the train, when there are no other mothers about: I look at the people in the carriage and imagine this: once upon a time – and it is mythic like a fairy tale – once upon a time each person that I see grew inside a woman’s body. They were conceived, gestated, birthed, like a great idea or piece of art, except of course the terms by which the artistic process is described come from mothering and not the other way around. As with most metaphors, they come from the matter of us, our physical forms informing how we think and dream. 

Mothers make people. Not single-handedly (though some almost!). This is a big claim but not intended as an arrogant, hubristic one because of what motherhood has taught me about what ‘making’ means, which has been profoundly humbling. Right from the start it has undone me, has taught me more about the creative process than 12 years at school, a literature degree, a Circus Arts foundation course and two arts-based M.A.s. It has made it radically clear to me, what none of my academic training did, that my main task as a mother and as an artist is to get out the way, or rather not to get in the way of the creative process doing itself. When my son was growing inside me I had to make space for him in my body, house him as he came into form, but he did all the growing. So it continues now he is two years old and racketing around the living room, pushing our sliding doors back and forth, trying to climb the bookshelves. I must be patient, present, alert, keep the bookshelves from toppling down on top of him, vigilant in the true sense, keeping vigil night after night, but I cannot control or claim ownership of this most fundamental of creative processes: a person, coming into personhood.

Before becoming a mother, when I just did the work of being a trapeze artist and performer (I’ll come back to that ‘just’) I got a job with a company called Improbable to make a show called ‘Panic’ about the Great God Pan. I was touched and inspired by the rehearsal process because it was the first time that I had seen any show truly allowed to make itself, to emerge rather than be hurried, judged, disciplined into being. My experience as a performer, and maker of my own work, was that shows did this – grew themselves, had a life of their own - whether the directors and the cast liked it or not, and often they didn’t. I was excited to find a company that explicitly celebrated this ‘life-of-its-own’ ness, rather than trying to control, suppress or push it offstage. I remember Lee and Phelim telling us that there were only four things we had to do to make the show: 

Turn up
Pay Attention
Tell the Truth
Don’t be attached to the results.

(An abbreviated version of Angeles Arrien’s work, ‘The Fourfold Way’). 

Riddley, along with some other children, is a result of that show - that’s the ‘life-of-its-own’ness that can happen when you make a show about the Great God Pan! Now that I am a mother those four things seem more relevant than ever: they are still all I have to do, all I can do and they are, of course, the hardest thing that has ever been required of me. Back to that ‘just’…
I have been staggered since Riddley was born by the disparity between the work of mothering and how it is valued. It is the most challenging work I have ever undertaken, the longest hours, the keenest presence and resourcefulness required. It is also the most important work on every level, personal and political. No one denies these things when named. And yet. And yet…

“Are you doing any work?”
“No, I’m just being a mum for now” 

…is an entirely ordinary exchange which I have heard myself and others repeat in various versions, over and over again.

I read briefly on a leaflet that fell through the door, and that Riddley rushed to pick up and re-post, of how the Labour party are promising subsidised childcare. This is vital for the majority of women, who have to work alongside being a mother to survive, and important for those who positively want to go back to other forms of work – a choice which I respect and admire, since it requires a monumental act of multi-tasking (even with childcare, they are still being mothers and doing another job). I, on the other hand, am in the privileged position of being able to choose to look after my son full-time. For me, handing Riddley over to someone else whilst I go out and do a ‘proper job’ would feel like handing my creative writing over to someone else to do. I don’t think this makes me a better mother, it is simply my version of this mothering experience. Deeply unfashionable and contentious I know but I would like mothers to be subsidised to look after their own children if they wish to do so (yes, there are child benefits but they are not sufficient to enable most women to afford to be full-time mothers), or at least not pressurised into not doing so. I want to mother my own child and make my own art.

Art. It’s everywhere. And nowhere. Like mothers. Like mothering, art is so fundamental to our being here, so powerful and pervasive as to be rendered, in many contexts, invisible. Here is another game I play on the train - while watching over Riddley as he rushes to the doors at every station, wanting to press the button that makes them open and lets the people on and off - I try to imagine each person at his age, playing, and their play being a serious business. 

It has been well researched and established by now (see Winnicot for example) that art, by which I mean any kind of playing, image-making, story-telling, is not a dispensable luxury. It is entirely fundamental and essential to our growth, as vital as sleep to our health and development. What is less well recognised is that play is not only the province of the young – it’s not a one shot deal. It is true that we have to do it full-time and full out when we are children. It is true that mothering in the early years is especially intense, but no one ever stops having a mother, even after she has died, and no one ever stop needing to make stories, images, to play. Even something as business-like and hard-nosed as the Stock Exchange is based on soft-bellied feelings – fear, excitement – that come from stories, imaginings made in equally soft grey parts of our minds. Adverts are capitalism’s testimony to the power of art. Images work on us. They work in us. They make us work. They make us and we make them - and so the cycle goes on. Both images and mothers are fundamental to our origins, to our sense of who and how we are. I am placing these two things in parallel, but they also meet: think of the cartoon of the bird that hatches out of the egg and connects to the first creature that it sees: the image of its mother. 

I am a mother and an artist: I write and I perform and I look after Riddley. I believe that these two jobs are intimately connected and that both are vital. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing them. Both are also marginalised in the current climate. So I have begun a group. It is called “Mothers who Make” and it is for people that, in any capacity, do both these jobs, of mother and artist, care about both and do not want to compromise on either (for details of the group, please see below this). I have been touched by the strength of the response so far to my announcement of the group – it has affirmed there is a need for it, for this work to be named, recognised, supported. 

I do not have the answer. I do not know how to do it – how to be a mother or an artist, let alone both. I know for sure I cannot do it on my own. So far I have relied heavily on Phelim, my husband, for financial and emotional support, and my own fantastic mother for support with Riddley. They are downstairs as I write this – granny and grandson. He will be busy with his trains, making their pistons go back and forth on his steam engines, talking about the stations they are passing through – “Finchley Road and Frognal, Picallili Circus, London Waterloo only!” – he powers himself, pistons and all, into the world and the world, its images and station names chuff their way inside him – this is important work, I know of nothing more so. 

You have until 1.55pm today (21/12/17) to fund Mothers Who Make to grow nation-wide:

And this is where it all began and what it’s all about Matilda’s very first Blog a call to the quiet revolution. All power to the mothers Who make!

Crowdfunding Diary #14: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, The Virgin Mary and other Amazing Mothers (An Alternative Christmas story)

Here it is: the final day of our crowdfunding campaign. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I pressed the ‘Go Live’ button 28 days ago on the Crowdfunder website. It was rather like motherhood: you can have no idea how intense it is going to be until you ‘go live.’

           I heard in November that we had been successful in our Arts Council grant application. I knew we needed to match fund it and it made sense to me to look to crowdfunding as an answer. The last time I applied to the Arts Council was 10 years ago to create and tour an aerial-theatre solo show. This time my project could not have been less solo. I want to found a national network.  I thought I should ask the people who would directly benefit from the initiative for support, that way I would be raising funds and building the network at the same time.

           This much has happened and I am thrilled. It has been amazing to feel the ‘crowd’ of you growing out across the land. In contrast to the adventurous independence of summer, winter feels like a time to come together, so it has felt good, despite the apparent drawbacks of crowdfunding before Xmas, to be building a tribe as the days shorten and the nights draw in. After today, as we roll into Christmas, turn to home, to present-wrapping and potato-peeling, I shall go offline but I shall also carry you with me. I shall feel differently knowing you are out there and that you believed in Mothers Who Make enough to have supported it and to be reading this.

           In the first ‘Crowdfunding Diary’ I wrote, I described the experience of being ‘on’ as a mother and how it related for me to the experience of being onstage as a performer. Crowdfunding has also felt like being onstage, but as in my mothering, the hours are different to the performer’s usual schedule: it is a durational act, a 24/7 of ‘on’-ness. To this degree crowdfunding has felt like mothering an ever-expanding family. I am reminded of that nursery rhyme,

           There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

           She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

           She gave them all broth without any bread,

           She whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.

I don’t share that old woman’s parenting style but I can certainly relate to her level of overwhelm, to the point that providing proper meals feels like a huge challenge and bedtime seems like the only solution to gaining any mental space. Becoming a mother, pressing the ‘Go Live’ button on the crowdfunder page – these things both made me grow up fast. They forced me to examine my values, to name why I am doing what I am doing and get behind it in a way no Arts Council application has ever required of me. Motherhood and crowdfunding are both terrifyingly rigorous endeavours. I am grateful for it, and I am also glad to be going back to mothering only two children for a while over Xmas, as opposed to a whole crowd of them.

           Since it has felt like being ‘on’ non-stop and as this is our last day of it, this blog feels like a curtain call, and so I notice there are certain people I want to credit and to thank.

           There is a long list of mothers/makers whose support has been invaluable and without whom none of this would ever have even happened. However right now there are three people in particular I want to name.

           The first is Naomi Stadlen who wrote the book What Mothers Do Especially When It Looks Like Nothing. This brilliant book draws on Naomi’s years of running a group in North London called Mothers Talking. I read the book, looked her up and to my delight discovered the group was still going – it is now in its 25th year. My son and I made the great pilgrimage from South to North London to attend Mothers Talking and it was amazing. It was the only mother and child group to which I went in those early days where I felt the depth, complexity and intensity of what I was experiencing was acknowledged and given value.  We didn’t talk about baby purees, we talked about exhaustion, about identity, about the political implications of the daily choices we make as mothers, raising the next generation. Mothers Who Make meetings are based on the structure which Naomi Stadlen has been using for 25 years to run Mothers Talking.  Thank you Naomi.

           The next credit. Another great woman, and another great book: Lucy Pearce who wrote The Rainbow Way, Cultivating Creativity In The Midst of Motherhood. In it Lucy contrasts the wellknown ‘Earth Mother’ archetype to the lesser known archetype of the ‘Creative Rainbow Mother.’ Back to that old woman in the shoe (maybe she was a frustrated creative? Why else would she have been living in a shoe?!) Lucy named my experience of struggling to get the broth and the bread on the table for my children on time everyday, because I was so busy trying to sustain my creative practice alongside my mothering. Her book enabled me to take the step of articulating and understanding my experience of mothering and making as a ‘thing,’ it wasn’t just me being a bad mother. Thank you Lucy.

           The last credit, and this time it is not a woman and there is no book involved.  It is a man: my husband. Phelim McDermott. In our household I am a full time mum and Phelim goes out to work, directs shows and, this last year, goes on the TV, albeit for 20 seconds, to collect his Olivier Award for his recent opera. Meanwhile I am at home, sitting on the landing trying to grab half an hour while the children are still asleep to write another page of the novel I have been struggling to write for the last 5 years, wondering if I will ever get it finished and published. These are our roles. On this campaign they have been reversed. I have been the visible one. He has been the one quietly and unstintingly supporting me behind-the-scenes. So I want to thank him and all the partners of the mother/makers. I have been touched by how many men and non-mothers have given to our campaign and this in turn makes me think of Christmas….

           Christmas is a strange and amazing story in which the dad is not the lead role. Joseph is a minor character. There are of course a couple of main parts for the boys – there is the baby Jesus, but as a baby he is best played by a doll at this stage, and there is the father with a capital F, not Father Christmas who has rather stolen the limelight, but God the Father. As ‘Fathers who Make’ goes, He claims the biggest creative credit going – the universe. However, He is offstage, or rather He does the lighting, lays on a special star. In this part of the story, the one we are heading towards now, the main part goes to the mother, Mary. It is her moment. She gave birth in a stable. Having given birth twice now, I can imagine this. I can imagine the ‘lowing cattle’ might have been quite helpful, a comfort even– labouring is such an animal thing. Such an extraordinary mixture of animal and spirit coming together.

           I was brought up Catholic. I do not define myself as this now but I do love carols. I am going to take the children carol-singing tonight, in the village where I grew up and where my mum still lives. My son’s favourite is “Oh Little Town of Bethelem.” I like that one too. There is one line in it that gets to me,

           “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,/ The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Imagine that – all the hopes and all the fears from all the years, gathered together in the streets. I love that image. This is my wish for Mothers Who Make and for the new year ahead, that we can make space, amidst the streets across the land, for gatherings of hopes and fears. Here is my prayer or wish – that all the mothers may know they are not alone, and that all the makers may know that, no matter what its outcome, what they are doing is worthwhile.

You have one more day to help make this happen:

The Importance of Peer Support and Lucy’s Blog

Sometimes I feel under pressure to ‘big’ Mothers Who Make up, to speak of grand visions of exhibitions, platforms of work, commissions, publications, festivals – all of which would be wonderful, any of which may well happen, but how it started, and the main form it still takes, is none of these things. It started as a peer support group – that is a group of people, in this case creative mothers, in a room, in a circle, sharing their experiences, listening to one another and responding. That simple. In this day and age of snazzy social media, glossy marketing materials, funky websites, I can feel almost embarrassed by the simplicity of it. Surely there should be more to it than that? And then I hear back from a mother who came to a meeting. I hear what it meant to her, and I trust again that, yes, it is that simple – people in the same room, in a circle listening to each other – and it is that powerful. We need this, in our world of snazzy social media we need it more than ever. So however Mothers Who Make grows, and I hope it does grow in many wonderful ways, it will always also be a simple, powerful peer-support group. Thank you to Lucy Simm for reminding me of this in her moving testimony to MWM here:

On the 16th May last year I made what for me at the time was a big journey by train from Halifax to Manchester with my good friend Zoe to attend a peer support group called Mothers Who Make. We didn’t really know much about it but as mothers and artists we just knew we needed to go. Excited and nervous we walked into a room full of strangers. We sat around in a circle feeling like we were attending an AA meeting. Some mothers brought along children of varying ages from babes in arms to older ones freely roaming the room and playing with toys. Some mothers had older children at school and others like me had their child with grandparents. We all had the connected experience of being mothers and artists. A very different dynamic to the usual mother and baby group. This was a room full of creatives.

I listened intently to the introduction and explanation of how the meeting would progress. The group format allows each person to talk uninterrupted for a period of time. As a mother that is a powerful thing. To be listened to. To be recognised. To be valued. The circle allows you to share personal experience, thoughts, ideas, challenges and woes in a non judgemental setting. Mothering and working creatively can both be quite isolating experiences so to have the shared support is incredibly important.

I was in the fortunate position of sharing a studio with 3 wonderful mothers who are all makers. I had their support throughout my early mothering and creative journey. This support was invaluable and allowed me to continue striving forward despite not being clear where exactly I was heading.

“Back in the room” to HOME in Manchester where I opened my heart and shared my story. Of my adventures in life, motherhood and creativity. I cried openly. I connected through shared experiences with a couple of mothers at similar stages of mothering to me. It was cathartic, it was uplifting and most of all it was empowering. I felt I could take on the world. It felt like a circle of strength.

We left the group and strode through the streets arms linked… talking not of burning bras but this time around we would be burning knickers!

Something changed within me from that one meeting. I knew I had a renewed purpose in my making. I knew I could value it as intrinsically important to my present and future life. A part of who I am as a person. I knew it had to continue to be a part of my identity. I wasn’t “just a mum”. Or “just mucking about at the studio” as I often devalued myself when explaining to others what I did… partly because I felt that’s what other people felt I was doing. HELL NO. I was in the infancy of creating “something”. I still didn’t know what that “something” was… as I was still in the exploratory experimental stages… but I needed to value that stage. It was hard to value that which didn’t create a value itself. It wasn’t earning me any money. Infact it was costing ME money to use the studio. It could have also cost me money for childcare. As a family we had made the decision for me to spend the majority of my time doing the wonderful and all consuming job of mothering. Having had a long and painful journey getting there I wanted to soak up and treasure as much time doing this as I possibly could. I also knew that to do that to the best of my abilities I needed time to be me and creatively explore who I was as a person not just a mother. Serendipity landed at my door when my little boy was one year old and I was in the privileged position to be able to jump at the chance of sharing a studio. We couldn’t have done this without the incredible support of grandparents gifting us free childcare.

I returned to Halifax where a little seed of an idea had been planted in my mind. If I felt this depth of change within me from one meeting then more mothers needed to experience this feeling. I knew in that moment that I needed to set up a group in Halifax. So I contacted Matilda Leyser the founder of Mothers Who Make and after several months of planning the Mothers Who Make Halifax group was formed on the 12th September 2016.

The group created a spring board for me to really connect with my own work. Through sharing my experiences with the group and hearing other mother makers talk of their own experiences we creatively pushed each other forward with gentle nurturing hands. Tears were frequent but not an essential part of the meetings. After 9 months I experienced a few health issues that forced me to reconnect with my personal goals. I felt I was spinning too many plates and needed to reevaluate where my energy was going, otherwise I’d rapidly be stumbling over broken crockery. I cancelled a few meetings then after a break over the summer I made the difficult decision to hand over the group to Alice Bradshaw, who has been a key supporter of MWM Halifax from the very beginning. The timing was right for both of us. Alice has done an amazing job in taking over the reins and steering the group from strength to strength. I’m a little reluctant to fully step away from the group after investing so much emotional energy into it but I’m trying my best to be a supportive member, attending meetings and not muscling in on what is now Alice’s baby.

This long story… which took me nearly 2 hours to write on a rock and roll Saturday night in… was initially intended to be a short supportive post for Mothers Who Make. But that’s where it can’t be just that. The reason it’s taken me so long to add my support to this crowdfunder and to find the headspace to write this… because it IS so much more than a few whimsical paragraphs written in between cooking tea and bedtime. Mothers Who Make allowed ME to believe in ME. Believe I could create something from nothing… starting from a blank canvas. In the early days I was often reminded of the Peter Kay song from Max and Paddys campervan road trip with the line “Don’t know where I’m going, got no way of knowing, driving on the road to nowhere”. That’s how I often felt. But deep inside I knew it would all make sense eventually. All the exploration, all the experimentation, all the soul searching.

And here I am at the end of the year having created a Facebook page, an Instagram account and my own website where I’ve just launched my first ever product. All whilst juggling life, the universe and everything in between. But I did it. And I’ll continue to do it because I believe I have a reason and a purpose for doing this. For creating my own business. For helping other mother makers to be the change they hope to see in the world. Could I have done it without Mothers Who Make? I very much doubt it. I truly believe this group needs to be supported, to enable it to support other mothers in the country like me. Who want to mother and make at the same time.

Matilda has worked incredibly hard to both create this network and to gain funding from the arts council. Please if you can dig deep in support to raise the funds needed for this campaign. A ripple of change is happening and it’s exciting and necessary for all mother makers in the country to be recognised for their hardwork and efforts in both of their undervalued, underpaid / non paid jobs.

My name is Lucy Simm. I am a mother and a maker… and I value both those jobs equally. Thank you for listening <3 

Read more about the campaign here…

And here is Lucy’s website: