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:
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: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/mothers-who-make
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!