Balancing Everything

           I recently read an article in The Stage entitled ‘Balancing a Life in Theatre with Fatherhood’ involving an interview with David Mercatali.

In it Mercatali is quoted as saying,

There are a lot of initiatives that are out there for mothers, but I don’t think that’s helpful in the long term…. We should be trying to build a parent-orientated support network, one which makes mothers feel that they’re not alone and fathers feel as if they’re not excluded from this conversation, which puts everyone on an equal footing – then we’d be in a much better place.

I want to respond to the above, because I both agree and disagree with it. I want to use it as an opportunity to explain why I have started a project called ‘Mothers who Make’ which involves mother-only meetings. It is a growing initiative committed to holding space for artists, working in any art form, who are also mothers and who wish to explore the relationship between these dual roles.

           To start with I am going to go back to my university days, to when I studied different types of Feminism. I am going to simplify, which is always dangerous but I hope it is worth the risk. One brand of Feminism I studied focused on celebrating the qualities and attributes that are gendered as female and are less valued in our culture than those qualities gendered male: nurturing versus competing; circularity versus linear progress; personal versus professional. The other brand focused on gender, and even sex, as a cultural construct – in other words interrogating and dismantling our notions of male and female. At the time I tended to side with the latter type – it seemed problematic to further entrench assumptions about who I was as a woman, what qualities I would have, albeit for the sake of celebrating them. I would say this form of Feminism has also had more impact on our culture than the other (again, enormous generalizations) and this has resulted in many women entering roles that were hitherto exclusively fulfilled by men- women in the workforce, doing men’s jobs as well as or better than their male colleagues. What has happened much less is women being supported or valued to do ‘women’s work’: even the phrase still carries a stigma- why would anyone want to do that? To do a job such as mothering? It has now become difficult for a woman to choose to look after her own children, full time, past the age of one, both for economic and social reasons. I feel sad about this because in my three of mothering I have found it to be some of the most important, the most challenging and complex work I have ever undertaken. 

           So whereas in my early twenties I thought we needed to deconstruct gender, now in my early forties and as a mother of a 3 year old boy I think we need both those strands of Feminism that seemed to me so irreconcilable back in the 90’s. What does this mean? It means we need to do everything. We need mothers’ groups, fathers’ groups, parents’ groups, queer groups, could-not-have-kids or did-not-want-kids groups and everybody-in-the-same-room groups. It means that in the process of seeking equality we should not eradicate difference. And the roles of mother and father are different. This is not to say that women cannot take on fatherly roles and men cannot take on motherly ones. I see this within my own family: my sister’s husband brought up their children while my sister had and continues to have a high profile science career. My brothers both do as much mothering as their spouses. However mother and father are different roles, call up different archetypes, different stereotypes – all of which inform the make up and experience of each. I believe therefore that a space needs to be held for each that recognizes the specificity of the role as well as welcoming the diversity of how each person fulfills it.

           Mothers who Make is an attempt to hold such a space, a space in which we can ask a question: what is this like? What is it like to be a woman who is a mother, and also an artist? It is in no small part inspired by a North London group that has been going for over twenty years called “Mothers Talking,” run  by Naomi Stadlen, author of the book, “What Mothers Do, Especially When it Looks Like Nothing.” It is one of the best books I read as a new parent because it was the only one that did not tell me what I should be doing but rather how I might be feeling. I noticed many parallels between the mothering challenges named in this book and those I faced as an artist. I grew curious. I wanted to go deeper: a year ago now I wrote an invitation to all the mother-artists out there. I did not know what would happen. It was and continues to be an experiment, but the response so far has been extraordinary. I have received hundreds of emails from women all over the country thanking me for writing this invite, relieved to be recognized in these dual, intimately related and yet hard to hold roles. Much of the language we use for describing the creative process is borrowed from childbirth: conceiving, gestating, laboring, giving birth to ideas. These are verbs that are specific to mothering, as opposed to fathering. Here I am entering even more dangerous territory, which alarms my twenty-something postmodern feminist that wants to deconstruct gender and sex, but my forty-something self wants to go there….

           In contrast to my siblings’ relationships I find myself in one in which my partner and I fit into traditional gender roles with regard to childcare and work: he earns the money; I look after our child. Daddy comes back late in the evening. However, strangely, we in part find ourselves living out this conventional gender story because we have made unconventional choices as parents within our culture: extended breastfeeding; co-sleeping; baby-wearing (slings, not push-chairs) – a set of practices that gets referred to nowadays as ‘attachment parenting,’ which emphasizes strong attachment in the early years as opposed to hurrying independence along. This style of parenting tends to involve a particularly strong bond with the mother. The elephant in the room here is the baby in the belly, the baby at the breast. The things that men can’t do. This feels incredibly difficult. Incredibly tender. Some women can’t do them either. I would never want a mother who has adopted to feel she could not come to Mothers who Make. Nor would I want a mother who has chosen to bottle feed her child to feel unwelcome. At the same time I do not want to belittle the potency of the physical experience of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Again, for the sake of trying to be inclusive I do not want to smooth over difference. I have heard women comment on how when they were pregnant they were sad and angry that people asked them what they were going to do when the baby was born, how they were going to manage, but failed to ask their male partners. Yes. I agree, men should be asked – it would help all of us. And yet it is clear to me why the woman in this instance is asked more often than the man: she is undergoing an extraordinary transformation, a person is taking shape inside her – the questions are at least in part a response to this, to the outrageous everyday miracle of how people come to be.

           So, what to do? As I said, I think we have to do everything. I can’t do all of it so I am doing the part I can. I am delighted that other people are doing the ‘campaigning for better rights for parents in the arts’ part, whilst I do the mother/ artist part. I think fathers feeling excluded is a real issue but I don’t think including them in the Mothers who Make group is the answer so I hope someone does the ‘Fathers who Make’ group. And whichever other groups need to happen – there are many. No-one would ever say that from here on we should ban all literature that is about mothers and/or fathers as opposed to parents. For me, the point of holding a mother-only space is about supporting a diversity of stories to exist in the world. I agree with Mercatali that the language we choose is important but I believe we need multiple languages – this is what will “put everyone on an equal footing” because at the moment the footing is not equal. Exclusively using the blanket term of ‘parent’ hides even as it includes both genders.

           At the moment my little boy for some reason only known to him, likes to play the woman in the games we play: I am Bob the Builder and he is Wendy. I am Doug the dog and he is Betty the octopus. At the same time we had an argument the other day about whether a small child with long hair could be a boy. Identity is complicated, multi-layered, even at 3. Mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, dogs and octopuses. We need them all. Words, spaces and support for everyone please.