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: Lizzy@motherswhomake.org
· 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.