Mother of The month
1. What’s your name, and your children's names and ages? Where are you based? What kind of making do you do or dream of doing?
I am Dawn Yow, and my kids are 11-year-old Raspberry, 5-year-old Ares, and 3-year-old Lennox. I’m originally from Canada, but made the great escape to Liverpool, where I’m currently based.
I’m a photographer and a writer (although there’s not a lot of writing happening at the moment). My work revolves around the maternal, that is, the experience of motherhood. I take a diaristic approach and have the impulse to photograph everything, to preserve everyday moments. My images, however, are the antithesis of the typical family album in which everyone is posed and smiling. I prefer photographing the banal, the visceral, the private, the overlooked, the raw moments highlighting the peaks and troughs of life with children. My images often feature less than positive emotions, blood, vomit, and tears. I did a series featuring the mess and detritus Lennox left on her high chair tray when she started eating solid food. In a similar vein, I have a drawer full of bloody tissues that I haven’t yet figured out what I could do with artistically.
2. How do you do it?! How do you make it work?
I honestly don’t know! For 10 years, my partner and I were spectacularly bad at equal parenting and work/life balance, especially when we had/have babies/toddlers who want me all the time because I have mammary glands. We fell into the established routine of me doing the bulk of the parenting while he went to school or work. With good intentions, we kept trying to change the status quo but when blips came up, we inadvertently kept reverting to old patterns rather than working harder to change things.
But while I was deep into reading and researching the maternal experience, I came across a quote by Oubria Tronshaw: “Your kids will never give you permission to have a moment of be sane. Ever. You have to learn to be an advocate for yourself.” That did it for me. Throughout parenthood, I had/have been terrible at putting my needs, my sanity, and my mental health before my kids and my partner (despite the fact that all that parenting advice saying you’re a better parent after you take care of yourself). However, being consumed by motherhood and mourning the obliteration of any identity I had outside maternity, I knew needed to stand up for myself and actively carve out a specific time for myself to regain my sanity and myself, rather than just have a nebulous idea that I’ll perhaps have a window of time for self-care here and there. With that, I’ve been getting two precious, glorious hours to myself every Sunday morning, which I spend at the library reading and writing. Despite designating this regular block of alone time, we still need to constantly work to ensure we don’t lapse into our previous habits, as it’s surprisingly easy to do so.
I homeschool my kids, which complicates the whole act of making, as I am never alone. I suppose it’s a good thing that my image-making is so intricately entwined with parenting and my everyday life, as I take pictures almost every day (well, that’s the goal anyway!). I’m the crazy person who regularly goes to the grocery store with two cameras.
Outside of that, any other making or related tasks I do happens while I’m burning the midnight oil after the kids’ bedtime, or in the two hours of alone time I get weekly at the library. I live for these unbroken stretches of time. I’d like to be one of those people who is able to get some things done in the slivers of available time during the day, but my kids see me doing something for myself and seem to think that means I’m free to do something with them; their lives are so inextricably tethered to me, and mine to theirs. It might be for the best anyway, since when they’re around, my brain is addled with the million things that need to be done.
My partner now works from home and his flexibility allows him help alleviate some of parental responsibilities that I had when he was working outside and I am forever grateful for that. Combined with the fact that my youngest isn’t as heavily dependent on me as she once was, it also gives me a little bit of mind space and spontaneous opportunities for me time, where I can recharge and think about non-parenting things.
Ironically, because I’m always with my kids, homeschooling and taking pictures of them, I sometimes feel obligated, as a parent and as a photographer, to always be with them. I know it’s all about gradually letting go as your kids get older and develop their independence, and as Raspberry spends more and more time with her friends, I’m struggling with the conflict between wanting to be with my kids and desperately needing my own time, space, and identity.
3. How has your mothering impacted your making?
I used to be a street photographer. However, I learnt from experience that it’s impossible to remain inconspicuous — the very essence of street photography — when you have multiple children in tow (or even just one really chatty one), and as such my focus has inadvertently shifted to documentary domestic photography.
I stumbled into the genre of the maternal while I was feverishly researching the kind of art made during pregnancy and childbirth, because I was desperate to take pictures while I was giving birth and wanted to see if anyone had actually done so (nope). It was a turning point for me as I discovered my artistic tribe, and my whole art practice gradually shifted to become more about motherhood. It’s reassuring and comforting to know and see other artist-mothers enduring the same kinds of struggles as I am.
4. And vice versa?
My photographer brain often dominates, taking over many aspects of my life including parenting and daily life. My partner is familiar with my work and my brand of quirkiness, and will point out and leave certain messes for me to photograph before cleaning up. My daughter has kindly gifted me her bloody plasters and tissues too. Sometimes when small accidents happen (like a spill or one of my kids falling), I instinctively want to take a picture of the scene (or details thereof) instead of immediately tending to the issue. I’m notorious for taking pictures of my kids when they’re in the throes of a meltdown, especially when there’s little I can do to help them, I can feel my temper steadily rising, and we’re just riding it out. I find that by temporarily detaching myself what’s happening, I’m better able to cope with the situation and I’m less likely let my emotions get the better of me.
I’ve been lucky enough to have my work exhibited in London twice, and both times we took the kids to see the exhibitions (really, any excuse to go to London!). They know I take tens of thousands of pictures of them, but they don’t often see the output, especially on a larger scale, so I think it’s important for them to see what I do, and to understand that I’m more than just the person who wipes their butts, does the dishes, and yells at them to pick up their stuff.
While my images are generally unposed and undirected, I do sometimes need a little help maintaining the composition I’m envisioning, especially since my kids are so active. If I ask, they’re mostly happy to stay still just for a moment until I snap a couple of frames (although the 3-year-old often decides she doesn’t want to comply). My 11-year-old understands, especially when I explain what I’m going for in my shot.
I’ve attempted to collaborate with my kids on several occasions, but wasn’t entirely satisfied with the results (possibly because I hadn’t fully fleshed out my ideas). I’d like to incorporate them more into my work about the maternal, beyond them merely being the subjects of my images. I’m currently doing an ongoing series featuring Raspberry, titled This is the Square Root of 121. I’m exploring her unique experience being on the cusp of adolescence. When I initially mentioned to my idea to her, the other two kids immediately piped up and wanted me to do individual series with them too. They’re excited to get involved and help out with my work.
5. The best thing? The hardest?
The best thing is getting to do what I love practically every day and how seamlessly it has woven itself into my life.
The hardest thing is feeling the constant tug between selfishness and selflessness, juggling parenting and being able to do my own thing, without feeling like my kids are smothering or an intrusion (yup, struggling with maternal ambivalence).
6. Future dreams?
I’d like to branch out and make more art relating to the maternal experience that isn’t just limited to photography (and perhaps do something with my overflowing drawerful of bloody tissues!) and possibly more conceptual pieces.
That said, the kind of work I’m currently making doesn’t quite lend itself for one to be able to make a living from, so I’d like to get into doing documentary family photography and birth photography for others. I was toying with this idea way back at the start of the year and brought it up at my local Mothers Who Make meet-up, where I was so touched and motivated by the resounding support from other mother-makers. However, I feel rather bad that despite being so pumped about it, I haven’t remotely made any progress into turning this into a reality.
Also, I want to do more writing, in addition to what the documentary and autobiographical pieces that I currently work on. My educational background is in science, and I’ve always had an interest in researching a myriad of topics, so I’d like to utilize some of that in writing for sites like Open Culture.
Follow Dawn’s work:
Images: Dawn Yow
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