Question of the month
Each month we pose a question about motherhood and making. This question can be used as a provocation or starting point for the framing of the conversation at your local MWM meeting.
If you already knew, without a doubt, that your creative practice is worthwhile, what would you do today? What would you make?
The Real Enemy of Good Art.
By now the quote has done the rounds. Here it is again: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” said Cyril Connelly.
It is a curious quote when you stop to think about it, for it completely sidelines the child. The pram is the apparent enemy. The child is not seen, not heard, not even mentioned, and put in the hall. Or is the pram parked in the hall and has the baby, the true enemy of art, infiltrated the house? Is it rolling around on the rug of the room where the art should be happening? Or is it not the child so much as ‘the role of mother’ that is the true enemy, as symbolised by the pram. The child is not the problem, it’s all the paraphernalia and baggage that comes with the identity of ‘mum’ which could easily fill a pram or even a double buggy and which stops the artist in her tracks. This is getting closer to the heart of it, but I think we need to look even closer, question further.
“Under Pressure, Under Pressure….”, my seven year old son is being Freddie Mercury. He sings with impressive pop-star intensity into the karaoke microphone we gave him last Christmas. He understands this song. He likes the video that goes with it: crowds of people pouring through the streets, tower blocks exploding, bridges collapsing. It seems to serve as a way to release some of the pressure in him, to sing into the mic in front of the blue sofa in the living room, as if he were onstage facing thousands.
Meanwhile, I’m feeling under pressure. There are the immediate pressures of clearing up the supper things, making sure the Valentine cards get in the post to arrive on Thursday, getting the children into bed at a reasonable hour, writing this blog in time to send out on the next MWM newsletter. Then there are the bigger background pressures – the need to finish my novel and get it published within the next two years. The need to apply for further funding for Mothers Who Make, the decisions about where we go next. And then there are the even bigger-picture-pressures: the need to stay alive for as long as the children are children and longer, if possible; the need to save the world.
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.
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 cardboard 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?
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.
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.
What to do with Granny?!
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.
What sustains you?
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.
Where are all the images of us?
With 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 there are lots of images of motherhood. 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.
What do you dream of making?
“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. “
What about 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….
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.
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.