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.
My New Recipe for Making Art – What’s Yours?
When I was fourteen I bought Annie Lennox’s Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves and danced to it in my bedroom, feeling radical:
Now there was a time when they used to say
That behind every - great man.
There had to be a - great woman.
But in these times of change you know
That it’s no longer true.
So we’re comin’ out of the kitchen
‘Cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you…
Thirty years on I remembered this song when I read a recent Guardian article by Brigit Schult, “A Woman’s greatest enemy? Lack of Time to Themselves,” which ends with Schult not coming out of the kitchen. Her daring act is rather to give herself time to sit down in the kitchen, at the table, to drink some tea and dream. Schulte argues that many women still struggle to give themselves time to do anything by, or for, themselves. She names a few of the famous great male artists and thinkers who have been looked after by their wives/ mothers/ housekeepers/ maids, whilst they made their great art or contribution to the world. She writes, “If what it takes to create are long stretches of time alone, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect.”
I could claim this narrative as mine, a version of it. I am married to a man who is a performer and director. One reviewer recently called him “a genius.” He is making brilliant theatre, whilst I am looking after our children. However, for many reasons, I refuse to accept this story- the one in which he is the great man and I am the time-short woman behind him, not making art, enslaved to a life of care. It is not to deny the truth of this historically but it seems critical to write a different narrative for “these times of change.” At 45 I will not disappoint that radical 14 year old with middle-aged cynicism.
What to do when you don’t get your Arts Council funding: The Unofficial Guide. OR, WHAT CAN YOU GROW FROM YOUR GRIEF?
There is an official guide. The ‘Decision Letter’ I got yesterday had a heading, Next Steps which explained how Lizzy and I could re-apply, start a new application for Mothers Who Make. ‘Decision Letter’ means, “It’s a no.” Last time, when it was a ‘yes’ I didn’t get a Decision Letter. I got an ‘Offer Letter’ so I knew it was a ‘no’ the moment I saw the word ‘Decision’ on the application portal that is Grantium. Grantium, the portal with a portentous Latin-sounding name into which, personally, I think every single artist that is courageous enough to enter to apply for funding, should receive a reward for bravery. It is an epic quest involving the modern day Herculean labours of performing precise word-counts, codes of expression, statistical data gathering, budget-balancing – and at the end of it all there may be riches and glory or there may be this Decision Letter of Doom that coolly, in one curt sentence, acknowledges our efforts and disappointment and then says, ‘Next Steps.’ But before we even think about going through that modern mythic portal again, before we consider reapplying there are some other ‘Next Steps’ that need to be done.
Step 1: Swear
Swear loudly. Hope the children are not nearby. Even if they are this stage must be performed. Do not skip it out. Repeat as necessary. There is not much more to be said about this step. You will know when you have completed it.
Step 2: Wish it Were Different
For weeks I have been holding both possible outcomes in my mind. Unbidden they play out when I shut my eyes at night. The application went in under my name - even though it was a collaborative effort with Lizzy and Improbable- so I will find out about it first. I imagine making the phone call to her: “Hello,” she says. “We got it!” I say. She is delighted. Thrilled. It is incredibly exciting. Breath. It might not happen that way, I have been telling myself. In fact, I am pretty sure it won’t. I don’t think we are going to get this one. I don’t play out the conversation of that other phone call because it’s not fun, but I try to hold this heaviness in my belly to balance out the hope. I concentrate on the heavy feeling. But still, like the summer light that seeps through my children’s curtains at night, I can’t get rid of the hope altogether, and now that the disappointment is here, is incontrovertible, I have to deal with the leftover hope. It hangs around. It is curious how this happens. How even when the waiting is over at last, all those weeks of hoping cannot simply be swept away. They haunt me still. What if I had been able to ring up and declare, “We got it!”? I even have a fantasy that I should have done this. That I could have pretended we had received the longed for outcome and then I could cunningly have drummed up £50k in some other way, just so that I could get the hit of that moment of good news.
From spanx to grannies, what’s holding you up?
By Delea Shand
Let me start by getting one thing out of the way. I’m tired of people saying I’m lucky to have a supportive husband. There. I said it. I took an evening course once, “You’re lucky your husband’s so supportive.” I started performing comedy, “You’re lucky he lets you do so many gigs.” I took a job teaching music on Saturdays, “You’re lucky he survives! Do you have to leave food out for him?” (I don’t. He prefers to forage. At Tesco.) I announced I was taking my first ever show to the Edinburgh fringe, for an eighteen day run, and everyone’s first question was, “WHAT IS YOUR HUSBAND GOING TO DO?”
[For information about Madame Chandelier’s Rough Guide to the Opera, click here for details:
What has motherhood taught you?
By Lizzy Humber
May is the month I was going to have my second child. I would have spent the last few months winding down, handing over and letting go of control. I would be focused on trying to relax, sleeping more, nesting, retrieving vacuum packed baby clothes from the loft, midnight eBay purchases and readying myself for new life. I would be preparing my daughter for a new brother or sister, I would be thinking about ways to involve her and ensuring she felt safe and loved. My husband, Robin, and I would be thinking logistics, finances and domestic arrangements, and squeezing in a date - the last for a while.
I have spent the last 5 months without the baby. I have spent the last 5 months questioning what this time is not pregnant. Still having the desire to birth something into the world, to do something significant. To allow the space to mend and to nourish myself. To explore and honour this impulse, I have slowed right down. This is quite radical for me. But, no longer pregnant, I have focused on my mothering, my body, my mental wellbeing, my creative impulses and on the future of Mothers Who Make. It’s been a period of research. I quit two paid jobs and have continued to turn down work. This goes against every instinct. I started my career at the time of the financial crash, so work was scarce, which left me with an urgency to take any creative job that came my way. Since becoming a mother I have questioned this. I decided that work would have to be worth the mental and physical time I was not spending with my daughter and to stop working for free. To slow down, Robin and I have had to use our savings and cut back financially, and, as my daughter turned 3, we got some free childcare, so we decided I should take this time to follow my instincts.
I discovered and did a few important things as part of my ‘not pregnant’ R&D:
I wrote My Invisible Western, an account of my miscarriage. I didn’t hold much back. I wanted to share the things that shocked me about the experience, assumptions I had had, and things that I had never heard anyone else say. I have received very generous, kind responses from women and men alike. I’m very glad I wrote it, even though it was incredibly exposing. And others have responded to my invitation to share their stories and so I believe this will be a rich resource over time. This led me to start a page on our website called Invisible Motherhood, which aims to share stories about/creative responses to aspects of motherhood that feel unspoken/hidden in our society.
I hosted a radio show for International Women’s day and discovered I had more courage than I knew. I collaborated with Estelle Buckridge and Sophie Lovett from MWM Exeter to put the show together. I realised just how much I thrive on collaboration. I noticed how lonely I was feeling since leaving my other jobs.
I have been running and swimming every week. It has taken a really long time for my fitness to return after the miscarriage. I have been surprised by this. This weekend I did the Exeter Park Run, whilst battling the high winds, I had the space to think about this months question of the month. I have been nervous about filling the blank page with my thoughts. But here I am filling the space thanks to the run.
I started a jewellery course last week for pure creative fun of it. I would never have afforded myself this time before - the mum guilt would have won. So here I am learning about different types of solder and saw blades! Our first project is a set of three stacking rings. I’m really excited to see how this grows.
I have had more time to spend with my daughter, my husband and friends. Stomping in the woods, and paddling in the sea. I have not been working after my daughter’s bedtime until the early hours. As a result we have all started to sleep through the night. Slowing down has left space to think and reflect. Space to reach out and space to support others. It’s been really good. It’s been really necessary.
I realised that since becoming a mother, my relationship to my body has changed. I now love my body. I see it’s strength, it’s resources and it’s power. My arms and legs are stronger from carrying my baby everywhere, my breasts are forever changed through breastfeeding and my pelvic floor will probably never be the same again! But I accept them as proud marks of motherhood. During the miscarriage, I marvelled at what my body was doing to pass the baby, I was like a passenger in the experience. I thought I might feel angry with my body for failing, but I just felt moved by how hard it was working.
I have also found strength from other women since becoming a mother and particularly in the last 5 months not pregnant. Gone is the jealousy or rivalry I found in my 20s. Instead I have intimate, trust between a small tribe of women. When I experienced my miscarriage, Matilda was at the end of the phone day or night, available to listen. My friend Jenny popped at over 11pm one night with an emergency cigarette in the cold November air and held my hand. I always feel better after a MWM meeting, as everyone I can see everyone is championing and encouraging each other. This kindness and selflessness of mothers is amazing. I’m very proud to call myself a mother. I’m very proud of the support we give each other as part of Mothers Who Make.
So although I am not about to give birth to a baby, I have given birth to a lot that I hold dear.
So the question I put to you this month is what has motherhood taught you?
How is motherhood informing your identity and your making?
By Matilda Leyser
Accountability: it goes along with the territory of being a mother. I was amazed at the swiftness with which it arrived when my son was born. I didn’t have a rush of maternal love when I first held my baby – the love came later – I had a rush of responsibility: here was a life that was literally in my hands. And the world, I remember, was all too ready to agree: he was 4 weeks old and I was in a queue in Downtown New York with him, waiting to get his birth certificate. The woman behind me tutted loudly and reached for his tiny red feet, the edge of which were visible from the sling in which they were tucked – “He needs socks! He’ll be freezing. Don’t let him die of cold!” She looked at me, as if I should leave the queue at once and run on a quest for the nearest sock store – and maybe I should? His feet, his health, his life or death, and now as he grows, how he lives his life, how he interacts with the world, are on me.
In contrast, accountability as an artist can be hard to find. I may get tutted for letting my child go sock-less, but no one on the street is going to frown at me because I didn’t write another 1000 words today. When Lenka Clayton created her fantastic “Artist in Residency in Motherhood” (check it out if you haven’t already – it’s brilliant) one of the items on the list of things that she needed was - sure enough - ‘Accountability.’ When I first got funded as an artist I remember how I valued this aspect of the funding almost as much as I valued the money: the fact that there was an external body expecting me to do my work, and to which I must report at the end of it. I haven’t got any funding to write my novel but I am trying to generate a sense of accountability here, by announcing to you what I intend to do: at the start of July you can ask me how it’s gone and I will have to tell you.
Being accountable: it means you can tell the account of how things are, of what happened, what could happen next, and someone will listen and take it seriously, as seriously as if it were a matter of life or death. I hope Mothers Who Make is a space where we can do this for each other, be that online or in person.
So this is your question/ challenge/ invitation for the month: For what do you wish to be held accountable, in your making and/or in your mothering? Could you use a MWM hub to help you create this accountability? Can you tell the other women in the circle what you intend to do, knowing you can report to them if you managed it or not, and how it went at the next meeting? It does not need to be a huge endeavour- it could be as small as a pair of socks: a poem, a painting, a doodle, a bedtime story – these things can be epic. And if you cannot make it to a MWM hub, whom could you tell? To whom could you make yourself accountable? You could post on our FB forum – you’ll find others there, ready to be your audience, ready to hold you, with support, to account.
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 Matilda Leyser
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.
By Matilda Leyser
“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.
By Matilda Leyser
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…
By Matilda Leyser
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 we are delighted to invite Heidi Hollis, mother, writer, dramatist and Bristol MWM hub facilitator, to write our ‘Question for the Month’. Over to Heidi…..
By Heidi Hollis
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.
By Matilda Leyser
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?!
By Matilda Leyser
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?
By Matilda Leyser
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?
By Matilda Leyser
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?
By Matilda Leyser
“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?
By Matilda Leyser
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….
By Matilda Leyser
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?
By Matilda Leyser
“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.