mother in residence

December 3, 2020

“Juggling motherhood and any career can be a struggle, but there seems to be something about the role of artist that makes the combination more than usually problematic,” writes Hettie Judah in today’s Guardian. As I read the words, I did a quick mental rolodex of women artists. Georgie O’Keefe, Marina Abramovic, Tracey Emin, Helen Frankenthaler, Bridget Riley and Barbara Hepworth all sprang to mind. Interestingly, only Hepworth had children, and she’s been often criticized for sending her triplets away when they were infants so she could focus on her work. “The thought of not having them with her made her deeply unhappy, but the thought of not being able to do her work also made her deeply unhappy,” writes Caroline Maclean in her new book Circles and Squares. I then thought about the women artists I know, friends of mine, who have left their infants for weeks on end to shoot a documentary on the other side of the world, dragged their kids city-wide on photoshoots, or upped and moved an entire family for a film, and the shame and euphoria they’ve experienced in doing so. In an essay, Full, Messy and Beautiful, published as part of a report on the representation of female artists in Britain during 2019, Judah tackles the many challenges that artist mothers face, from the harsh reality that one’s physical and emotional energy is no longer dedicated to art, to the unrealistic expectations placed upon them by curators and gallerists, to the unrealistic artist’s lifestyle. “Artist mothers unable to participate in the ‘bohemian lifestyle’ –– the nightlife, parties and wild behaviour –– have found themselves cut off from their peer groups. One described the switch to motherhood as an experience akin to selling out or joining the bourgeoisie.” And of course, there’s the selfish mother syndrome that plagues most working mums, and may be more charged in women that choose a path that demands time away from their children with erratic returns. With little to no income, art starts to feel like a hobby, mummy’s little pastime, increasingly hard to justify. “The guilt experienced by artist mothers is rooted in broader cultural issues: art doesn’t come with a fixed wage or an established career trajectory, the making of it doesn’t have an easily quantifiable value,” writes Judah. “With childcare costly, how dare you spend money to work without guaranteed financial reward? How dare you take time for your work away from your children? How dare you bring children into the insecurity of an artist’s lifestyle?” The urge to paint or sculpt is in some women as innate as the urge to bear children. Science suggests that women may even become more creative after having children. Which is why so many women feel guilt and conflict in the early years of motherhood when they are fulfilling one urge and starving another. To balance that surge of creativity with the enormous demands of motherhood is a formidable task. Some manage it, most don’t. “Newborns have scant respect for mothers’ other forms of creativity,” writes Judah. But as children get older, and go to school (hoorah) there is a slow and quiet re-claiming of one’s creative energy, an energy that was very possibly fed by the struggle and joy of early motherhood. “A writer friend once told me that she loses two books with each child she has. ‘But then you come back motivated and write differently than you would have before.’ Who can define what is actually lost?” says writer, Hadley Freeman. Mums are very good at filling an hour with sixty minutes, she adds. “It turns out you don’t need eight solid, uninterrupted hours to do your work, that a gratefully grasped hour will suffice.” You produce what you can, when you can. Totonto writer, Kerry Clare wrote 1000 words a day of her novel while her daughters watched Annie beside her. Initiatives that support female artists juggling work and parenthood, such as the Mother Prize the Procreate Project, Residency in Motherhood and Artist Mother Studio, to name a few, are clearing the path. Judah is optimistic. She sees a slow shift in attitude, thanks in part to the pandemic. “With its evening events and international travel schedule, the art world pre COVID-19 was not well suited to artist parents. Perhaps the pandemic will force a change, a softening, a focus on local scenes, or change in tone that could make it more inclusive,” she writes. “Brilliant artist mothers exist –– celebrating them is important if we are to shift the enduring cliché that a woman cannot be both.”

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