The MAMAs Column 6

The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art celebrates the Mother+Artist. The MAMAs Column is dedicated to sharing the stories of all things Mother*+Artist — personal and universal, integral and peripheral, iterative and ongoing, purposeful and playful. May you find yourself here. Welcome!

By Catherine Mueller

*Statement of inclusion at end of page.

the red cabinet / What I’d Been Working On

An Incomplete Treatise in 5 Parts

Third in a series: Call + Response, Reclaiming the Lost Village

1)

Recently, I watched all the episodes of the Queer Eye Austin, TX season on Netflix. I fantasized about the exuberant hosts coming into my life and giving my home, wardrobe, appearance and sense of self a nice big Jujj. Who would not want to bask in the light that beams from their beautiful faces? Each person and place they touch is celebrated, transformed. I noticed how frequently the hosts used the words Self-Care with each person they visited and concurrently noted what felt like an oversimplification of its accessibility.  The subjects of each episode were able to engage in the Self-Care facilitated by their hosts for that week of intervention because an invisible production crew handled every aspect of that person’s life so they did not have to work, parent, maintain a home, cook a meal (unless under the supervision of Chef Antony), etc. The attention the hosts prescribe, so glorious and healing, is a gift made possible by a television network. Without a network, without a community of laborers surrounding the makeover recipient and the hosts, each a skilled laborer in their own right, such renewal and connection is unlikely for the average adult person.

In order for a mother, or any primary caregiver, to engage in Self-Care, a network of people must exist who regularly support her in that endeavor, handling all the labor she consistently has since the dawn of time/humans. The mutual participation of many is required to replace one mother while she walks aimlessly in a field of flowers, spins a pottery wheel into oblivion, or enjoys a slice of cheesecake by the beach just because she wants to, or even simply takes a nap.

This kind of system does not exist for me. It is nearly impossible for me to participate in this thing called Self-Care, comprised of so much more than the shower or a glass of wine so often thrown at overstressed mothers in general as an immediate access to our lost humanity, a re-centering by way of alcohol or shampoo. The unreachable nature of Self-Care arrived simultaneously with my son’s birth. I was not supportively partnered or with access to childcare then and am a single mother without access to childcare now.  My family of origin is far away and my local network of mothers are all equally overstretched and still wrapped in the mires of an ongoing pandemic/endemic airborne virus. We pinch hit for each other for sure, but supporting sustainable Self-Care is beyond our reach. 

Furthermore, Self-Care is not about doing what has to be done: personal bathing, laundry, balancing the checkbook, or prepping a week of meals. Self-Care is restorative, replenishing, and by nature a brief removal from the pressures and tasks of life such that we can revisit them anew.

If Self-Care is a basic human right or necessity, as Queer Eye asserts, it is one that seems historically and systemically to consistently lack the community to provide it for mothers. For us to access it, others must do what mothers do, and this requires an economic exchange of money, time, skills, effort, attention, commitment, honor – why would the childless do this for the with-child? What is our communal stake in the Self-Care of caregivers? Is this altruism or common sense or kindness or a public good?

Do not think that it is going to be OK, because it is not. Not even if you have childcare and a lovingly supportive spouse… Mothers are racing against the creative clocks in ourselves as we frantically and furiously converge our dreams with our children’s progression through life. What a burden and privilege. Why must these be held distinct?

2)

Scrolling through Instagram, I spotted the headline: “What kind of support is needed for artists to have children?” I rankled.  The photograph accompanying the headline featured a white woman looking at the camera knowingly while her (presumed) husband and two children played lovingly on the floor by her knees, a cozy display of unity and shared responsibility. This photograph seemed to suggest a familiar answer to the question the headline posed: A supportive spouse! Childcare! A clean studio space with a gorgeous wooden floor! Soft cotton clothing! Inner joy!

I did not listen to the podcast associated with this headline or photograph, as my ire at its presumed narrowness would not let me. I am tired of artists and organizations telling mothers that if we plan properly and ask for help, we can have our creative careers and our families in equal measure. These suggestions are worthwhile but insufficient. Childcare and supportive partners make a big difference, but dialogue that stops at offering these alone is ignoring the larger issues afoot that continue to contain women, forcing us into additional time-consuming workarounds to navigate a system designed to exclude us.

For a woman to freely and buoyantly become an artist and a parent, the entire patriarchal structure upon which our society is built would have to change completely. I am weary from feeling beholden to male-centric paradigms, generated with the childless man as their ideal participant, for art or commerce. If our society could recognize creativity for the interrupted constant it is instead of the exclusive muse-visiting genius that descends upon the genius man in moments of silence, solace and separateness; if our culture could abandon the conceit that a perfect product can be measured by its arrival and not by its journey, and abandon perfection altogether as a capitalist, heteronormative male driven concept; if civilization understood how mothers, moreso than many, grasp the intricacies of creativity, for we watch it unfold in ourselves and in children en masse, daily, constantly – perhaps then mother+artists would have a shot at balance, appreciation, parity. There is ample scholarship and activism in this area, yet it seems to be ignored by general society. No one wants to encounter angry women or mothers. But by denying the complex reality of a mother’s complicated existence, that encounter is nearly guaranteed.

one of many protest T-shirts

I felt angrily at odds with that Instagram headline. Instead, I wanted it to read:

THE ONLY WAY FOR A WOMAN TO BE SUPPORTED AS A MOTHER AND AN ARTIST IS FOR THE PATRIARCHY TO BE DESTROYED!  JOIN US IN LISTENING TO HOW WE CAN INDIVIDUALLY AND COLLECTIVELY DO THAT! THEREBY LIBERATING WOMEN FROM THE SHACKLES OF MALE DOMINATED SOCIETY ONCE AND FOR ALL AND MOVING US TOWARDS A MATRICENTRIC FEMINIST WORLD WHEREIN MOTHERS AND THEIR INHERENT ARTISTRY ARE PLACED AT THE CENTER OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE INSTEAD OF PUSHED TO THE FARTHEST MARGINS AND MADE IRRELEVENT BY PROFIT, RESULT, TRADITION, HABIT AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCT!

Or a shorter version: How to be supported as a mother artist?: Dismantle the patriarchy! Set it on fire! Burn down hyper-masculine capitalist ideals! Move the womb to the center!

Something like that.

I also wanted the headline to include a cautionary warning: Do not think that it’s going to be ok, because it is not. Not even if you have childcare and a lovingly supportive spouse. You, Prospective Mother+Artist, are going to hustle like you never have before, only now you are hustling against yourself, against time and teething and first steps and first words and first days of school and first bus rides to school and the first band concert and first school dance and first kiss and first driver’s license and first flight alone and whatever other markers have mothers know indelibly that our children are aging and growing and time cannot be reversed. Mothers are racing against the creative clocks in ourselves as we frantically and furiously converge our dreams with our children’s progression through life. What a burden and privilege. Why must these be held distinct? Is this not one way of parsing the messy identity crisis all mothers encounter when we suddenly and repeatedly encounter ourselves not as were? This crisis, and the societal structures that concurrently strive to pit us against our children or ourselves in an either/or, us/them false binary, is something that fathers do not face in this way.

An ideology of personal satisfaction, of Self-Care, of childcare or idyllic partnership – these are no substitute for the systemic restructuring for liberation I ask us all to consider. As mother+artists, what is our role in this systemic restructuring? Do we protest? Do we vote? Do we birth? Do we do all three, simultaneously? Is birthing and/or raising children in and of itself a form of protest? A kind of artmaking? Do we write, paint, perform, compose and press our point of view into the public eye, or even just into each others’ eyes, to affirm our shared existence?

I gave birth just before the election of the 45th President.  I was living in Manhattan near Washington Square Park and I often encountered protest marches that swelled into the city at large. In my fourth trimester, the only manageable way I could participate in the outrage that surrounded me was to wear it in the form of T-shirts with slogans like The Revolution Will Be Intersectional, Nevertheless She Persisted, Believe Women, and so on. Perhaps the necessary and intimate focus my parenthood required then is why more mothers have not collectively and comprehensively revolted, Lysistrata-style, withholding from the world their substantial labor and expertise. So much would crumble. The categories of impact are so myriad it feels impossible to begin mentioning them for fear of an order of importance imposing itself on the list. But how else can we insist that our art and our humanity deserve places to exist? No one is going to do this for us. The more we demand public space for our whole selves the harder it is for others to deny our existence or our relevancy.

3)

At www.billthepatriarchy.com, you can enter the total number of hours spent weekly on physical, emotional and mental labor within your household. There is also a calculator that factors in the additional cost of products used by women-identifying people per month and the wage gap that is present for all women but increases for women of color. If desired, you can request an invoice and receive instructions on how to bill the patriarchy for all your unpaid labor. This project was started by mother+artist Patti Maciesz. I have now filled this form out at least three times, marveling at its calculation of my annual salary of $253,620, and how if a man did my job, he would earn $53,260 more per year simply because of his manness.

4)

Flashback: When I watched Donna Rizzo dance on stage, she appeared to be as tall as me. When I took her modern dance classes as a teenager, I was nearly six feet tall, and as she came towards me at the barre to adjust my arm her face neatly tucked into my ribs. She was tiny and she was enormous. She was unrelenting and determined and unafraid of sweat, exhaustion or falling on the floor. She taught us to fall. Her body was her tool and she pressed it to its most potent exertion of excellence. When she retired from dancing, she moved to the Tennessee countryside. Well into my post-college adulthood, my mother ran into her at a craft fair in Nashville, where I grew up. Donna greeted her warmly. My mother told her I was living in New York City, pursuing a career as a performing artist. Donna told my mother that she was painting and making pottery now, and her unsolicited advice was that, no matter what, I would need to find creative outlets for myself. No one would bring them to my door, I had to find them. These would sustain me when the structures of artmaking inevitably waxed and waned.

I shared this story with a group of mother-writers last week. We were bemoaning the perpetual lack of time and focus afforded us as primary caregivers, the lost poems, novels, essays and ideas. We are always angry with the patriarchy. I told the story of Donna in a fast-paced rage against the machinery of measurement to which we hold ourselves, our creativity and productivity. It is a measurement so intertwined with capitalism it is difficult to discern the threads weaving into a single braid. How creative work is measured so heavily favors output, result, public display and public reverence. The systems by which we learn to contact, support or engage with our creativity nearly all stem from that ancient muse-y mythology, antithetical to the noise and communal irregularity of parenting.

It is grossly unfair that the work of mothers is held in contrast to our own creativity, as if being a parent were not an essential creative act. I had just spent the weekend painting an old, red cabinet, given freely to me by a neighbor who was preparing to renovate his kitchen. This venerable cabinet had seen some things. She was chipped and sagging and had a large hole in her lower back that I patched with a piece of a shoebox and tape. I created a support of tiny cardboard squares to wedge into her frame to keep her last shelf from bowing out to the floor below. And then I painted her inside and out.

the red cabinet / What I’d Been Working On

She cleans up real nice for photographs. And I offered her to this group of mother-writers as evidence of What I’d Been Working On. And I spoke of my cabinet with the same insistence of her worth and my worth as I worked on her behalf as I would the worth of every woman in that group, every mother who has made it this far in reading my incomplete treatise, of every person who deigns to carve her own path and measure herself by her own intrinsic markers instead of those laid out by the male-dominated model so embraced and perpetuated as singular in our culture.

5)

 “Do you know when you need self help? When no one else is helping you. An ideology of personal satisfaction and improvement is no substitute for systemic restructuring for liberation.”

Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her

An ideology of personal satisfaction, of Self-Care, of childcare or idyllic partnership – these are no substitute for the systemic restructuring for liberation Chemaly and I ask us all to consider. As mother+artists, what is our role in this systemic restructuring? Do we protest? Do we vote? Do we birth? Do we do all three, simultaneously? Is birthing and/or raising children in and of itself a form of protest? A kind of artmaking? Do we write, paint, perform, compose and press our point of view into the public eye, or even just into each others’ eyes, to affirm our shared existence?

It is a life’s work to knowingly operate at odds with societal norms. I would posit that every mother is already doing so and her body and actions are politicized whether she wants them to be or not. My incomplete treatise ends here with this incomplete conclusion and a request: for you to dream yourself out of this false binary, this halted paradigm, this productivity squeeze, and envision that matricentic feminist society. If you can do it, I can do it too. What would it be like for mothers to be at the center, in all our multiplicity? We will know the work is done when Motherhood is relevant to everyone.

The MAMAs, in partnership with PAAL, exists for mother+artists to step more readily into that impossible space, interstitial in its existence between dream and reality. This is where art resides. This is where life resides. Join us.


This column is part of The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art. The MAMAs and its sister subset The PAMAs / Pregnant Artists Making Art is leading a movement that foregrounds the value and visibility of mothers who make art.

The MAMAs embraces ALL who identify with the words Mother and Artist, including biological, adoptive, surrogate, foster, those who have experienced pregnancy or child loss, Trans, and non-binary parents; and passionate and/or professional creative practice across all forms and disciplines. The PAMAs welcomes people who birth.


This initiative was created in partnership between IFCAP (The Institute For Collaboration and Play) and PAAL (Parent Artist Advocacy League).

Both PAAL and IFCAP welcome all caregiving responsibilities and realities in the background or foreground of any meetings, phone calls, and exchanges and gladly receive your life in our pursuit of productive and supportive practices.

PAAL and IFCAP are transgender and non-binary affirming spaces.  We support a safe space for everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and beyond. Our programs are designed for anyone going through the huge changes we experience as artist-parents, whether that’s as someone who identifies as a mother or birthing person, including cis-, Trans and gender non-conforming parents and caregivers. “Mother” is for all who identify with it. PAAL is actively working to develop an organizational standard of language that expands caregiver terms off the binary.

PAAL and IFCAP commit to anti-racist roots in our structures, practices, policies, principles, and producing.

To learn more about The MAMAs/PAMAs, please click here, or visit us on Instagram.

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