The MAMAs Column 7

The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art celebrates the Mother+Artist. The MAMAs has been invited as the inaugural program in PAAL’s new incubator initiative for artistic and communal development for artists and activists. 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. Welcome!

By Catherine Mueller

*Statement of inclusion at end of page.

Bluebird, by Ariel Gore

STEP ONE, MAMAs!

Late in the Fall of 2021, I received notice that I was accepted into a very select cohort of practicing artists and educators for a year-long fellowship working towards certification in Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP). My application focused on researching how CRP might impact communities of Mother+Artists as well as a deepening of my own practice of CRP as an artist, educator, mother and human. CRP consists of a four step structure designed to dialogically facilitate response to a creative work-in-progress. Since its inception over 25 years ago it has also been used as a guiding structure in service of efforts toward social justice, equity, conflict resolution, domestic violence awareness and healing, and other difficult conversations.

CRP nearly always begins with Step One: Statements of Meaning. In this step, the gathered offer statements articulating what was evocative, memorable, exciting, or resonant for them in the artwork they just experienced. The values at the root of CRP foreground the artist’s experience, a propulsion of the artist’s goals for the work at hand, and discomfort is intentionally transformed into inquiry.

As part of our recent work within this fellowship, we were asked to spend three consecutive days engaged in an active Step One practice for ourselves and others, intentionally noticing via the descriptors above and sharing what we noticed. It was one component of a multi-faceted, provocative investigation into Statements of Meaning as they relate to practicing Step One, distilling the values behind it, and its impact on artists, responders and facilitators working with CRP, formally or informally.

Twenty+ years ago, I began a dedicated gratitude practice. For around five years, I wrote down approximately five things I was grateful for at the end of each day. Additionally, around that time, I consciously added acknowledgement as part of my practice in being with people. This choice came out of a series of ontological workshops I participated in that focused on humanity with regard to our relatedness to self and others. I recognized the dearth of acknowledgement that existed in the world and how good it felt to both offer and receive it. I stopped the daily writing when the internal muscles of noticing and acknowledging felt so strong that the work was continuous, effortless and ingrained in me.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this acknowledgment practice coincided with my permanent rooting in the artistic practice of clown, both as theatrical form and aesthetic. While it does not include acknowledgement per se, it does include radical celebration, celebration of celebration, and hope, curiosity and wonder are foundational.

So, one would think, after decades of the aforementioned active framings, three days of conscious Step One would be effortless for me. But it was not. Life can be funny like that.

I had not participated in three consecutive days of any prescribed practice that did not serve my role as Mother since my son was born. I now had some serious homework to do and somehow had to merge this work with my mothering.

It is also perhaps not a coincidence that this assignment overlapped with my reading of Bluebird by Ariel Gore. In this book the author endeavors to learn more about positive psychology and the study of happiness only to quickly discover that all happiness studies dis-include the experiences of women. She names all the individuals and systems that related to her as a person/woman/mother who was expected to fail. Flow, that transcendent state of creative convergence, lost-time, fluid effort, productivity and discovery, is contingent upon periods of uninterrupted time. Mothers are perpetually interrupt-able and this is a serious impediment to flow.

In motherhood there is a brutal toggle between despair and jubilance. It is constant, comes without warning, and disrupts your sense of self, your daily rhythm, your energy, your output. It is as if you need to recover from motherhood itself, which is impossible, for you desire your children and are not giving them away any time soon. You want and don’t want, simultaneously, that which is inextricably linked.

I felt this deeply as I worked to complete this assignment. There were several parent artists in my graduate school cohort and I have no idea how they completed any projects, much less our summative, interactive final portfolios. One night, while working after bedtime, my son snuck out of bed and was chasing the kittens downstairs. I ignored him. Later, I discovered he had cut open a tube of fairy cream (Neosporin) and smeared it all over the floor and walls just outside the bathroom. He had thrown his dirty laundry in the hall, relocated my books, and made a display of pinwheels just outside my door. He is five. He does not understand homework. It felt like a major achievement to submit the completed full assignment on time.

In motherhood there is a brutal toggle between despair and jubilance. It is constant, comes without warning, and disrupts your sense of self, your daily rhythm, your energy, your output. It is as if you need to recover from motherhood itself, which is impossible, for you desire your children and are not giving them away any time soon. You want and don’t want, simultaneously, that which is inextricably linked.

In my reading about happiness as it intersects with what it is to be a woman and how noticing/celebrating is a consistently recommended practice to cultivate happiness and how it is difficult to do this when the structures of the patriarchy are designed to oppress and marginalize you from day one or when you are constantly being interrupted – the deck just felt stacked against us all. It was a validating and stark assessment.

In my application for this fellowship, I posited that CRP had very valuable applicability to Mother+Artists. We are overlooked, oppressed, resource-poor, endlessly creative, and in positions both dominant and nurturing. What might happen if CRP became a guideline for how we engage with ourselves, our art and children?

If we can get deliberately curious about ourselves, our art and our children, can we/they become less confounding or frustrating? More magical, available and developmentally appropriate? Can we cite the resources present instead of focusing on what feels impossibly distant? Can we turn our parental discomforts into inquiry about our children, ourselves and each other? Can we celebrate works-in-progress, recognizing that grand ideas can come to us while nursing, dinnering, directing a board meeting, driving or watching a soccer game, and that this duality of mind is staggering and awesome? Is this conscious practice how we begin to dismantle all the misogynistic structures that we have internalized and implement ideas and actions that work in tandem with the rhythm of our days, our responsibilities and requests?

In Bluebird Gore writes, “We don’t need children to be happy, but motherhood has taught me this: to experience joy, we have to be able to honestly experience darkness, too. In responsibility to relationship, we build bodies of memory and life experience that we can be proud of. Motherhood has taught me that the opposite of happiness isn’t struggle. It isn’t even depression. The opposite of happiness is fear and obedience.”

Finally, as part of our encompassing assignment we were asked to define honesty as it relates to feedback. Many only consider feedback that hurts to be valuable. This is a product of the crit-culture prevalent in many artistic training programs. Real feedback is seen as always negative. However, Statements of Meaning are not pandering compliments. Those are a waste of time for artists and for children.

So, then, what is honesty? I was thinking about this as I lay next to my son in his bed in the semi-dark, listening to him sniffle and flop. If honesty is a commitment to telling the truth, the next question is what is truth? I think philosophers have been fighting about this for centuries. And I think where I left off in my knowledge of their fighting is that truth is wholly subjective. There is no objective truth. There is a lot we might agree on, but there is no ultimate objective truth. Everything is filtered through the lens of perception.

If there is no objective truth, what matters when we share our honest point of view, when we look and speak through the filter of our own perception, is that we share without the intent to harm. I also recognize the inherent privilege in being able to engage in this practice without risking harm as I pause, consider or speak aloud in this writing.

In CRP we prioritize honesty but we also prioritize the artist’s experience, not to negate the responder or to subsume the responder in some kind of treacly altruism but for the responder to participate with the filter of her perspective and the filter of being in service to the artist/art. In the ways we care for our children, we similarly balance their needs and ours. We are looking through the lens of our own experiences and wisdom, we endeavor to keep them from harm, and as they age, we can intercede less and less in their lives until, gradually, the weight we carry as adults is borne by them. How we hold them at all points matters. We do not parent to harm.

Can we celebrate works-in-progress, recognizing that grand ideas can come to us while nursing, dinnering, directing a board meeting, driving or watching a soccer game, and that this duality of mind is staggering and awesome? Is this conscious practice how we begin to dismantle all the misogynistic structures that we have internalized and implement ideas and actions that work in tandem with the rhythm of our days, our responsibilities and requests?

As I lay next to my son one night, writing some version of all the above in my head, I noted that my truth in that moment was that I wanted to just lie next to him indefinitely. His respiration had calmed, he was starting to snore. He was holding my right hand with his left. His face was an inch from mine and his hot breath cascaded over my nose with each exhale. He was calm, soft, tactile – things he rarely is during our very long and very active days.

Telling the truth to myself in that moment, that I wanted to just lie there and not go do some big thinking and writing in my one hour of available solo brain space that day did not mean I got to forgo my obligations. It did not mean I got to go to my laptop and open the draft of my assignment responses, write this story and then say here is my truth! No more Step One musings for me! I’m OUT! Honesty is not equal to anarchy, hedonism, self-service at the expense of agreements. Within agreements there must be acknowledgment and flexibility and also a striving towards unity.

So, then, what does all this have to do with Mother+Artists?

Step One slows time and forces us to acknowledge what is working even within our limited resources. What can we claim as resonant, evocative, surprising, exciting? This feels monumental, countering the constant restrictions placed on mothers by the world, our children and ourselves.

How we pursue and participate in noticing is contingent on conscious relationship to honesty as it relates to our parenting and to our sense of how we hold our children in the brave space of being alive and learning. It is also contingent on being willing to notice, to celebrate, to hope. With all this theory behind it, is our access to happiness contingent on some kind of perpetual Step Ones for ourselves and our children? And, execution of this directive is ensconced inside our sense of safety if we were to follow it. Just claiming triumphant space in our own minds can feel like a subversive, political act. This framework is an offering towards liberty, not a mandate.

In Bluebird Gore writes, “We don’t need children to be happy, but motherhood has taught me this: to experience joy, we have to be able to honestly experience darkness, too. In responsibility to relationship, we build bodies of memory and life experience that we can be proud of. Motherhood has taught me that the opposite of happiness isn’t struggle. It isn’t even depression. The opposite of happiness is fear and obedience.”

Let us disobey. Let us dare to triumph and define what triumph looks like, in the faces of all those who would have us fail, remain small and contained. Let us declare our own victories even as we despair. Let us expand. Motherhood is perhaps our greatest access to that we most value.

I leave you with eleven items from my Step One list, a particular grouping of “memory and life” gathered last week:

Garlic hummus on a rice cracker.

The roots growing on the cuttings of the trees in water and that these little tiny leaves are coming out even though those branches looked dead a week ago like so dead dead dead.

Holding hands with my son at bedtime.

I saw a duck yawn! I did not even know ducks could yawn!

All! The! Food! (I brought home from the store)

In spite of what my son says, I can still draw a good dinosaur.

That first hit of iced chai latte.

Sploosh is the word of the day.

The sweet stinky smell of kitten breath.

I felt my son’s heartbeat in his chest at bedtime. I realized I hadn’t felt it like this since he was inside my body.

There is an app that tells me via photo what kinds of plants are growing in my yard. Today I learned that we have one pumpkin plant and one cantaloupe plant growing in the backyard garden. As well as two red maple trees I did not plant. And I spotted leaves on one dormant tree I planted this spring, an oak.

The small statue of a bull that we pass in someone’s yard on the way to school, how it subtly changes location around its preferred tree.

When your child falls asleep in his bed as you lie next to him and he asks you to sing songs all new songs Mommy songs you haven’t sung before and you dig deep in your arsenal and somehow locate Earth Angel and that song Gonzo sings from the Muppet movie and Shall We Dance and then To Dream the Impossible Dream and the first two verses of the finale of Candide and you marvel at the sound of your own voice made small in the darkness with the intent of bedtime but also that these songs have been part of your life the legacy your mother left to you and now you are giving them in turn and you end with Somewhere Over The Rainbow because that is one of your trusted closers and you feel his breathing change and his legs stop kicking and there is the slightest hint of a snore and you move your one hand from his warm upper back and the other you extract from the grip of his little fingers and you sneak away turning off the ceiling fan as you go because this is by far the best part of every day this moment when he is at rest and some small part of you can also be at rest and that this rest is preceded by tenderness which often gets set aside throughout the rest of the day. This. This is why you parent. It is all this.


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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