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What Kind of a Mother Are You? By Mary Stevens

I am a hopeful mother.

Mothers come in all versions, it is as wide a question as could be. I hope i’m a good mother, but i’m painfully aware that it’s not as simple as that. My new experience of motherhood has been relatively normal and beautiful, sad, euphoric, hard and joyful.

I am a working mother.

Work: activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.

Before I had a baby my work was one of the most important things in my life. I work at a major contemporary art gallery in the exhibitions department and it’s part of my role to extract meaning and interpret difficult subjects within contemporary artworks. It’s what I always wanted to do and I have spent a large part of my life working to get to do it. The work is immensely rewarding and has exposed me to so many fascinating conversations, ideas and people from all over the world.

If I use the tools and framework to understand art (which has taken years to learn, including two degrees) to look at the concept of motherhood, or more particularly my relationship with the concept of motherhood, I struggle. No matter how hard I try, or which way I phrase it I simply cannot interpret or explain the day to day reality of becoming a mother. I doubt I should even use this framework to do this, but I can only use what I know. I sit in front of the same laptop and look out the same window as I do when working, so how do I separate this out? It’s still me, looking at art, looking at my life, trying to work it out as I type. Here I am, another woman, another mother, futilely figuring out how to ‘have it all’. (I put this in inverted commas because who really wants it all?) I read it all the time, coming up again and again in articles, books, podcasts, conversations. How to have it all and not feel like you’re failing at everything. I don’t have the answer, I don’t believe anyone does… maybe something about believing in yourself…

I am a new mother.

To start with, the reality of actually giving birth to a baby shocked me. It was traumatic, terrifying, and mentally numbing. I was in the hospital for three days after the birth, scared to fall asleep, scared to be left with my new baby and scared to go home. Some things didn’t go right, but ultimately I was gifted, I had this little boy who was mine. The nitty gritty tale of life with a newborn followed. We didn’t sleep much, but we helped each other, it was hard but we were in love with ‘the three of us’. I found the first year tough, I don’t have any advice about it, nipple cream didn’t even work for me, it’s a hard time. Somehow you just eventually find yourself on the other side of a year and things start to become recognisable again.

I am a growing mother.

So back to normal-ish life. When I am lost for words, I tend to look around me to see how others cope, how they interpret things and I can’t think of anyone better than artists to do this.

Two years ago I worked with the artist Clare Gallagher. She was exhibiting in the gallery with a show called VERGES. The show was photography documentation of nature breaking through manmade structures. After this exhibition she went on to create a widely recognised and successful photographic series called “The Second Shift”. ‘The Second Shift’ documents the labour of household tasks and childcare (mostly by women, but that’s a different conversation) in addition to their paid employment. It’s beautiful, messy, transcendental, and gloomily normal, but most of all, I felt it was reflective for me and my own visual experience. My life is both expected and not so, it’s what I thought, but both more and less. To me, Gallagher’s work actively merges work and love. The details of life that are both mundane and sublime, angry and resigned. The detail in the photographs is extraordinary, work is work, home is home, one is the other and nothing can ever be perfect but it can be beautiful, which makes perfect sense.

I have not separated out my work in all its forms from motherhood in all its forms. I am lucky to work in a field where it’s possible for me to be somewhat reflective. Motherhood now informs how I cope with situations, how I juggle daily life and how I approach writing, working and living. Artists such as Clare Gallagher illustrate to me the lack of divide between versions of myself. Being a mother in reality encompasses my entire life, it’s not something I separate out, to do when I go home, and equally it informs my paid work. I am this one person, with different titles.

I am a learning mother.

I come at motherhood from an angle of openness. I want to feel deeply, I want to discover something about myself that I didn't know, I want to learn, I want to give. In ways this has led to me taking it all in, on some days perhaps too much. All the love, all the guilt, all the fear. I question myself endlessly, how can I possibly protect my perfect tiny child from the world? My imagination is brightly coloured, I can go anywhere with it, sometimes into complex places, often into scenarios that will never come to pass. The grounding force since the birth of my beautiful boy continues to be the relentless drive to care for my little baby, love him fiercely and give him the wonderful experience of life. I have learnt in becoming a mother that somehow we (him and I) will survive with overwhelming love and that all this time will inevitably pass. For me, it’s perhaps less about having to ‘get through’, but more about my purpose, this new person is an extension of who I am. The cord was cut but I am tied and bound. It is now part of who I am to get up in the morning, to feed, to change, to play and simply continue to live, as beauty will come with this life and with this work.

What kind of a mother am I?

I am my baby’s mother. I am me.

Words and images by Mary Stevens

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