Making Motherhood Visible

Found photograph of 'Hidden Mother' from victorian era. 

Found photograph of 'Hidden Mother' from victorian era. 


On International Women's Day 2018, I feel honoured and privileged to be bringing together the work of 21 International female artists who are also, mothers. Through these artists' diverse practices, they are challenging the one dimensional image of the maternal role which circulates through media and are making known the complex realities of their individual experiences of their shared roles as mothers and artists. 

Motherhood, is a role that each one of us can connect with whether through birth, death, family and relationships in all forms.  It is a role that plays an important narrative in each of our lives yet for too long we have seen an art world where motherhood is absent and a society which ignores its value.

A subjective representation of motherhood may yet to have reach the mainstream but there are hives of activism happening around the world. Mother/artists are tired of being marginalised and not only are women making work which presents their true lived experiences, but they are coming together to share those experiences, to form collectives, to collaborate and curate shows and to find innovative ways to continue an arts practice whilst raising children. There is a growing international network of organisations and artists across all art forms who are connected through this unique experience and it is incredibly empowering to be a part of.   Spilt Milk has grown and formed from this collective energy, through my participation in An Artist Residency in Motherhood  and the reaffirmed purpose it gave me.  Borne out of both frustration and inspiration, I wanted Scotland to wake up and to take part in this important movement.  

I would like to take a minute here and return to my own mother-artist journey as I feel it is important to understand and to share our own experiences as mothers/artists/women. My experience does not quite fit the 'norm' as I wasn't a professional artist who suddenly became a mother; I was a young mother who gradually became an artist. 

I became pregnant at 19 years old, a barely formed woman myself, I was catapulted into motherhood with no money, no job, no home and no clue about what my future would bring. I spent the early years of my son's life as a stay at home single mum on benefits as my son’s dad had left to chase his own creative ambitions. The majority of my twenties were spent nursing, feeding, playing, worrying, trying, failing and succeeding at this challenging yet amazing role, however throughout it all I had this constant drive that I would also 'be an artist' (whatever that meant). Perhaps partly because I felt like it was the only thing I was good at, partly because I had the JK Rowling fantasy of one day becoming a sensation and getting myself and my son out of the poverty we are living in, or perhaps it was because I wanted to feel valued because society was certainly not valuing the mothering work I was doing. I felt like just another statistic and I wanted more, I wanted both [motherhood and a career].  My continued experience of single motherhood undoubtedly is the thing that has made me an artist. I have learned empathy, creativity, modesty, discipline, self sufficiency, decisiveness, humility and most importantly, resilience. I'm not sure I could have handled the rejection of the art world otherwise. 

My journey towards becoming a professional artist was not an easy one and at each stage of the process, I faced new and unexpected challenges. In the early days, there were just two classes that I was able to attend which had childcare facilities and so my journey began in a twice-weekly community class while my son was in the creche. In 2008 I enrolled on a full time HND at Edinburgh College and although some childcare costs were subsidised, the majority of my loan income went toward private nursery fees. 

On completion of my HND, I applied and was offered a place on BA (Hons) Fine Art at Central Saint Martins (London). Figuring out how I was going to mange two years in London on my own with a five year old was a challenge to say the least. After a few months of what I look back on as being one of the hardest times in my life, it transpired that it was easier and better all round if I lived between Edinburgh and London for the remainder of the course. The care of my son was shared between my mother and his father whilst I attended university in London and travelled home every holiday, long weekend and as much as possible in between. I spent hours and hours on trains and often on the dreaded overnight megabus, I was constantly broke even with the highest amount of loan, hardship funding as well as earnings from working evenings in the university library. It was a struggle but we managed and believed it would all be worth it. 

At Central Saint Martins, I was in a minority. I was the only mum on my course, the only single mum in the whole year, in a small minority of students that were from low income families and definitely the only person commuting back to Scotland to tuck her kid into bed! I stuck out like a sore thumb and I began to realise how underrepresented my experiences were.

One thing I want to point out here is the double standard. When my son’s father left to follow his creative dreams, thus abandoning his emotional and financial responsibilities to his young family, nobody stopped him. It was just accepted that I would bear the full weight and responsibilities of parenting on my own. Roll on a few years later when I was the one following my own creative ambitions, my actions were judged as selfish while he was praised for stepping up to the temporary role of part time dad. It was a fine example of how we as a society view gender in regards to parenting roles. Women are still shamed where men are celebrated. 

In 2012 after I handed in my degree show portfolio and dissertation titled "The Problem of the Maternal", my (male) tutor condescendingly stated "It's not really art though is it". (?)  Was it such a far-out concept to create work about my personal experience of motherhood, to produce work that is perhaps too emotionally intelligent or highlights too many uncomfortable issues? Of course it was art and from that point onwards, I was determined to create the work I wanted and needed to create despite the patriarchal attitudes. 

After graduation I moved back home permanently and was faced with the dilemma of what now? How do I make this work? I was unable to afford a studio space and couldn't apply for residencies or opportunities outside of my local area because everything I did had to fit around school drop off and pick up. For the first few years, I made work on my kitchen table whenever I found the time to do so. My practice had to fit around parenting, paid work and general daily life. Some years I made more work, some less, some years pushed me to the limit with my full time day job, others gave me more time, some years were filled with rejection and others full of opportunities. The important thing for me was to keep going, to keep creating something and move my work forward, to keep exhibiting when and wherever I could and to accept the help of those around me in order to continue.

One of the main issues as a professional artist with children is the lack of opportunity to participate in residency programmes.  The experience of traveling to a new environment to draw inspiration, make connections and develop ideas uninterrupted is one that clashes with the everyday realities of parenting. With residencies come the dilemmas of childcare; who can do the school run, how can I be away for that long, is it child friendly and how will I pay for it? Obviously for me as a single parent these dilemmas are much more challenging on a practical and financial level but even mothers in relationships find it difficult to organise their lives and children in order to participate. 

Everyone deserves to feel represented and on my bad days when I question what I'm doing it all for, when I'm still struggling and my teenager is rolling his eyes at me, I hold onto the hope that one day a young mum will walk into a gallery and go, "oh wow, I can relate to that". 

My story is not unique and my experiences touch upon the challenges faced by mothers in the arts everywhere. Childcare models do not meet the needs of artists, residency programmes shut out parents, female artists are underpaid, mothers are undervalued, the majority of museums and galleries are male owned and the subject of the maternal is often still seen as either too sentimental or too explicit.   The idea that the roles of artist and mother being entirely incompatible is only a preconception perpetuated by contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Marina Abramovic who have each publicly stated that they don't believe women can be great artists if they have children. Yes, there are many challenges to overcome but the solution is to work together to overcome them, to make the art world more accessible to all genders, races, incomes and familial circumstances rather than to close the door on huge sectors of society. I think the powerful, inspiring, challenging and ground breaking work of the artists on this website prove that preconception wrong. 

Now feels like the right time for me, and for Spilt Milk. If we want our art history to be true to the times we live in, we must present all voices equally within our culture and it is now more important than ever for the voices of mothers to be heard, for our stories to be told and our feelings expressed.  Motherhood must be taken out of the hidden spaces of the home and given the opportunity to be presented within our communities and to be valued as equal work within our society. Only then will we achieve real equality.

To all the mothers who these words resonate with, I see you, you are visible and you are valuable. 

- Lauren McLaughlin,  artist and founder of Spilt Milk.