Spilt Milk had the pleasure of getting to know American writer, artist and “An Artist Residency in Motherhood” participant, Minna Dubin who tells us more about the inspiration, creative process and long term goals behind her powerful three year project; #MomLists.
Hi Minna! Firstly, can you give us a brief introduction to #MomLists for those who may not yet know of the project?
#MomLists is a guerrilla public art project consisting of 150 lists about my motherhood experiences. Each list is handwritten on a 4x6 card. I layer a piece of bright decorative paper over the list and sew the two pieces together across the top. The act of making—cutting, sewing, hand writing, stamping—then feeling the tangible, finished product in my hands is a relief. Each piece is a clearly laid-out goal—the opposite of the uncertain nature of raising a child. The lists dangle from ribbons in public spaces (laundromats, playgrounds, coffee shops) looking like flattened gift bags, waiting for strangers to stumble upon them. #MomLists require interaction. Readers must lift the pretty exterior to access the gritty, vulnerable list underneath. The project completed the first run of 50 pieces in Berkeley in 2015. The second run of 50 pieces in Oakland ended in 2016. The third and final run of 50 was in San Francisco and concluded in April 2018. In addition to posting the lists in real life, I also post them online on MomLists’ social media pages.
Tell us a bit more about yourself, what is your background, have lists always been present in your work?
I’m a part-time writer and full-time mother living in Berkeley, California with my partner and our two children (ages 5 and 1). I’m white, Jewish and queer, and originally from Philadelphia. For a long time, I facilitated memoir-writing workshops about identity for teens, specifically for pregnant and parenting teens. I did a lot of literary public art projects with them. I realize now that these projects were the beginning and even the inspiration for #MomLists. Also, my mother did guerrilla street art, and she inspired and encouraged me to put the lists in places people could see them.
I did a project with my students where they wrote short poems about popular culture and we covered the steps of the San Francisco Public Library’s main inside stairwell with their poems, one line per step, so people would read the poems (about the Kardashians or Google) as they climbed the stairs. Witnessing the interactive nature of it made gave me a tingly feeling. Every artist wants to see people talking about, interacting with, thinking about their work, right? I love writing, but it’s such a solitary, quiet art form, and I’m not a quiet or solitary person. Making #MomLists a public art project was my way to put my work in people’s faces. It was my way to be loud!
Though lists have never been part of my creative work before, I’ve always been a list-maker. After the birth of my son, I found that entire days would pass me by. Lost in a sea of milk, naps, and Netflix, I got nothing done if I didn’t make a “to-do” list. “Brush teeth” and “Take a shower” were some of the regular items that appeared on those lists. Like my hygiene, my writing productivity slowed to a crawl during those first years of motherhood. Even though my brain felt like mush, I still wanted to write. The first time I wrote about my son, it came out as a mini-memoir, which I then numbered, just like one of my daily to-do lists. Something clicked. Lists (unlike the essays I wrote pre-motherhood) felt accomplishable. Lists were flexible. They could be comprised of one-word items or entire paragraphs. Lists could be literary, poetic even. They could be full of despair or funny as hell. Lists could hold all of motherhood.
Your #MomLists are deeply honest, revealing, sometimes hilarious and often incredibly moving portrayals of your own experiences of motherhood. How important was it that you gave a true depiction of your experiences, poop and all?
SO IMPORTANT! Two years after giving birth to my first child, I felt like I was still in survival mode. Our modern-day connector—social media (a barrage of happy mom-and-tot selfies)—didn’t help. #MomLists began as a rebellion to our society’s shiny, happy “motherhood is the best job you’ll ever have” message. Even though I loved my kid, I wasn’t sure if I loved motherhood. It is so hard. I was in search of an alternative motherhood narrative. So I decided to write one and put it into the world. We can check all the boxes about why people we know have it all (great job, cute kids, devoted partner), but everyone is struggling with who-knows-what behind closed doors. Motherhood can be very isolating and the honesty of #MomLists is my way of shouting from behind the glass, “Can you see me? I need you to see me!”
Sharing #MomLists with other mothers seems to be an important part of the project. Can you tell us more about the reactions you have had both as objects left in public spaces and as images shared online? Has the public reaction been as you had expected?
Because #MomLists is a guerrilla art project, I’m often posting the pieces on bulletin boards without even asking. So each list either gets trashed when the bulletin board gets cleared or someone takes it (I’d love that!). That’s just the nature of the work. It’s ephemeral. Once I did see one I posted still up a few weeks later. Someone scrawled on it “Boo hoo!” I felt my feminist hairs rise and bristle (this “mothers shouldn’t complain” idea is exactly what the project is rebelling against!), but then I realized the comment was proof someone lifted the top layer and read the list! And had a strong enough reaction to write on it!
The reaction online has been a major motivator for me. I feel like I have a virtual community of mothers who just “get it.” Every once in a while I get a message from a mother who is a complete stranger (sometimes from another country) thanking me for my writing. When people respond to my lists and conversations happen in the comments, it feels like a call and response to my question “Can you see me?” Everyone is saying, “I see you and I’ll raise you.” Then they add their own experience, to which I or another commenter responds. People are putting their experiences out there and being affirmed. On Instagram and Facebook no less! I love it! Just today, I posted a mother’s guest list she submitted to me about the rude things people say to her as a mother of one. Another mom commented on the list: “Whenever someone asks me if [my daughter] is my first I correct them “She’s my last actually!” Such affirmation of the writer’s experience, and bringing humor and sass to the table too! I love that MomLists’ social media acts as an empowering space for mothers to share. This was not my goal, but it’s one of my favorite outcomes of the project.
Has the project changed or evolved over the past three years or has it remained true to your initial aims?
The lists I did in the first year of the project are so short—one word or just a few words per list item. Two years later, I’m cramming mini-memoirs onto these tiny 4x6 cards. I like looking over the whole project and seeing this evolution. It documents the way my time expanded as my son grew from a toddler to a boy, and the way my brain opened up again, as it emerged from the motherhood fog. I also notice that the beginning lists are really funny. I think when I began the project I was struggling so much and I really needed to be funny. It helped me laugh at myself and see the humor in my small, crazy life. By the end, I don’t need it so much. I’m able to delve deeper into the stories I’m telling. Also, at the beginning, I was writing and posting 2 or 3 pieces a week! I finished the first 50 lists in Berkeley in 6 months. Oakland took a year. San Francisco took me a year and a half. My production slowed down as I began to write more words. Also, I gave birth to my daughter at list 113, with 37 more lists to go. San Francisco is an hour away from my home. Once my daughter was born, I just couldn’t bring myself to go over there. It felt impossible. A year and a half later, I still have 37 lists to post in San Francisco (I did post them online). They’re made and ready to go. I’m planning to take a day or two and plaster the city with #MomLists. Soon!
When and why did you begin to share guest momlists and has the inclusion of other mothers’ experiences added anything to the overall project?
I think I started wanting the guest lists as I was finishing Berkeley, because I realized I wanted to take the summer off, but I didn’t want to stop the social media feeds and lose momentum. I also wanted to expand the motherhood stories being told on #MomLists. As someone who writes and thinks a lot about identity, I am very aware that I am only telling my white, upper-middle class, married-to-a-man, Jewish, 35-year-old, able-bodied, American story. I wanted to highlight motherhood experiences that are different from mine. I wanted infertility stories, and black motherhood, fatherhood stories and gay and trans parenting stories. I wanted grandma stories and single-women-wanting-kids-at-35 stories. I wanted ALL the stories. I have really loved sharing other mothers’ experiences. I feel very grateful to each mom who trusts me with her list. Their voices are broadening the project in a way I can’t do by myself.
Has the project changed anything for you as a writer, a mother? Have you learned any valuable lessons or are there things you think about differently now that you did three years ago?
It’s changed my writing identity. I used to think of myself as a “writer.” I’m slowly starting to expand that to “artist.” I understand my work right now to be “hybrid” – art/list/memoir. It doesn’t quite fit into a tidy box, which makes it a little hard to get published in magazines and such, but I also like that it’s a bit weird. This project has also helped me not over-write. I just don’t have enough space to go on and on about extraneous details on a 4x6 card, so I have to get to the point very quickly.
Looking over the 150 lists, I see how I’ve grown as a mother. I see so much tenderness emerge from myself towards my son, and also towards myself, in the latter half of the lists. Doing this project reminds me all the time that social media is amazing in so many ways and it is also unfortunately a bullshit cultivator. #MomLists has taught me that everyone is struggling, no matter how together and pretty their social media feeds portray them to be. I feel a lot more capable as a mother than I did three years ago. Now, I run around with both kids, doing errands and such, and sometimes it’s miserable, but sometimes something clicks and the kids are charming and everything goes smoothly, and I feel like such a boss. That’s definitely new. I love those moments.
How do you feel three years on having completed what you set out to do? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I feel pretty darn proud of myself! I can’t believe it took me this long to write 150 lists. And, I can’t believe I stuck with it. The social media piece really helped me finish it. I’m one of those people who are very responsible and always show up on time, keep my promises, and pay people back, etc. But I don’t keep promises to myself or meet my own goals very well. So making it a social project helped me because I’d tell myself “I have to get a list up. People are waiting for it!” which of course wasn’t really true, but imagining that there was an external expectation helped push me.
I’m not very social media or marketing savvy. If I had to do this over again, I’d have made it a little more high-tech. I’d have learned how to use design apps that could have made the lists look handwritten, and maybe not write them all out by hand! Then again, something about that feels antithetical to the spirit of the project, which is crafty and guerrilla. I stamp every list at the bottom with #MomLists. I wish I’d gotten a stamp that said: @momlists. I wasn’t hip to the whole hashtagging thing. Even the project name - #MomLists – it’s a little weird that the hashtag is part of the project name. But it’s a kind of “out of touch mom” detail, so I also sort of like it. It’s a little goofy.
What’s next for #MomLists …?
Next up for #MomLists is a book! I’m currently shopping for an agent and a publisher and am working on the manuscript, editing the lists into a structure that works as a book. I’d like the project to have a second life online, kind of a “#MomLists 2.0” now that I’m finished the project. For now I’m posting weekly guest lists. I’m always looking for submissions! And you don’t have to be a mom to submit. Guidelines can be found here: http://www.minnadubin.com/contact