Photo by Mika Rosenfeld
Mothers who Make began in the summer of 2014 – incredibly that makes it now nine years old. And I still get challenged, as I did then, about why it’s for mums. Why exclude the dads? “They have challenges too!” “Why isn’t it Parents who Make?” “Isn’t it being for mums unhelpful if we are to support fathers to step up and care?”
The very first blog I wrote for Mothers who Make was in answer to these challenges. Though much has changed in the last nine years, I stand by the position I outlined then. You can read the full thing here, but the gist of it is this: I think it’s important not to confuse ‘equal’ with ‘the same as.’ I want to support and celebrate difference. And there are differences – whether you articulate them as historical, cultural, physical – between those that identify as mothers and those that call themselves fathers. I would love for someone to run a ‘Fathers who Make’ or a ‘Parents who Make’ – and I even hope that, in running MWM, it inspires or invites this possibility – but, for now, because women hold the vast majority of caring roles, and because this labour, and gender, is still undervalued, I want to hold space for and validate the particular experience of mothers.
Over the last nine years I have had women and non-binary people, who are not mothers – or certainly not straightforwardly so – engage with MWM: those who have no living children, or who have long stories of IVF but no child; those who are wondering whether they could or should start a family; those who have children that left home long ago; those who have raised children that were not their own; those who decided against motherhood, in favour of mothering other people or projects. I have been blown away by the courage of these participants. Their presence enriches the conversation, takes us deeper, stretches our collective understanding of the identities we hold. And they have shown me that the boundary I hold around the initiative is not actually about whether or not someone has a child. That the ‘Mothers’ in our name is a theme, not a prerequisite for membership. Because if you identify as female or non-binary, at some point in your life, you will have to engage with the issue of fertility and motherhood – to want it, reject it, perform it, grieve it, or all of these at different times.
‘Mother’ is a phenomenally huge and troubled categorisation – there are so many different ways to become one, so many different stages to the role, so many different kinds of people to be mothered. It has always struck me as unfair that a woman only gets to wear a badge saying that she is a mother during one of the times when the identity is likely to be most visible – as her belly swells. Alongside ‘Baby on Board’ badges, I wish there were ‘Baby Back Home’ badges or ‘Child Grown Up and Far Away’ ones or – like the black bands people used to wear for mourning – ones for baby loss, or for all the many other kinds of care that might be ’On Board,’ held within.
I feel this all the more acutely as I move into a new stage of motherhood myself. I am 49, peri-menopausal, and my children are growing up. One of the images we used often in the early days of MWM – a young woman, three young children climbing on her – no longer represents me. I never intended MWM to be only about this – the most conventional notion of mum-ness – but because MWM grew out of my need, was once my brand new baby, alongside my kids, and because I was making it up as I went along, as mothers do, I was less awake to the bias of our messaging. But now MWM is nearly a pre-teen, I want to help it become both more aware and more autonomous – to widen, deepen and strengthen its relationship to the world, while still protecting its heart- that’s what all mothers want for their kids – right?
So, about a year ago, I started to think about the artists whom I would like to include in the unfolding conversation and ongoing research that lies at the heart of MWM, but who would be unlikely to engage unless directly invited. And the first person I thought to ask was Stella Duffy.
Stella is a writer, theatre-maker, psychotherapist and yoga teacher, currently completing a doctorate in the embodied experience of post-menopause. She has been active in equalities and inclusion work in the arts, LGBTQ+ and feminist communities for many decades. Cancer treatment in her mid-thirties made her infertile just at the point she was trying to become a mother. When I wrote to ask if she would engage with me in MWM’s next chapter, she wrote back like this:
“I’d love to do something for M/Others Who Make with you – I’m very keen on the forward slash at the moment, the and/but that feels more inclusive …. for our culture divides us into Mothers and Others. For the Mothers there is the impossible dichotomy of living up to a life state that is both lauded as the only true fulfilment of a cisgender female body while simultaneously experiencing continuous denigration for not mothering perfectly. For the Others there is the impossibility of achieving that which has been designated as our ultimate purpose, while also living the constant othering of our pro-natal culture. Mothers or Others, we are both Othered for our not-enough-ness and our failure to live up to an imposed and impossible ideal. Mothers AND Others, I believe, can come together to co-create a space that turns not-enough on its head, that embraces the gaps and the mis-shapes, that welcomes difference as valuable rather than frightening, holding conception and misconception to be equally valid elements of creativity.”
All of which made me want to say ‘YES!’ – and to keep dreaming up a project that explored the idea of M/Others who Make.
So I did. With tremendous support from several wonderful M/Others, a project came together, an application was submitted to the Arts Council – and WE GOT THE FUNDING! Hooraaaaay!
The project is both utterly practical – how can MWM become financially sustainable?
And profound – Who is a mother? Who prescribes the boundaries of motherhood? What might it mean to introduce a forward slash to our name – M/Others who Make – and to truly welcome difference.
And it is ultimately a project that is celebratory – affirming of a multiplicity of stories and experiences, of conception and misconception as both vital and valid components of any creative process, as Stella wrote.
To help us do this, we are delighted to announce our incredible list of collaborators. We are working with artists Euella Jackson, Jenny Sealey OBE, Rae Smith, Shagufta Iqbal, Stella Duffy OBE and You-ri Yamanaka as Artistic Consultants. We are also partnering with Black Mothers Matter, National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF), Fertility Network UK and Mothers Rise Up. Together we will reimagine the possibilities of opening up M/Others Who Make to a whole new audience of m/others and co-design our online programme.
In conversation with our partners and with our community, we will embark on six months of organisational development, followed by six months of pilot activity.
So look out for new membership offers, creative workshops, peer-support specials, M/Other Dens, our mentoring programme, and an exciting new M/Other Lab opportunity, coming up in the months ahead. If you want to be the first to hear, to share your thoughts, and are ready to jump on board now, please sign up to our Matronage membership scheme. We will be developing this scheme during this project, growing the offer we make to our members, or ‘Matron Saints’.
So, I look forward to connecting with you, whatever your story of mother or otherhood – I hope, through this project, you will feel welcomed, valued and supported by MWM.