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By opening up more realistic discussions around motherhood, Motherworks seeks to support those suffering unnecessarily. Ruth Dudman explains.

Photo of a cast iron sculpture of a woman using a megaphone

The internal imagining of what motherhood should look and feel like are deep-rooted in our culture, history and politics. There is a commonly accepted norm that it is something simple, natural and wonderful. But from the number of mothers who describe feelings of deep shock and un-preparedness around this time, it is clear that this pervasive vision of motherhood is misinformed. People repeatedly report a significant mismatch between their expectation and their reality of motherhood.

At times when we are juggling an abundance of newness, we are vulnerable to questioning ourselves and our abilities

As many as one in five perinatal women in the UK experience a mental health disorder, with childbearing often being a trigger for serious mental health problems to arise or relapse. While the causes of these problems are complex, early intervention is known to reduce the severity and frequency of problems developing.

When people feel that their experience doesn’t fit with the norm it is much harder for them to vocalise it with those around them. Feelings of shame and failure are a frequent cause of isolation, and prevent people accessing crucial support. They are also the cause of much unnecessary suffering during an already difficult period.

Changing the narrative

To change this narrative and open up our understanding of motherhood as something much more complex, people need support to become more vocal with themselves, each other and the general public about their real experiences, and end the silence that perpetuates the myths. We need to help normalise the highs and lows, the difficulties, the chaos and the self-doubt.

There is an upward swing in the number of organisations supporting parents, as well as artists making new work exploring these issues, but the topic remains underexplored. Importantly, the artists whose stories we need to hear are shamefully under-supported and struggle to return to their practice after having children of their own. According to the Balancing Act Survey conducted by Parents & Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA), 43% of those who have left the industry cited caring responsibilities as the main contributing factor, with women making the majority of career sacrifices.

This is easy to understand when you consider the financial and logistical challenges that come with the reality of most artists’ working lives and the incompatibility with raising children. Long periods of time away from home on tour, sporadic and unpredictable work patterns, long hours and precarious finances just don’t mix well with those whose lives depend on us being available and reliable.

Radical changes

Motherhood can be a time of radical change. It affects our relationships, priorities and sense of purpose - alongside the physical impact of pregnancy and birth, miscarriage or assisted conception. Artists circumnavigating these issues are subject to a seismic shift in identity that can affect their emotional resilience, just like the rest of us.

At times when we are juggling an abundance of newness, we are vulnerable to questioning ourselves and our abilities. It’s not a surprise that artists have not been able to confidently challenge the status quo and ask for what they need more directly. But these needs are real and valid. We must recognise this and ask for them to be met. The alternative is that it probably does feel easier to quietly slip off the radar. But in keeping quiet, we are accepting the image of idealised motherhood and blaming ourselves or others.

Support and stories

Small and easy changes can make a huge difference. Motherworks Residencies are designed to fully support artists to explore their experience of and relationship to motherhood as they develop new work on the topic. The support we offer is based on the premise that each artist’s needs will vary depending on their circumstances, including the age of their family.

It is clear that an artist can only create their best work - or anything at all - if they are confident their family is being well looked after. The fees take childcare costs into account, and residencies are co-hosted by partnership venues so artists can work close to their own home (or in their own home if they prefer) without the need for excess travel. Where accommodation is required, appropriate space for children and childcare support, such as a partner, grandparent or trusted childcare provider, is also included.

This year our residencies are taking place at The Barbican, in partnership with Fertility Fest, Cambridge Junction and The Place, as well as various artists’ homes. We hope to extend this work next year and beyond.

The first Motherworks Festival is a platform for new narratives around motherhood, taking place on Saturday 8 June at Cambridge Junction. We are working with artists whose practice exposes the social and political contexts in which present-day mothering takes place. And while it is not possible to represent every story, this pilot will present a range of perspectives - from artists reflecting on IVF, post-natal depression, psychosis, parenting with neuro-diversities and mothering while caring for ageing parents.

In the future, we can add to those stories and those experiences. Motherworks has been developed to inform our expectations, beliefs and values around motherhood, and in turn support those who are suffering unnecessarily.

Ruth Dudman is the Founder and Artistic Director of Motherworks and an independent producer.
Tw @motherworksuk

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Photo of Ruth Dudman