I WOKE UP the other morning with thoughts in my head. Thoughts about mothering, thoughts about writing, thoughts about photography. Typically I was articulate and meaningful in those early sleepy moments. Now I can’t remember a thing. However, rather than ditching the whole idea, I’m running with it. There was obviously a need floating about in my subconscious. A need to evaluate the things that have directed my life to this point.
Sometimes I find it useful to contemplate motherhood, being a mother, as something I do rather than what I am. Mothering suggests an active role, a purpose. I hesitate to use the word ‘job’. Too often words like ‘work’ and ‘job’ are used to identify ourselves within a value system that categorises people by their working capacity, their status and their income. It’s easier for governments to see people in terms of statistics and financial worth. A human network of communities with strengths and weaknesses, with hopes and needs that reach beyond the established way, is more difficult to define and in turn more difficult to support.
Yet maybe, describing the activity of mother as a ‘job’ is perhaps to give voice and value to the role of the many people, often women, that do the hidden work of care. Much like being self-employed there is no union, no sick pay, no pension. For mothers, their work of mothering, the importance of what they do, is often forgotten, pushed into a muddy backwater with politicians and businesses paying lip service to its worth.
I am very fortunate. My husband runs a successful company. Financially I am able to stay at home. I work part-time. I am able to write this blog. Yet increasingly, as my daughters grow older, I see a troubling message forming. How is it for them to see their mother, educated, capable, remain at home, caring for them and involved in domestic work? Along the way, my identity has become entangled with the children I mother. One thing I know; being a stay-at-home Mum can suck the self-esteem out from the strongest of people.
Our identities are very much wrapped up in what we do rather than who we are. What we do can be easily explained. Who we are is infinitely more complex. We are trained from when we are very young to be defined by what we do. We pursue interests with a vague idea of the job we may want to do in the future. I wanted to be a gymnast.
The trouble of course with all of this is that what we do then becomes aligned with approval. Approval from our family, approval from the community, approval from society at large. And yet the sensible among us know that what we must do is love our children for who they are, not what they do. From here a solid foundation of confidence is allowed to build. This will help them to become people that will feel the knocks and harshness of the world but won’t be left broken by them. I try to remind myself, often, that this is where the heart of mothering lies.
Before I had children, when I thought that maybe I couldn’t have children, I embarked on an attempt to pursue photography as a career. I took my portfolio along to various events one of which was a workshop for photographers navigating their way through their career path. In the collection of people gathered there, I recognised a woman who I hadn’t seen since we were at school together. She worked and still does work as an interiors photographer. She often writes a piece to accompany her images and sells the completed article to consumer magazines and trade publications. We got chatting catching up on the past 20 years. She asked me why I didn’t write. She said she remembered that I was good at English and that maybe I should write to accompany my images. I was surprised that anyone would remember my school achievements apart from maybe my Mum. I remember doing my friends’ art homework. But writing?
To gain a place at the boarding school I subsequently went to, I had to take a common entrance exam, the 12+. This consisted of the big 3, Maths, French and English. I failed Maths. I failed French (oral and written, I didn’t say a word or write a word). But somehow I managed to impress enough with English that I was offered a place. Much to the relief, I imagine, of my Mum and Dad.
So when I look back and think, really think, I realise I have always had this. Writing. But I never paid much heed. I was on a path of a different kind. I wanted to be an artist. Also, my Dad is a writer, a published author. Perhaps, subconsciously I felt I needed to do something different. In my early 40s, I went back to college to study photography again and I was reunited with writing once more. Secretly I didn’t really mind the writing assignments. In fact I actually I enjoyed them. I love taking a few words, making a sentence, mulling it over, breaking it apart, maybe throwing it away and starting again. I often write by hand in a notebook with a favourite pen. Endless scribbles and ramblings that pay no attention to spelling or grammar. Until it matters. And then I read my words out loud, the only way to hear the rhythm, pace and flow.
I’d like to write something longer. But I need ideas for that. I have a few that float about my mind reaching for a place to land. They haven’t found it yet. So I content myself with practice. This blog is my practice. I love to play around with ideas and themes around photography, the centre that gives something for my thoughts to hang on to. I believe in the process of doing. And then, hopefully, the rest will come.
Back in 2012 or so, a friend emailed me a photograph of a diagram she had drawn. I was struggling with a photography project I needed to complete, wondering about the point of it all. In her notebook, she had drawn a circle in felt tip pen. In the circle, she wrote various words: mother, writing, running, baking, photography, daughter, sister and others that I can’t quite remember. They were all words describing what she knew of me. She was trying to get me to understand that photography was simply one thing of all the things that are part of me.
At the time I was immensely caught up in photography. I felt that I hadn’t reached my potential, that there was more to come. I had a need for validation, that all the decisions that I made about my life were directing me to the point where I wanted to be.
It was nonsense of course. The truth was that I just didn’t have the immense drive it takes, as an artist, to push and push and push until the person that you need opens the door just a crack and lets you in on the game. Perhaps there is also some luck, talent, a helpful coincidence, a little serendipity, but mostly artists drive their own direction and some are better at it than others. It’s taken me a long time and much self-reflection to realise that where I am now is okay. Like most people, I have failed at many things. I’m told that this is the space where we learn about ourselves.
My Dad said the other day that he was about to begin the work of writing his ninth book. My youngest, aged 11, said, “I’m writing a book too.” She said this as if about to get up and make a cup of tea. She said it while drawing a picture of tacos and strawberries. It’s just something she does. She writes books, she draws, she reads. Oh, the wisdom of children! There she is just doing the things that make her who she is.
above photograph, 2009 © Tanya Clarke