Jen McGowan is reconnecting to her art practice after having and raising small children. She graduated with a BFA from Concordia University in Montreal in the late 90s. Now that her children are school-aged, she makes art to respond to, disrupt and interrogate the expectations that confine her as a mother. She is proud to be an active member of the Artist/Mother community – collectively making art that redefines motherhood as feminist. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally. She lives with her family in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Medicated Mommies is a series that I worked on while I was reading Rachel Yoder’s, Nightbitch. Her book gave me permission to be playful and pointed in a different way than I had been before. The main character in the book vacillates between berating herself about how she should be mothering (while care-working herself to the bone), and alternately transforming into a wild beast complete with animal urges and instincts. It turns out that Nightbitch – her feral form – is quite a good mother – playing with her son by getting down on all fours, and fully inhabiting her untamed self with unbridled vitality.
When I found these old pharmaceutical advertisements, I was appalled. And yet they are selling ideas we continue to internalize as mothers. Women should be palatable, domesticated and servile. Though these ads communicate this in a way no one could get away with now, the expectations of women and mothers have remained disturbingly similar. As a result, a majority of mothers feel somehow deficient, which weighs us down even more than the labour we carry.
I have been wrestling with this through my own mothering and post-partum mental health experience, especially during the pandemic. When these things get me down, I am revived by authors like Rachel Yoder who articulate this injustice in such a refreshing, and wickedly hilarious way. It lights a fire inside me and makes me want to bring out that rebellious call for liberty in my fellow mamas so that we ask for the support that we truly deserve.
1/How do you make creative work whilst also actively mothering ?
For a long time I fit creativity in through taking short workshops or doing a life drawing session here and there. But when my youngest was going to be going into kindergarten I thought I would try and get focused again. I met with Pennylane Shen of Dazed and Confucious, and she helped to reframe my idea of artmaking in the context of a family. I began with a 30 day series of drawings of household toys and objects coupled with a quote from my kids.
When the pandemic hit and we were in lockdown, I really struggled. It didn’t help that my self-talk was critical! I noticed one day that I felt like a good mother especially when I did typically domestic things like vacuuming the stairs. I questioned why I had internalized the idea that a good mother resembled a 1950s housewife. After that I combined photographs of household objects with retro pin-ups. And I kept experimenting with the found images of the 1950s as I felt they directly communicated some of what I was struggling with. These collages and combined images don’t take a ton of time, and I am able to do them – and stop and start them – while actively mothering. Though I haven’t worked in this way before having kids, I am pleased with how clear my voice seems to be in these more photographic mediums. I am glad that the message is also clear, and that my sense of humour seems to come across in whatever medium I am practicing.
2/What boundaries or challenges have you faced or overcome while working as an artist/mother
The challenges I have faced as a mother have shifted my expectations of myself as an artist. I had ppd/ppa with both kids and still need to manage my anxiety and depression. Childhood trauma resurfaced as a result of mothering and there are times I am triggered and do not respond the way I would like as a parent. There are many reasons we can’t always be our best selves when we parent! Mental health factors can be overwhelming and can result in a poor self-image when combined with the internalization of the perfect mother myth. I try to be compassionate with myself, and to be proactive in resisting the impossible expectations placed on mothers. I am so relieved to have found a community that provides a kind of feminist re-defining of motherhood. The writers and artists who examine motherhood from contemporary feminist lens help me to feel like I belong in this wider community of mothers. That I have something to offer as a mother, as an artist and a person, exactly as I am. In fact, it feels like I have something valuable to offer in this redefining motherhood because of who I am and where I came from.
3/How has the Artist/Mother community helped you to reflect upon your practice ?
Mostly I have been so inspired and impressed by the artists I have met in the artist/mother community. I love how varied our experiences are, and how others have expressed their own mothering journeys through visual language. Being part of shows like ‘You are not wonderful just because you are a mother’ has exposed me to a wide range of artists who have creatively reflected upon what being a mother means. They inspire me to be brave and honest in my depiction of the more challenging aspects of motherhood. Sally Butcher’s, ‘Infertile Platitudes of Empodied Emptiness’ spoke so directly to my own experience of infertility, and in a medium I adore (printmaking) that it was as though she was speaking for me using familiar language but done in a way I wouldn’t have thought of. I have had that experience several times in this community – where the more hidden aspects of my own motherhood experience have been articulated so beautifully through others art. I have felt seen and held here in ways that have been deeply healing.
4/How are you disrupting the idea of the “good mother” or idealised mother in your arts practice?
Well… MILFs stuck to domestic objects is directly speaking to the stifling nature of the ideal of the domestic mother! The brash, sexy MILF MOUTH MADNESS series with red lipsticked mouths stuffed with parenting/carework paraphernalia and food is disrupting the mother as asexual and servile. I like the combo of funny/angry/dark/playful but it’s really just who I am. It comes very naturally to straddle all these aspects at once. Plus, it also comes naturally to be a ‘good enough mother’ – I could never pull off the perfect mother thing. Not for a minute. So I probably disrupt it just by being my imperfect self.
5/How has art making helped you to become more resilient and maintain your wellbeing?
Goodness. It wasn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that I was missing the mark at being a “good” or “perfect” mother. Making art and exposing some of what I am sifting through in terms of expectations, societal baggage, and also plain old mundane day to day mothering (as in the 30 day project), helps to lift some of the shame I have felt about my imperfections. It also makes me feel less alone. When I made the collage of the mother who is running away from the dirty dishes (and children), so many mom’s expressed that they felt seen. Its cathartic to laugh away these things we shouldn’t feel shame about (but do). It’s natural to feel like running away from our kids and housework at times, but most of us feel a great deal of shame about how we don’t measure up especially when in the moment.
6/What do you feel you carry as a mother?
Even though we came up with these questions I forget a little bit what this is asking. Maybe what is the burden I feel I am carrying?
I feel I am carrying an inheritance of many generations of self-sacrifice and trauma. I won’t get into my own personal history too much here, but my mother sacrificed so much to raise me. She was a single mother and had very little support. Like the show MAID exposes, patriarchal culture makes it difficult and sometimes impossible (especially with multiple barriers like poverty or racial inequity) for women to have agency when single parenting. I am in an exceptionally supportive partnership, and I recognize the privilege that affords me. Many mothers are trapped in terrible situations, and most of the world does not support women by providing affordable childcare, pay equity, reproductive rights so that we can choose to leave. Given what just got leaked about Roe vs Wade, things do not look like they are going to get better without a fight.
7/How does drawing or process driven methodologies inform your practice?
A drawing professor once took us young art students through an exercise of drawing a tree. First, we had to draw a tree from what we thought of as a tree in our minds – many looked like triangle Christmas trees. Next, we went out into nature and sat under an actual tree and tried to draw what we saw. We discovered how difficult it was to remove our pre-conceived ideas when drawing. It wasn’t just that the tree was hard to draw (even though it was). The challenge was to stay present with hand-eye coordination/ observation – rather than filling it in with our ideas of the tree. Saying in our minds this is a leaf, and drawing what we thought looked like a leaf, would get in the way of true observation of the leaf as a form and a line. It was a meditation on being present and seeing what was actually there rather than what we thought was there. Or rather than what we thought should be there.
Turns out, this relates to making art about motherhood. When I make art about the experience of motherhood, I am better able to deal with the reality of being a mother. Making art about it somehow allows the heaviness to dissipate. It keeps me playful enough to move through the burdensome weight of the role – the societal expectation, the internalized ideas of what a mother should be. It helps me to see the ‘shoulds’ so that I can feel freer to just be myself, as an artist, a mother: an embodied full person. And I know that my feeling free to be myself allows my family – especially my children – to feel free to be their true selves too.