When you worry about prioritising your own needs above your children’s, or feel like doing something just for yourself is really selfish, remember: You are a role model. If you can’t prioritise yourself for your own sake then do it for your children, how will they learn to take care of their own needs, hopes and dreams if they don’t see you doing it? It’s a catch 22 that I hear myself saying to mothers I meet, all the mothers, all the different mothers, when they talk about guilt. And everytime I say it, I’m saying it to myself too, because like all good advice it’s easy to say but harder to do.
Being at home together while everything was shut meant I found myself needing to justify spending time working, to myself and to the children, even if it does pay the bills. They giggle when I say I need to finish writing a proposal “ha ha you want to get married” “no way” I cry, just a little bit too defensively, and actually it might not pay the bills. Then they spot that the bit of fabric I’m using for an upcoming Profanity Embroidery Group exhibition comes from that much loved princess dress and, well, look, life’s not fair. I did question whether stitching a profanity bingo card during my little one’s live lessons was ok but ooh it was ever so cathartic.
I always have this sneaking feeling that my kids don’t really take my work as a visual artist too seriously. I like to imagine that it’s because I look like I’m having a lot of fun, but I’m guessing it’s more likely because society doesn’t really take creative practice seriously, and that’s pervasive. From the Culture Secretary to family members, from the EU withdrawal agreement to the primary school curriculum the arts are seen as a bit of an added bonus. There is an assumption that if you’re passionate about being creative you’ll do it whatever, it’s not a job, it’s a vocation, (why not retrain in cyber?) Caring for your family mirrors this, your children, then your parents, it’s not a job, you do it for love. All this invisible and mythically romantic labour keeps the artist mother in a vacuum where she has to reassert and validate what she does over and over.
When asked what I do for a living I used to reply ‘spin plates’. Pre-pandemic I used to talk about my existential crisis, being lots of things to lots of people. My children don’t exist on my CV, I’ve heard calls for mothers to start being completely transparent about their dual roles because pretending we can be all things to all people isn’t sustainable. I never wanted a prospective employer to wonder if my kids were more important than my work, because they are, no question. But since 2020 brought all the roles together, all under one roof, boom like an asteroid strike, I do wonder why have I always felt the need to keep them separate and who I was doing that for?
I don’t expect to see a ‘new normal’ quite yet, but I like that we’re talking about it. I don’t have to explain terms like invisible labour or mental load any more, and even though they’re still exhausting, knowing they’re a thing is a big help. Campaigns such as #artisessential make it feel like perhaps things aren’t quite business as usual either.
“Honour thy error as a hidden intention” is one of Brian Eno’s Oblique strategies. Sometimes hindsight shows that the thing that didn’t work out the way you wanted it to has, in fact, led you to something even better. 2020 offered many of us a reset button, not because we had a break (we didn’t) but we had a change from the routine, from the ‘this is how we do it because it’s how we’ve always done it’. Now my children know a bit more about what I do when they’re at school, and the people I work with know a bit more about my family set up. In other words they all know a bit more about me. Yesterday I heard myself saying “ok I’ll be taking part in a global live art event and then I need to get some hay for the guinea pigs so I can drop off the craft workshop kits on the way” and it’s still bonkers incongruous chaos but for some reason I don’t feel the need to call it an existential crisis any more.
About Lucy Stockton-Smith