Christmas was hard this year, harder than usual. My son was out of school for two weeks, all our routines got off, we both stopped sleeping, I pieced together childcare for one week and traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and back the next, with no one but me to provide structure for my emerging toddler and myself.
Before it all began, I knew this wasn’t going to be good for my writing practice. When Joseph is in school I spend one day a week at a desk with my work. But when there is no school and only just barely enough willing and loyal friends to piece together childcare for my responsibilities to my employer, the luxury of sitting at a desk and following a train of thought all the way to its end was simply not a possibility.
At the beginning of my Artist In Residence In Motherhood (AIRIM), I adapted the manifesto of Lenka Clayton, founder of AIRIM:
Like all new mothers, the birth of my child ignited a process of transformation – both internal in my person and external in the structures of my life – that is ongoing still even as my son has crossed into his second year. Among the tectonic shifts has been in the way that I myself and others see my career as an artist. It is a commonly held perception that the serious artist and the good mother are mutually exclusive endeavors. I actively reject this notion and choose to instead present the idea that my work as an artist strengthens my capacities as a mother and my life as a mother deepens my work: that they inform one another. I undergo this self-imposed Artist Residency in order to fully experience the unique challenges and structures of being both a Working Artist and a Single Mother, to make the best use of the material and resources at hand, and to allow these circumstances to shape the direction of my work rather than doggedly attempting to work “despite” them.
As I gazed into the expanse of holiday mess devoid of the structure that allows for my so precious working time, something drew me back to this manifesto. I was reminded that at the center of this residency is an aspiration to allow my understanding of being a working artist and being a mother to be transformed from mutually exclusive to mutually beneficial. My goal is an acceptance of ‘what is’ and to allow inventive new ways of working to emerge from the various limitations of motherhood instead of resisting those limitations and attempting to work in the same old ways despite them.
I realized that I hadn’t allowed this transformation to happen at all. To me, writing has meant sitting down and typing or scribbling, undistracted, at a desk for as long as it takes to get the thought out. Up to this point, the residency had been helpful in that it validated my creative life and helped me to make space for it, but I had simply claimed time to work in the same way I always have: long interrupted stretches at the coffee shop while my child is being otherwise cared for.
Unwilling to abandon my writing for two weeks, I was going to have to be a little more inventive. So I made a plan in two parts:
- I would keep an almanac, and
- I would continue a documentary photo series through my Instagram feed.
The goal of the Almanac was simply to document in short entries the facts of our days. For example:
December 23, 2016
“Spent all morning cleaning the apartment. Carried 14 lbs of diapers to the trash. After living here two months, finally assembled the spray mop and attempted to clean the floor. Immediately after putting the mop away I stepped on a chunk of Joseph’s lunch, and kicked it under the table.”
The photo series was a continuation of an exploration I began Mid-December which looks at the boundaries of self through images of windows and what obscures them.
(You can check out the photographs on Instagram @lwhulse)
Both were uncomplicated assignments I could achieve simply in moments between caring for my son and socializing with family, but remarkably both produced significant effect. The almanac was like holding a mirror up to my face, showing me where my internal processes in a way that on multiple accounts allowed me to shift the narrative or make discoveries that had previously been obscured. The photo series kept me engaged in thinking through image and through metaphor, and allowed me to continue to reckon with what it means to have boundaries even through my most fragmented and distracted days.
But the most important thing that happened is that when I (again) stopped resisting the limitations of motherhood and seeing them in opposition to my creative work, my resentment evaporated and the depression and weariness that dogged me lightened. This transformation mirrors the one that has in a broader way been in process since Joseph’s conception – the more I resist my new life as a mother, the more resentful I feel of all it’s limitations, the choices that led me here, and my experiences in the relationship with Joseph’s father.
On the other hand, when I accept the inevitable transformation I am able to see what is good in me and my life that I would have never found or created otherwise, I am able to see the change as growth and the limitations as creative. I say that this has been in process for a long time because I have resisted more often than I have accepted and I have resented more often than I have been able to see growth. Surrounded by single child-less friends, I often externalize my resentment, casting it at all those who have opportunities that are now closed to me. I am often angry at myself, for not being able to maintain my old self while simply adding on “good mother” to the hats I wear each day.
But on the best days I know that motherhood has catalyzed growth that could have otherwise consumed the rest of my twenties, and which obviously benefits my work. I know that it has drawn out my dedication, my gumption, and my strength. It has given me cause to fight for my ability to create, shown me the sacredness of the pursuit, and transformed the lens I look out through. I can only hope that all this inevitably shows up in the work, but I know for certain it shows up in my approach to making it.