A small, pink doll kneels in a vitrine. From her breasts, white thread like milk spins out into five heavy spools. The work’s softness is tender, but the woman’s web of thread is disconcerting, creating a scene that is both comforting and oppressive. Entitled The Good Mother, there is the suggestion that in order to be a decent parent, a woman must bow down and affix herself to the ground.
The Good Mother was part of Louise Bourgeois’s recent solo exhibition, “The Woven Child,” at the Hayward Gallery in London, which pondered the wonder and bind of being a mother. It’s a topic that Bourgeois was well acquainted with. In What Artists Wear, Charlie Porter writes of Bourgeois’s marriage to art curator Robert Goldwater, with whom she shared three sons: “She made work, became part of the artist community, but was known more as Goldwater’s wife rather than an artist in her own right.”
It wasn’t until much later in Bourgeois’s life that her creative output hit full speed; the expansive exhibition at the Hayward Gallery focused exclusively on works from the last 20 years of the artist’s life, meaning she started making the pieces aged 78. “This story—of brilliant talents quashed by domestic cares—might be repeated endlessly,” writes Hettie Judah in her new book How Not to Exclude Artist Mothers (And Other Parents). “Such tales have become deeply embedded in art world mythology, repeated as evidence that it is tough enough for a woman to make a career as an artist, and near impossible to do so as a mother.”
This mythology was perpetuated by sculptor Reg Butler in the 1960s during a series of lectures at the Slade School of Fine Art, when he argued: “I am quite sure the vitality of a great many female students derives from frustrated maternity, and most of these, on finding the opportunity to settle down and produce children, will no longer experience a degree of passionate discontent sufficient to drive them constantly towards the labors of creation in other ways.” And then, of course, writer and critic Cyril Connolly famously pronounced: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
Fifty-one-year-old photographer Hannah Starkey, who had her first child 21 years ago and often seeks to make invisible elements of womanhood visible, is alarmed when I call to ask why being a mother and an artist is still challenging. “Is it really still so hard?! It cannot still be thought of that way,” she exclaims. Certainly, much has changed since Connolly was haunted by a pram, but the research Judah carried out for her book and the Freelands Foundation’s report on the representation of female artists in Britain during 2019 found it was still tough terrain. Interviewing 50 mothers-cum-artists, Judah discovered that they often had work cancelled or reduced in quantity. Artist Yelena Popova—who hid her pregnancy at openings—tells me: “I did feel that if I told them [the gallerists] that I was pregnant, less opportunities would come my way.” “That breaks my fucking heart,” responds Starkey when she hears this. “It’s like ‘Hello! Don’t people realize the experience of having a baby is one of growth?’”
The problem seems to stem from the impossible expectations we have of mothers. As Bourgeois so perfectly encapsulated, the “good mother” is the one without arms or other interests, stripped down to the sole function of producing breastmilk. “The ideal of the mother is this entirely selfless figure, and I think we still have a problem shaking that off,” explains Judah.
I know exactly what she means. From the moment I discovered I was pregnant, I felt the spirit of the selfless mother descend. The selfless mother scolded me when 22 weeks of morning sickness meant I could only stomach beige food rather than the recommended Mediterranean diet. She made me feel bad for crying when I had to breastfeed my son at 2 a.m., only one hour after his previous feed. And when I found myself filling up with words and sat down to write, she reminded me I could be cooking or cleaning or doing something that was of benefit to my child.
This pervasive ideology that tries to suppress a mother’s own needs has very practical implications for all mothers, artists or not. However, its influence on the art industry is particularly damaging because artists already work within an incredibly fickle and inconsistent system, so any false presumptions that the arrival of a child means a sudden disinterest in creating art could be catastrophic. At the same time, the art world is very reluctant to acknowledge the needs of parents: private views are often during bath time and bedtime, funding applications rarely allow for the inclusion of childcare costs, and artists are often demanded to be available any time, any day, by the institutions with whom they are working.
“Treat the artist as a whole person,” is the opening request of the Guidelines for Institutions and Residencies on the How Not to Exclude Artist Parents website. The following list includes such obvious instructions (“Make it standard practice to establish an artist’s family circumstances at the outset of a project; assume that any artist parent may need to travel with their children; don’t read gaps on a CV to indicate a lack of commitment or effort”) that it boggles the mind that these behaviors aren’t already standard practice.
Ironically, it was at “The Woven Child” that I encountered my first stumbling block as an art critic and new mother. Press passes are only available during the week, not at the weekend, when I have childcare. It is a privilege to view art exhibitions for free, but it is also my work, and having a child made my job that little bit harder.
The frustrating thing is, having a child can affect artistic practice in profound and positive ways. Creating another human can be cause for creativity, as can staring at the wall in the wee hours as your mind wanders, or experiencing the world afresh through the eyes of an infant. It was the motivation behind Barbara Hepworth’s move to sculpting groups as opposed to single forms, and how Mary Kelly came to exhibit her son’s soiled nappies in Post-Partum Document.
“The secret is, this is the best life—fucking hard work, but full, messy and beautiful,” Rachel Howard tells Judah in her book. Starkey refers to having her daughters as a “Godsend” and Popova emails photographs of all the crafts she makes with her nine-year-old. It shouldn’t be a “secret,” but this wonderful symbiosis is barely discussed. We love to put things in neat categories, and splitting artist from mother is just another consequence of our society’s inability to recognize that a woman can have a varied and full life with numerous identities.
Sitting in my kitchen, writing while my son snoozes upstairs, I consider all the other artist mothers making and weaning, painting and potty training, running to the gallery, the school gates, the studio, the graduation ceremony. There is a way through, I think, and it is more expansive than a kneeling woman entrapped by her own breastmilk.