Just after I had my first child, in those early excruciating days of newborn turmoil, I was utterly lost at sea. My days appeared to be filled with a bleak expanse of absolutely nothing and yet somehow, I was unable to find the time to take a shower. Or eat. Or crack on with all those interesting projects I had promised myself while counting down the days to my maternity leave (or ‘massive holiday’ as I had been known to call it while still at work). I knew what to do, practically. Looking after a baby is quite easy really, technically easier than an RNA extraction or a western blot or any number of other things I routinely did in the lab. But that didn’t help me so much when I was stood with a wailing, wriggling forest creature in one hand and a cold cup of tea (my fourth of the day) in the other, trying to decide what to do next.
Six months into motherhood, I was still ill-prepared and reeling from my metamorphosis. My time at home before I returned to work had suddenly started to feel so precious and I felt that I had to seek out something to feel like I wasn’t wasting this hard-won period of leave. I had no idea what I was looking for until I found it.
I accidentally stumbled across an advert for an event at the (beautiful and very special) Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. It was light on details. From memory, I think it asked for new and expectant parents to come along and share their experiences for a project. It might have said even less than that but I’m pretty sure they promised a brew. At that point in time, there was little I liked to talk about more than my rather difficult childbirth experience so I decided that I would pop along. I was a bit scared. This didn’t really feel like your average baby group.
I’m not sure what I expected. Perhaps a fairly standard coffee morning and a questionnaire? Maybe some other parents to chat to and sympathise with? Instead, I was shown into a room with around 15 other people where we sat round a big table eyeing each other up. Apart from one other, I was the only person to bring my child with me. The other person had two. Who would ever think it was a good idea to have two children? I thought but kept it to myself. I balanced my squawky baby on my knee and someone brought me a cup of tea.
After a bit, we went round the table introducing ourselves and telling each other what had brought us here. The first person to speak was the curator of the Birth Rites Collection1, Helen. Ooh, I thought, an artist how exciting. The second person was also an artist, and the third. What were the chances? And lo, it transpired lovely reader, that they were all artists, of one kind or another. Every. Single. One. When it was my turn, everyone turned to look at me and I started to speak although I didn’t quite know where to start. “I… am not an artist” I said, “in fact, I’m sort of a scientist…” – I think Helen maybe did a tiny little fist pump – “but mostly”, I told them “I’m just a bit confused by this whole baby thing so I thought I’d come along for a chat”. Everyone nodded. They too were confused by this whole baby thing, some of them several years on and I found myself in a room of friends.
As Helen spoke about the purpose of the meeting, I started to fill in some blanks. This wasn’t a one off event, it was the introductory session for a six week long workshop. We weren’t just there to provide inspiration and soundbites for the artists – we were the artists and our work was going to be based around the Mary Kelly – Projects exhibition2 which was at the Whitworth at the time. There was talk of life drawing and screen printing and a load of other things that I knew I definitely couldn’t do. I very nearly left, more than once, as I was feeling so desperately out of my depth. At the end, I went and spoke to Helen and told her that I thought I had made a terrible mistake. I felt like someone who had stumbled into a secret society meeting while looking for the toilets. Nope, said Helen, you’ll be fine, come along next week. And that’s how I ended up hanging out at the Whitworth, cutting up books to make collages and laughing at my ridiculous new life.
It’s hard to remember exactly how messed up I felt by becoming a mother. It’s softened around the edges now and whilst I still sometimes long for the days when I only had myself to consider, being a parent is the only reality I can remember. I know for sure that by the time my second child came along I felt more or less ‘normal’ whatever that means. Back then though, with a six month old baby, everything was so raw and I was flailing around looking for something to distract me back to normality. I felt like I had spent six months staring at my baby and it was only once I looked away for a moment that I realised the rest of the world still existed. Only a slightly different colour like when you’ve spent too long staring at a red screen.
What I needed, to draw me back, was a project. Something with meaning and purpose. And that’s what I found in the Drawing from Birth workshop3. Over the course of six weeks, we got together every Thursday for a whole day at a time. A group of women, commonality found in our shared experiences of motherhood. We talked and drew and started crystallising our ideas. On the first day, we took it in turns to describe, in painful and personal detail, our experiences of childbirth. As one person spoke, another would draw. My drawing partner, a lovely doula who had seen more babies being born than I’ve seen episodes of Friends, told me about her own experience and I was struck by how different it was to my own. She spoke of birthing her placenta into a bucket and we both laughed at the absurdity of it all. We spoke about empowerment and strength, loss of control and the goddamn patriarchy. If that all sounds like some kind of feminist whingefest, then good. That’s exactly what it was, in the best possible way.
I spoke about the surreal process of pregnancy and my feelings of being parasitised by my unborn foetus. In polite circles, it seems it’s not really the done thing to compare your unborn child to an alien parasite. In the Birth Rites sessions, everyone took it in their stride. In another session, we watched endless childbirth videos on YouTube. Medicalised, natural, happy, sad and sometimes, just a little bit odd. I overdosed, completely, on birth stories. I told my story, over and over in different ways and it was recorded, over and over by different people. And far from feeding my slightly compulsive need to share every last detail of my labour, it cured me. I said my piece, to a willing audience and that was it. I was done. I walked away from the last session feeling lighter and happier than I had in, ooh, probably about six months.
As for the art… I can’t honestly say I produced much of any merit but the value was all in the journey. I was better than I expected but that’s not saying a lot. However, that was beside the point. My final large scale screen print, a repeating image of a tapeworm (I did say my feelings were complicated) meant an awful lot to me. I don’t feel that I’m overstating things when I say that those sessions, that group of women and our ideas helped to save my sanity. The NHS chucks a lot of stuff at you after you have a baby – painkillers, iron tablets, contraception advice. But what they should offer you instead is a sketch pad, a cosy art gallery and a team of clever women, a little further down the road than you are, to tell you that it will all be alright.
- The Birth Rites Collection lives in Salford and is curated by Helen Knowles. You can find the details here
- Details for Mary Kelly can be found here
- And the blog from the Drawing from Birth sessions, in which I look at least 20 years younger than I do now, can be found here