Standing at the podium, about to begin a lecture to the twenty students in front of me at Manhattan College, I pop on a power point and click through the images of women creating mother-made art. In this particular slide-show there are curated photos from the Procreate Project, Project Afterbirth,m/other voices, Ima Iyla’a: The Art of Motherhood, Mamapalooza, and Demeter Press, as well as striking text from the Mom Egg Review. The students seem interested. The images are provocative, often including everything from menstruation blood to musical instruments. I have known for a long time how important it is for women who are mothers to have an arts movement of their own. And yet, gaining traction has proved to be harder than I thought. For many reasons, social, political, and cultural, women still lag behind globally in the arts world. From filmmakers who reportedly comprise a mere 4.1% of the top grossing directors of major motion pictures, to the Guerilla Girls-inspired rants calling out major contemporary museums for their lack of equal exhibition time, women in the arts still have a lot of catching up to do.Motherhood complicates these inequities further for reasons that are difficult to identify, but let me try.
There are three major forces compounding mother’s visibility in the arts: identity, consensus, and physical dis/ability. Let us first look at identity. Before we can even begin to dive into the idea of a mother-inspired arts movement, we need to clarify what is a mother? You might feel like arguing with me that there is no need, but in fact there is a need. If one is going to create a mother-arts movement one has to know whom one is including, and what the point of your movement is. Are you going to call your arts event a celebration of motherhood? What about those who do not think it is an elation, but rather a great misery heaped on them when they were least prepared? Are you concerned about the procreative act itself? The carrying, and waiting for the development and birth of the future child? What are you going to do with the adoptive mothers who did not birth their babies but are finding their mother-identity through the act of caregiving? And what about the ones who lost their children along the way? Are you going to include parents; meaning the mother and the father? This is a lovely idea, but, if you include parents, what do you do to amplify the unique experience of one who cellularly divides? The one whose body goes through embodied changes? Then, what about the “single” mother, with no likely partner or spouse? What are you going to do with grandmothers, stepmothers, gay couples, and the surrogates? Unlike many other objects or identities, from the very beginning the notion of mother is fraught. She is not a simple creature. She might not even be a woman. Therefore, conceivably a mother might be a he. Likewise, politically speaking, a mother might be a religious, right-minded, anti-abortion, Phyllis Schlafly kind of character, or she might be a forthright, left-leaning feminist. She might be an advocate of something you hate, and therefore you are tempted to hate her, or she might be a killer, a thief, or an addict. She might be absent. Is she one whose story you want to include? Are you going to share your arts movement with her? Herein lies the crux of the number one problem of a m/other based movement. There are so many kinds. I have been masticating on this for the better part of 26 years trying to sort out its complications.
While writing my thesis for graduate school I struggled not only with a definition of mother, but also with a definition of what the academic study of mothers might include. My reasoning for this was twofold. In my experience as the creator of an arts festival, which has aimed to highlight the varying voices, art, comedy, music, theater, and literature of motherhood, I consistently wrestled with what to do with the women who were not mothers but were other-mothers, aunties, and nannies insisting they wanted their experiences to be included. I wrestled with what to do with the caregiving partners, fathers, grandparents, and children of these creative-types, mostly because thy also often inquired about being included. Sometimes mothers wanted to blend their families in their art making and even if they didn’t, non-mothers often wanted to feel they too could exercise their voice. This challenged my vision for mother-made art, if only in the sense that it constantly required me to question whom to include or not include? If the art is about family, what sets these mothers apart from the others they are connected to? What makes them unique, or special, or why should they have a festival, movement, arts-based collection all their own? We all know that historically women’s voices have been silent relatively and mothers even more so. That could be reason enough, but in the end, maybe not. Questions and complications remain. No one, including me, seems satisfied with exclusionary practices.
M. Joy Rose and daughter Zena with Housewives On Prozac Band
The second part of the dilemma is, if we could identify the specificities of what mother is, how do we gain consensus on whether she is worth studying or whether her art is specifically noteworthy and deserving of its own category? Considering that we have left the first question somewhat unanswered, then the second question of cooperation creates its own challenges. The status or category of mother is often fraught. She does not represent all good things despite the fact that we have expected her to be everything: creator, collaborator, connector, and caregiver, for free, forever, unconditionally? Mothers manifest their fair share of resentment, both for socially constructed reasons and for psychological ones. Feminist movements reluctantly embrace motherhood if at all, and even mothers themselves seem unsure whether they care more about activism, equal wages, or getting dinner on the table. There is not enough time in this essay to adequately address this, although many have tried including Adrienne Rich and Phyllis Cheslerfor example. Let us for the purposes of this article simply say that it is extremely difficult to get people to agree on a consensus regarding mothers, mother-art, and motherhood.
Finally, leaving the answers to the first two issues ambiguous, we can now move to the very real challenges most mothers face, which include ability, time, and perspective. As any mother of a young one will attest to, creating anything other than limited cleanliness, order, income, and edible food can be a full-time occupation. Mix in the ephemeral nature of art and challenges arise. How does one find the hours in the day (or night)? The space? Some regularity? Should one buy paints or food? Make music or buy shoes? Natalie Loveless claims in her curated exhibit titled New Maternalisms that “mama-artists [need] to find creative ways of integrating their practices as mothers, artists, curators, writers, and teachers. By taking seriously the need to create from local and embodied conditions, these practices bring visibility and value to the maternal in and as art.” I agree with her. But, as I have articulated, distinct challenges remain.
Ultimately, the notion of exactly what makes a mother, be it birth, caregiving, egg donation, or identity can all be debated. However, we define what a mother is and what the art-movement looks like, it must include relational aspects. Words like m/other, m/otherness, or mother-ness attempt to describe this. Any idea of mother must include the concept of transformation, inclusion, and evolution. Both the personal and relational status of me + other = m/other proposes an examination of how m/otherness or mother-ness is the experience of being connected, or disconnected, to one who is part of you. Or, of being a person who, as part of another and also linked to another (genetically, through caregiving, or by association), might inform action in a world conceived as relational. This view differs from our current social system. Current systems have been motivated by alienation, and by violent, external, institutional, and hierarchical social constructions. Herein’ lies the call for change. As Rothman asserts in the Book of Life, “The world that I live in, and the world that I want for my children, is not a world of scattered isolated individuals, and not a world of walls. It is a world of communities, of social solidarity, of connectedness between individuals and between communities, a world in which people and communities grow from and into each other.” (p.233). She explains that motherhood is “otherhood.” Or, as I theorize here: a mother is one who who divides, yet through that division he/she is paradoxically increased. Therefore, the division is also a multiplication. A theory of mother-ness privileges the conversation of difference (or division) and insists on tolerant engagement (connection) as well as intense intellectual curiosity as a fundamental practice. Therefore, as we make art, explore motherhood, and find ways to move forward, let us lift each other up. Let us continue to explore our victories as we lament our losses. Let us speak not with one voice, but with many voices and most of all – let that be okay.
 Of Woman Born
 Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman
 Natalie Loveless, New Maternalisms, Fado Gallery 2012