Reflections on the project’s first month

HandsThe Mother Lode Project has been running for just over a month and consists of a group of 10 participants, ranging in age from 19 – 54, with children aged from just 6 months to 30+. From the start, we have made a point of saying that we are not gurus who have all the answers, but that the project was created as a way to provide something that seemed to be missing: a creative space led by professional artists with lived experience of mental health challenges, for mothers to share their experiences, in order to feel less isolated when they are struggling, alongside structured mental health peer support. We have also stressed from the start that the project is not therapy but will hopefully have therapeutic benefits.

Feedback from the start has been immensely positive. After the introductory session, where participants met our Peer Support Specialist Chenielle Jefferies, photographer Vicki Painting, writer Antonia Chitty & Ashley McCormick, the DLWP’s Head of Learning & Participation, they wrote:

Awakening, hopeful, enthusiasm, excited, optimistic, potential, anxious, determined, interesting, supportive, unsure, worried, unified, positive, stimulated, open, intrigued, supported, heard, relieved, inspired, expectant, happy, ready, challenging, interesting, nourishing

Self portrait
Using the De La Warr Pavilion as a backdrop for this self-portrait

At the first peer support session at Egerton Park Children’s Centre a quick check-in revealed a range of issues that were going on for participants, including returning to freelance work before baby reaches 1 year old, the anxiety of leaving baby for the first time, anxiety of joining a new group, stress about work pressures etc. We explored symptoms of anxiety: how it presents itself to each participant & how this manifests physically. Answers included feeling hot & sweaty, butterflies in the stomach, feeling like you’re in a smokescreen, upset stomach/diarrhoea/constipation, getting angry, becoming very manic in order to feel in control etc.

One participant revealed that she is autistic, which enabled another participant to open up about her autism and the challenges she faces e.g. anxiety about change, leaving her comfort zone, difficulties making friends, anxiety about leaving her baby etc. Two other participants later revealed that they thought they might also be on the spectrum and the first gave them advice about an autistic spectrum support group for women locally, as well as an online ASD test that can be taken, in order to demonstrate symptoms to a doctor.

Reflecting on the session, participants told us that they had enjoyed getting to know each other better, whilst appreciating each other’s honesty in sharing their stories, finding out more about autism & meeting other participants with the diagnosis, as well as looking forward to starting photography next week.

Decanter Stopper by Vicki Painting
Decanter Stopper by Vicki Painting

At the first photography session with Vicki Painting, we began by visiting the exhibition, Still I Rise in the main gallery @ DLWP & Vicki drew the group’s attention to Judy Chicago’s photo series documenting her performance in the desert; the piece documenting a re-enactment of when women laid down nappies in the marshy fields to trip up the horse’s feet of an enemy army by Zorka Ságlová’s Laying Nappies near Sudomēř, 1970 Jesse Jones’ Thou Shalt Not Suffer 2019, consisting of objects such as a mallet, hammer etc marked with ‘Thou shalt not suffer’ written backwards. We discussed themes of resistance & that this can take many forms, including quiet forms of resistance as well as more public forms such as protest & demonstration. We discussed witchcraft & how women are still labelled as witches when they upset the status quo & how this is used to silence us. We looked at the architectural models made to create a utopian society, whereby women could leave children in central courtyard to play safely while they get on with other jobs. Ashley McCormick, head of Learning & Participation at the DLWP, joined this part of the session & added to the discussion with details of individual artworks.

Every food my son will eat by Jill
Every food my son will eat by the mother of an autistic son

On returning to the studio, Vicki invited the participants to bring out the objects that they had brought from home to form their still lives. These included an object from someone now deceased, a ring bought on a daytrip with this participant’s mum, the specific 13 foods that another mother’s autistic son would eat, one baby’s first Babygro, a sheep skull from a participant’s herd of sheep and a necklace given to one by her estranged husband. The still lives they produced, some of which are featured in this article, speak for themselves.

About this session, they wrote:

My family
My family
  • Witches, subversion, power, powerful, stories, emotional, moving, honoured, humbled
  • The power of women working together towards unifying, healing and better understanding of themselves.
  • The power of personal objects to convey a story and how when you think there is not much detail or significance to them you realise that there is once you start to explain to others.
  • Happy about how today’s session has gone and feeling very calmed by doing something creative and expressive that I don’t get to do. Moved and honoured to be around so many strong and selfless women.
  • I loved seeing everyone’s objects and hearing why they’re so important to them. A powerful session.
  • Optimistic, united, over-emotional
  • Busy, moving, informative, interesting, new, heart-warming, creative, fun, entertaining
  • Emotional for some to tell the story of their objects – my sheep-skull enjoyed her outing as she would have in life. It was nice to photograph outside.
  • Exhibition was inspiring & inspired by some of my still-lifes
  • Wonderful to be playfully creative, refreshing and I am definitely a witch.
  • I realised that I find it hard to understand my own identity in any way that is not related to motherhood and that I am not alone. Challenging, compulsive, community.
  • Creative, grounding, uplifting
Objects from my mantelpiece
Objects from my mantelpiece

At the next Peer support session at Egerton Park, one participant said she had really got into photography during the week & had set up an Instagram account to share her photos that she’s been taking with Hipstamatic, as well as starting a vlog all about The Mother Lode Project. Two said how much they’d enjoyed last week’s session & one said how just having 20 minutes uninterrupted time to create was really profound, as she’s usually frantically running around after two children at home.

Nestling amongst crocuses
Nestling amongst crocuses

The discussion moved towards careers and the impact that motherhood has had for each participant. This ranged from one young mum who had to leave school before she could complete her GCSEs, but who aspires to becoming a midwife and another who has never had a paid job due to her mental health. We stressed that motherhood is an essential job in itself and just because it isn’t paid, it is no less valuable. Others had had full-time jobs in the past, but had either been made redundant for various reasons, including mental health challenges, or had had to give up full-time work to look after their children.  This had had an inevitable impact on their sense of self & purpose, as well as an enormous sense of guilt at not earning, which was a common theme amongst the group. 

The discussion took a side-turn as one mum was particularly sleep-deprived that day, so a number shared their experiences of dealing with sleep deprivation and suggested things that had helped them in the past e.g. co-sleeping, even though many parenting books tend not to endorse this. One mum shared that she had been told by her social worker that she should wake her son every 3 hours to feed him during the night, even though he had been sleeping well, because he hadn’t regained his birth weight, which had caused a huge amount of anxiety and distress for her, as she said it felt so unnatural.

My scarMy C-section scar
My C-section scar

When discussing friends & family, participants had varying levels of support & many felt very isolated. One young mum now had nothing in common with her old friends from school & said that the things that were important to them now meant nothing to her. Another found baby groups hard because the mums were all ‘zombified’ from sleep-deprivation (she noted there never seemed to be any dads at these groups) & she longed to do something fun while her daughter was playing. Another said she usually isolates herself into a little bubble and tends not to go out much.

After a period of self-reflection, one wrote:

I have never taken the time to think out loud about just how much life has changed in the recent years. Scoring low on social and career really highlights my inner struggle currently. I know all that I am doing is important and I love being with my boys, but when I think about having more of a social life I do feel as though I’m lacking. Another career other than ‘mum’ is something I really look forward to in the near future and would make me feel as though I’m a real person again with a purpose other than staying at home alone with my little ones everyday (as much as I enjoy this), and also open up a door to socialising with like-minded people. I love my family and I want to do what is best for them ALWAYS but I need to consider my own feelings more and try to find things that will make me happy. Like this group. I have enjoyed this experience immensely and hope I stay in contact with everyone. I feel it has helped me greatly! I feel positive about the future (which is rare).  

At the closing circle, we invited participants to say one thing they’d taken from the session. One participant said that the project has stopped her from going down a dangerous spiral and another said that the group was really keeping her going as she really looked forward to it each week. Another said that she is usually very quiet in courses like this, but that she felt very heard as the group is such a safe space to share things that she wouldn’t normally share with other people. One participant said how glad she had come along & that she wouldn’t usually come to this kind of thing, because her depression meant that some days she just didn’t have the energy to go out and do things because she was so tired with her illness & looking after her young children.

Hair in the wind
Hair in the wind

The second photography session was themed around self-portraits, which they created in experimental ways. Two wanted to go onto the roof of the DLWP, but it was closed (it was a very windy day), so they ended up taking photos on the seafront and against the windows of the building. One found some toy ducks in the art store & used them to portray images of herself with her children in a playful way. Another said that, because of her autism, she frequently feels like she’s on the wrong planet, which has made her feel suicidal in the past, so she chose to portray herself by using one of the toy ducks inside a cup to show how trapped she feels due to her condition & social anxiety. Another took a selfie but showed only half her face (her perceived good side) against a backdrop of a wall with peeling paint, to portray the chaos within. One had photographed her C-section scar as a reminder of how her son was born & made a point of not editing out her pubic hair as she is disturbed by how bare & hairless women are conditioned to be & that she wanted to be proud of her body as it is, rather than preened like a Barbie doll.

Partipants were asked to write something that had suprised them about the session. They wrote:

Self portrait
Self portrait
  • Feeling of the wind in my hair with new friends. Glorious. I am weathered.
  • I was surprised and also very sad that so many ladies in the room who I see as very beautiful don’t like photographing their faces: you are all lovely xxx
  • Thought photographing my hands would be easy. Got the concept right, now just need to get the actual photographs right.
  • I was pleasantly surprised that the spontaneous photograph idea (due to windy weather) might end up being better than planned photos. I was surprised how much I enjoyed taking photos of myself!
  • I was able to take a photo of myself and not use a filter to make me beautiful but instead used it to show how I’m feeling right now…
  • Truths that were discovered in our writing activity – subconscious
  • Rebellion, openness, courage, freedom, boldness. I am caring, I am bold, I am calm.
  • I am surprised by the amount of objects that signify something of relevance to my life. That my exact thoughts go through someone else’s mind.
  • I was surprised by how much you can do with so little. Also by how unsurprised I was by the number of comments from people about how they didn’t like parts of themselves – something I’ve been battling with for years & am starting to come to an acceptance. Love the rebellious aspect of photographing wild hair, c-section scars etc.
Toys and Tea
Toys and Tea

At the most recent peer support session, we explored the Stages of Grief, as this had been requested by a couple of participants. We discovered that everyone in the room but one had lost someone close to them, so the session proved to be particularly painful and triggering for many participants.

When asked for feedback about the session, they said,

  • Eye opening, reassuring – everyone has emotions, emotion is not the enemy
  • Eye opening, painful, realisation, guilt-free, optimistic, grateful!
  • Genuine, honest, heartfelt, emotional, bonding, loving, supportive, challenging, authenticity
  • Emotional, difficult, supportive
  • ‘It’s the love you leave behind you when you’re done’ (Roy Bailey)
  • Challenging, emotional, difficult, confronting, supportive, informative, a step along the road to acceptance
  • Learning more about specific diagnoses, the burden of unresolved grief, how hard and rough the journey can be
  • Exhausting, you aren’t what has happened to you – that is past. You don’t have to be one version of you
  • Humbled, grateful, honoured – extremely moved by the level of sharing and emotion today. 

We are approximately half-way through the first phase of the project, and already the group feels strong and supportive, with many participants offering advice & support when others are feeling vulnerable. We look forward to seeing how relationships evolve and what kind of images they produce as they go along.

Click here for more information about the project at the De La Warr Pavilion.
If you would like to book a place for our creative writing phase starting 14th May 2019, please contact Xaverine MA Bates for more details & a request form.

All photographs by participants of The Mother Lode Project unless otherwise specified, reproduced with their permission

Words by Xaverine MA Bates, Project Coordinator

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