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Stockpiled © Xaverine MA Bates, mixed media, 2018

Stockpiled © Xaverine MA Bates, mixed media, 2018

The Mother Lode Project

Mother lode: a principal vein or zone of gold or silver ore, or colloquially the real/imaginary origin of something valuable or in great abundance. The aim of this project, an initiative developed by Xaverine Bates, is to extract the gold from challenging experiences of motherhood, by giving opportunities for artists who are mothers to work with those who may be experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of motherhood. HOT’s Zelly Restorick speaks to Xaverine, herself a mother, an artist and a person with lived experience of mental distress.

The project has two strands: one to empower artist-mothers whose practice might have been impeded by motherhood; and the other is to give a space to mothers who may be experiencing mental health issues, by providing a creative outlet for feelings that can be difficult to express in words. The plan is to run twelve free fortnightly workshops, over six months, where each workshop will be run by a different artist. There will be a whole range of art forms from the artists who have come forward – including puppet-making, book-making, screen-printing, collage, writing, photography, drama and drawing.

Who can participate in the workshops?

The workshops will be for a group of up to 10 mothers at all stages of motherhood, (ie not necessarily just mothers of children aged 0-5), referred either by Recovery Partners or those who self-refer. However, if you do have a pre-school aged child, there will be a bursary towards childcare, to give you the opportunity to take some time away from being a mother to rediscover your sense of self in a creative context – or to provide a crèche if demand is high enough. At the workshops, there will be a mental health peer support worker, with lived experience of mental health issues, providing mental and emotional support for anyone who needs it.

It feels important to include mothers at any stage of motherhood, because there seems to be a disproportionate amount of support for new mothers, but once the child is aged two, you’re supposed to know what you’re doing and the support disappears. The challenges change as your child grows up and don’t necessarily get easier – mothers with teenagers have different challenges to mothers with toddlers, single mothers face different challenges from those in a relationship and empty-nesters whose children have left home have a different set of challenges again.

Anyone who identifies as a mother is welcome, including biological, surrogate, adoptive, foster, step, grand, great-grand, to be, single mothers, those who have miscarried or those who have lost children, mothers of any race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability (this definition of motherhood is borrowed from ‘Mothers Who Make’).

Every other week, in between the artists’ sessions, there’ll be an informal drop-in where we might go for a walk or meet in the park, for all the participants to get to know each other better. It’ll be a closed group – to enable the participants to support each other and create bonds, as if you’re a mother experiencing mental health issues, it’s very easy to become isolated.

At the end of the workshops, I’ll be putting together a quality artists’ book, a collage of images and words that will have been created during the workshops. This will act as both a memento of the project for the participants, as well as an awareness-raising tool for anyone who is interested in and/or would like to learn more about the issues surrounding motherhood and mental health. There will also be an exhibition and a performance of Kat Lee Ryan’s Sparkly Bird at St Mary in the Castle, hopefully to coincide with Coastal Currents next year.

Who are the artists involved in the project?

Anna O’Neill of Box Room Press: Screen-printing
Antonia Chitty: Creative writing
Amanda Jobson: Photography
Janey Moffatt of The Craftimation Factory: Puppet-making and animation
Jo Poulton: Drama and dance
Judith Alder of Blue Monkey Network: Artist mentoring sessions
Lorna Crabbe: Book arts and illustration
Lucy Brennan-Shiel: Painting and drawing
Mandy Wax: Collage
Patricia Thornton: Painting
Vicky Painting: photography and writing
Wai at WHO art & design: Jewellery

Why do you feel it is important to create these workshops?

I am mother and an artist with lived experience of mental health issues, and I wanted to find a way to channel my experiences as a means to helping and empowering others who might be struggling in a similar situation.

Do you want to talk about your own experience of motherhood?

After having my daughter, I went back to work as a teacher when she was six months old and found the pressure of working part-time as well as managing multiple art projects to be too much on top of the demands of being a mother. Motherhood was an immense shock – the sheer volume of work that needed doing at all hours of the day and night just became overwhelming. Just after she started school, almost five years ago, I had a complete nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Rediscovering my art practice and writing have been a key part of my recovery.

I felt a huge societal pressure to be the perfect mother, to be actively pursuing my career, to be on an equal footing financially with my partner, to have the perfect house, cook the perfect meals, etc. In many cases, even if the woman is working, she is still expected to manage the household finances, do the night feeds as well as the lion’s share of the housework, organise play dates, research the best schools, etc… these tasks seem quite often to fall disproportionately on the mothers. I tried to channel my frustrations about my feelings at the time and the wider societal imbalances by creating aGender Arts & Education, a small local charity that works with young people to challenge gender stereotypes through creative media.

Reuben Mednikoff, Stairway to Paradise, 1936

Reuben Mednikoff, Stairway to Paradise, 1936

Were you already a writer and an artist?

I became pregnant when I was doing my final show at Brighton University, as I had gone back as a mature student to do a second degree in Fine Art. At the time, I had the naïve idea that I’d be able to continue my art practice in my studio, taking my baby daughter with me, as I’d seen a few (wealthy) female artists doing in the media. However, the realities of the sheer exhaustion of being a mother soon made it clear that this was completely unworkable for me. I’ve had three different studios over the years, but found that I wasn’t able to physically get there enough to make it financially viable. I’ve now reappropriated the spare room in our house as my art and writing studio.

There was a point where I completely lost my identity as an artist – it felt impossible to hold two equally demanding and consuming commitments: that of being a mother and an artist, in my head at once. However, the process of psychotherapy over the past three years has slowly helped me rediscover my identity as an artist and to integrate these two seemingly oppositional forces into my reformed identity as an artist-mother, a new paradigm that other organisations championing the work of artist-mothers are starting to celebrate. I have also been lucky enough to have the support of my husband & family to get me through the most difficult times.

Is your experience common amongst the mums you know?

Not all of them. Many mothers I know have very supportive partners, while others are single mums juggling work and full-time childcare. However in many cases, whatever their support network, it’s the mental load that mothers seem to carry, which more and more working mothers are starting to research and write about. I think we’re at a stage in history where a lot of hard-earned battles have been won, but there’s still a long way to go to achieve full equality, such as a recognition of the invisible labour that goes into parenting and running the home.

Seeing New Zealand’s PM, Jacinta Ardern, bringing her baby with her to the UN seems revolutionary, but this is because in the majority of cases, the burden of motherhood is invisible and is expected to happen by magic, in the background. Sylvia Federici made the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘labour’, whereby work is something you’re paid to do, which carries a societal status, but labour has no status: doing the laundry, the weekly shop, caring for ageing parents, all of these tasks are necessary but none of them seem to be acknowledged as real work.

Do you feel there is a lot of pressure on women, not only to be perfect mothers, but to be the nurturing, nourishing, caring ones?

Yes, I’d agree with that, and the backlash from this is all sorts of emotions that aren’t socially acceptable, such as rage, resentment, feeling overwhelmed, the feeling that you have to do it all and if you ask for help or admit that you’re struggling, you’re somehow failing. This can lead to a whole range of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, etc, and also for many mothers, there’s unresolved trauma and PTSD from their birth experiences and there are very few spaces where they feel able to share this.

Knitted journal © Xaverine MA Bates, mixed media, 2018

Knitted journal © Xaverine MA Bates, mixed media, 2018

Is there support from the health system?

I was lucky enough to get excellent support from the NHS mental health teams when I was in crisis, but this isn’t always the case. I know some friends who struggled to get the help they needed, so because of the strain on the NHS due to austerity, it seems to be a lottery whether or not you get the help you need, and many people fall through the cracks.

I’m starting to learn more about other forms of support as the project evolves. There are some fantastic organisations out there supporting those with lived experience of mental health issues such as Recovery Partners, with whom I am partnering to raise funds for the project; as well as support for bereaved mothers, kinship carers (people who look after a child when the mother is unable to – the invisible carers) and foster mothers, who would otherwise often feel isolated and unsupported.

Conversations are starting to emerge through different channels, such as other artist organizations, like Spilt Milk in Edinburgh (‘Making Motherhood Visible’), Procreate Project in London, and Mothers Who Make, all of which are championing the new paradigm of the artist-mother.

People are realising that the idealized view of motherhood is unsustainable and in many cases is damaging family relationships, putting undue pressure on fathers/partners and children, as well as the mothers, so nobody’s winning. It feels like there’s a gap for mothers to be able to talk about their experiences without feeling shamed or vilified for somehow failing in the face of an unrealistic ideal – to be successful both professionally and on a personal level. I’m hoping this project will go some way to filling that gap.

Tell us about what you are working on now.

I’m delighted to be exhibiting at ‘oh motHER’, The Spilt Milk Gallery members’ show in Edinburgh from 26 October with a piece called Stockpiled, which is made from stock-piled medication, shredded journals and thread and is about suicidal depression.

Have you yourself experienced suicidal depression?

The last time I felt suicidal was just a couple of months ago this summer, when I had a relapse into suicidal depression. It was caused by a number of things, including full-time parenting during the summer holidays, a pause in therapy while my therapist took a break, global events including Brexit, Trump, the extreme heatwave and drought we experienced here in the UK, on top of reading about wild fires in the Arctic Circle, Greece and California.

As well as being unable to cope with the basics of motherhood, I also had an overwhelming sense of guilt about the world I had brought my daughter into and the seemingly uncontrollable ecological disasters she may have to face in her future. I read recently from a top source that one of the most damaging things a person can do ecologically at this time of planetary crisis is to become a parent: more damaging than driving a diesel car, flying, etc, which of course piles the guilt onto parents, on top of all the other basics of trying to survive in this current world of late-stage capitalism. All those factors together led me to feel, under the blanket of suffocating depression, like we were living through The End of Days.

How can someone apply to participate in the project?

At the moment, I’m still at the fundraising stage: I’ve submitted a bid to the Arts Council and am working with Recovery Partners to raise money from Mind and the National Lottery and we should hear by mid-November. If a mother is especially interested in participating, then please do contact me at and I’ll add you to the list and let you know nearer the time.

Reuben Mednikoff, Anatomy of Space, 1936

Reuben Mednikoff, Anatomy of Space, 1936

Tell us about your pilot event at the De La Warr Pavilion.

On 21 October at the DLWP in Bexhill, I’m running a free pilot workshop, to complement their exhibition, ‘A Tale of Mothers’ Bones’, which is a fascinating collection of works by the psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe and artist Reuben Mednikoff. The workshop is aimed at anyone who identifies as a mother, who may be experiencing or have experienced mental health challenges as a result of motherhood.

What about the fathers?
Whilst I acknowledge that fathers and partners have their own set of challenges when they become parents, and that the role of father/carer is evolving as we slowly chip away at restrictive patriarchal structures, this project is aimed at exploring the unique experiences that can happen to women when they become mothers. Whilst I celebrate gender equality in all its forms, I also celebrate the differences between the sexes and gender identities and think that the combination of hormonal, emotional and societal experiences that women come up against when they become mothers needs airing and a safe space to be explored.

Help and support
If you’re currently experiencing any issues of this nature, please contact
The Samaritans, your GP (it’s worth shopping around for a GP who understands mental health issues), Sussex Recovery College, Hastings Your Way, Hastings i–Rock (for young people aged 14-25).

More info
The Mother Lode Project
Xaverine M A Bates, artist and writer

Posted 17:02 Sunday, Oct 7, 2018 In: Health Matters

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