What space do we take up in the world? Or, should it be, how many spaces do we take up, and what shape are they when we merge them all together?
In a recent conversation with an artist friend who is also a mother, I began to think about identity. My friend was attempting to rekindle an old work connection, after her maternity leave and request for flexible working had left her unemployed. She used to be a freelance artist and producer, but had been exploring other career paths for the last few years. She was considering returning to her freelance work and was struggling to see how. She used the phrase ‘I don’t know who I am anymore, I’m so different I don’t think I could fit back in there’ and shockingly, it did not shock me. I knew exactly what she meant.
Becoming a mother is exhausting, and it is a becoming, a long, painful metamorphosis into something you both always were and into a whole new being at the same time. Amongst my parent friends, many are at the stage of considering a return to work and are battling with the conflict between the new and the old. They feel they have left a space at their previous job, a space that has remained exactly the same shape as they were when they left it, but they are now an entirely different shape and no longer know how to fit back in.
It struck me how lucky I am, dabbling in the arts world, with a partner who is a self-employed theatre maker, that our landscape is constantly changing and being reinvented. I shift my shape on a daily basis and I enjoy doing so, as do many other artists of all genres, and freelance workers in general. Our careers are a tapestry, and we are in control of the design. Regardless of these benefits, there are great challenges to being a mother in the arts industry, gender and misogyny aside.
At a recent Devoted and Disgruntled session, run by the landscape redefining Improbable Theatre, I raised a question about diversity in the arts; why, when we talk about it so often, are we not making more progress in diversity? I asked the group to look around the room, notice that we are all white, and question why that is so. My question was answered when only two people joined the discussion with me. One young woman who professed to know little but turned out to be very passionate and articulate about the subject, and a senior chief executive of a well-known theatre. He (of course) was very aware that the programme of this theatre reflected very little diversity, drawing from the typical white, European male pool of writers and directors and wanted to change it. I challenged him about his theatre staff, and he acknowledged that his staff similarly reflected the same demographic as his programming, and his audience too. I asked him about his cleaning staff, and he went quiet. He was open to thinking about how to change this, but ultimately he felt that as a white middle class man, he did not have the knowledge or the resources from which to bring about change. I think he is probably right, but I begged him to use his privilege and power to help those who are fighting from the inside to bring about change and to look to the whole industry, not just those on his stage.
I then asked him about women and his mood shifted, acknowledging that that was a huge area of his employment that he most certainly could change, and that he hoped to start work on. He wanted more women on the stage, performing in works by more female writers and led by more female directors and he felt confident in bringing about that change. But when it came to ethnicity or more complex genders, he felt out of his depth.
I don’t mean to shame this director, his intentions were honest, his participation in the dialogue was wholehearted and he was aware of his limits and privilege. It is not solely his fight or his responsibility after all. But it highlights the epic struggle of people whose identity is beyond the dual boxes we have available. These are people of all or any gender, who are also people of colour, people who are disabled, people who are transgendered or non-binary, people who are not neurologically typical, people with chronic illnesses, people with mental health issues. And, much to my surprise since becoming a mother, they are also mothers. This is intersectionality.
These are the people who occupy spaces, the shape of which the rest of society struggles to accommodate. The shapes of these spaces are so rarely accommodated in fact, that they have become unusual, and yet these shapes are as usual and common as any other. When we see the struggle of black women to be taken seriously in business, or the impossibility of a disabled to person to play an able-bodied role in the theatre, we are saddened but not surprised. But do we think about motherhood as another role to add to the list that must be protected? Some of these women will be mothers too and their battle then becomes even more challenging as they request a shape that their employers may have never even considered possible. As artist Alison Lapper often talks about, she feels she can only be ‘artist’ or ‘mother’, she cannot be artist, mother and disabled person at the same time. This is too exotic, too confusing, and it is the combination of these things, rather than each thing in their own right, that becomes the focus. She often talks about conducting more interviews about the fact that she is disabled and an artist, or disabled and a mother, than she ever does about those things in their own right.
In discussion at a Becoming Mums meeting, a group of women who get together regularly to critically engage in discussion around motherhood, parenthood and identity, we found ourselves called to revolution. That we can no longer complain about the spaces that are not held for us, about the shapes that we have become, metaphorical or literal, but that we must find a way to change it.
As a group, we have power and knowledge to bring about change. We need the establishment to fight with us, but we hold the power, because of all those spaces left empty in offices and schools and restaurants and factories all over the world. Together we are far more than half the world, and we must not stop until all those spaces are flexible enough to fit us, whatever shape we are that day.