I had no idea how deep, diverse, and specific the worlds would be when I decided to investigate the lives of Professional Performing Artists who also chose to be Mothers with my ongoing series What She Looks Like. Some are in the beginnings of it all, some are in the throws of it, and some are seasoned professionals in both in art and mommy hood life.
As different as the decisions, lives, and disciplines of these many women may be, some common threads run through along the themes of wrestling with doubt, distraction, and division.
Doubt – can I do it. Distraction – am I doing it. Division – should I do it.
Perhaps what makes the motherhood circumstance not necessarily any harder but most definitely unique is that the answers to these questions depend on the responsibility, viability, and volatility or peace of another life. Another tiny, precious, I’m-responsible-for-feeding-you-and-keeping-you-sane-life.
In wrestling with these questions myself, I began to wonder how I would approach them if I were asking outside of motherhood. These questions, I believe, plague any artist – motherhood or not – due to the circumstances of life and the perils of the profession. We ask them when eating out of tuna cans living in rooms that are probably technically a closet in New York City. We ask them when the train is late, the rain melted our makeup, and our headshots still need to be printed on the way to a type-out audition. We ask them when “no” is heard a million times and we don’t recognize the face screaming in the mirror.
So where do we go? What truth do we turn to?
…And does it still apply to the motherhood challenge?
I recently did a panel in NYC for a small group of women in media along with two producers. As the only actress on the panel, I was asked a specific question by someone in the audience on behalf of a friend of hers. This friend had been wrestling with receiving no acting employment in NYC yet still felt absolutely obligated to stay there, fearing that jobs outside of the city would remove her from opportunities. The question was, “what should I tell my friend?”
This question was assuredly too loaded and too distanced to provide a specific career strategy on the spot, but what I did feel convinced to offer was rooting out the underlying fear. I began by admitting that staying or going will each have their pros and cons pragmatically speaking, but the decision to stay or go should never be based on fear, or the work will be too. I continued to say that too often we convince ourselves that our value, status, or existence as artists depends on a career trajectory, feeling, or even – as in this case – a location. We cannot forget that art exists other places. Indeed, art exists all over the world, and if we convince ourselves that art only exists in New York City, or art only exists when I feel connected to myself, or art only exists when my work is a success, art will die as much as it lives, for all of these reasons die out of season, and if taken as a foundation, we fall, for none of these foundations is firm.
I recall that story because it resonated with me as I struggled to find a firm foundation for my art in the conversation on motherhood-in-the-mix. I have absolutely believed to my core, in the deepest parts of my soul where knowledge begins, that motherhood is a cohesive and complimentary catalyst to the world of art. My entire purpose of challenging how mothers in the arts are treated and the questions that pop up in our minds during struggle is to address the fear that intends to silence the knowledge of this fruitful collaborative catalyst. And, in silencing that fear, allow my art and motherhood to stand interconnected on a firm foundation.
The two words that have come to me to form a foundation: You Are.
First, a few things you are not. You are not your location. You are not your booking rate. You are not the decades that have passed since you performed, wrote, made that whatever.
You are not your multi-tasking skills. You are not your perfectly and imperfectly balanced nut-job schedule. You are not your lack of groceries in the fridge.
You are an artist.
This fact of existence goes where you go, whether any other element of the universe is in place or not. It lives when your connection feels dead. It gives no two shites about successful career trajectories. It is who you are before you knew you were. It is the Truth about who you are. What you do with that truth is what we call the Work. How you judge the work is any of those things you wish it to be, but it is never you. Though the judgment may touch the work, touch the timeline, touch the failures, it cannot touch You if you recognize the distinction. You are an artist. I don’t care if you’re literally elbows deep in tiny human feces, only have a resume of sandwiches recently made, want to sleep more than sing or feel stretched mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, all those traits are traits of the artist. Because she is you whether you feel her in there or not.
The reason I say this is because whatever your current declared profession or location or desire as you raise little lives, whether you’ve paused, totally stopped, or are pursuing your dream, that truth doesn’t go away. Whether you love it or hate it or haven’t thought of it in years, it stays. And do with it what you will – feel the tickle of it trickling up for your attention or hang RIP on its nose or let it shout ecstatically in your inner ear – it’s yours. And if, just if, you let yourself have permission flip off the world and declare Yourself that Artist with fecal elbows, mustard stains, audition sides with coffee and tears from restless sleep, you will be telling the absolute mother-loving truth and standing tall on a foundation that never shifts. DO with it whatever you want. You are an artist.
And now that you know no one can take it from you, you don’t have to waste a drop of energy on doubt, there’s a bit of energy to spare. And now that you know distraction can’t take it from you, there’s a bit of power there. And now that you know division can never separate you from yourself, there’s a bit of ownership there – Wherever we go, whatever we do. And if we answer the “can I do it”-“am I doing it”-“should I do it” from the standpoint of this Truth, we reduce potential for regret, because our answers will come from a place entirely ours: one of energy, strength, and ownership – whatever our decision may be.