Helen Sargeant ©, Onesey Christmas, Digital Photograph, 2014
Helen Sargeant ©, Onesey Christmas, Digital Photograph, 2014

It is wet and it is damp. The rain outside is perpetual. A greyness hangs in the air. The high winds prevented my sister visiting yesterday. The days slip one into another punctuated by too many mince pies, pudding and cake. I feel slow and sluggish. I am fat with the weight of christmas.

Sydney has crept back into my bed . At night with both boys shifting positions in their sleep I am struggling to find any space for myself.

I recently dreamt that I was boarding the octopod from a small door located within a golf caddy shop. These dreams are hardly those of escapist fantasy.

My head is fuzzed through guzzling home made damson wine, who knows its real strength but it makes me smile.

I’m sitting on the sofa in the front room writing on the lap top, sipping tea. The cat is watching the cars passing and the rain falling. The christmas tree stands proud. Decorated by the children it is haphazard and uneven, dripping with wonky tinsel and branches ending in double baubles.

I am wearing a fluffy white sheep one-sey with hood and ears. A gift from my parents, it is basically an oversized baby grow which poses difficulties when one wants to go to the toilet. One-sey’s have to be the ultimate in austerity fashion, an in-built body heating system. I’d love to make a four-sey to fit all my family in, then film of us all stumbling about in it.

I am eating white buttered toast made from cheap sliced bread. I slipped down here to read some of my new book Mamaphonic Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts by Lee lavender and Maia Rossini. The front cover has a picture of a trapeze artist balancing on a swing in a sequinned leotard.

Like the rain, the swing of mothering is perpetual. At the parenting course that I diligently attended throughout last  term I proudly announced at the last session that I had come to the conclusion that mothering knows no balance, that it is perhaps unhelpful to even think of it as a juggling act, a see saw, a neat set of weighing scales. As to creative thoughts and actions the only way that they surface, exist or happen is through embedding them within the mush of domesticity and by making the children into creative collaborators.

Before I sat down to write I tucked up the children in bed, closed the blind in the hope that the pervading darkness would keep them sleeping for a little longer. I folded up a pile of clothes and piled them up on a chair, I placed some more to dry on the radiator, I washed up and put away some cups from the draining board.

Just enough mothering, just enough domesticity to get away with it.

The art takes place because I reject the acts of cleanliness, control and order. I am neglectful of house work. I get away with what I can. The spiders have taken over they weave their webs throughout the house. The laundry pile is a monster once more and the cellar is pregnant with recycling to sort. In time it will get done.

Helen Sargeant ©, Laundry Pile, Naoise, A Pillow, Digital Photograph, December 2013
Helen Sargeant ©, Laundry Pile, Naoise, A Pillow, Digital Photograph, December 2013

This neglect of the small rituals that punctuate everyday life hardly feels like a rebellion.

You have to be bad to make art.



That will be my new years resolution.

Because to work outside the dominant discourse you need to be both bad and brave.

I have been thinking about the relationship between arts practice, mothering, nurture and ambivalence, I enjoy what Monica Buck writes here in the essay Don’t forget the lunches;

Since more or less simultaneously becoming a mother and full-time professor of art, my most recent creative work has developed as a way of talking about motherhood and childhood in a climate that all but denies their relevance. Early in my tenure process, and with the example of other mothering artists in academia, I began to realise  that the complexities of family life would not easily be recognised as pertinent to my ambitions for my work. But what I am largely consumed and fascinated by are the challenges my two small children present to my adult reality and to the institutional cultures that make no place for them.


So it became imperative to make art with and about my children, in order to make our reality known, but also to stay close to them even though half the time it’s the work that preempts my actually being with them. It’s an indirect kind of nurturing that can feel a lot like preoccupied neglect, as I struggle with my need for discipline when I’d rather go play, and my guilt when I’d rather not go play. Total absorption in the process of raising children (which would make me a good mother) is something I have never been able to choose. I keep choosing this kind of complex and conflicted nurturing with reflection upon nurturing, this kind of looking and public revelation of my looking, even at what may be considered un-motherly to look at (which makes me a bad mother).

Mamaphonic Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Edited by Bee, Lavender and Maia Rossini: Monica Bock & Zofia BurrDon’t forget the lunches…

THE CHILDREN WAKE UP……..I hear their feet on the stairs. Their faces are bright from sleep. Sydney is stuffing a piece of Naoise toblorone greedily into his mouth, yet another chocolate breakfast and he is giddy on it. The peace of writing ends abruptly.  After toast and milk. Sydney’s guitar practice, the whole room an amplifier.

Patrick rises grumpily from his sleep and reluctantly assists me with documenting the beginning of the day, me on the sofa with the kids and a brussel sprout tree. I wanted to capture us as we are a family waking around the calamity of christmas. That is two adults with six day hangovers struggling to keep up with entertaining two boys. Sobriety will come with the reality of the new year.








About Helen Sargeant

I am a visual artist, mother of two children aged 12 and 4, and co-founder of the MeWe arts collective. I intend to use this site to explore how my personal experiences as a mother informs my arts practice. To reflect upon the maternal in relationship to memory, loss, and mental health in particu…Read more

Website: http://helensargeant.co.uk

More posts by Helen Sargeant

4 Responses to “I must try harder to be a bad mother.”

  1. Frances Earnshaw

    I would love to see that foursie! Perhaps I could knit it …. no, absolutely cancel that idea.

    The onesie thing came to my attention when I was visiting a relative in the psychiatric hospital. They were popular there. There were a couple of women wearing them at the Women’s Holiday Centre, when I was last there with my daughter, too. I have wondered about the toilet problem, and since my bladder is like a thimble, I won’t be venturing into a onesie myself…

    I think it is, perhaps, not so much being a bad mother as being able to distance yourself. We are in a generation of parents who believe in immediate reaction to our children’s requests and needs… thinking of my own mum, I might try a distant attitude blurred by fag smoke. I went out, I came back. I played in the woods. I crossed roads. I lay in bed with asthma. It was all the same to her. The good parts were, I didn’t ask for bread and jam, I just went to the kitchen and got it for myself. I was allowed my own world of exploring outside, banging into other children, without a mediating mother stepping straight in.

    I don’t think I could cope with the fags, but we can expect more from our children in the way of sorting themselves out a drink, a snack, finding things, and being capable. I suspect it is not being a bad mother expecting them to wash up, too!

    This little place, here in the egg is a studio, an online chat, a glimpse of other women working on ideas, and it is available without a bus ride, without arrangements to go away somewhere, and it is marvelous. Thank you, Helen! You have created something I have been missing and yearning for.

    When is the next MeWe meeting!? Let’s all wear onesies!

  2. Lena Simic

    I ordered an onesie today, animal print. I couldn’t resist it any longer. Sid and Gabriel both have them. I even sent some onesies to Croatia to my niece and nephew.
    And, yes, let 2014 be the year of bad mothers!

  3. Helen Sargeant

    You are very wise Frances. Certainly being a mum would be easier if my kids helped out a bit more, and I did a bit less. I’m from a family of four children, so you had to be pretty independent as well as working as a team. I went to school I came home on my own. We looked after each other. I hate that mothering is attached to the word “GOOD. Before I was a mother I revelled in badness and being naughty, rebellious. I want to reclaim some of that. I wonder if that is possible. Being a rebellious mother, having critical thoughts is often met with resilience or people just think that you are moaning. My mum says she never gave any of it too much thought…..But I like thinking, imagining, questioning. When writing this post, I was thinking about what Eti Wade wrote in the commentary of her “Dying in child birth post “; “Communicating outside of the dominant ideology is near impossible. I think sometimes I purposefully represented myself as bad (mother) or at least dubious (mother) hoping to stir something up. “

  4. Lizzie Philps

    It’s so great to read these validations of alternatives to being a “good” mother. It’s reassuring to know I have not been alone in wanting to rebel against, query, unpick and analyse the dominant ideologies, whilst simultaneously judging myself for the accompanying “preoccupied neglect”.
    Something that concerns me, and which I hate to admit, is that the real or imaginary voices of judgement I hear are not male. Rachel Cusk’s frankness and honesty in “A Life’s Work” (2001) was heavily criticised, generally by women, as she describes here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/21/biography.women.
    As you say, Helen, having critical thoughts (or just being honest) is not generally well received. Early on it occurred to me that I had begun to ‘perform’ my mothering. Improvise might be a better word, but it was definitely a show, a self-conscious act that told anyone who might be watching that I could manage, that I loved my daughter the ‘right’ amount (not indifferent, not smothering, but somewhere in between). Neither of these were always true. I don’t know if it was because there were very few men at the post-natal group or the breastfeeding group or the café full of buggies, but it was definitely other women who were my audience.
    I started to think about making work about this. I snatched 5 mins to research and found an article quoting mums joking about their own and each others’ behaviour. It told me that we can indeed call ourselves ‘bad mothers’…but only up to a point.
    “It has been found that many women are reluctant to talk about the negative emotional and physical impacts of motherhood on their lives (Elliot 1990; Brown et al. 1994), as this would mark them as deviating from the prescriptions of ‘good motherhood’ (Chodorow 1978; Hays 1996). Expressing frustration and anger towards children, husbands and other family members was not uncommon in Happy Land, but users were often quick to police such outbursts” (Annie Hau-nung Chan: The Dynamics of Motherhood Performance: Hong Kong’s Middle Class Working Mothers On- and Off-Line http://www.socresonline.org.uk/13/4/4.html )
    Perhaps honesty equals badness if you are a mother.
    But we teach our children it is bad to lie.
    A few years ago I studied with a very famous clown teacher. He uses hilarious but painfully cruel strategies to help the performer find and share an honest vulnerability which enables the audience to laugh. This vulnerability says “I know you know I don’t know what I am doing, but that’s ok”. Children possess it naturally, but we learn to cover it up. One day, he talked to us about female clowns, about why society believes it is harder for women to be funny. He thought it was because little girls are told to ‘behave’ more quickly than little boys. That little girls get along with other little girls by being ‘good’ and keeping their colouring in inside the lines, while little boys get along with each other by messing around and cocking up and acting the fool. It wasn’t a comfortable thing to hear.
    In the vulnerability of new motherhood, I was lucky to have a handful of mum-mates who subverted this generalisation, but we felt few. Even in this lucky circumstance, I edited my thoughts from them, fearing the loss of the only people who seemed to understand. I can only be honest about that now I feel more robust. Projects like this help a lot to open up these conversations.
    Now, when I meet pregnant women, I have a dilemma. To be honest about early motherhood seems cruel. Not to be honest feels like a lie by omission.
    Writing this response to you has helped me decide what to do in these situations. I want to set my daughter a good example. I will tell the truth. She can judge what kind of mother that makes me.


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