Reality of motherhood

“The house is a mess”

“She’s got a really snotty nose today”

“Ignore that clutter over there”

“The lawn’s not been mowed”

“He’s still covered in his lunch”

“There are so many toys”

“This wall needs repainting”

“I hate these tiles”

“I’ve not vacuumed”

“There is cat hair everywhere”

“The washing is still on the line” 


For two and a half years I have been photographing mothers and their children for ‘The Mothers’, a project which aims to portray a realistic view of motherhood. I have photographed over a 100 women and seen a vast number of homes. I have met 100s of children through the project and seen how different children at different ages demand different things from their mothers. I have seen that mothers expect too much of themselves and often feel guilty for not achieving the goal of being ‘the perfect mother’. I have also learned that most mothers need to give themselves a break from time to time.

I noticed when I was going to the houses of women who’d already seen ‘The Mothers‘ online, they’d often say, “I’ve seen some of the beautiful houses you’ve photographed – my house doesn’t look like that!”

I never understood their anxiety, because the houses I’ve photographed are so similar – yes, some were smaller, some were bigger, some had more stuff and occasionally there were the ones which were impossibly tidy and clean, but they all had the tell-tale signs that children lived there. Then, in recently curating an exhibition of the photos from the project, I finally understood what these women meant. Small, and in digital format, you could not see the traces of sticky finger prints on the walls, the cats hairs dusted over armchairs, or the streaming noses. The mothers in the photographs, while to me represented real-life,  to others they represented the ‘perfect‘ mothers we were all striving to be.

Somehow, the act of photographing and lighting the subject, or creating a selection of images where the mother was happy with her own self-image, elevated these women to a hyper-real version of motherhood. It was only when I blew the images up larger for printing that I saw all of the flaws that made these women real mothers – crumbs, snot, dust, mess, bruised knees. I had seen (although, not specifically noted – they are the things of real life) these marks of reality with my naked eye, but in photographing them, they had become hidden and masked by the aesthetic of the image.

It made me realise that when you see another mother looking serene and calm (with her quiet and well-behaved children in tow) and you feel inadequate or like a bad mother, that those initial appearances can be quite deceiving. She is probably having one of those rare, and very welcome perfect moments that we all have occasionally, but definitely not all of the time.

It made me wonder why there is such a veil over what real motherhood feels and looks like? Does my practice still need to be more honest yet? In choosing the most beautiful or the most flattering images, the kindest composition or softest lighting set up, am I in turn doing an injustice to the mothers who feel inadequate by looking at the images?

Or is helping the mother (being photographed) to feel good about herself and seeing herself in a positive way enough?

About Rebecca Lupton

Rebecca studied Photography at Manchester Metropolitan University and has since worked as a commercial photographer specialising in portraiture and social documentary.

Additionally carrying out personal social documentary and research projects, Rebecca has recently established ‘The …Read more


More posts by Rebecca Lupton

5 Responses to “The Reality of Motherhood”

  1. etiwade

    The problem with images of the maternal is that when looking at an image of a mother and child we project onto the image an idealised state. This means that for other mothers looking at images of mothers all they see is perfection. The maternal representational model of the Madonna and child comes through and creates out of the ordinary mother a perfect, ideal mother. The reality which we all experience in our heads is one of inadequacy in relation to the ideal so as mothers we would always see ourselves as falling short but appear perfect. What to do?

  2. Helen Sargeant

    To begin from the point of in-perfection, to look closely, to uncover and reveal our true selves, is a real challenge. To represent an honest view of motherhood, not to mirror what already exists. Can photography represent an alternative viewpoint ? Can it enable the viewer to see outside of themselves, and the subject that it depicts ? Does the medium provide a barrier, a boundary, or does it hold up a mirror to others ? My experience of motherhood is one that is visceral, like you describe its about cleaning runny noses, wiping bottoms, tidying, clearing up, feeding, providing, playing, holding close and letting go.

  3. Rebecca Lupton

    Thanks Eti and Helen.

    I agree about how we/mums project an idea of perfection onto other mothers. There’s something about an image without description (be in text or spoken word) that allows the viewers imagination to run wild. From speaking to the mothers I photograph for the project, they certainly say they are very relieved to read the stories of mothers who have find it hard and say they relate, but with regards to the images themselves it is as if they see something else and do not relate to the women in the pictures. I’m sure if it was video footage I would get a different reaction.

    I’ve definitely toyed with the idea of taking a more hidden role when photographing the mothers for the project – therefore taking the role of a documentary photographer, rather than a ‘portrait’ photographer. It would be very interesting to try a few different approaches to photographing ‘the mothers’ and see what alternative viewpoints I can grasp and also, I’m tempting to get film footage of ‘realtime’ within the mothers’ homes.

  4. christina

    This piece also made me think about the pictures we take of children, and how they also contribute to constructing idealised versions of childhood. I think about family snaps and school photos. I think how they create such a different version than the remembered one. But then I also start to think how remembered versions also never approach the reality, and how hard it is to get close to it.
    As well as making me think about these things, I like the way that Rebecca is grappling with these thoughts; how it means that the direction of the work is led by the thinking through the work.

  5. Lizzie Philps

    I too like the way you are querying these decisions in your photographs. I don’t see many images of myself as a mother, but when I do I am surprised at how ‘maternal’ I look. It’s a relief as I don’t see myself that way. I suppose generally I am giving attention to my child, not the camera, which does make her the focus of the picture, and thus makes me look like a ‘good’ mum. As you say, documentary photos would perhaps show more reality than images taken of a moment when everything is as the photographer would like to remember it being. I kept a diary for the first few months of my daughters life. The photos of the same period are not at all reflective of what I wrote. It may be just me but I find it harder to capture joy in words than in an image, while sadness is the opposite. I am glad I have both.


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