I was invited to run a series of workshops with mothers and their toddlers as part of the Creative Families project run collaboratively by the South London Gallery and the Parental Mental Health NHS team. Working directly with local families, Creative Families aims to critically explore parenting and to promote well-being through socially-engaged art.
The workshops aimed to recognise and value everyday achievements. In the same way that parents observe and applaud their child’s developmental milestones, the participants were asked to look back at their own progression and how much they have grown and changed by being mothers. We thought broadly about the word ‘achievement’ to include acts that normally go unnoticed or are undervalued in our society, for example: washing up, doing laundry, cooking, feeding, bathing, playing, changing nappies, listening, asking for help, getting out of the house, trying something new.
My goal as the leader of the sessions was to utilise the methods and frameworks that I apply in making my own work to encourage the creativity of the participants. By providing opportunities for playfulness and reflection, I lead the group to question the low value that our society attributes to childcare and ‘women’s work’ and to revalue them for ourselves as individuals.
Over the course of the ten sessions, we discussed and creatively responded to the representation of motherhood in the media. We took self-portraits; made collages and drawings; constructed and decorated personalised frames to frame our lived/enacted experiences; performed theatrical games from Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed; wrote poems; danced and did aerobics; engaged in sensory, messy play; and painted carnival cut outs representing our wishes for the future. We also produced a red book, like the ones given to parents when their child is born to track growth and record immunisations, but for parents with mental health difficulties to reflect on their experiences. Each parent received a copy of the spiral-bound book and a personalised calendar.
To give a sense of what an individual session was like, the following is a detailed description of the very first session:
The task that day was to attempt to transform the daily balancing acts of motherhood into fun by turning what we do each day to juggle competing needs into games and playful obstacle courses that we could then enjoy with our children. We generated ideas for the games by doing physical warm-ups, mirroring exercises and filling in the blanks on the below prompts:
Becoming a mum has given me a new appreciation for ____________.
My child makes me do _____________ repeatedly.
Before I had a child, I found it easier to____________.
This produced a list of actions to perform:
Take shoes off before entering a flat
Look at spiders
Respect for people
Sing ‘it’s raining, it’s pouring’
Appreciate passing of time
Say mummy 100 times
Say “I love you”
Go out when I want to
Leave the house
The participants took part with enthusiasm and we managed to keep the children busy and content when we needed to talk and involved and active while being playful ourselves. Each participant received a medal in appreciation for a simple act that they did during the session such as: sharing something personal with the group even though it was difficult, managing with a very active child and arriving with three children in tow.