Harnessing the Heroic Narrative of Creative Motherhood

In the fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion, creating platforms that give voice to the nuanced experience of all parents will identify how the theatre culture at large can act to make better pathways back in for those left out of the discussion, thus directly affecting the pipeline, content, and population of our craft. The Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL) is a national resource hub and all-parent, all-discipline league advocating for a national standard of best practices for parents in the performing arts. This HowlRound series builds on the work of PAAL and will cover challenges faced by parent artists and offer some solutions and advice.—Rachel Spencer Hewitt, series curator. 

My first thought after giving birth was, “Why aren’t history books filled with birth stories? Where are the epic poems and novels about bringing forth and raising a full human being?” The work is so intense, you cannot flee from it. For me it was like battling a three-headed demon while vomiting repeatedly from the pressure of a massive tornado raging through my body. And then suddenly, motherhood. Still shaking from my birth odyssey, I held my daughter’s purple, frog-like body against my chest, and I realized that I would never again be one. I am now forever divided. 

A recent New York Times article titled “The Birth of a Mother” discusses “matrescence,” the transition into motherhood. Quoting the psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Stern, the article reminds us of what we continue to forget, “that becoming a mother is an identity shift, and one of the most significant psychological and physical changes a woman will ever experience.”

It’s a tired fact that the US has one of the worst maternity-leave policies in the world and very little to show for when it comes to accommodating mothers.

For months after the birth of my daughter, while living in an always bleeding, sweating, and leaking body, I experienced a perpetual shattering of my identity. I kept saying: “I’m spilling over and don’t know how to contain myself.” Maggie Nelson accurately describes birth in her book The Argonauts as “an obliteration of self.” What previously had been uniquely me was now in question, which was terrifying. But I also felt an intense kinship with other mothers. How did this world contain so many of them? Seemingly ordinary women, but each holding a wild and unwritten journey. I began to revere them. And then, as a performer—an interpreter of archetype—I re-summoned in the mothers I had played and studied. They were suddenly so much more available to me. Ghost-mothers, angel-mothers, thief-mothers. Murdering mothers. I absorbed them all, even the ones that hadn’t been created. I conjured them in my sleep, or while feeding my child with milk from my breasts. I made them larger, fuller, and more. I gave them more lines, more space. And I included the births, the blood, and the wildness of it all. I had a wealth of creativity; it was like I had tapped into a new perspective of imaginative thinking.

I wondered if people could tell when they saw me on the street, suited up in a baggy muumuu covered with milk and puke stains. Did they know I was a birth warrior? I doubt it. The dissonance between my inner life and the world outside was palpable, and revealed a culture that has no language for understanding or honoring motherhood. No rituals. No systems. It’s a tired fact that the US has one of the worst maternity-leave policies in the world and very little to show for when it comes to accommodating mothers. But what I didn’t know was that my motherhood would render me invisible.

After birthing a healthy human, I got a $750 disability check from the government. When asked to declare the reason for my disability, I checked “pregnancy.” Unseen. When asked to participate in an exciting workshop with a director I was dying to work with, the theatre called to say that their housing did not accommodate artists with children. So they asked a childless actor instead. Unseen. No knowledge of our increased complexity, no ceremonial knighting, no help on the subway, no strollers on the bus, no room for strollers in the aisles of the grocery store, no rooms for pumping, no serious room for motherhood as a genre, no room for motherhood and birth on stage, no room for accurate representation of birth on TV and film. Birthing mothers are shown as hysterical, violent, or terrified, never as wild warriors going into battle. If the heroic narrative of becoming a mother carried equal importance to that of the soldier returning home from war, our bookshelves, theatres, and cultural histories would be packed with stories about birth and motherhood. Unseen.

Becoming a mother forced me to rethink my work and invent new paths of expression.

Stephanie Hayes
Stephanie Hayes. Photo courtesy of the artist. 
Stephanie Hayes
Stephanie Hayes. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I went into motherhood wildly and established a new sense of self, one that did not belong only to me, but also to my daughter, and to other mothers and their children. Every day, I fight to protect the power of this shared story as it lives in me, and other mothers, and to prevent it from being diminished by lack of room. I joined the steering committee for Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) and took great comfort sharing stories with other mother-makers. I started collectives with other mother artists (#mamaisamaker, for one) where we challenge each other to make, make, make. Not in spite of motherhood, but because of motherhood. Every week the project participants submit a video, photo, or piece of writing on Instagram, inspired by a collective prompt. Participants can take five minutes or five hours to make something, whatever they are able to give that week. The point is to provide a creative path for mothers who feel that they lack the ability or opportunity to create. The project was inspired by visual artist and mother Lenka Clayton, who has created an online template to create an Artist Residency in Motherhood. Becoming a mother forced me to rethink my work and invent new paths of expression. Because I couldn’t afford childcare to rehearse my own work, my colleague and I went to a friend’s cabin upstate and rehearsed with our children in the room. We began to envision a piece where two mothers try to perform for an audience while also having to tend to the needs of their children. An embodied expression of our continued balancing act. I make my own work to ensure representation. I look after my friends’ children so they can go to a rehearsal. They look after my daughter. We carry each other’s stories.

Mothers are everywhere. Biological, adoptive, or self-proclaimed. Google tells me there are eighty-five million mothers in America—two billion in the world. And we keep increasing. It’s the way things go. It’s time for the theatre community to see us, to empower mother (and father) artists to live boldly and creatively in their expanded family without reduced consequences. Give us room. To work. To stay at home. To voice our needs. To stand on stage. To stand on stage while visibly pregnant. To audition without going bankrupt. Hire a sitter one day a week so parent actors can audition! Give us room to pump milk from our breasts. To create with dedication and bravery. To re-write the birth narrative. To be seen. To be heard. To be revered. Populate your rehearsal rooms with mothers. We bring you the future citizens of the world, after all.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series covers challenges faced by parent artists and builds on the work of the Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL), a national resource hub and all-parent, all-discipline league advocating for a national standard of best practices for parents in the performing arts. 

Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts

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What a strange and muddled article. The first sentence: "Why aren't the history books...Where are the epic poems..." Umm, the Mahabharata? The Greeks? Silvia Plath? Sojourner Truth? - there are many, even if they might require looking just a little out of the Western, White narrative. A quick Google search reveals the "mother warrior" trope to be employed far from "never," but frequently in culture high and low - it is the title of not one, but two best-selling memoirs. "To stand onstage while visibly pregnant..." Women from Karen Finley, to Audra MacDonald, to Ann Liv Young and Stephanie Roth Haberle have done so. I'm not sure what "reduced consequences," means, exactly. And it hardly seems warrior-like to ask to "give us room...to stand on stage... " As a 20+ year theater veteran and mother myself (I am pumping for my 7 month old as I write this), I am intimately familiar with the issues this article purports to address, but find the lack of context to border on omphaloskepsis.

"For months after the birth of my daughter, while living in an always bleeding, sweating, and leaking body, I experienced a perpetual shattering of my identity." Wonderfully written. I have never felt both so out of control and so proud of my body as those first weeks after giving birth.