What Not to Say to Artist Moms and Happy Mother’s Day

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When I was pregnant with my son, about a zillion people asked me, “Do you think you will continue to make art after the baby is born?”

While there are common stereotypes of martyr-mothers who give up everything for their children, and people weren’t asking me this to be obnoxious on purpose, this question is not helpful. Like giant mountains eventually worn away by tiny drops of rain, the miniature speck of doubt that every would-be mom carries grows with each iteration, and you can’t help but be rattled by its insistence.

Not only is this a negative insinuation, one that suggests that maybe you aren’t a real artist after all because you are choosing to procreate, it is a question that is NEVER asked to male artists. No one ever wonders if a man is going to quit his studio practice because he is a father. No one doubts a would-be father’s commitment to his work because art history is filled with successful male artists who were also fathers. Whether they were good fathers appears to be irrelevant from the quality of their work.

I think we can all agree (except maybe George Baselitz) that a male-dominated art world is a broken system in need of few changes, so one simple thing we can all start doing, if you haven’t already, is to be supportive and sensitive to artist moms. There are relatively few positive art historical examples of successful female artists who are also parents, and this idea is ingrained in our culture. If you are curious about a few, Yoko Ono, Jenny Holzer, Annie Liebowitz, Louise Bourgeois, and Lorna Simpson are all moms and have done pretty well, but there are a lot of reasons these examples are not at the forefront of our collective consciousness.

In addition to the repeated questions about whether I would continue to make art, while I was pregnant the other comment I got all the time was “having a kid is really going to change your artwork.” Although I think this was mostly intended in a positive way, suggesting new inspiration or ideas, this repeated comment also began to undermine my confidence.

My work tends to be autobiographical and I have always been interested in the symbolic mark making of little kids, so what did this actually mean? That suddenly I would be putting baby booties in my work?? That I would somehow, uncontrollably, be moved to depict baby toys or breast pumps? Any major life change will impact an artist’s work, but this repeated comment suggested a loss of control, as if my hormones would suddenly take over my artwork, or that they already had.

Aside from the transition from single to married, there are no other major life decisions that completely, irrevocably changes one’s public and private persona the way becoming a parent does. There is a HUGE identity crisis that comes with suddenly becoming someone’s mother and this is not easy for anyone, and especially for one’s professional identity. New mothers suddenly have a Herculean task set before them every day – to keep a tiny person alive – and knowing that we have chosen this task for ourselves is very strange. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great, but it changes your priorities and makes you question everything. It also completely transforms your social life, how you are viewed by others, and places huge constraints on your time and ability to move freely in the world.

Husbands and dads are great and most pull their weight in amazing ways, but in the beginning, mom is essential in a physical way that dads just can’t be. There is no way that this is not going to affect the way you produce your work and this has to be okay. My suggestion is to continue to take on new projects, to set deadlines in the world as best you can, but to attempt to enjoy the new life you have created for yourself, too.

For everyone else out there, especially you artists with seemingly endless hours to make your work, socialize, hang out, and travel, please understand that the art world is a challenging place in which to be a mom. Just because we have brought a new person into the world, don’t write us off. Don’t make assumptions about our seriousness and commitment to our work. Don’t assume our work will disappear, so please, do not ever ask us if we are going to continue to make our art. Engage with us, visit our studios, and ask us about our goals and upcoming projects.

Looking back to my pregnancy, I can remember the dread I felt at telling an art dealer I had worked with that I was having a baby. I was thrilled to become a parent but I didn’t want to suddenly be taken less seriously. I didn’t want the professional relationships I had worked so hard to build to dissolve because of the perception that I was no longer a dedicated artist. Luckily, he was a parent, too, and was supportive of my decision, but this pressure on female artists to not have kids is a very real thing.

A lot of successful artists choose not to have families because they want to focus on the relationship with their number one baby: their studio practice. Either choice – to procreate or not – is a personal one, and a choice that we as a larger group should support. I do not believe a healthy community should force women to choose between making successful artwork and having a family, but I also understand why these limitations – and perceptions of limitations – exist.

Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to encourage you to reach out and express support, admiration, and confidence to an artist-mom you know personally. Take a moment to revisit the assumptions you make about women who have chosen motherhood and art, and phrase your questions and comments in ways that are sensitive, positive, and affirming.

Image: Jenny Holzer, Berlin, 2001

* Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt, an artist, and mom to three year old Leo.

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