Six years ago I was five months pregnant and teaching English at a school in Plymouth. I was leading a department for the first time in my career, regularly working fifty hour weeks and contemplating my first significant break in over a decade with my upcoming maternity leave.
A lot has changed since then.
I decided not to go back to teaching after having my first son, feeling strongly that the demands of that job were just not compatible with the vision I had of myself as a mother and my overwhelming desire to just be with him as much as I possibly could. There was something else niggling at me too: I had been harbouring the desire to write for many years, tried with limited success to find the time to get the words out of my head and down on paper alongside my career as a teacher, and I had a strong sense that this – motherhood – was my opportunity. The opportunity to shake things up and stop sidestepping my most secret ambitions, the opportunity to channel the power and energy that had birthed a human into creating something from my dreams.
And so I wrote.
A young adult novel first, a story inspired by my teaching experiences which had been germinating during those long days in the classroom. The deal I made with myself was that I had to write the first draft before I could hand in my notice – and so I did, snatching every spare moment with Arthur feeding or dozing in the sling.
(I thought at the time that the writing was the hard bit. One of the many things I’ve learnt since those early days is that it is only the beginning of a much more arduous process.)
It took me three months to write that first draft, but considerably longer to feel like I could call myself a writer. Since then there have been two more novels (all three still existing mainly on my hard drive in various stages of redrafting), a selection of short stories, a smattering of articles and countless blog posts. And slowly but surely I have begun to feel that I can own that title.
It has not been a straightforward journey: whilst it has been physically possible to combine writing with motherhood in a way that I would simply not have been able to do as a teacher it has still been a huge juggle. My sons are sources of both inspiration and frustration, they are the forces that drive me on and that hold me back. I would not be writing if it were not for them, but I sometimes cannot help but wonder how much more writing I would be able to do if I did not simultaneously have to look after them, too.
It has also been a lonely journey at times. I think motherhood can feel that way anyway, having to rediscover your identity after many years of establishing your place in the world. Combine that with hours spent in front of a computer, tapping away at the keyboard whilst desperately wanting to be catching up on sleep, and it has sometimes felt like it would be all too easy to get lost inside my head. I have discovered, though, a wonderful community of women who are striving to find the same balance I am searching for: a balance between the satisfaction of mothering in the way we want to and fulfilling our creative selves, pursuits that complement and contradict each other in equal measure.
The first of these networks grew out of the blogging community: a group of writers and mothers who lift each other up in their online interactions and (all too occasionally) meet to talk, drink wine and share the load. We are separated by hundreds of miles, but connected by our daily efforts to put words on the page and our ambitions to get those words out into the world.
The second was one I came across by chance on twitter, the organisation Mothers Who Make. This initiative was the brainchild of Matilda Leyser, a theatre maker facing the particular challenges of being a mother and an artist. It is now a national peer-support network, one which I gratefully engage with both online and at monthly meetings as part of the Exeter hub.
Those face to face meetings are invaluable, and have come into my life at just the time I need them most. We sit in a circle, our children in our laps or playing at our feet, and share our stories, our struggles and our triumphs.
It has reminded me again that I am very much not alone in my desire to be both a hands on mum and a creative being in my own right. That it is possible to juggle spending my days looking after children with making time to write and carve out a new career. That the challenges I have faced in feeling unseen and unacknowledged are not mine alone, but are challenges rooted in a society that doesn’t really know what to do with women like us.
There are several exciting opportunities bubbling out of this network – it’s not just a place to talk about our own personal endeavours, but a place to connect creatively and see how we might work together too. One of those opportunities that I seized enthusiastically was the chance to work with the photographer Viola Depcik, who came to my home to capture me as a mother and a maker.
I love the images she created, and looking at them makes me realise just how far I’ve come in the past six years.
It may not be an easy ride, either the mothering or the making, but it is me – in all its energising, exhausting messiness. A work in progress, striving to create in any which way I can.
All images by Viola Depcik. You can see more of Viola’s work on instagram at @viola_de_photography_.