No one tells you that having a little one will open up a deep well with the power to suck you in and bring you face to face with your oldest wounds. No one tells you that this very same well will become your new home. And no one tells you either, that in this dark and deep well, lies the secret to your learning how to swim in the wildest oceans and maddest typhoons. Mothering. As I got out of my labyrinth of the first three years, I learned about death and rebirth, what you need to let go of in order to transform. Where was I before and where do I pick up from? I was once a brand designer, angry with the corporate world, fed up with pleasing, perfecting, and negotiating, rebelling against the Arab world where a woman plays small and wears sexy, to be heard. Enough is enough, I said. I packed my bags, and with my one-year-old and my now ex-husband, I moved to Canada, 9,384 km away from home.
The two years that followed were a turbulent rollercoaster into the depths of my psyche, trying to negotiate with my alter ego, who am I, who do I want to be, and why does every step need to be met with an equal amount of hope and guilt? Contemplating leaving the design world, I booked a small studio near my house in Canada, to escape for a few hours a day and take a stab at making art. Needless to say, I managed to spend 3 hours a month there, on a good month. Time was not my only challenge. My whole artistic voice was challenged, it was buried and needed excavation. What happened to that feminist artist who wanted to destroy patriarchy with her words and films? How many diapers has she changed so far and why is she suddenly so much into pink? Why is it that every time she puts a brush down to paint or a pen down to write, nursery rhymes and lullabies find their way out? What joke of a ride was I on? Those same two years, oddly enough, were also my triumphant climb towards the fearless power in my throat, the one that roars confidence and defiance: I need to make art, I am changing my career, I will mirror to my daughter that when you have a passion, you follow it when you’re unhappy, you act, when you’re stuck in a toxic relationship, you leave.
I found myself alone with a three-and-a-half-year-old, in a small house, in Canada, 9,384 km away from home, finishing a Masters in Fine Arts, teaching, mothering, and founding a film festival. Taking more than I could handle was not new to me. I was fed the drive for over-achievement with my mother’s milk. You are what you bring to the world, I was made to believe. But as I made a temple of this little home of mine, nurtured my body and my daughter with love and connection, and made meaningful friendships and built a community around me, I savored freedom with a special taste — not the taste of freedom received that I was so used to, but that of freedom claimed. My body was no longer drained by countless arguments and deprecation nor self-sabotage. Today, I am my only enemy, if I wish to be.
I’ve learned to meet myself with compassion every day, for the load that I carry is far heavier than I thought I could ever handle. Inspired by my own transformation and new knowledge about trauma and somatics, I started a coaching business called Arts Embodiment where I teach people, mostly women, and artists, how to find their powerful voice, and reclaim healthy boundaries. I was on a roll, getting new clients every day, on track with my graduation project, and almost ready to launch the film festival; and all this was happening during the six hours that my daughter spent at daycare.
But then a curveball. A year after my ex-husband and I separating, and a few months into the pandemic, my daughter started struggling with anxiety. There were many triggers, the major one undoubtedly the separation between myself and her father, and another one, my extreme stress and hectic work schedule during that challenging time. I spent months seeing counselors and then worked with an occupational therapist and a child psychologist. Things escalated when she started refusing to go to daycare or playing with her friends there. I was left with no time to work and barely any time to make art. Her meltdowns got worse every day until I decided to go back home for a break, to give both her and me a time to reconnect and feel the warmth of being surrounded by our family.
In Lebanon, I realized what the problem was. It’s true that I felt connected and settled in Canada, but a sense of transience permeated over every connection I had made. I indeed had friends who visited me on the weekends, artists for the most part, but no one had kids and no one felt as close as family. I could hardly think of anyone I could rely on to babysit my daughter if I needed to go somewhere or come play with her while I prepared dinner. The pandemic made things even harder for us. With cases skyrocketing and people becoming increasingly more nervous and worried about contracting COVID, the few playdates we had on weekends disappeared. And what did one of her therapists recommend? More active play and less screen time. You tell a working single mom who lacks a support system and lives in one of the most isolating communities in the world (and I’ve moved enough to tell you that), in the middle of a pandemic, more active play and less screen time! Have you asked why the daughter is behind on play in the first place? I tell you what my daughter needs: more connection, warmth, and community. Today, we’re back from Lebanon, and our plan for the coming months is playdates, co-regulation, and love, always more love. This trip has opened my eyes to many things I learned and mistakes I probably made. They’re related to both the arts career and your general well-being. I will write them here, hoping they’ll help other mothering artists or single mothers in these confronting times we’re living in, and in the brighter future ahead of all of us.
1. Meet yourself with compassion every day
When my daughter was one, I really did not have to rent that art studio and feel guilty every day that I didn’t go or wasn’t productive enough. I could have spent the whole day playing with her if I wished, but my restless creative mind would not give me the pleasure of slowing down. I was not in the mood to mother every day, and looking back at it, I might have used the studio as a pretext to escape, but I did not have to do it had I known how to ask for a break or some space. I know today that I had been tired and sleep-deprived the whole time, and all I needed was to rest and have some fun, but I had no compassion for myself. Part of this disconnection from myself was due to mother guilt. As if productivity is a good enough reason to be away from my little one, but resting wasn’t. Today I still see Mother Guilt as my worst enemy and even my daughter’s. I remind myself constantly that if I am happy, she will be. I will mirror self-love to her instead of self-sabotage. A classic study by Stewart Friedman and Jeff Greenhaus shows that quality wins over quantity when it comes to our kids’ emotional and physical health. One hour of undistracted time is better than three hours spent with them while your mind is thinking about work. This article will give you some relief if you’re still stressing about not seeing your kids enough. But please do leave the phone when you’re with them, it’s equally grounding for you and for them.
2. The sooner you accept change, the more you’ll enjoy mothering
One thing that stubborn people like myself are gifted with is coming up with a false story and believing it then trying to live as if it was the truth. In the first two to three years of mothering, I expected things to be the same. Nothing was supposed to change. I thought I should have as much stamina as I did before pregnancy. I kept setting my expectations too high. In other words, I was not a realist. And that’s more or less expectable of a dreamer artist. But looking back, I wish I had a realist voice around me, like that of a mother who’s been there before, telling you, be patient, enjoy the first few years. They’ll soon be at school and you’ll see them much less. This might not be a struggle if you have a family around you who can babysit at a young age. But still, I believe that embracing every part of the journey is very important and should make things feel more natural. Be like nature welcoming the seasons, embrace the cycles, and life will flow more smoothly.
The thing that I struggled with letting go of the most was going on art residencies. I thought that it had simply become an impossibility. But now that my daughter’s turning five, I can easily picture us going on a residency together. Going on a residency with a parent collaborator can be an advantage because you can share childcare or have kids play together while you create. And if that’s not your reality yet, why not make it? If you know other mothering artists you can plan a family-friendly residency at a shared studio that you could rent together! Check out this lovely initiative by mothers who created created An Artist residency in Motherhood, where mothers can individually plan and start a residency in their own homes, setting their own parameters. They even offer you a confirmation letter if you need to apply for a grant.
3. Create both your arts community and your like-minded parents’ community
And if they’re artists and parents, even better! I know that most artists need constant stimulation and inspiration and community means a lot to them, especially when mothering can feel so isolating. A big mistake I made when moving to Canada was running to find artist friends to share art and inspiration with each other and forgetting all about friends with kids. I unconsciously distanced myself from the parent’s community because I couldn’t identify with it. And soon my daughter was surrounded by adults most of the time and was not interested in playing with other kids at all. She wanted my attention day in and day out. Since coming back from Lebanon, I’ve put a lot of effort into finding a community of like-minded families with whom both my daughter and I will feel at home. I joined Facebook groups for single-mothers, for parents in my neighborhood, and for mother artists and I made a lot of connections on those. If you can’t find your community, create it! Make your own special interest group on Facebook or other social media platform, or find the artists in your neighborhood by planning an artist reading group, feedback day or workshop. You might even put up posters around your street.
4. Fill your cup first, have a wellness routine
One thing that kept me going through the ups and downs of parenting is my wellness routine which is made up of exercising, dancing, journaling, and singing. Waking up twenty to forty minutes before my daughter was a real game-changer for me. It took me four years to get there, but I finally got consistent at it. Check out my IG stories if you want to know how I did it: here and here. I used to need everything to be perfectly set to get into my training or meditating zone. It’s really self-destructive to play the perfectionist here. Some days you will have five minutes to yourself and others two hours. Again, compassion is key. Today I even involve my daughter in dancing or exercising. I also taught her about mama’s grounding hour, if mama doesn’t get an hour reading alone in the morning, or listening to music, mama can’t have energy to play with you later. You can set boundaries and teach your kids to respect them at any time in their lives. They don’t have to be very young. It might be harder when they’re older, but it will still work with enough consistency.
5. Ask for help! Asking for help is an achievement
Yes, our modern culture has taught us that we are Hero-Mamas ready to save the world with a laptop in one hand and a crying baby in another, that we can do it all by ourselves, and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Well, guess what, we can, but it’s only at the expense of our own health and sanity and consequently, our family’s. A lesson I learned from both mothering and working at a big design firm, is that to be more efficient, we need to outsource the tasks that hold us back. Most of the mothers I know including myself have gotten frustrated with their partners for not executing their demands the way they would. They complain about how their partners need them to plan the big tasks out for them and give them a list of specific smaller tasks that they can tick down hassle-free, while what they really need is someone to relieve them from having to plan everything for the entire family. I think we could definitely try to tame our perfectionism when relying on our partners but we can also ask other people for help to release the couple from carrying all the stress that comes with parenting and working. Ask your girlfriend to babysit so you can go to the gym, ask your mother, father, sister, aunt, to send you a meal once a week. Ask your neighbor to drop your kid to after school care or their soccer lesson.
6. Let your purpose be your guide. Let your values be your filters.
Knowing your purpose is your best remedy for procrastination and imposter-syndrome.
When I knew that my purpose was to work in somatic experiencing and guide people in their embodiment journey, all my career questions ceded. No longer did I compare my life to other people’s to plan my future. Suddenly my world became so clear and focused on my intention. For the first time, I experienced real commitment. Every time I felt doubt about a step that I was making I remembered this purpose: to help people find their creative and powerful voice. Knowing myself more, I identified the three values that mattered to me the most and led me throughout my life: fearlessness, curiosity, and creativity. As I tell myself and others that I face my fears for living, I hear myself believing every single word. There’s no doubt that I can achieve my goals when my beliefs are so clear and defined. Aligning with your purpose will teach you how to say no! You will eliminate all these added tasks and even people that you unreasonably committed to because they don’t get you closer to your purpose and simply drain you. Knowing my values helped me identify the clients I want to work with and will similarly help you find the artistic community and galleries you want to collaborate with. When you start seeing your career path through the lens of your purpose and values, your world and all the people in it will get a big sigh of relief. I encourage you to go through values exercises such as this one and try to hone in on your purpose. Write it every day and read it aloud then keep refining until you feel its total resonance with your core being.
7. Wear your strategic, practical, and resourceful hat.
You know, that hat that you think is the antithesis of art, well, trust me, it’s not. There are days for using your right brain and others for using your left. In those days when you’re struggling with creativity or not feeling your intuition manifesting easily, do some admin work: prepare an Excel sheet or an Evernote file (amazing organizing app), with the list of galleries that you wish to send proposals to, future grant deadlines, upcoming film festival submissions, etc. Be organized. If you want to tick things off of your list, you need to have a list first. When I was working on my graduation projects I was overwhelmed with the amount of work I had to do. I made a weekly planner on Evernote that not only included my artwork, but my daily chores as well, and a reminder to do morning rituals and even rest before my period. Every weekend, I would fill the upcoming week or two. Suddenly the huge tasks became smaller simpler daily tasks and my life seemed more seamless and less chaotic. Cultivate your strategic side to save you from overwhelm.
Finally, dear mothering artist, I encourage you to honor your journey, it’s yours and no one else’s. No two artists are the same, just like no two mothers are the same, but they all make mistakes along the way. You will have days when you feel like an utter failure, and others when you feel like a superheroine. You are carrying a big load, so remember to give yourself a tap on the back at least once a day. You are a badass.