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  • Shweta Bist

The Withering Artist in Mother

Paper for the Missing Mother Conference hosted by The University of Bolton, UK

April 23, 2021


It was not before I became a mother that I truly came to appreciate how challenging it is for caregivers to maintain an individual identity while having to give much of themselves away. It was only when I decided to step back from some of the extensive mothering that I was doing, was I able to pay some attention to my own needs.

I am a visual artist and photographer in NYC. Although both facets, mother, and artist, fuel each other, there is a perpetual tug of war between the two for time and attention. Recently, the Pandemic has strained this already precarious balance, by stacking the odds heavily against the artist who relentlessly scavenges for little windows of time to breathe and create. Covid is emptying mothers out like never before. The demands from mothering have skyrocketed, and mothers’ opportunities for an ‘out’, have depleted.

Through my essay, I seek to share how I have felt invisible in my role as a mother, and the challenges I have faced in my creative practice within the context of my maternal life. In doing so, I hope to impress upon the critical need to support mothers in various spheres of their socio-economic lives, so they may have the opportunity to explore the full potential of their abilities.

Watch the Presentation here


"I practice art as a matter of compulsion for moments of meditative ecstasy and as a medium of catharsis; and I freelance as a photographer in New York City, where I live with my husband, our two girls, ages 8 and 11, and our dog!

I am here today to share how I have felt invisible in my role as a mother, and the challenges that I have faced in reinventing myself after I became one. How art saved me, but how difficult it can be to balance an arts practice with one’s maternal responsibilities.

As I speak, I will be sharing some of my work- some of them are old and never before published photographs. Some images from other artists I love, for the purpose of referencing. And my more recent work- from 2020 through 2021 from the series Covidity- a collaborative project with my daughters during the pandemic.

I was born in New Delhi, India to middle class working parents in a strongly patriarchal family. I was creative from a very young age, but I chose instead to pursue a career that was more acceptable and expected in the environment in which I was raised.

By qualification I am a postgraduate in commerce. I have worked in finance and manufacturing in Delhi, and later in Dubai, (United Arab Emirates) where I gave birth to both my daughters, before eventually moving to New York in early 2013.

I had quit my paid job in Dubai with the birth of our older daughter because of inadequate maternity leave and high childcare costs. I continued to stay home with the birth of the second for the same reasons. The move from the Middle East to North America, just 8 weeks after the birth of our second daughter, came with its challenges. My husband became consumed with his new job and I, with my domesticity. Adapting to a new culture, navigating the city with young children, and the constant focus on the needs and wants of my family at the expense of mine, started to take a toll on my physical, emotional and psychological well- being.

I quite felt like the subject in Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison Imagery from 1946-47. In it she makes use of architecture to suffocate the subject, which in all likelihood is herself. As I see it, it alludes to the take over of her identity by obligations of home and family, and the resulting lack of fulfillment from such work. At the time she painted these Bourgeois was a stay at home mother to three small boys.

Before I became a mother, I had absolutely no idea what it might be like to be one. Although I wanted to be a mother, I also didn't think I had a choice. No woman I knew spoke openly about what it's like to give birth, breast feed, or how it felt to mother.

What I learned is that motherhood is far from idyllic. That no sooner I would become a mother, I would lose my identity and become the person who I paid attention to least. That, although the love we feel for our children pulls on our heart strings like no other relationship; it can be inconvenient, physically challenging and emotionally draining to raise them. This picture called “Nursing and peeing, by Anna Ogier Bloomer from her series LET DOWN brings forth this very dichotomy by laying bare intimacy and love in the same space as inconvenience and a loss of personal space.

I also feel compelled by this one from Megan Wynne, whose work I just love. This is from her series, The Foundation Project. To me this speaks to the invisibility of the labor of mothering- that our children will grow and flourish, but our labor to bring them up may go unnoticed.

And finally the third one is from a Series titled Motherhood, by Emily Larsen that talks about postpartum depression and the maternal transition. This drawing suggests that although everything around you might seemingly be blooming, a mother could be in a state of disrepair.

It was 4 years since we had moved to New York, when I finally started to acknowledge how fragmented I had become and painfully aware that I was withering. In the years that I was home with the kids, I used art to decompress in stolen moments here and there in between my various domestic responsibilities. But I wanted to do more, I wanted to earn a living from it to get back a sense of autonomy in my life.

I started to research MFA programs in the City. But discovered that with the cost of childcare added to the tuition, I would be looking to spend way more than I could justify, based on an inability to predict with certainty the remuneration from a career in art. So I signed up for evening classes at the School of Visual Arts - 1 to 2 times a week. It wasn’t an MFA, but it was what I could afford with the limited time and money I had, and it was a step in the right direction. At the same time, I started freelance photography work at token sums.

After about two years, just as I was beginning to find more paid work, we got hit with the Covid pandemic. During the first lockdown in NYC, I was cooking 3 meals a day, doing mountain loads of dishes, cleaning constantly because everyone was home all the time in our tiny Manhattan apartment. Tip toeing in the living room lest I make noise to the ire of my husband who was on non stop and loud work calls all day. At the same time, being available to the children as educator, entertainer and counsellor as they dealt with a mix of confusion, fear and anxiety about the whole situation.

My world as an artist- mother is a peculiar one - although both facets, mother and artist, fuel each other, there is a perpetual tug of war between the two for time and attention. Since the start of the Pandemic, the odds have been stacked heavily against the artist who relentlessly scavenges for little windows of time to breathe and create. Covid is emptying mothers out like never before. The demands from mothering have skyrocketed and mothers; opportunities for an ‘out’ have depleted.

A month into it I felt like I had been thrown back into the days of my oblivion. The lockdown became reminiscent of an earlier time in my life, when caring for my family had inadvertently led to the erosion of my sense of self. I wasn’t going to let Covid push me back into a hole again. To find my way around this unique situation, and continue creating work, I collaborated with my daughters to create a photo series. ‘Covidity’, as I call it, is a visual diary of our combined and individual experiences during this most challenging time. We started in the spring of 2020 when we were mostly indoors, and it has continued on since we have been in varying degrees of restrictions since then.

Every once a week, if everyone is motivated enough, I reorganize our living room to set up a ‘studio’. Perhaps create a background or work with existing fabric or blankets around the house. The girls share creative inputs with me, even take turns to press the shutter release. Although I used the camera on remote or self timer a lot as well. There are weeks I don’t shoot because I don’t want to exhaust the children. And some shoots don’t go as expected, but it’s been a light in the dark times for us.

Through my practice - images and words, I seek to capture moments in time - in our human experience where there is struggle, but there is hope and above all there is love. Being with my daughters over the years and caring for them closely has forever intertwined my identity with theirs. Motherhood has taught me patience and resilience. It has made me feel love and attachment in a way I didn’t think was possible. At the same time it has opened me up to pain- my own and that of others in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. It altered the lens with which I view the world and informs the stories I seek to share.

Although I can’t imagine being the artist I am today, if it hadn’t been for my children, I am also making slower progress than I would like in my growth as a creative because there is a lot I need to always do as their mother. In many countries over the world, insufficient maternity leave and prohibitive child care costs prevent many mothers from having gainful employment. If you are an artist, it becomes very hard to justify the cost of childcare, because of the lack of predictable remuneration from it. It may also hamper the artist’s ability to create work as fast as a contemporary who isn't in the same position; or to be able to network, which could mean lesser visibility in the art world.

By sharing my lived experience today, I hope to have underscored the need to examine mother’s rights more closely. The need for more honest and open conversations about the labor of mothering; for more art about the maternal, and by artist/ mothers to make its way into mainstream art galleries; for more support for mothers and mothering from our communities and governments, so that those performing this crucial role may be more successful in nurturing their unique ambitions, and live fulfilling lives.

I will wrap up with this thought.

We mother out of love, but it need not be the only thing we do. Mothers aren’t heroes, we often need help. Mothering might be noble work, but it certainly does not have to be invisible work."


About the Missing Mother Conference

This interdisciplinary online conference, featuring keynote speaker Dr Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto), aims to address spaces of scholarly and creative enquiry from which the figure of the mother has, historically speaking, been missing. Dr. O’Reilly’s own work on matricentric feminism notes the neglect of the mother in academic feminism. This conference comes out of an investigation into canonical academic feminism; similarly, art history as a scholarly discipline has largely excluded maternal art, resulting in a tradition of critique in which representations of maternity have existed in an occluded space – a forced instance of feminist separatism. This conference is invested, then, in exploring ‘the missing mother’ in these, and other, disciplines. We are interested, as Dr. O’Reilly suggests, in feminism(s) both on and of maternity; in considerations of the social, psychic and symbolic order of the mother; in activism; in social and political manifestations of motherhood, the mother, mothering and the maternal.


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