Being told by my own Mother how she had described me to someone as the daughter who ‘doesn’t work’ stirred up some strong feelings in me. I was quite gobsmacked by what she said. On reflection, I think it got to me for two reasons – firstly, because I felt it to be hugely unjust and secondly, because it undoubtedly fed into my own guilt and insecurities about whether or not the work I do as an artist constitutes work – real ‘proper’ work, I mean.
I’ve thought about my Mum’s comment a lot since she made it and I’ve come to see it in context. My Mum is a woman in her eighties, after all; the eldest daughter of four male siblings, who simply by being born female was the one expected to do the domestic chores while they did none; someone who lived through an era when being busily immersed in domestic chores was the expectation of a ‘good’ woman. So why would she think that a day of being in an artist’s studio could ever equate with the kind of working day she herself had witnessed and experienced?
My Mum grew up amongst a family of farm and building labourers and then went onto marry my Dad, moving with him to his native mining village in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was there that she witnessed real, hard graft amidst the miners working in dangerous conditions. That in her mind (and if I’m honest, in my mind too!) is what constitutes a hard day’s work. And when my siblings and I were older, she herself worked full time, caring for the elderly – again, a hands-on job involving a degree of physical labour.
So why would I expect her to have any idea about the amount of time I invest in being a practising artist? To consider the time I spend in the studio alone as legitimate work – in any shape or form? I haven’t exactly been arriving at her house sweating from hard labour!
The fact that I don’t have a regular income, I’m sure affects the way my Mum thinks about what I do. It affects me, too. I’ve moved from being financially independent for a number of years to earning occasional bits of money from selling the odd piece of work and being paid for a few talks I’ve given. I don’t however, earn anything near what you would describe as a regular salary. And yet, in my head, I feel very much like an employed person and, albeit for very little remuneration, I consider myself to be someone who works.
I’m fortunate enough to live with and share the income of my partner, a freelance writer, someone who very much understands the nature of the work I do. Applying myself to a creative practice has been all about starting a new chapter in my life and in my moments of self doubt (and they’re frequent!) he’s fond of telling me: ‘but you ARE earning – just not yet!’ He’s basing that on what his own experience has been – starting out in freelance writing, earning infrequently at the start but gradually building up a solid body of work and a sound reputation, enabling him eventually to make a good enough living from his writing. My working life as an artist won’t necessarily turn out the same way, but while there’s hope and an opportunity to try it…
When we started a family together, we made a joint decision that his career would be prioritised and that I would be the primary child-carer while our twin sons were growing up. As our sons have grown older and increasingly independent, so I’ve been able to spend more time applying myself to being an artist. Though my partner’s always been happy with this arrangement, I still find myself, despite all the reassurances, often feeling guilty about not earning a wage – it’s what I’ve always done, so why not now? And this is why of course my Mum’s words got under my skin and tapped into the guilt and self-questioning I sometimes experience about no longer being in ‘proper’ employment, with all the attached security it can bring.