Three mothers on a New York island

Jana Astanov, Katie Cercone and Laura Weyl are multi-disciplinary artists based in New York.  They have been collaborating with Scottish artist Kirsty Whiten on a project named ‘Mother Island’.

Whiten, also a mother, says “we all responded to the idea of being the island where the baby comes home.”  She is making a series of paintings based on her collaboration with these artists, “to explore the sacred and raw animal aspects of the transformational time with our infants.”

Jana Astanov is a writer, poet and performance artist, whose fourth poetry collection, ‘Birds Of Equinox’ is out soon. Katie Cercone is a writer, artist and performer and co-leader of the queer, transnational feminist collective Go!PushPops and creative director of ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS.  Laura Weyl is a film-maker, photographer, multi-media artist and director of Visual Identity at The Box NYC and Soho.

The Demented Goddess team spoke with Jana, Katie and Laura about the realities of being mothers and artists, frequently glossed over in Western, privileged culture.

The Demented Goddess [DG]: Many fear their lives will never be same after having a child. How has having a baby affected your artistic practice?

KATIE: I was deeply naive.

To a large degree, it was my work that impassioned my decision to become a mother. Reading about ancient fertility cults and the matrifocal nature-based societies of old, motherhood was a place I could reconcile my racial guilt, spiritual confusion and low self-esteem.

In prehistory, women’s power prevailed.  Symbols of the Goddess were mutually shared across the globe. During pregnancy, I was ready for a spiritual initiation into one of the highest and most profound human experiences, because I understood that women were the first Gods and Mothers were the original shamans.

It certainly changed everything.​ My son demanded every ounce of my energy, focus, time and attention. Now I had a desperate imperative to MAKE MONEY, and little freedom to do so.

Katie Cercone, with son: “being non-binary doesn’t make you a better person…my self-identity changed.”

Speaking from personal experience, making money is simply not how feminist art gets made, not in a male-dominated capitalist society. My whole self-identity changed. I had little interest in being who I was before the baby, or making the art I was making. But fear of losing my grip completely, amidst 24/7 Mom duties, kept me slaving, despite my physical, mental and emotional health. I’ve had to sputter and die out many times until I get that it’s time to slow down and enjoy BEING a Mother, simple as that. I’m not trying to “keep up” in the same way that I was.

JANA: Although I loved how my body was changing, in pregnancy – becoming this feminine life-making supernova vessel – my energies were depleted. I canceled pretty much everything I planned for that year, and although we still managed to go to Kassel Documenta where I performed, I was sick during the entire trip.  Once my son Yanis was born, I got back my powers. When the baby was two months old, he performed with me at Smack Mellon during performance art festival Itinerant. That summer I took him along to my performances and poetry readings. My new collection of poetry ‘Birds of Equinox’ is inspired by the experience of pregnancy and motherhood.

Jana Astanov: “I’d feared I wouldn’t be able to make art…but the art started pouring out of me.”

Initially, I’d feared that I wouldn’t be able to make art, but I actually did more with less time. There is a theory that when  particles accelerate, time slows down. I would never say the transition into motherhood was easy, but I actually found myself filled with so much joy for this new life;  the art could wait, but as it turned out, the art started pouring out of me. My character Yannanda, The One Who Speaks With The Stars, would blame it on the Jupiter travelling though my first house!

LAURA:

At first it was a frantic identity crisis for me- My pregnancy was unexpected and I wasn’t in the mindset to have a child yet. When Moses was born, I was in shock.  I went on a crusade to continue as the person I was before him, to continue creating and not let it “slow me down.”

Laura & Moses: “I am giving myself room to Become who I am – this new, more mature, expanded Woman.”

As I got my bearings – around 6 months – I realized it has profoundly and positively has opened my soul, as a person and an artist, and changed me fundamentally. Right now, I am giving myself room to Become who I am as this new, more mature, expanded Woman before I dive into creating again.

Though I have done a few projects addressing motherhood, I am currently taking a pause. Instead of chasing the Muse in a frenzy to affirm that my artist self has not become lost in motherhood, my journey now is to find a calm and solid sense of personhood as a mother and let the artist deep within me nourish and replenish her soils so a new Muse can come to me.

DG: In ‘The Argonauts’, by Maggie Nelson, a queer mother has a baby with her trans lover Harry, who is transitioning from their female body into their new male form.  Maggie admits to having previously carped about “smug” pregnant women yet wants her pregnancy and family to be recognised. When U.S. airport personnel salute her as she waddles past, she smiles back, “compromised and radiant.”  How important is it to you to be recognised as a mother and by whom?

JANA: Tongue in cheek… I really want all airport staff to see me as a mother, someone who spends every minute of her life caring for another human. Since our families live in Poland and Holland, we travel a lot.  In Poland I experienced that mothers with a baby were prioritized and treated friendly, but in Holland, the young airport staff, especially, came off as simply rude.  I never let them talk down to me, I am older and they could learn something from me if they didn’t learn it in their liberal schools, or at home. There is no fucking way I would ever wait 40 minutes in line while breastfeeding my newborn. Or let some guy touch my infant without putting the gloves on. Yes, I am the mother that kicks up the fuss and makes everyone else wait. And you know what? If it weren’t for all the mothers, this world would cease to exist. So RESPECT!

KATIE:

I had ill thoughts of mothers before I was one. Before I had worked through my own mother traumas and was just a militant feminist and speed queen on the ugly streets of NYC, I thought mothers were slow, entitled and smug. If I only knew! Once I became pregnant, I felt like the world was showing up for me – weird – opening doors, giving me the seat on the subway. Cat calls became cheers of support that I felt were only and sometimes creepy and kind of special.

I enjoyed not being constantly sexually objectified anymore, but also was very keenly aware of who did what and what this said about their heteronormative values. I often need the support of strangers, holding the door open for instance when I am probably exhausted and out of my mind, haphazardly pushing a bulky stroller through the next task, no frills.

I feel like there is a lot of holier-than-thou-ness happening in the PC-Left. Being non-binary doesn’t make you a better person or even a good person. If someone else’s equally microscopic view on the world might be putting me on a pedestal because I am a “mother” in their eyes (what would they do if they knew I was a whore with tranny friends?) I have no sense of feeling compromised. Having a kid, for instance, has closed a huge rift between my father and I.  These days, I’m a mother of compassion and acceptance. I also live in a working class neighborhood full of many people of color.  Their ways of being revolutionary or “woke” are necessarily much different than mine at times.

DG: Jana and Laura have both written poems responding to your collaboration with  Kirsty Whiten: ‘Mother as an Island’ and Katie has performed as the goddess Mother Kali.  In Laura’s poem, she considers the disintegration of her old body as “the profane hole between my legs/Becomes a pristine portal to the world.” 

Part of the manuscript of Laura’s poem.

How have your sexualities been transformed by giving birth and sustaining a child?

JANA: I have found that since giving birth, my sexuality has been transformed almost alchemically into love for our child. The sexual energies that I used to have before the birth of our son have been largely replaced by a deep devotion to him.

KATIE: Like many of my generation, I used and abused my sexuality, to heal a hurt that could not be healed by hook-up culture. Loving a baby and having to really show up and BE love, in the truest sense, for my child, makes me more fortified in my magical sexual abilities and also more deeply satisfied in my sexual relationship with my male partner.

LAURA: My sexuality metamorphosed in the process of giving birth. I feel like it is a third phase of “womanhood” after puberty that I was never told about.

Until I had a child I thought of my breasts and vagina as objects of sexual gratification, mostly due to cultural conditioning and our culture’s complete lack of acknowledgement of motherhood.

Because of my limited understanding of womanhood, I tended to abuse my body and have a callous, unhealthy attitude toward sexuality.

Now I have seen my body’s power to bring a human into the world and sustain life. I have found, through that process, awe and respect for my body and sexuality.

Also my need for sexual gratification has changed – I see sex as a more powerful and intimate act than I used to, since I watched it come full cycle into birth. The sensuality of breastfeeding and nurturing a baby can substitute sex for me as well. Obviously they are very different sensations, but nurturing a baby feeds your body in a way that is surrogate to sex.

Image courtesy of Laura Weyl & Kirsty Whiten.

DG: There’s immense pressure on educated, liberal mothers nowadays to be beaming fonts of organic-food-preparing perfection.  Jana, in her poem, ‘Mother Island’ – listen via Soundcloud, below- presents mothering as a bloody, painful, magical sacrifice that should be “projected at midnight/in all the cathedrals mosques synagogues and temples”.  What do you feel to be the silenced realities of motherhood in fashionable American culture?

JANA: The World Bank released a report this month in which it examined whether adult men and women had equal rights under the law in 187 countries over the last decade.

Amongst 8 Indicators measuring how laws affect women through their working lives, one of them is called “having children” – that’s the one the US scored poorly on compared to other high-income economies – short maternity leave, and high costs of childcare compared to other, especially European countries. It really makes you wonder what American feminist movement achieved for the last 100 years.

My poem, “Mother Island”, documents the power structures of our civilization.  It’s an island made of skeletons of young women.

‘Mother Island’, Jana Astanov, partial poem manuscript: “Where the gods/took her/devoured/her bones.”

Inferior treatment of women has been the pillar of our political and economic institutions, since the 19th century.  Their bureaucratic foundations are rigid, non-adaptive and outdated.

Our lawmakers could introduce a bill for proportional representation to balance the outsized political influence men have had on our world. Instead, they perpetuate their   old boys club values – as seen during the testimonies of Dr Ford and that beer bong chugging frat boy, Kavanaugh.

The feminine and masculine are complementary, and therefore equal. Mine is ultimately an idealistic cry, considering that the research suggests we need another 200 years to reach the point of pay parity.  But with the intervention of corrective policies, this could be short-circuited to under a decade’s time. I witnessed, first hand, a complete economic, cultural and political revamp of Poland in the 1990s, no bloody revolution but a systemic transformation that took place within a few years…

KATIE: This idea that mothers should be radiant, organic-food preparing machines, it all comes back to what the media can sell us. Motherhood and babies is a huge industry and so much of it is reckless consumerism. The silenced reality of modern motherhood is that mothers need help and support too – and  time to take care of, love and nurture themselves. This is about values. How much we value mothers, and how much mothers in turn value themselves. Mothers have a huge capacity to be loving nurturers, and are called upon again and again by their families and society to do so. Class and race of course are big factors in what privileges and what struggles motherhood does or does not bring.

LAURA: Absolutely everything spiritual about motherhood is disregarded, belittled, and commercialized in American culture.  It’s beyond pathetic.

There is enormous cultural pressure for a new mother to continue her life and job as soon as she is physically able to walk (6 weeks is American maternity leave – if you are given any at all) and it completely disregards the massive change she undergoes, not to mention the energy and time she gives to her child.  Every aspect of motherhood is commercialized and made “cute” in pastel colors and catchy sing-songy phrases. None of the gravity and great sacrifice of Ego that comes with motherhood is communicated. I felt completely unprepared by the ridiculous attitude our culture has about mothering.  Formula companies push women to buy and belittle the massive benefits to both mother and child and essential bonding of breastfeeding. Doctors, blogs, and “specialists” encourage OCD behaviors so mothers feel they can control feeding times, sleeping, and playtime, as if a baby is as controllable as a device.

I find this all profoundly unhealthy and think mothers should be encouraged to follow their instincts rather than imposing control-freak doctor-prescribed regulations on a newborn. These kind of stringent regimens rob us of feeling and experiencing motherhood. Returning to work immediately gives us no time to process the immense physical and emotional changes we undergo.

DG: Do you feel there are different parenting expectations of men than women, or, in LGBTQ families, the mother who gives birth and breastfeeds compared to the mother who does not?

LAURA: I am just trying to do what feels natural and stay in tune with my instincts… mothering is not a political battlefield for me. I tend to fall into classically feminine roles because my body craves breastfeeding, babywearing, and sleeping with my baby, but I also throw him around and manhandle him like a “Dad” would.

KATIE: Much of my feminism initially was based on what I perceived as gross inequalities that existed between my mother and father in the domestic realm. My father  went to work, made money and came home expecting to not lift a finger and live like a king with his Cinderella.

In my relationship, I made it clear my partner would do half. I felt that I brought a lot of extra resentment and frustration, call it ancestral or based in my expectations from conditioning of my parents’ roles or icky past relationships – I have had a very short fuse when it comes to feeling like I am pulling too much weight in terms of the parental care, cooking and household stuff, despite how my partner washes the dishes, does the laundry and changes the diapers of our son.

Sometimes you have to check yourself and understand where and what your trigger points are and how you might be making a situation worse, even if you have a valid point and you’re doing it for a good cause, i.e. equality of the sexes. I am sure all this plays out in families whatever the gender and sexual orientation of the parents on the spectrum. I identify as queer and many perceive in my partner and I a progressive nonbinary performance of gender (yes, gender is a performance!) As a mixed race couple, we also play out various other dynamics and the mainstream white feminism many of us grew up with simply doesn’t equate.

Katie Cercone: Instagram @0r__nah_spiriturlgangsta, Katiecercone.com

Jana Astanov: Twitter @Jana_Astanov Twitter @JanaAstanov Facebook JanaAstanov

Laura Weyl: @metametagasm, www.metagasm.org

Kirsty Whiten: www.kirstywhiten.com

If you’re in London, you can see Laura Weyl’s murals in Soho, in Walkers Court and Bourchier St.

 

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