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Katherine Akey - IN motherhood

IN motherhood by Katherine Akey

“Give yourself four months,” my friends told me. Give yourself at least the first four months once the baby arrives to do nothing, to expect nothing of yourself, besides survival. Feed the baby, sleep, recover. By the end of the fourth month it will start to feel better. You’ll find a way to sneak your work back into your week, bit by bit.

As month four approached, I was feeling anxious about how to get back into my art practice. I had to go back to work when she was five weeks old, leaving her at home with a nanny on the days that I had to go to the university to teach. Honestly, I’m lucky that I only had two classes that semester, as it meant I could be home with her the rest of the week, sneaking in emails on my phone while she slept on my chest.

At three months she had begun attending a daycare four days a week. I was able to teach and have time to myself besides -- sometimes I napped, sometimes I did household chores. As February crawled along I told myself I had to start small, but I had to start. I needed to get back into my work. I had a solo exhibition scheduled to be installed at two different galleries, and much of the work was half finished.

But holding yourself accountable is hard in a vacuum, and though there were parental support groups in my city, DC isn’t exactly known for being an arts capitol. I couldn’t find another young, new parent to empathize with me and support me. So, I did what any new parent millennial would do -- I googled it.

I immediately found Lenka Clayton’s Artist Residency in Motherhood, which per the website, is

“A self-directed, open-source artist residency to empower and inspire artists who are also mothers. You don’t have to apply. It doesn't cost anything, it's fully customisable, and you can be in residence for as long as you choose. You don't even have to travel, the residency takes place entirely inside your own home and everyday life. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is the reframing of parenthood as a valuable site for creative practice, rather than an obstruction to be overcome.”

I was overjoyed. It was perfect. I frantically downloaded her planning tool and invitation, started laying out a sketch of what I hoped to achieve during the 2020-2021 year as an artist and mother, setting goals and building out a plan for accountability. I looped in my best friend to help me stick to my plan. I printed it all out. I put it on my resume. I committed. And in early March, with my five month old daughter asleep in the crib across the room from me, I sat down at my studio desk and started.

A week later, we pulled her out of daycare. The university cancelled in-person classes. We didn’t leave the house, save for walks around our block, for months.

I had thought splitting my studio with my daughter’s nursery was a great idea. I got rid of a couch, moved my flat file against the same wall as my desk, a voila -- room for both of us. She slept in a bassinet in our room for the first six months anyways, and was (supposed to be) at daycare most days. I could access the studio when I needed to, make my mess, tidy it up, and it wouldn’t be an issue. But then she outgrew her bassinet -- and the world shut us in -- in the same week. Suddenly, my studio, my flat file and supplies, my desk and workspace, were inaccessible during her nap times.

Spoiler: it turns out no matter how much you think otherwise, you really can’t get much work done while an infant is awake. Even in the early weeks of March and April when she couldn’t yet sit up on her own and was effectively a sweet little lump, she knew when you weren’t paying attention. As the spring turned to summer and she started to sit up, then spin around, and scoot, as she learned to ask for a book to be read and to whine when she couldn’t have something that I was holding -- it became impossible. I would furtively sew four or five stitches and then have to put my piece down and turn to her. During naps, I would sit in the floor of my bedroom and power through sewing, struggling to keep all my applique pieces organized outside of my studio and in the midst of a bedroom I shared with my husband. I had trouble sleeping at night thinking of all the manual labor I had to do before my first show installed in July, tossing and turning with visions of poorly finished pieces, reimagining my to-do list, and then hearing her cry out in the night for me. I felt like I was failing my residency in motherhood completely. My work wasn’t getting done, and I was resenting my daughter for keeping me from it.

Months passed and the pandemic didn’t get better. In fact, at least in America, it has continued to get worse and worse. My shows got rescheduled and suddenly the pressure to execute on a deadline evaporated. I looked at the work I wanted to do and I looked at my daughter, and, reconsidering the residency in motherhood, decided to reframe my approach. I decided to embrace motherhood and motherhood alone for a few months.

My days became meditative. My daughter and I synced up our schedules -- meals and snacks aligned, we went for three or even four walks a day, and during her naps I lay in my bed and read, cross stitched, or fell asleep watching TV -- all things I had forgone since she was born. I relinquished the pressure of working. I am in a privileged position to be able to do that, at least over the summer, so I leaned into it. The same books over and over, the same songs. The same walks two or three times a day, looping around our immediate neighborhood.

It was a very peaceful two months. I found a way to accept the restrictions of sheltering in place, to accept the demands of my daughter, and to relinquish everything else. But, it couldn’t last forever, and now I find myself on the precipice of a new phase of this pandemic experience. We found out my husband needs to relocate across the continental US to San Francisco for his work. Suddenly we were having excited visions of hikes in the redwoods, temperate afternoons spent out in parks overlooking the city, bike rides to the ocean. The move is coinciding with the beginning of my fall semester, and though I am teaching a light load this fall it felt like the dam broke -- reality slammed back in on me and utterly annihilated the quiet, meditative, little world I had hidden in for most of the summer.

So I find myself on the precipice of a massive change: a coast to coast move to a city and a state I do not know and work beginning for me again and still with no childcare to speak of. But I must admit, the silver lining in all the upheaval is this: we will, eventually, get to hike the redwoods, sit in the parks, and bike to the ocean. This will not, despite how it feels, last forever.


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