April 2016 / Helen Sargeant, UK

ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the April column we are pleased to feature Helen Sargeant, an interdisciplinary artist and mother of two sons aged 7 and 14. Sargeant works from home collaborating on projects with her family and from her studio in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. In her artistic work she is concerned with disrupting and challenging idealized representations of the maternal and the idea of the 'good mother', her photographs recording the ever shifting, transitory moments that she shares with her family. This year Sargeant completed M(other) Stories, a year long journal (2015-2016), comprising of autobiographical writing, juxtaposed with photographs taken at home and during the school runs by using her smart phone camera. Over the course of a year, she published 332 posts documenting the work and challenges required of a woman balancing her roles and responsibilities as mother and artist. M(other) Stories was presented at The Motherhood & Creative Practices Conference, London South Bank University,  2015. Sargeants's work was exhibited at the Project AfterBirth (White Moose Gallery, UK) and she was one of the collaborators on The Egg The Womb The Head & The Moon -project and accompanying exhibition. Most recently her work was shown at the Artist as Mother as Artist exhibition (Lace Market Gallery, Nottingham, 2016.) Her column forms a part of a new and ongoing investigation going back in time to when she became a mother and was dealing with post-natal depression.


Part One: A Silent Earthquake


"A mother needs to know herself, to own up to the diverse, contradictory, often overwhelming feelings evoked by motherhood. It doesn't matter whether she stays at home, goes out to work, is partnered or single. Only a mother who can face her own inner turbulence can make sense of her child's. It's only by accepting that at times you are a bad mother, that you can ever be a good mother." [1]


I am running against the tide of people. Playing out on the millennium, the embankment, South London, the year 2000. All is hopeful. Me and my friend avoid the crush by scaling a metal fence, then we just smile and watch the revellers pass.

Naoise is at home unwell. The interruption of illness has lasted for two weeks. I work in-between the nursing. Trapped by the walls of the house, I stare at the screen and interact with friends via social media to remain sane. Endless TV cuddles, rainbows, bubbles popping, talking shallots, bowls of porridge. Suffocating love and care and attention. Wishing you well. Holding in the frustration as you clamp your mouth shut and for extra protection place your hand over your face to refuse the antibiotic syringe. The yellow school bus passes, cars whoosh, carrying people to work. We are stuck. Stuck in home space.

Peeing, balancing on the edge of a bath. A blue line creeping across a circular window of plastic. A sharp straight positive line. Unexpected... Unplanned. I drag in yellow smoke. I am alone. Am I alone? You are multiplying. I am not one. I am one and another. You are not Un. You are my compass, my north, my south, my east, my west. I feel sick.


“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of-to think ; well, not even to think. To be silent, to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated and one shrunk with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something visible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright , it was thus that she felt herself, and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strongest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless….Beneath it all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed to her limitless” [2] 


Feet on the stairs, no more peaceful, alone. I pour chocolate stars in a bowl and Naoise eats them all up. I think he is better. He talks to me from the sofa, I try to write. He is watching horseshoe crabs reproducing. “They have survived for over.….billion years.”

The top floor flat Tuffnell Park, drinking lucazade. Blood tests for sugar levels from the comfort of my sofa. Notes. More notes. Temporary housing. Temporary care. I will never meet the same midwife, always strangers going through the motions. So many babies being born in this city. Me and my bump, just another number.

Bus rides to and from the pussy cat hospital. Hazy crazy scans of your little body emerging from within. Belly growing, waste disappearing. I feel you move. Fleeting. Once you were a fiction, now you move, you are real. Getting stronger, emerging from the dark.

Filling in application forms, to make my situation secure trying to be responsible. I can no longer squeeze into my boyfriends jeans. Mum buys me one set of pregnancy clothes. All black, and loose to disguise my bump at the job interview. All black, as if marching to my own funeral. 

Move to Kings Cross.

Precariously pregnant, front heavy, standing on a chair scrubbing off grease from the surface of kitchen cupboards with vengeance. White washing walls, licking clean the loo, staring blank out of windows. 

Making up a tiny bed, smiling with satisfaction, pinning red labels onto the wall above our bed, mummy above my place daddy above his. 

Packing a weekend bag with tiny clothes, maternity pads and nappies. I forget the energy bars and anything else important.

Watching wheetabix become heavy pillows of milk. Eating bowl after bowl after bowl.. 

Soaking in the bath, plug of mucous dislodged.

Crawling on hands and knees, breathing and breathing. You counting time with an anxious face and pleading me to go to the hospital "NOW!"

Leaving the flat, navigating the open corridor and cold stairwell, each step difficult, clinging onto your arm and my other hand pressed against the grey of the wall. You help me into the back of the taxi, I slump onto the seat, the car navigates the thick of the traffic, I grimace through the pain and nod when asked if I am alright.


  “In her face was the same change from earthly to unearthly that appears in the faces of the dead; but there it is a farewell, here it was a meeting.”[3]

I am pushing, pushing the pram. All is slow, slow, slow. The pram holds me up. Your body is light, the wind sweeps the wheels along and the pram becomes boat adrift at sea. My head hurts with sleep deprivation, my breasts ooze milk. I bleed. One visit from the health visitor. She asks if I am a single mother. I feel like one. Alone. Alone behind the metal door. Me and you, hours alone. 

I fill the day listening to music from the sofa, as you suck on my breasts. Left, right, left, right.  Sleep, wake, nurse, clean, cook, cuddle, dress, change nappies, apply cream, wash clothes, wash baby. Hugging you. Holding you whilst picking up dirty clothes with my feet. Back aches. Finding space to wash me. Loosing me. Loosing I. Becoming ‘We’. 

Slush. Slush puppy time. Days slipping. Awake around the clock.


Carrying you snug against my chest along the Caledonian Road, past The Bun in the Oven Bakery, and young mums with their children sucking up strawberry milk shakes in the Dallas Burger Bar. Walking over blobs of chewing gum stuck hard as cement against pavement grid. The black skeleton of a burnt out car.

Buying a bucket to clean the floor and a large cushion to help prop me up on the sofa and in bed, so I can feed you in comfort. There is a silent earthquake as the plates on your soft head meet.

I arrange neat rows of miniature washing along the edge of the radiator to dry. A motorbike revs its engine and zooms up onto the grass verge in front of the block of flats. I sip strong coffee, then boil the kettle again.


I hang out in empty tarmac playgrounds covered in broken glass, at libraries and playgroups and parks. I push you around supermarkets, and attach plastic bags of shopping onto pram handles, too much weight and the pram will fall back causing you to slip out or bang your head. Everything in balance but I wobble.

At the Salvation Army charity shop I buy an elastic labyrinth wooden ball of fun and a pair of happy yellow daisy patterned curtains. Building a home with brown carpet tiles that form a higgle piggle mosaic across the hard concrete. You lie on your back and your big eyes look up at the movement made by fat stuffed bumblebee, ball, bell and hanging mirror above your head.

Pushing the pram along the Regents Canal to the little wildlife garden behind Kings Cross Station, idly sitting on a bench, pointing out to you, my baby, the blue flash of the dragon flies wing. A quiet conversation with eyes and gestures and coos and oohs and ahhhhhhhs and ‘look over there's’. Horrified seeing dinner plate sized terrapins snatch baby ducks for lunch from the murky brown waters. The trains rattle in and out of the station. Grey bogies form in our nostrils.

At baby massage, slippery with olive oil against gym mat, you roll and turn over. I manage a brief conversation with the other mother whose son is doing the same, she has two older children, he is her youngest, she has a kind, knowing smile.

At home I watch the twin towers collapsing on TV... What is happening? 

I am collapsing into We.


Now that you can sit up straight with back bone strong as steel, I pack lunches and we have little picnics on the rainbow rug under the cherry blossom tree in the gardens at Thornhill Square and in the early afternoon we go to the library for story time.

I stare into the middle distance and then stare some more. I smile and smile at your beautiful face, but I am terribly sad.


“My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence, the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings towards these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair too at my own fate, which is to serve a function for which I am not fitted. And I am weak, sometimes from held in rage. There are times when I feel that only death will free us from one another, when I envy the barren woman who has the luxury of her regrets but lives the life of privacy and freedom.. And yet at other times I am melted by their helplessness, charming and yet irresistible beauty- their ability to go on loving and trusting- their staunchness and decency and unselfconsciousness. I love them. But its the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie” [4]



*The above text is taken from my new and ongoing investigation going back in time to when I became a mother and was dealing with post-natal depression.
                                                                                                                                -Helen Sargeant


[1]   Rozika Parker, Deep maternal alienation, Article by Melissa Benn, The     Guardian, 28/10/2006

[2]    Virigina Woolf , To the Lighthouse: The Window, Chapter 11 

[3]  Tolstoy, Leo, graf, 1828-1910 (1828-1910) Pevear, Richard, 1943- (1943-) (trans.) Volokhonsky, Larissa (fl. 1990-) (trans.) Bayley, John, 1925- (1925-) (introd.) Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: With a preface by John Bayley (Penguin Classics), London , Penguin 2003: Page 717, Chapter 16

[4]   Rich Adrienne, Of Woman Born, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1976, Anger & Tenderness: Entry from my journal November 1960.





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