Create: The Art of Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond

By Fan Sissoko

A health visitor came to visit a few days after my daughter’s birth. She asked how the birth was. I stayed silent for a couple of minutes unable to answer. What was I to say? Fine? Fantastic? Grand? She only expected a one-word answer: ‘normal’ would have pleased her. But those words don’t come close to describing the textured, multi-layered, hormone-driven web of emotions and sensations that make up the experience of giving birth.

So in the couple of months after the birth, with my daughter asleep on my chest, I knitted a blanket that tells this story through personal data.

“Labour” is a hand-knitted data visualisation. Each square represents one of the 15 hours between my waters breaking and my daughter being born. Different colours, patterns and textures indicate where I was, what emotions I went through, the intensity of the contractions and other sensations, the support I received, and which hormones likely dominated the situation. The blanket is accompanied by a 5mn audio soundscape.

“Labour”, hand-knitted data visualisation

The act of knitting evokes waiting, expectation and hours of hard work. Thus, it becomes an accurate reflection of pre-birth and labour. During the few days preceding and following her birth, all I wanted was to crawl into bed and hide from the outside world. It is likely that my body was craving melatonin, a hormone released in dark, calm and safe situations. Melatonin boosts the production of the birth hormone, oxytocin, which in turns helps to release endorphins, our bodies’ natural pain relief. The blanket represents the place of safety I was craving during that time.

The blanket was shown as part of Create: The Art of Pregnancy, Birth & Beyond, in the Science Gallery in Dublin. Organised by HRB Mother and Baby Clinical Trials Network, the exhibition brought together work from Irish and international artists dealing with topics around pregnancy.

The launch was moving. It is rare to see such honest and diverse representations of that moment in life. A few pieces particularly stuck with me. The Other Side, by Emma Sheridan, is an impressive self-portrait highlighting perinatal mental health issues. A Faint Heart, by Nollaig Crombie, is a slider puzzle representing the hope, waiting and grief of an unsuccessful IVF cycle. Everyday Breastfeeding, by Fiona Carey, is a hanging curtain of delicate drawings of real breastfeeding mothers – they show women’s bodies at work in the chaos of everyday life.

The show felt like a reminder of all the untold stories that our bodies carry.


Fan Sissoko is a social designer and researcher based in London. She works with charities and the public sector to improve health and care systems. She uses participatory storytelling as well as food to encourage empathy and community connections.

To find out more about Fan’s work, see:

Rethinking Reproduction: Reproductive Technologies Reading Group at Market Gallery

By Catalina Barroso-Luque

How do notions regarding gender, motherhood and reproduction emerge from and within new scientific technologies? How does language re-produce and consume these different bodies?

 Reproductive Technologies is a six-month reading group intended as a prolonged conversation towards a sustained event in July 2018. It is being hosted by Market Gallery, an artist-run space in Glasgow’s East End. The project’s participants include Market Gallery’s programming committee, local residents, Scottish-based artists and researchers, and young mothers. The selected texts respond to reproduction in a variety of ways, and explore the position of bodies in systems of production and reproduction.

Getting started with Paul Preciado’s ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ and Antonio Regalado’s ‘A New Way to Reproduce’

The first reading group session sought to construct a platform from which to open up a conversation about the complex relationship between changes in textual bodies; changes in the representation of bodies in literary texts, and technological changes in the biological construction of human bodies. During this session, the group read ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ by Paul B. Preciado, and ‘A New Way to Reproduce’ by Antonio Regalado. Preciado’s text served as an introduction to the ways in which discourse, language and biotechnology are caught up with the engineering, production, and policing of different bodies.

‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ focuses on how, within sexual, social, and cultural forms of reproduction, we confront the most critical dimensions of power. To explain the relationship between power and technologies as they are utilized by political regimes to regulate the collective ways of capturing, distributing and reproducing life, Preciado describes three historical types of power technologies. First, there is the necropatriarchal power regime, under which only the male body is a fully sovereign body. This is followed by modernity’s heterosexual-colonial regime, during which political and (supposedly) anatomical categories of race and sexual difference were developed, regulated and employed in such a way as to easily transplant social constructions, such as the nuclear family, which function as forms of cultural colonization, and support the development of the the labor force of industrialised nation-states. The third regime is the pharmacopornographic regime, defined by the mapping and manipulation of genomes; the invention of the concept of gender; the use of hormones and surgery to alter the body; and the increasing instances of mass destruction. At the brink of possible mass extinction, Preciado asks for an evaluation of the evolution of linguistic codes of social and cultural reproduction as key elements to consider in any investigation of the uses of power. He advocates learning as the cultural analogue of genetic recombination and as a way of collectively mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change.

To contextualize ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group read ‘A New Way to Reproduce’, which summarizes recent advancements in biotechnology and the conceptual realm in which they operate. One of the recent biological developments Regalodo describes is the advancement made towards the production of artificial gametes and reprogramming of iPS cells into ovules.

Regalado recounts Reijo Pera’s personal interest in utilizing genetically identical stem cells to solve infertility, having herself become infertile as a result of ovarian cancer. However, Regalado fails to probe deeply into the complex possible implications of such developments. These technologies have led to a heated debate regarding the permissibility of editing human embryos to eliminate serious disease, versus the potential co-option of such technology by bio-medical investment firms.

Read alongside ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group found Regalado’s article highly problematic – especially when he intervenes in the description of scientific research with personal information about particular individuals, with the aim of engaging the reader through empathy. Regalado’s position, language, personal anecdotes, and continuous anthropomorphisation and impartition of subjectivity onto individual bodily components exemplify how traditional (often patriarchal) cultural codes and Western ideals seep into scientific agendas and come to shape research strategies. This is exemplified in Pera’s comment on natural reproduction, with its implicit disregard for non-heterosexual couples: “I might be naïve, but I think the way to have a healthy child is still two people get together and you have wine and dinner.”

The group’s discussion centred particularly on the relationship between gender and reproduction, exploring how new technologies both challenge and discursively produce the natural facts of and assumptions about sex and human reproduction. Here, one participant generously shared her research into the history of gender deconstruction and the disciplining of the female body, as explored through her position and experience as an artist and mother. Another participant recounted how early test trials of the pill in Latin America left many women in her family infertile, prompting her to look into the many adverse effects of hormonal contraception. Case studies in ‘A New Way to Reproduce’, when correlated with the reading group participant’s own histories, raised ethical questions regarding the uses and potential effects of new reproductive technologies, and how power is exercised to produce clashing realities.

Reading Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’

The fraught relationship between gender, reproduction, agency, and family bonds was further discussed during the group’s second meeting. In this session, the group read ‘Bloodchild’, a short story by Octavia Butler about a man who becomes pregnant with an alien, insect-like race. Set on an unknown planet to which humans have emigrated, the story follows Gan (an adolescent human), his family, and extended ties with Gatoi, a member of the ruling alien group. Playing on themes of surrogacy, infertility and gendered identity, Gatoi’s alien species cannot reproduce on their own, so they implant their eggs into male humans, making them into living incubators – a service mankind must provide in order to be able to inhabit the foreign planet. Being close friends with Gan’s mother, Gatoi has requested that Gan become a carrier for eggs. At first, Gan is content with his role as a carrier. However, after watching another man go into labour, he comes to question his own willingness to serve as a carrier.

Butler’s harrowingly violent description of labour resonated greatly with one participant’s overtly carnal experience of giving birth. Comparing such vivid and simultaneously ambiguous imagery with filmic representations, the group turned to sci-fi Hollywood films that feature themes of pregnancy, parasitic infection and technological replication. The group exchanged views about the placement of the body in technology within films such as Alien and The Matrix, looking into how these forms of mass media reproduce, shape and thrive on shared collective fantasies based on a primal fear of the foetus as parasite. Having read ‘A New Way to Reproduce’ and ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group addressed the conceptual constraints and assumptions about the maternal body that underlie biological theory and that are shared within both Hollywood imagery and a long philosophical tradition that has relegated the mother to the passive agent.

One of the group’s participants, with a background in film studies, noted that Hollywood’s view of pregnancy as a pathologized phenomenon seems to be tied up with mass fears of contamination on personal and national levels, as evidenced during the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and by the current growing xenophobic tensions in Europe and North America. The parasite is presented as a foreign presence that infects its host, thus breaking away from the boundaries of both the human individual and the social body, and problematizing notions of bodily unity, group identity and sovereignty.

Here, the group felt that the idea of community becomes quite important, since the first community – the family – is at stake. The traditional nuclear family unit is one structured through the father’s ownership over the children, ensuring that lineage, property and genetic continuity are maintained. In Butler’s story, this is played out through Gatoi’s relationship with Gan’s family, within which she is positioned simultaneously as a visiting ruling official, a friend and a family member. As Gan describes, “T’Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge of the preserve” (Butler, p.3). “She parcelled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people.” (p.5). Complicating things further, Gatoi’s egg had once been implanted into Gan’s late father’s body, making her and Gan’s relationship appear both incestuous and reminiscent of customs where marrying within one’s kin allows for property to be kept within the same social group.

The ambiguity over ‘belonging’ and ‘belonging to’ that is played out in the relationship between Gan’s family and Gatoi places notions of family bonds in a murky in-between space of property, affinity, ‘love’ and social construction. Such a position questions Gan’s degree of agency within his prescribed family role and his choice to become a carrier. The group felt that Gan’s resolution to be impregnated ‘out of love’ comes to mirror socio-cultural models, which engender a naturalized view of romantic relationships whose ultimate shared motivation is that of having children. Such models thwart the self-determining nature of ‘choosing’, making the decision to procreate a of consolidating romantic, family and social bonds.

Positioning kinship, and the bodies involved within it, within the shared scope of property and genetic resemblance triggered a conversation regarding the transposition of free-market economics onto scientific agendas, which regulate and reconfigure the human body. For example, Hardy Kagimoto, CEO of Healios a Japanese biotech company, declared to Regalado: “if eggs could be made from human iPS cells, the supply would potentially be limitless, perhaps leading to what is sometimes called ‘embryo farming’.” Much like the humans living in the preserve in Bloodchild, Kagimoto’s statement depicts the biological body as a territory to be colonized, owned, sold and policed. More alarmingly, rendering biotechnology into a service analogous to chicken farming or personalized online shopping platforms, conflates the body into a disposable material and malleable code homologous to low resolution images and mass-produced consumer products.

Within this dizzying topology of interconnective and conflicting forces, which we are all entangled in, the group then asked: how can we find possible ways of rethinking reproduction as a complex, multilayered and heterogeneous phenomenon, which operates between and across bodies, sexes and genetic material? In his article, Preciado suggests, “Learning, a process that could be considered the cultural analogue of genetic recombination, is our individual and collective way of mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change.” With this aim in mind, Reproductive Technologies will next be looking at the way in which power is exercised in liberal democracies through biopolitical forms of governmentality, reading as a cohort ‘Organs Without Bodies’ by Rosi Braidotti.


Braidotti, Rosi, ‘Organs Without Bodies’ in Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2011),  pp. 167–188.

Butler, Octavia, ‘Bloodchild’, in Bloodchild And Other Stories (Seven Stories press, 2005), pp. 1–32.

Preciado, Paul B., ‘BAROQUE TECHNOPATRIARCHY: REPRODUCTION’,  Artforum International, 1 Jan. 2018,

Regalado, Antonio, ‘Synthetic Human Reproduction Could Be a Whole New Way to Make Babies’, MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 29 Jan. 2017,


Catalina Barroso-Luque is a Mexican artist and curator. Her practice revolves around psychology and how distinct technologies of language production suggest different models of subjectivity and initiate new experiences of embodiment. Catalina holds an MFA from the Glasgow School of Art and Fine Arts BA from Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design. She was the 2016 Graduate Fellow at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, and the 2013 Artist Residence at Artspace New Haven (CT. USA). Recent artistic projects include: The Persistence of Type, Glasgow International 2018;, Chalton Gallery (London, 2018); Salón ACME (Mexico City, 2018); Dry Rotting Bodies, Civic Room (Glasgow, 2017); A Loving Aneurysm, Glasgow Woman’s Library (Glasgow, 2017); Fictional Matters, Centre for Contemporary Art (Glasgow, UK. 2016). Catalina is currently Programme Assistant for the Edinburgh Art Festival and a member of Market Gallery’s Programming Committee where she leads the Reproductive Technologies reading group.

‘A mother and a prisoner’: Maternal experiences of incarceration

By Rachel Bennett

When we think of the Victorian prison, we often conjure up images of castle-like fortresses wherein strict discipline and harsh conditions prevailed for the people behind their high walls. The locking and unlocking of cells punctuated the daily lives of prisoners and every aspect of their routines was governed by a set of rules and regulations intended to uphold the strictest discipline. My research explores what it was like to be pregnant, to have a baby and to be a mother in this carceral space. Focusing upon the period between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century, it questions how the presence of pregnant women and new mothers and their babies were not only incorporated spatially into the prison but also the broader legal, medical, practical, social and ideological issues and debates that surrounded the incarceration of mothers.

There is a long and broad history of female criminality being associated with damage inflicted on future generations. Victorian periodicals and contemporary literature was saturated with tales of fallen women, while children were viewed as the collateral damage of their mother’s moral and/or criminal degradation. My research questions where we place mothers in prison into this narrative and, crucially, whether this broader context impacted upon the treatment of mothers and their children in the prison setting.

Mothers and their children in the exercise yard at Tothill Fields prison, c. late nineteenth century. Image: Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London (London: 1862).

When they entered the prison, women would undergo a brief, and often very perfunctory, examination by the medical officer. This examination would highlight any medical conditions – including pregnancy – that would then necessitate differential treatment. Physical spaces were incorporated into this penal environment, such as lying-in wards in prison hospitals for childbirth and prison nurseries. In addition, consideration was given to aspects of the prison routine, such as suitable labour tasks, and to the accommodation and diet afforded to pregnant women. Despite these practical, spatial and structural provisions for pregnant women and mothers, my research explores the more complex picture surrounding the kinds of support and opportunities available to women in their roles as mothers in prison, and in the emotional and physical bonds that they formed with their children.

The ‘Convict Nursery’ at Brixton prison, c. mid-nineteenth century. Image: Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London (London: 1862).

In prisons in this period, prisoners and staff inhabited close physical quarters, sharing and moving around in small, constricted spaces. At the same time, however, there was a physical and emotional detachment due to prison rules. For mothers, this environment could stifle individual choice and agency during the perinatal period. However, the prison nursery offered something of a refuge to women and an opportunity to bond with their child in an environment that, although still heavily regulated, allowed a greater degree of physical and verbal communication and perhaps even offered new mothers the chance to be part of a community. During a visit to Brixton female prison in 1862, social reformers Henry Mayhew and John Binny remarked that “there is indeed no place in which there is so much toleration and true wisdom, if not goodness, to be learnt as in the convict nursery at Brixton.” For mothers in prison, the nursery offered them some opportunity to feed and care for their children. They were also expected to bathe their child and make them clothes.

A class in ‘mothercraft’ being taught in Birmingham prison in 1952. Image: The National Archives MH55/1572.

Across this period there were some voices that acknowledged that a prison sentence was potentially an opportunity to educate women on the values of motherhood and domesticity. For instance, in the nineteenth century, middle-class Lady Visitors and other prison officials attempted to reclaim these women by offering a moral example of ideal femininity. However, the early twentieth century witnessed a shift towards more instructional classes in the care of babies and the mid-twentieth century saw the introduction of classes in ‘mothercraft’. The courses differed slightly in composition in different prisons but there was a notable sharing of expertise between prison officials, organisations such as the N.S.P.C.C and the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS), the Ministry of Health, local medical authorities and maternity and child welfare services. The courses were taught by a variety of people including health visitors and medical professionals and covered a range of topics such as bathing a baby; clothing and bedding requirements; feeding young children; accidents in the home; simple first aid and the importance of cleanliness and hygiene. In addition, these courses offered more advanced medical advice and education about the stages of pregnancy, foetal development, childbirth, breastfeeding and early child development. These courses can perhaps be viewed as offering a historical legacy for providing mothers in prison with “the same opportunities and support to nurture and bond with their baby as women in the community”, for which contemporary organisations such as Birth Companions, who have supported pregnant women and women with babies in prison since 1996, have recently been calling.

While my research primarily focuses upon the period between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century, it seeks to use the historic narrative to reflect upon current issues surrounding motherhood in prison. As part of a series of public engagement activities working with arts organisations and other groups, the key historic themes identified in the research have been used to engage with the ongoing question of how best to support and nurture maternal relationships behind bars, and, crucially, to allow women in prison to also be mothers.


Dr. Rachel Bennett is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick on the Wellcome funded ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000’ project. Her research interests include medical care, maternity and childbirth practices in women’s prisons since the mid-nineteenth century. Email:

For more on the history of health in prisons, please visit or follow us @HistPrisnHealth.

A Pregnant Archive Symposium: Tracing Histories of Pregnancy (and Unpregnancy) In the Archives

By Leonie Shanks

In Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s nineteenth-century poem ‘To a Little Invisible Being Who Is Expected Soon to Become Visible’, the narrator describes the titular unborn child as a ‘germ of new life’ and expresses hopes that the ‘little captive’ will soon be ‘free […] from thy living tomb.’ Throughout the poem, words and images that evoke the experience of ‘expecting’, ‘waiting’ and ‘lingering’ contribute to an atmosphere of excited, and yet anxious, anticipation. The mother of the child is described as one who ‘longs to fold to her maternal breast/ Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’, and to be able ‘to see and to salute the stranger guest.’ The poem suggests that the ‘invisible being’ is an unknowable enigma to the anxious mother; long after biological conception, the foetus remains impossible to ‘conceive’ in imaginative terms.

At ‘The Pregnant Archive: Materialising Conception to Birth’, a two-day symposium and collaborative workshop that was held at Birkbeck on the 30th November – 1st December 2017, the tensions that run throughout Barbauld’s poem – between visibility and invisibility; life and death; excitement and anxiety; reality and imagination; intimacy and strangeness – were recurrent themes in discussions about the physical, emotional and psychic experience of conception, pregnancy and birth. Organised by Dr. Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University and Dr. Isabel Davis at Birkbeck, ‘The Pregnant Archive’ symposium sought to explore, uncover and better understand the intimate, private and ephemeral experiences of conception, pregnancy and birth, and the ways in which these experiences have been both shaped and obscured by partial medical knowledge and changing social norms.

Conceiving Histories Exhibition in the Peltz Gallery

Part of a wider portfolio of activities that are currently being organised by the Conceiving Histories project, the symposium ran alongside the Conceiving Histories exhibition, which was hosted in Birkbeck’s Peltz Gallery from 8th November – 13th December. It was therefore appropriate that the first day of the symposium should include an introduction to the exhibition by Anna Burel, the artist responsible for creating the artworks that were showcased in the gallery in collaboration with literary historian Dr. Isabel Davis.

Anna Burel, Queen Mary I Pregnant With Herself

Although arranged in a relatively small exhibition space, Burel’s artworks and sculptural forms powerfully captured the sense of surrealism and strangeness that can attend the multifarious experiences and imaginations of maternity. Burel and Davis are particularly engaged in unearthing stories and developing case studies that relate to the notion of ‘unpregnancy’. One case study, for instance, concerns the hysterical pregnancies of Queen Mary I, who is said to have felt a ‘quickening’ in her womb after being greeted by the Cardinal Reginald Pole in 1554 with the words ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’, and falsely believed that she was pregnant. The announcement of her pregnancy was greeted with widespread fanfare, and extensive preparations were made for the birth – but no baby ever arrived. Another case study looks at the odd, fleeting and widely satirized eighteenth-century fashion for false padded stomachs that imitated pregnancy.

Bringing these case studies to life through a diverse range of visual and sculptural forms, the Conceiving Histories exhibition included an image of Queen Mary I pregnant with herself, curled in a foetal position within a dark womb. In another corner of the space, a set of disembodied, differently-sized wombs dangled and spun from the ceiling like semi-deflated balloons – poignant visual symbols of the affective experiences of disappointment, loss, yearning and grief associated with the difficulty of conceiving, or inability to do so.

Anna Burel, Conceiving Histories Exhibition, Peltz Gallery 2017

A Pregnant Archive Symposium – Day One

The haunting, multilayered, ambiguous and at times comedic artistic creations that populated the Conceiving Histories exhibition, then, provided a fitting counterpart to the Pregnant Archive Symposium, which brought together an extraordinary range of perspectives and expertise to examine the archival materials, spaces and traces that have defined and been left behind by maternity.

On Day One, the Symposium began with a session on the theme of Questions of Conception. Shrikant Botre, from the University of Warwick, explored the role of early twentieth century Marathi Hindu sex-educators in shaping Marathi modernity in western India, and the various ways in which they helped to redefine the act of sexual intercourse in the ‘modern’ light of sexual science. Dr. Sarah Read, from Loughbourough University, analysed manuscript poems in order to gain insight into ways in which women living in the highly religious society of early modern England – in which abortion was strictly prohibited – nevertheless were able to gain access to medicinal recipes that could bring about the termination of unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, from the University of Cambridge, was the last speaker of panel one, giving a paper on ‘Lot 37’, the original prototype of ‘Predictor’, which was the world’s first home pregnancy test. While principally arguing that the powerfully transformative processes of commercialisation and direct-to-consumer marketing should be more central to histories of medicalization, legislative reform and cultural change, his paper also told the little-known story of Lot 37’s inventor Margaret Crane, declared dead by Wikipedia until she updated the page to state that she was alive and well, and living and working as a graphic designer in New Jersey.

One of the strengths of the Symposium was undoubtedly the way in which academic explorations of conception and pregnancy were interleaved with artistic responses to the same themes. The second session of day one featured excellent presentations from artists Helen Sergeant, Nikki Davidson-Bowman and Sreyashi Tinni Bhattacharyya, who each reiterated the important topics and questions that were already emerging, whether through Sargeant’s work on representations of the pregnant body and pregnancy testing, or though Davidson-Bowman’s project that looks at the kinds of archival absences and silences that invite storytelling and the recuperation of marginalised female experiences.

The final panel of the day moved from conception to birth, with a panel on the subject of Birth Spaces. Hermione Wiltshire, an artist and lecturer at the Royal College of Art, gave a richly visually illustrated talk to explore the question of whether images of the baby’s head crowing in labour – principally seen only by midwives – can be used to ascertain whether perspective itself is a gendered system of representation. Dr. Sarah Fox drew upon eighteenth-century midwifery manuals, letters and diaries, court records and collections of folklore to examine the sensory and material environment in which women gave birth, especially using these archival materials to explore the temporary practical, emotional and medicinal transformations that took place within the domestic space before, during and after birth.

Next up was Dr. Edwina Attlee, who used Yvonne Verdier’s 1970 oral history of the French village of Minot to investigate the figure of the ‘woman-who-helps’ during labour. She described the shift away from labour as a communal, predominantly female event to the circumscribed space of the clinic, and looks at the ways in which the ‘woman-who-helps’ survives and negotiates this shift into a more medicalised and disempowering clinical setting. Finally, Dr. Cathy McClive, from Florida State University, presented a fascinating paper on her study of the papers of Marie Magdalene Grand, a self-styled apothecary who operated in France in the eighteenth century and was eventually arrested for the illegal practice of medicine. In particular, McClive’s discovery of a baby boy’s caul, or amniotic sac, amongst Grand’s papers prompted McClive to mediate upon her own affective response to this archival find only shortly after herself returning from maternity leave.

A Pregnant Archive Symposium – Day Two

Day Two of the Symposium investigated the subject of Materials of Pregnancy. In the first panel of the morning, doctoral student Rebecca Whiteley examined print images of the foetus in the uterine membranes produced for anatomists and midwives in the seventeeth and eighteenth century, followed by Professor Rosemary Betterton, from Lancaster University, who used close readings of two passages from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex alongside recent works by female artists both to analyse and find ways of repairing Beauvoir’s flawed vision of the maternal body.

The following panel continued with the theme of Materials of Pregnancy, and began with Anne Carruthers, from Newcastle University, who used films such as ‘Juno’ and ‘Baby Mama’ to look at filmic representations of the ultrasound, and analyse the material components and technologies that are hidden or obscured in the screened pregnancy narrative. Professor Karen Harvey, from the University of Birmingham, then used the eighteenth-century letters of the Stutterd family to ask about the ways in which pregnancy and childbirth were perceived and imagined during this time, pointing out that – despite accounts of multiple pregnancies in these letters – there is a notable absence of the kinds of objects that might be associated with pregnancy, birth and new motherhood, whether linen, caudle pots or infant and maternity clothing. Harvey argued that the eighteenth-century lacked the kind of material culture that has developed in contemporary times, in which objects play a significant role in the transitioning identities of mothers and the ‘making real’ of pregnancies as yet unseen or babies who are lost. Finally, Dr. Magdalena Ohaja, from Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper that looked at Nigerian women’s accounts of the food preferences and restrictions that shape their experiences of pregnancy, using these accounts to trace the relationship between food, social relations and power which underpins the experience of maternity.

Artistic responses from Lana Locke, Leah Lovett and Jessa Fairbrother provided a lively and poignant end to the Symposium. Some of Locke’s works were inspired by her own initial failed attempts to procreate, followed – after the birth of her children – with her interest in reclaiming the idea of the feral in representations of pregnancy and birth, and the idea that fluids related to the experience of maternity – from mother’s milk to oozing nappies – can represent transformative matter that transgresses prescribed disciplines, spaces and identities. Lovett shared with Locke a similar interest in asking how motherhood might be claimed as a political identity, and particularly focused on the way in which the body can be instrumentalized by labour. She screened a short film, ‘Support’, in which male choral singers made noises that imitated the sounds that their partners made during labour. Both powerful and deliberately comedic, the film provoked interesting discussions both about male experiences of labour, and about the ways in which, during labour, the female body can take on a power, life and time of its own that is not necessarily coterminous with one’s sense of self.

Concluding the Symposium, Jessa Fairbrother’s presentation was a poignant reflection on the powerful cultural urge for women to perform happy endings through marriage and motherhood, questioning what happens when the cultural narratives that are provided to women who fulfill these conventional milestones prove unavailable or get ruptured. She explored the significance of the wedding dress – a powerful visual symbol of a narrative – and, conversely, the lack of objects available to define the lives and experiences of those who do not get married or have children. In particular, Fairbrother investigated these questions of identity, narrative and object through her project ‘Conversations with my Mother’, developed while her mother was dying from cancer. You can find out more about this work here.

A consistent theme throughout the Symposium was that of absences, silences and lack – what is missing from the experience and history of pregnancy and maternity is often just as interesting as that which is visible, revealing much about gender and sexual politics, as well as constantly evolving social and cultural norms. Conceiving Histories will continue to investigate this topic, and MaMSIE looks forward to hearing more about the outcomes of the project, and to following the work of the academics and artists who contributed to this brilliant, thought-provoking event.


Leonie Shanks is completing a PhD in the English department at Birkbeck under the supervision of Dr. Joanne Winning. Her thesis focuses on the epistolary correspondence and modernist networks of the marginal modernist Dorothy Richardson, and her research interests include modernist space and place, feminism, psychoanalysis, materiality, network theory and life writing. She also works as an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck. Before beginning her PhD, Leonie trained and worked as a social ethnographer, working with a range of local authorities and other public organisations to gather qualitative data and insights into the ways in which people lead their everyday lives. In this role she particularly specialised in working with families, young people and children across a range of different settings.

Welcoming Encounters: What Does a Welcoming Community Look Like to Immigrant and Migrant Mothers?

By María José Yaxfraser
Halifax Harbour, Point Pleasant Park – An image that represents for me the long history of migration to and from Nova Scotia.

Welcoming Encounters is a qualitative doctoral research project that asks immigrant and migrant women what makes Halifax, Nova Scotia, a welcoming community for them as mothers.

Like other provinces in Atlantic Canada, declining fertility rates and emigration from Nova Scotia have been held responsible for the province’s recent economic decline and aging population. Although Canada receives about 250,000 immigrants annually, less than 2% declare Atlantic Canada as their intended destination. Of these, less than half tend to stay and about 90% settle in urban areas. As a result, over the past decade, attempts to attract, retain and integrate new immigrants have gained increased significance in policy and practice at Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels. Changes in infrastructure, programs and initiatives have been instituted by governments, the business sector, communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to attract, promote and retain immigrants in smaller centres.

A Welcoming Community Initiative (WCI) was one strategy that became particularly appealing to immigration stakeholders across Canada in the early years of the 21st century to promote the retention of newcomers and to facilitate their settlement and economic and social integration.

The concept of a “welcoming community” was identified by the federal government, the Nova Scotia provincial government, academics and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) as key to the successful integration of new immigrants. Its spatial dimension refers to a physical location in which newcomers feel valued and where their needs are served. It refers to a location that has the capacity to promote the inclusion of newcomers. Its discourse dimension refers to a community whose residents undertake actions that facilitate the integration of newcomers by making a collective effort to make individuals feel appreciated and included.

Promoting the need to create welcoming and inclusive communities for new migrants speaks to the recognition that Nova Scotia, predominantly a white and Anglophone community, has been characterized by a resistance to embrace the changes that come with an influx of immigrants from diverse countries around the world. Such resistance is manifested in individual attitudes towards visible and audible differences. Class, ethnicity, race and religion act as boundaries that separate many new migrants from social, economic, political and spiritual resources that might help to secure their wellbeing. Promoting the creation of a welcoming community also speaks of a shift in the level of understanding that processes such as integration, adaptation, and acculturation involve, both amongst the already established communities and the newcomers.

In this study, I explore the lived experiences of immigrant and migrant mothers through a life history approach, asking questions about how immigrant and migrant mothers understand the concept of integration; how immigrant and migrant mothers experience and define the meaning of a welcoming community; how they measure their integration; which institutions are perceived as critical to their integration process; what are the diverse experiences of immigrant and migrant mothers; and how their particular circumstances affect how they define the meaning of a welcoming community. In addition, I am also interested in looking at the ways in which settlement service providers and providers of support programs for immigrant and migrant mothers in the health sector contribute to the creation of a welcoming community for immigrant and migrant women who settle in Halifax.

My interest in exploring the lived experiences of immigrant and migrant mothers raising children in their permanent or temporary place of settlement builds on the fieldwork I conducted for my Master’s thesis with immigrant mothers living in Halifax. Like many women who are inspired to write about their experiences and female researchers who become interested in issues relating to mothering after having children of their own, my urge to explore these experiences emerged when I became a mother. At this time, I was faced with making cultural choices I did not fully anticipate before I had my children. Making cultural choices, for me, was a process that required a constant negotiation of the beliefs, cultural values and the knowledge of raising children I brought with me from Guatemala, the country where I was born, and those that are encouraged in Canada. Going through this constant negotiation made me realize that I had inadvertently become involved in what I termed cross-cultural mothering work, which involves an incredible amount of invisible intellectual labour.

Cross-cultural mothering refers to the complex forms of agency that migrant women deploy to adjust to new environments. It is the process by which migrant mothers re-work their identities and construct and continually negotiate their mothering practices when living within a culture or country other than the one in which they were born and/or grew up. This concept originates from the premise that these women, situated in specific social contexts and within social relations that are shaped by class, ethnicity, race, gender, and other intersections, bring with them a selective and dynamic knowledge of the values and beliefs of child raising held in their culture/country of origin. But due to their migration, they are involved in re-negotiating cultural values, practices, and institutions of their place of settlement, while maintaining ties with their countries of origin and/or the countries from which they migrated.

Working with an expanded concept of reproduction that includes not only childbirth and mothering, but also the work of negotiating heritage, culture and structures of belonging, I locate this research at the intersection of population and economic policies and civil society, and in particular the practices of service providers and NGOs vis-à-vis migrant mothers. Academic discussions of the importance of Nova Scotia becoming a more inclusive and welcoming province predominantly focus on economic integration. The social and cultural integration of immigrant families and individuals has largely been excluded from these conversations. My research study seeks to contribute to the ongoing academic discussions of integration, adaptation and acculturation in Canada, and in Nova Scotia specifically. It seeks to contribute to the study of both the local and the global governance of migration and to our understanding of what a welcoming community looks like for immigrant and migrant mothers and their families.


Ahmed, Sara (2012). On being included: Racism and institutional life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anderson, Benedict (1983, 1991, 2006). Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Akbari, A. H. & Colin Sun (2006). “Immigrant Attraction and Retention: What Can Work and What is Being Done in Atlantic Canada?” In Our Diverse Cities. Summer (2): 129-133.

Bahbhani, K. (2008). “The changing face of Kelowna: Best practices for creating a welcoming community”. The Intercultural Society of the Central Okanagan.

 Belanger, Alain, Laurent Martel and Eric Caron Malenfant (2005). Minister of Industry. Statistics Canada Demographic Division. Population Projection for Canada, Provinces and Territories 2005-2031. Catalogue No. 91-520-XIE. Accessed18 February 2008, from:

Bertaux, Daniel (ed), (1981). Biography and Society: The Life History Approach in the Social Sciences. London: Sage

Brah, Avtar (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London & New York: Routledge.

Campbell, Joan M. (2000). Chasing the Wave: An Overview of the Impact of

Demographic, Economic and Social Trends on the Future of Youth in Atlantic Canada. Accessed 28 November, 2007 from:

Clews, Rosemary (2004). “Exploring and Overcoming Barriers to Immigration in New Brunswick”. Presented at Rendez-vous: Immigration 2004 Conference. Saint Andrews, NB.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada [CIC] (2010). Evaluation of the Welcoming Communities Initiative. Evaluation Division. Accessed from:

Citizenship and Immigration Canada [CIC] (2001a). Immigrant integration in Canada: Policy objectives, program delivery and challenges. Draft Discussion. Integration Brand. Accessed from:

De Souza, Ruth (2004). “Motherhood, migration and methodology: Giving voice to the “Other”. The Qualitative Report. 9 (3):463-482.

Dobrowolsky and Howard Ramos (2014) in CCPA. Expanding the Vision: Why Nova Scotia Should Look Beyond Econocentric Immigration Policy. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: Nova Scotia.

Esses, Victoria M., Hamilton, Leah K., Bennett-AbuAyyash, Caroline and Burstein Meyer (2013). “Characteristics of a Welcoming Community”. Report prepared for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Integration Branch.

Hudon, Tamara (2015). Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report. Seventh Edition. Statistics Canada.

Mahler, Sarah J. and Patricia R. Pessar (2006). “Gender Matters: Ethnographers Bring Gender from the Periphery toward the Core of Migration Studies. Transnational Migration: Bringing Gender”. International Migration Review 40(1): 27–63.

Mohanty, Chandra Tapalde (2003) Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Province of Nova Scotia (2004). A Framework for Immigration. A discussion paper. Communications Nova Scotia.

Smith, Dorothy (1987). The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Northeastern University Press.

Walks, M. (2011). “Introduction: Identifying an anthropology of mothering”. In M. Walks & N. McPherson (Eds.), An anthropology of mothering. Toronto, Ontario: Demeter Press.

Yuval-Davis, Nira (2011). Power, intersectionality and the politics of belonging.

Aalborg: Feminist Research Centre. FREIA Working Paper Series No. 75. 10.5278/freia.58924502.

Yax-Fraser, Maria Jose (2011). “Mothering Across Cultures: Immigrant women’s Experiences in Halifax”. In Immigrant Women in Atlantic Canada: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Evangelia Tastsoglou and Peruvemba S. Jaya, 297-324 Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press.

María José is a scholarly and community research practitioner and community leader. She has worked in migration and settlement services for 25 years. She is a PhD candidate in the department of Social Anthropology at York University. Her academic interest is in the experiences of immigrant and migrant women and mothers. She combines her academic interest with her community volunteer work, including her volunteer work with the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax (IMWAH). She also has a personal interest in human rights, the eradication of gender and family violence, gender and development, and the rights of indigenous people in the Americas. She is a member of the Voice of Women for Peace and a member of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.

Dislocated Maternal Bodies: Dance Movement Psychotherapy with Refugee Mothers

By Rosalind Howell
 When I Googled ‘refugee mothers’ the other week, this came up on the first page: “Refugee Mothers”. Try as it might, Google could not find any resource that contained both words – the refugee mother somehow could not be located. She was missing.

In a weekly Dance Movement Psychotherapy group for refugee mothers and their preschool children that I facilitate, a participant tells me that at a party in her accommodation recently, someone was taking photographs. The next day, pictures of her appeared, printed out, and pinned up along the street with the word ‘Missing’ emblazoned across them: her image had been turned into a missing persons poster. But, as the woman said to me, genuinely bewildered: “I wasn’t missing?!”

Refugees lose many significant things when they leave their home, including possessions, loved ones, even honor and prestige. All that might remain after their flight from danger is their body and mind, but trauma can make even these feel somehow unreachable or dislocated. As another woman noted in the group: “It’s just my body that is tired, not me”. This feeling of being separate from one’s body may remain even when the refugee is in “in safety”, and it can become a normal way of experiencing the self.

Rediscovering one’s lost body might involve what Psychotherapist Susie Orbach has called ‘daring to be comfortable’ – that is, turning our attention inwards and using this as a place from which to meet the world, rather than colluding with a view of our body based on an objectifying gaze. But trying to ‘get comfortable’ in this way is not easy. In this group, the bodies of the refugee women are often galvanised in tension, ready to fight or flee, or they are quick to collapse, like  formless pools without bone or muscle. When the women choose to perch on a wobbly pile of chairs, feet far from the ground, they seem to be conflating the notion of being comfortable with being ‘safe’ and ‘separate.’  Perhaps it feels too dangerous to lie on the floor, unless curled up in a foetal position. How then to make small physical adjustments that might help tolerate the challenges of the present moment, however uncertain, and from there to move into the future?

As another woman says to me of some casual racism she experienced earlier that day: “I have to let it slide over me, I can’t let it touch me otherwise it will hold me back.” As she spoke, she moved her hand quickly over her body, so that I could imagine something sliding off a surface that nothing could stick to or penetrate. She then leapt up and moved quickly from the spot, engaging in a practical task. This idea of a border that aims, like skin,  to keep out the unwanted is a familiar one to us all these days, whether we are a refugee or host country.

Many psychotherapy interventions for mothers and their infants are based on improving the attachment relationship. But as some have noted, Bowlby’s attachment theory has been in part co-opted by an individualistic, mother-blaming and very Western-centric culture, or misunderstood as the need for a mother to be literally stuck to her baby at all times. Likewise, the use of Winnicott’s concept of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ often leaves out the crucial point that a mother needs to be well resourced to emotionally care for a baby, and it is the wider environment’s responsibility to ensure that. In the case of refugee mothers, resources are scant, and trauma has been immense.  Refugee women are among those most vulnerable to gender-based violence. They are likely to have experienced rape, domestic violence, FGM, trafficking, or some combination of all of these. It is thus dangerous to foist more blame onto her for the trauma she has experienced. It makes her responsible for the impact of war, geopolitics and  patriarchal violence on subsequent generations, when these forms of violence have been literally acted out on her body.

So how does the political manifest in the physical body? What does it look like, what are its postures, its movements and its bodily felt sensations as it intertwines with personal history? How does the political animate the body of a refugee that has travelled perhaps thousands of miles, but now has no clear way forward and no path back?  And how ‘comfortable’ can these mothers be in their bodies, in a kind of limbo with an uncertain future, but with a child who must be somehow delivered to the future? For the refugee mother, what can her next move be?

A version of this piece was read at the conference Oxytocin, birthing the world, The Royal College of Art, in June 2017.

Rosalind Howell is a Dance Movement Psychotherapist, writer and editor. She has three children.


MaMSIE Podcasts

Filming the absent mother

This symposium was designed around the juxtaposition of two films, both about the disappearance of the director’s mother: Liseli Marazzi when Alina was 7, Clotilde Vautier when Mariana was 5. Neither child was told anything about the circumstances of her mother’s death. Using differing aesthetic strategies, both films investigate the mother’s life and, in the process of unraveling the mystery of her disappearance, reveal social and psychosocial problems  and issues that continue to be relevant for feminism. But the directors also use cinema and narration to address their own loss, creating a moving and emotional, as well as a historical and political, dialogue between the two films.

ScreeningHistoire d’un secret (Mariana Otero 2003) and Un’ora sola ti vorrei (Alina Marazzi 2002)

Motherhood, Servitude and the Delegation of care.

This show addressed issues of labour, social class, capital, care and the maternal. Lisa Baraitser was joined by Stella Sandford, Mirca Madianou, Imogen Tyler and Gail Lewis to discuss the privatisation of maternal labour, and the diverse ways ‘maternal care’ has been, and continues to be delegated and shared. Our discussion ranged from Marxist Feminism through to the creative ways that mothers in the global south are continuing to parent their children while providing maternal labour for mothers in the global north.

Birthing Ideas

Joined by two figurative London based artists, Charlotte Lindsay and Eline van den Boogaard, Rebecca Baillie considered the notion that it is often artists without children, or those distanced in someway from the everyday experience of child rearing, who best articulate the meaning of maternity. Rebecca Baillie is a London based artist and writer. Charlotte Lindsay is a painter and founder of BHVU Gallery. Eline van den Boogaard is a photographer and curator.

Celebrating Rozsika Parker 1945-2010
A Day Symposium on Art Feminism and Psychoanalysis
The Symposium explored the many facets of Rozsika Parker’s unique and influential contribution to feminist interventions in art criticism and history, psychotherapy, psychoanalytical theories of maternal ambivalence and body dysmorphia. 

Exploring, Through Design, The Complex Role of Smartphones for Mothers and Young Children

By Paulina Yurman

These critical and experimental design proposals are part of my practice based PhD. My work explores the complex role of smartphones for mothers and their young children. For many mothers, surrounding resources are used and adapted to respond to multiple internal and external demands. During childcare, smartphones are often used for work or as a connection with the outside world, and at other times to keep children quiet or entertained. Transforming from tool into toy, they become objects of competition for parental attention, but they also turn the mother into a rival as their use is often shared. They represent work, autonomy or distraction for the mother, but also play and pacification for the child, becoming a sort of contemporary transitional object for both. As a result, smartphones offer multiple and competing discourses, creating tensions that this research explores.

In my research I have created a series of symbolic, provocative, dysfunctional and narrative design proposals. These propositions are not intended to be read as designs for the commercial market, but rather as comments on the complex, often competing roles of smartphones in this particular situation. They invoke practices that often take place in private and they have been used in workshops with participants to engage in conversation and reflection about the complex role of smartphones during childcare. The proposals represent the possibilities for design to expose and critique current scenarios, and to explore potentials for change. Some of these objects are shown here.

Three of my critical artefacts are on display at the Freud Museum, as part of their Play and Psychoanalysis exhibition, held until 10th September 2017. I will also be talking about my work on Wednesday 9th August, 14:00 at the Freud Museum.

Watercolour Sketches (2016): The phone as a form of childcare, as a mediator between the mother’s and the child’s needs, as a sort of toy/pet, as a sort of transitional object, and as an object of rivalry

Sketching in watercolour allowed me to develop a visual language in which themes developed, merged and transformed. It was a process of unraveling ideas, not too dissimilar to the creative research that occurs through writing. The sketching process gave way to the development of experimental objects, which were material representations of the themes explored.

Ambivalent Objects 1, 2016 (3D printed bottle holders, bottle, smartphone, modified laptop packaging)

These objects represent the use of the smartphone as a sort of pacifier, evoking practices that are at times ridden with guilt and ambivalence. The initial response from participants towards these objects was of rejection or cynicism. However, after further conversation there emerged admissions that they represent a continuation of existing practices such as feeding children in front of the TV. Despite the initial rejection of the narratives they represent, some participants also made suggestions about how to make them more ergonomic, waterproof and where they would sell well as products. The conversations that these artefacts produced reflect our ambivalent attitudes towards smartphones during childcare, technologies that bring both intrusion and relief.

Ambivalent Object 2, 2016 (acrylic, wood, bottle top, smartphone, cord)

This pull along artefact makes use of the symbolism in psychoanalysis, which features the breast as a representation of the nurturing function of the mother. This proposal integrates the phone and breast as portable comforting objects, the pulling cord is a metaphor for the umbilical. It is a sort of designed transitional object. From participants, this object produced rejection for its combination of phone and toy, but it also prompted conversations about existing uses of the phone as a sort of pacifier. A psychoanalyst called it a ‘maternal ambivalence object’.

An Uncanny Pet, 2016 (synthetic fur, smartphone, smartphone charger)

A charging station for the phone. Playing with the idea of the phone as a sort of neutral family member, similar to a pet, this proposal uses this metaphor to create a situation where the phone is put to sleep while it charges (snoring and with its eyes closed). It makes the phone temporarily unavailable.

Sleep is a significant aspect of a child and mother’s routine. Putting the phone to sleep here represents an act of taking a break from its presence, consciously albeit temporarily. Participants could easily understand the metaphor, and suggested that it would not only discourage a child from ‘waking’ the phone up, but would also force the mother to take a break from checking her phone while it sleeps. One mother offered to host the design at home with her two children. In contrast to the previous critical design propositions, this proposal represents the transformative potential of design, offering a more positive and hopeful compromise with the presence of technology in family life.

Paulina Yurman is a designer and researcher, currently doing a PhD at Goldsmiths. Her research, called Designing for Ambivalence, investigates the tensions brought by smartphones to mothers and their young children.





The Devaluing of the Maternal: Motherhood in UK Prisons

On June 8th, Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies in collaboration with the MaMSIE research network (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics), and with support from Clinks, hosted practitioners and academics to contend with the issue of motherhood in UK prisons. It felt fitting that this discussion fell on the day of the election. In a time characterized by media amplification of partisan debate and the claims of our political leaders, this was an afternoon to consider the voices of women that often go unheard, and to reflect on an issue that requires collaboration across political divides.

Based at the Department of Psychosocial Studies, MaMSIE is dedicated to interdisciplinary exploration of the complexities of motherhood and the maternal. MaMSIE convened last Thursday’s event to consider the challenges that face mothers in UK prisons. Opening the event, Lisa Baraitser (co-founder of MaMSIE, with Cambridge University’s Sigal Spigel), spoke of the importance of addressing the experiences of women who parent and are in prisons as a pressing feminist issue. Setting the tone for the discussion to come, she cited the need to reflect on what incarcerating mothers does to women, to children, and to communities.

Anne Fox, Chief Executive Officer of Clinks, chaired both of the afternoon’s panels and facilitated a focused and thoughtful dialogue. Fox raised an issue in her opening remarks that was reflected again and again throughout the afternoon: as a society, we undervalue and fail to critically consider motherhood. Given this lack of attention to motherhood in general, mothers in prison are in an especially unique situation. In a culture that demonizes those who have offended, they are already stigmatized. As mothers, that stigma is amplified.

The first group of panelists delved into this double de-valuing of imprisoned mothers. Naomi Delap is the direct of Birth Companions, an organization that provides physical and emotional support to pregnant women and mothers in UK prisons. Delap spoke of the lack of basic access to care for many pregnant women, and the necessity of codifying perinatal services and support. While Delap spoke of initiatives to de-carcerate pregnant women, and provide better community services she also illustrated the need for appropriate care for pregnant women who are currently imprisoned. The Birth Charter, compiled by Birth Companions, sets out specific and carefully considered recommendations.

Laura Abbott, the second speaker of the day, is undertaking doctoral work in health research at the University of Hertfordshire on the experience of being a pregnant woman in prison. She is also a volunteer at Birth Companions, and she spoke of the vital importance of midwifery support for imprisoned pregnant mothers. Abbott shared her work on interviewing mothers and staff in prisons, and through her presentation, represented the voices of mothers who spoke of a lack of access to basic care, and also of their sense that sentencing mothers acts as a punishment to their children.

Anastasia Chamberlen, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick (and past lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck), discussed the gendered embodied experience of prison and punishment, noting the ways in which the impact of incarceration lingers in and on the body. Among other specifically gendered phenomena, she spoke of how for many women she interviewed, the period of imprisonment extended over what might otherwise have been mothering years.

In the panel that followed, Lucy Baldwin, Senior Lecturer in Community and Criminal Justice at De Montfort University and editor of the Mothering Justice collection, spoke of the emotional impact of incarceration. Baldwin described prison as an assault on a mother’s ability to do the work of mothering. She gave the powerful example of prison visit rules that do not allow for mothers to touch or hold their children during visitation hours. As Baldwin so aptly noted, this lack of contact would be viewed as neglect outside prison walls, yet inside, it is enforced.

Shona Minson, DPhil in Criminology at Oxford University, and author of the “Motherhood as Mitigation” report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke further of the impact of maternal imprisonment on children. She described the ways in which having a mother in prison is linked to risks to children, and explained the phenomenon of “secondary criminalization,” through which children experience the punishment and stigma of their mother’s penal sentences.

These five speakers forcefully articulated the potential impact on individual women, children, communities, and society more broadly when mothers are imprisoned. While these panelists are each engaged in the important work of addressing these issues, the concerns they raised also demonstrated the need for further support. Anne Fox closed out the event in a memorable way by asking the room (fully populated by researchers, students, activists, and practitioners) to consider questions for collaboration. Birkbeck is unique among universities in that many students and faculty are invested in producing research that bridges theory and practice. I am hopeful that this event will prompt further work in this vein, and that attendees will heed the call to communicate and collaborate.

Performance and the Maternal: Motherhood in the Live Stage Encounter

Dr Emily Underwood-Lee

Performance and the Maternal is a collaborative project born of Lena Šimić and my desire to explore how the maternal functions in, and beyond, representation in the particular disciplines of performance and live art.  As Mike Pearson notes, ‘performance’ is an inclusive term that can bring together a variety of practices from across forms (Pearson, 2010, p.1).  I use the term ‘performance’ here to signify artistic work that focuses on live bodies making real actions intended for consideration by an audience. It seems that performance offers a unique space to explore the maternal due to its durational, live and relational elements: 

  • Performance is a durational phenomena: it is lived in real time and therefore using a performance studies perspective can help us to explore the time-based nature of the maternal. 
  • Performance is located in our bodies: the lived, embodied nature of performance parallels the lived, embodied experience of the maternal. 
  • Performance is relational: the performer is always in relation to the audience and the event of performance is only created in the moment that performer and audience member come together.  I am not here referring to performance that is participatory – instead I am suggesting that performances are co-created at the moment they are received by an audience, be they a participant or the more traditional theatre spectator.*

Further, as Dolan (2005) asserts, the performance event creates a temporary community in which collective imagining of another way of being in the world can be glimpsed, this collective space of imagining opens up the possibility for a radical rethinking of the maternal through performance. 

The maternal in performance, as opposed to other artforms, is able to move from pure representation into the realm of lived and immediate experience; that is, when we present our mothering on stage in a live art encounter we are not simply performing it, we are doing it – we are negotiating identity in real time, in an immediate and shared encounter with an audience.  The construction of a maternal identity is happening before our very eyes.  The very sharedness of this encounter has the potential to remind us of our relationality, that we do not come into this world in isolation but are always negotiating our identity as mothers and daughters in relation to an other, a concept at the heart of much of the discipline of maternal studies (cf. Baraitser, 2009; Ettinger, 2006; Benjamin, 1992).

Lena and my collaborative Performance and the Maternal research is ongoing but there have been a number of outputs to date.  We are in the final stages of editing ‘On the Maternal’, a special issue of Performance Research journal (Routledge, due August 2017), a conversation ‘Performance and the Maternal’ has been published in the Backpages of Contemporary Theatre Review (December 2016).  In addition we have hosted three research gatherings at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home (Liverpool), Edge Hill University (Ormskirk) and the University of South Wales (Cardiff).  These gatherings brought together academics and artists working in performance. The network established as a result of these gatherings has continued to grow and a further gathering on Maternal Ethics took place at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at home in April 2017.  We have also published the Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal (Simic and Underwood-Lee, 2016).  This was launched at LADA in October 2016, where a number of the artists featured in the guide met to discuss their practice. 

As I looked back over the work we have done to date in order to write this blog post, I was struck by the memory of one exceptional event.  For the launch of our ‘Study Room Guide on Live Art and Motherhood’ at LADA in October 2016 we asked each artist featured to speak for ten minutes about their maternal performance practice.  Helena Walsh, a London based performance artist whose “practice explores the relations between gender, national identity and cultural histories” (Walsh, n.d.) responded to this invitation by presenting a short performance in which she was interviewed by her young daughter, Ella Walsh Biderman. Helena and Ella’s conversation was far ranging taking in feminism, motherhood, live art and the very particular socio-political times we inhabit; but it was also personal, tender and witty. It was an interaction between an adult mother and a child daughter which demonstrated a radical togetherness that was co-operative, democratic and a conversation between equals. Difference and differing levels of experience were respected but there was no hierarchy and neither mother nor daughter was privileged in the conversation. This moment demonstrates the radical potential of performance as a means of exploring the maternal. Here, in relation to one another, in real time, with an audience and in an act of mothering (Helena was not representing a mother – she was genuinely mothering her daughter before our eyes), Helena and Ella created, performed and reimagined the maternal. Through examining such innovative moments which move beyond representation and renegotiate the maternal we hope to be able to rethink the maternal both in performance and in the wider context in our Performance and the Maternal project.

*For a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between the performer and audience as co-creators see Lehmann (2006).    


(2013) ‘Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real’, Studies in the Maternal, 5(1).

(2016) ‘Performing Everyday Maternal Practice’, Studies in the Maternal, 8(2).

(2016) ‘On the Maternal’, Performance Research, 22(6).

Baraitser, Lisa (2009) Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. London and New York: Routledge.

Benjamin, Jessica (1992) ‘Recognition and Destruction: An outline of intersubjectivity’ in Skolnick, N. and Warshaw, S. (eds) Relational Perspectives in Psychoanalysis. New York, London: Routledge. 

Betterton, Rosemary (2014) Maternal Bodies in the Visual Arts. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bright, Susan (2013) Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood. London: Art/Books.

Dolan, Jill (2005) Utopia in Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Engel, Laura and Mcgirr, Elaine M. (eds). Stage Mothers: Women, Work, and the Theater, 1660-1830. London: Bucknell University Press.

Epp Buller, Rachel. (2012) Reconciling Art and Mothering. London: Routledge.

Ettinger, Bracha. (2006) The matrixial borderspace. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies (2006) Post-dramatic Theatre. New York, London: Routledge.

Liss, Andrea (2009) Feminist Art and the Maternal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pollock, Griselda (1999) Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Writing of Art’s Histories. London: Routledge.

Simic, Lena and Underwood-Lee, Emily (2016) Live Art and Motherhood: A Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal London: Live Art Development Agency. 

Simic, Lena and Underwood-Lee, Emily (2016) ‘Performance and the Maternal’ Contemporary Theatre Review 26(3).

Walsh, Helena (no date) ‘Bio’ Helena Walsh. Available at Accessed 11 May 2017.

Dr Emily Underwood-Lee is a Research Fellow at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales. She is interested in the gendered body as it is represented in performance with a particular focus on autobiographical stories by women in the contexts of illness, health and motherhood.  She has shared her work in a variety of contexts including academic journals, hospitals and arts venues.  She is currently co-convener of the ‘Storytelling for Health’ conference, and co-editing the special edition of Performance Research ‘On the Maternal’.