More than enough: Balancing art and motherhood

Aseel Tayah is a mother, an artist and an activist. In this article, Aseel discusses the challenges of balancing all of these roles before and during social isolation.

Photo by Aseel Tayah.

I write this at the end of a very long day at home, a few days after the lessening of restrictions, and having just broken my fast with dear friends who came to share a meal. Easing back into myself as host once more, my family and I are reminded that tangible connections mean the world to us. 

This is the time of day when I cannot be sure which part of my body is still working creatively. My mind calls up complex feelings: proud that I managed to finish the day, guilty for the time taken away from playing with my little angel for health related phone calls, and happiness that at least we found time to face paint, cook a meal and make beautiful art together.

Living in a house without television during social isolation is almost a mission impossible, actually friends would say it is a mission impossible, yet they believed that before the experience of the pandemic. As I undertake activism on an international scale, manage a toy library project, handle local production issues and care for a 3-year-old child at home, I am beginning to understand that life may be easier if my thoughts on ‘screen time’ were more positive. We still manage without it...just.

Holding fast to my values and prioritising family before anything else can make life as an artist harder. In the first few days of isolation I was overwhelmed by the number of online events, webinars and activities and I wondered how I could possibly find time to add any of it to my list. I suffer from a chronic pain disability, which often means that the limited time I have for myself to rest is also the only opportunity I have to create new content to entertain audiences, or even educate. 

When I read the news, I feel that I am not doing enough to help and engage with others during such uncertain times. Yet, the guilt of not being “artist enough” means that I choose to spend less time online and less time engaging with art sector news. 

When I was asked to write about my experience, I found myself asking, why me? I am just an artist who isn’t doing much at the moment. But that’s not fair. I received a recommendation letter from a friend and art sector leader recently, she highlighted the importance of my work in changing the landscape of Australian art and understanding of community. I cried reading her letter, as though she was talking about someone I do not know. Rather than seeing the value in what I have achieved in the home and in the community, I blame myself for not doing enough and am plagued with thoughts of inadequacy. The everyday of raising a beautiful soul requires massive responsibility and not enough parents are recognised – I better remind myself to change how I see myself.

For almost 3 years I have been a full-time mother and only recently stopped breastfeeding. I began to believe that being a mother was all I could do. Even though we achieve so much as mothers, as activists, as artists – we start doubting ourselves and our abilities. To this day, I struggle to let go of this feeling and find myself trying to prove who I am and the value of my work. We should be proud and awarded for the change that we lead.

Seeing the experiences of parents and their working lives as one consideration, rather than separate entities, has only just entered the national conversation in response to the impacts of COVID-19. But I still feel that those with stories like mine are missing from this sweeping  topic. I am a mother, a recently migrated artist of colour in isolation so far from home and the support of family, and I cannot afford to live in the city. Someone who even before isolation was exempt from shows and art projects for they often take place around sleep times. 

The moment I felt COVID-19 posed a serious threat was when I had to take my little one out of childcare. “Mama, when people get better, the first place I want to go is Teta Iman in Palestine.” After a few months of isolation my 3-year-old starts most of her sentences with, “when people get better,” as a way of sharing her concern about what is happening. Perhaps she is reflecting my worry about my own parents. 

The very first thought I had was of my parents back home. When will I see my family again? My sick mother with her heart condition and my older, high-risk father. My planned trip home will be on hold for some time  – our dreams for a family reunion from around the world now seemingly impossible. My mind was occupied –  just like the people of Palestine –  with concerns of their survival during these hard times. What is an exception here, has been a reality for the people in Gaza for over a decade. They were forced into lockdown way before COVID-19.  

The day we were told we can have visitors I shared the news with my little one. That morning she appeared next to the front door, dressed in almost half of her accessories, asking to go to childcare. I commented on her outfit and she said, “I want to go to childcare. They will say “wow you look great”, too.” I felt a bit safer in that moment, and to be honest, I felt relief. I could finally have some time to work on the things I am passionate about without the feeling of guilt that she is alone. 

In a time when we all must practice physical isolation, we must reimagine ways of connecting and belonging. As those at high-risk to COVID-19 leave this world along with their oral histories and knowledge, we must create spaces where stories of displacement and the diverse experiences of migrants are celebrated and remembered. Sharing through art provides an important opportunity to create empathy for one another in a country that enjoys the rich culture of all of us who are guests on Aboriginal land.

Bukjeh is a project that I am so proud to lead, it is about stories of home… and being forced to leave it. In its many live iterations it has brought together audiences of all ages to contribute to our local cultural landscape. Challenging, but nationally important, exchanges take place in a small refugee tent. This culturally safe space showcases innovative artwork created in Victoria by artists of colour and examines the role art plays in shaping societal conversations. 

Becoming a mother has changed my life. My wonderful girl shares with me new secrets to living every day. I am not sure if I am still the same person anymore, and if I will ever be the old me again, but I keep going with the surprises of a new lesson, love, touch, the words she shares with me and the reminders of the beauty and value of motherhood. I pray every night and sing songs of love that I can be the mother, artist and activist we both deserve.

Aseel Tayah - 27 May 2020