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Re-Emerge: Reflecting on the Maternal Journal Training workshop

Image courtesy of www.maternaljournal.org/

Lauren Brennan, Isla MacRae and Jessica Bradley, School of Education, University of Sheffield

29 April 2022

In this blog post we introduce the Re-Emerge Arts and Health Programme, led by The Art House in Wakefield, and consider Maternal Journal, an important strand of the programme which engages directly with new — or ‘about-to-be’ parents.

Introducing Re-Emerge — the programme and the research

How do we re-emerge after a period of such incredible change and uncertainty? Dr Jessica Bradley is leading research and evaluation for the Re-Emerge project, which explores the possibilities and affordances of creative practice for people who have been isolated due to the COVID19 pandemic. The project, funded by NHS Charities Together Funding, is led by The Art House, a visual arts charity and studios in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, who recently won the Gulbenkian Award for Civic Arts Organisations for their pioneering work reducing barriers between creative programming and community engagement. Dr Bradley, whose research engages with language, creative practice and community arts, in particular processes of collaboration and creative production, is working with the project team to research and evaluate the programme of activities. Also on the research team are Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole and Dr Penny Fogg.

As part of the Re-Emerge programme, a team of creative midwives are leading and delivering Maternal Journal workshops for parents in Wakefield centre and in Airedale. One of the team, Rebecca Thomas, is an arts and health coordinator and specialist midwife and has been delivering Maternal Journal workshops for a year. She says:

‘It’s my favourite part of the week. Not only do I get to plan and facilitate creative journaling for mothers but I get to take part and explore my own thoughts and feelings too. For the past 8 years, and even more so since the pandemic, I have seen a need for bringing together mothers who are increasingly isolated and need a chance to connect with other mothers in a safe and honest space. People need to be able to normalise their experiences, to feel a shared belonging and have the time to develop their creative skills. Every week I am taken back by the honesty and support the group offer each other and the creative abilities of the women who attend. Some surprise themselves and the pride in their work is wonderful to see’. (29 April 2021, workshop feedback)

Lauren Brennan and Isla MacRae, both MA students at the University of Sheffield, were recently appointed as Social Research interns for the project, thanks to a successful funding application for the scheme and Faculty of Social Sciences support. Here they introduce themselves and their roles on the project, and then reflect on the training session they attended on Monday 25th April, led by the Maternal Journal founder, Laura Godfrey-Isaacs.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your roles

Lauren: I’m Lauren, an MA Sociology student at the University of Sheffield. I’m really interested in what you might term innovative, creative research methods and I’m keen to undertake a PhD and/or career within research in the future, hence my interest in this project.

Isla: I’m Isla, I’m currently doing an MA in Social Research at the University of Sheffield as part of an ESRC funded 1+3 PhD pathway. I’ll be starting my PhD in September, which will be exploring navigations of belonging and place-making amongst refugees living in different urban environments in the north west of England. Similarly to Lauren, I’m really interested in creative, arts-based research methods, which is something I’d like to explore further in my PhD.

Lauren: Both Isla and I are Social Research Interns on Project Re-emerge: Post-Pandemic Mothering, the aim of which is to research and evaluate a series of non-clinically based creative and social interventions, one strand of which is our strand: a strand for new mothers which includes ongoing Maternal Journal workshops led by community midwives and aiming to support mothers who are at high risk of isolation (due to COVID19 lockdowns and social distancing) and assisting them in adjusting to and thriving in post-pandemic life. The aims of the project therefore mean that myself, Isla and Dr Jessica M Bradley will be attending and participating in Maternal Journal workshops at Wakefield’s The Art House, as well as, undertaking ethnographic observation of the session, conducting interviews, designing evaluative questionnaires, data collection and analysis and of course, as we are now, communication of our findings.

Did you have any preconceptions about the project or training? What did the training consist of? What do you know about MJ now?

Isla: Before going to the Maternal Journal training workshop, I had no idea what to expect. I have no experience of being pregnant, or of being a mother. Would I feel like an imposter? What if I’m not artistic enough? Amongst the questions and uncertainties, however, was the familiar thread of curiosity and intrigue that always helps to ground me in unfamiliar situations, a curiosity which has fuelled my interest in conducting social research over the years. Of course, when I read about the

Re-Emerge project, it was exactly this aspect of creativity and artistic expression which pulled me in. The ability to encourage connection, to facilitate conviviality. Its transformative potential. I was eager to see how this would transpire in the training workshop, which involved a taster journaling session.

Lauren: In terms of what the training involved, Midwife and Artist, Laura Godfrey-Isaac alongside Communications and Content Producer Samantha McGowan, founded Maternal Journal as a means of simply but radically expressing their thoughts, feelings and experiences and promoting positive wellbeing and mental health throughout parenting journeys. Now as an inclusive not-for-profit movement, MJ groups take place all over the world, online, and in-person, encouraging anyone who has been pregnant, given birth or is a mother, gender non-conforming or non-binary carer or grandparent with opportunities to take part, either idependently and/or as a group exercise, to articulate and address the range of issues and emotions that are experienced throughout reproduction and childrearing processes — from conception, through pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum. As a safe, inclusive and confidential space, it allows women to explore and articulate both the dark times and the moments of light they have experienced in their journey through “motherhood”.

Isla: After introducing ourselves to the group, Laura gave an overview of the project’s origins. Maternal Journal began in 2017, after Laura — a mother, artist and midwife — was struck by how many people experiencing pregnancy and motherhood had nowhere to communicate their emotions and experiences at a time of incredible change. She wanted to create a space of connection, an opportunity for people to form a community. A space where you don’t have to constrain or censor yourself, and where conversations about motherhood could move beyond practicalities and nappies.

As Laura explained to us, the practice of journaling has an inherently feminist history. From the illustrated journals of artist and communist Frida Kahlo to the diary writings of civil-rights activist Ida B Wells, journals have long acted as a medium where women can express social and political views without fear of judgement or oppression. They are at once personal and subjective, yet they can tell us about wider structural inequalities and workings of power which confound the experiences of being a woman. This reminded me of my own practice of diary keeping in my early teenage years, where I’d write endless rants and poems about not feeling happy with how I looked. How I could be thinner, my legs could be longer. Discourses of femininity that follow us from an early age.

Lauren: Similarly to Isla, there were also parallels between the practice of Maternal Journaling and my personal “self-care” practices, or in more accurate terms my “anxiety toolkit”. It was introduced to me a number of years ago now by my counsellor who encouraged me to document my personal anxieties and feelings surrounding a bereavement as a means of managing such. The difference between Maternal Journaling and other journaling practices however is its emphasis upon the importance of creativity within the simple but radical practice of expressing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

As I alluded to earlier, Laura adopted the prompts to suit myself and Isla, changing prompts regarding from their mother-centricity to an everyday life focus, and in doing so, demonstrated that the prompts can be adopted towards any area of life and thus I now know that Maternal Journaling offers a little something for everybody, no matter your life experiences.

As part of our training Laura guided us through Hollie McNish’s Your List Poem exercise, which aims to encourage participants to reflect upon their experiences of motherhood in what appears to be quite a random yet reflexive manner. I say random because the emphasis lies upon collecting our recollections regarding a multitude of topics — varying from our bodies to our opinions about socks — rather than organising a poem around a specific theme. The poems produced varied significantly, largely due to the different ages and life experiences of the participants, however, I think it’s safe to say that we all felt unified and a sense of collective experience upon reading our poems out loud to one another.

Some other examples of MJ exercises include: creating body maps of your pregnant body featuring areas of pain, the changes your body and brain experience, what it feels like to feel your baby move,

the emotions felt, the thoughts experienced, perhaps even the feelings of childbirth, or creating post-it note matras to remind themselves of positive things in uncertain times. The prompts are equally about reflection and forward thinking as they are about being present, hence many of the activities prompt those involved to look to the future and explore who they were, ‘are, am, and want to be’ throughout their parenting, or mothering, journey. Whilst others such as “Stop & Stare” or “Explore Your Senses” encourage women to ground themselves in the present moment as is often taught to those undergoing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or participating in Meditation. Workshops such as this thus illustrate how taking a creative angle to often medicalised, clinicalised practices can be beneficial and become embedded within our daily routines, in so doing supporting our wellbeing — mothers, parents, or not.

It’s also important to note that all of the guides mentioned amongst a variety of others, long guides, and an explanation of how to get started, are available on https://www.maternaljournal.org/mini-guides, as well as information regarding existing groups and how to set up your own Maternal Journaling group. And of course, there’s their book Maternal Journal: A creative guide to journaling through pregnancy, birth and beyond too.

What are your reflections? How did you feel?

Isla: When it came to the taster journaling session in the afternoon, my concerns about my lack of artistic ability had begun to soften. Maternal Journal is, after all, about being accessible and inclusive, and the supportive nature of the women who took part in the training session eased any worries I had about sharing or oversharing. We followed Hollie McNish’s journaling guide to create ‘list poems’, following prompts that encouraged us to write about mundane things, like our relationships with socks, as well as more reflective considerations, such as questions we do not know the answers to, but wish to find out. After shaping these responses into poems, we shared them with each other, in what I found to be a deeply affective activity. The poems reflected experiences of womanhood, of motherhood, of hope and of loss, scattered of course, with musings about socks. At times I felt I could cry from the vulnerability and courage which emerged from the readings, and at other times, we collectively laughed at the undeniable relevance of some remarks, the absurdities of motherhood, and of what is expected of us, as women.

Lauren: Similarly to Isla, I was concerned and apprehensive about the Maternal aspect as I too am not a mother, however, as the oldest child and sibling in a single parent household I’ve done my fair share of mothering. I was also daunted by the poetic task at hand, as I haven’t written poetry since school but as I’m sure we’ve illustrated thus far, not being creative nor being a “conventional” mother in the essentialist way of the word is not a barrier to the practices proposed. For me, the workshop and the exercise of maternal journaling provided a means of articulating feelings and thoughts that I often struggle to put into words, choose not to put into words, or was taught not to put into words; it provided a means of exploding thoughts onto page in a creative, safe, and supportive environment. Both the presence of others and the guided nature of the practice were also particularly pertinent for me, as not only did it prevent me from procrastinating — something I often struggle with when journaling solo — but because it felt like we were exploring collective feelings of sadness, frustration, insecurity, grief, and joy despite our differing ages, locales and life, parenting, or mothering experiences. I could have cried when we shared our poems, it was an incredibly moving, cathartic, and empowering experience that I’ll certainly never forget.

What are you excited about in terms of the project? What are you looking forward to? How has the training helped you think about what the project is trying to do?

Isla: Feeling the threads of connection which emerged from the practice of journaling and the cathartic nature of spilling out one’s thoughts on paper has more vividly illustrated to me the prospective impact of project re-emerge. Creative expression has social value, and it’s increasingly being recognised as having the potential to support health and wellbeing. However, there remains an implicit bias within academia to stay within its walls, to do research on communities and practices, but rarely with. What excites me the most about being a part of this project is transcending this gap, and treating the artistic outputs from the journaling sessions as valuable ways of knowing and representing the world. Of course, it is only by working in collaboration with communities and organisations that the impact of social research can be felt, and the possibilities of change can be realised.

Lauren: I’m really looking forward to seeing how Maternal Journaling workshops work in-person, in–practice. Laura told us that mothers can take their childrens to sessions with them if they wish and I’d love to see how that shapes the women’s experiences of sessions. Of course there’s also the option of choosing to go alone, should they have access to childcare and feel it more beneficial, however there’s something really radical about children being present. Not only that mothers are harnessing the power to express their often ignored emotions, but that their children are able to be present in that space with them. Like Isla, the thing that excites me the most is being a part of a project with both tangible, community impact and creativity at its core. Too often we assume that there are rigid ways of dealing with life’s complexities or our mental health — I know I’m guilty of it — so I love that this project will encourage those involved to explore their emotions, change, and complex or complicated life experiences in an innovative way. Because of this I truly believe that this project yields a transformative potential for the mothers involved, and perhaps dependent upon the findings of the project, mothers far and wide.

More information

For more information about the project please contact Jessica: jessica.bradley@sheffield.ac.uk

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Education Matters

Education Matters

Research at the School of Education, University of Sheffield. For more information about us, visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/education.