Procreate Project is joining the Women's History month by celebrating women who have dedicated their lives to  help raising the voice and visibility of mothers within the arts and society

For the past 20 years incredible women have worked to facilitate other women/mother’s artistic practises, professional and personal development.

We want to tell the story of pioneers of what is recognised today as maternal feminism movement.

Our fourth interview is with Matilda Leyser, aerialist, writer, associate director with Improbable and founder of Mothers Who Make

How did you start and why?

When I first became a mother I went along to the requisite number of mother and baby groups with my new born boy. I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of the women I met there were on a fixed maternity leave of 6 months to 1 year and were then expecting to go back to a full or part time job. There was a much smaller group of women who had given up work and were in a position where they wanted and could afford to commit to being a full time mother for the foreseeable future. I did not feel I fitted into either group.

In being a freelance performer no one was going to give me any maternity leave except myself. There was also something beyond the economics of it: I was committed to being a full time mother but equally I felt I had the kind of work I could not give up – it was part of who I am.

Gradually my sense of there being experiences and challenges specific to being both a mother and an artist grew. I noticed many parallels between the two roles: both are concerned with creativity and play, both require stamina, patience, sensitivity, both keep me up at night. At the same time I was struck by the strength of the cultural assumption that the two were incompatible and also entirely separate. I noticed that there were two distinct kinds of spaces I now had to navigate: child-centred ones in which the adults needs were marginalised (playgrounds, one o’clock clubs) and adult-centred ones in which the children were absent altogether and generally unwelcome (rehearsal rooms, meetings, offices). I felt that an integrated space was missing, one that was adult-centred but child-friendly, one in which I could be visible and valued in both my roles of artist and mother.

How did you make your voice heard and why people followed you? 
            Mothers Who Make began in London in 2014 at Battersea Arts Centre. I put out an invitation to mother-artists, across art forms, to join a peer support group to which they could also bring their children of any age. I wrote:

 …I am a performer and a writer. When I was pregnant I would tell people my plans for motherhood: “Oh, I’m simply going to pop my baby in a sling and carry on!” My son is now two years old. In some ways I was right: I have carried him in a sling since he was born and I have carried on in that I am still writing, still sometimes performing, still making work. However none of this has been done simply and everything is wholly different to before. In this sense I have carried nothing on. Rather, I have had to set down my life, my sense of who and how I am. Slowly, awkwardly, shakily I pick myself up, day by day. I would not have it any other way but it is a huge challenge.

How to carry our creative selves and our children, our work of mothering and of making, is the focus of this group. If you are a mother and a maker, and if you wonder how to do both these things with fullness, I would love you to come.

And that was enough. Initially I did not do very much – I simply put out that invite and held the group. What was extraordinary was how fast word spread. I never intended to found a national network. MWM is a response to a need. I started a small local group and it grew.

Since its inception it has reached over 3000 people and been implemented nationally in 14 venues, including The Southbank Centre, Bristol Old Vic and Northern Stage. There are currently regular peer-support groups meeting at 6 arts-related venues in different regions, with up to 20 other groups in the process of starting.

The idea and need for this initiative could have come from anyone going through the same experience, why you were the one between hundreds of mothers to take action and initiate a movement? 

There are two different ways of answering this one. The first is to say that I didn’t do it. It was the hundreds of mothers who responded to me that did it. As above, I never intended to found a national network. MWM is a grassroots initiative – that is its strength. I am a mother and I have simply done what mothers do – we make it up as we go along, we often feel out of our depth but we do what you can, we do what the next part of the job seems to require.

The other answer is not the hundreds of mothers but one mother – my mother. When I was 3 years old, my mum did a tour of playgroups in the vicinity. She did not like any of the ones she saw, so she started her own at our house. Twenty years later when the last village shop closed down and the people in our village were going to be forced to rely on supermarkets further afield, my mum started up a new shop. She taught me that if something is missing from the world, you can add it. Sometimes there are mountains that cannot be moved, much to my mother’s indignation and frustration, but many more times than most people would think, change is possible.

What did it take? 

Granny’s tireless support (the pioneering mum mentioned above)

My husband’s support – financial, emotional and professional

Improbable’s support, the company with whom I am an Associate Director

The support of other mothers, but in particular, for at least the first two years, of Caroline Thompson and Finn

Inspiration from Naomi Stadlen who wrote What Mothers Do Especially When It Looks Like Nothing and has been running an amazing support group for mothers in North London called Mothers Talking for the last 25 years

Lucy Pearce’s book The Rainbow Way: Cultivating Creativity In the Midst of Motherhood that helped me realise I was not simply being a bad mother in struggling to get the meals on the table on time

Letting my son watch youtube videos of trucks while I did MWM admin

Many meals of fish fingers, pasta or pizza (as opposed to home-made wholesomeness!)

Laundry, hoovering, tidying – left undone

My husband being social media savvy, unlike me, especially during our crowdfunding campaign

Being awake much too late and much too early, writing.

Millions of emails

30 blogs (to date)

Big boxes of second hand toys

Huge sheets of paper rolled out on the floor and many crayons

A producer that was willing to help me write a funding application when I had no funding – Thank you Liat Rosenthal.

Many hours of breastfeeding (whilst also leading groups, doing phonecalls, writing)

A transportable potty

Working on beds, kitchen tables, sofas, in playgrounds, woods, fields

My children – being patient, impatient, being themselves


How did you make it work around your family life? 

Making it work, making any work, around family life is kind of the point of the whole initiative, so I made it work by doing it. I am still figuring out what this means and it changes all the time – because the children change and so do I. At its heart Mothers Who Make is an ongoing piece of artistic research investigating the following question: mother and artist, both are creative practices – how can the two inform each other and how can this exchange in turn be fed into and inform the wider artistic and cultural landscape? i.e. instead of mothers dropping out, how can we pick up what they know/ learn? In other words I have been trying to reverse the conventional question – not how do I squash my family life into my work, but rather how do I allow my family to inform my work and how I go about it?

What does it mean for you to facilitate other Women’s art?  

That’s an interesting question because whilst it is a huge privilege and a wonderful thing to facilitate other women’s art I realise it is not my aim – it is not what drives me. I am interested, ultimately, in the process not the product. I am interested in the how, not the what. How, I and other women, do what we do. One of my heroes is an amazing writer and artist called Lynda Barry. I am going to quote from her, because she puts it better than I can. At the start of her book Syllabus. Notes from an Accidental Professor she writes this about her work:

            I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I started my first notebook. I had no idea that nearly 40 years later, I would….still be using it as the most reliable route to the thing I’ve come to call my work….a place to practice a physical activity – in this case writing and drawing by hand – with a certain state of mind. This practice can result in what I’ve come to consider a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call ‘a work of art,’ although a work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity. What am I after? I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

This is also what I am after in every MWM group that I facilitate – simply to be present and see what’s there. I’m delighted to say works of art do seem to come from it.

What are the challenges and joys? 

My children are my challenges and joys – over and over again.

What are your plans for the future?

In 2017 MWM secured Arts Council England funding and ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to do three things:

Firstly, to support the growth of our regional peer-support hubs – as mentioned above, there are currently 6 and in the future we are hoping there will be over 30. We aim to create hubs all over the UK – accessible to any creative mother who wants support and connection.

Secondly during the course of the coming year, we will at long last be able to build our own website. There is already a thriving community on Facebook but we want to create an online home for MWM that will connect all the regional hubs, be a resource for mothers/ makers of every ilk and also a platform for sharing work and inspiration.

Lastly the funding is enabling us to do something we have never done before- commission new work. 7 artists have received micro-commissions to explore their experiences of holding the dual roles of mother and artist. Their work is intended to act as a resource and participative invitation to others. The work will be shared on the MWM website and presented with an end of project sharing at The National Theatre. I very much hope this is not a one-off but only the start of a MWM’s commissions.

Ultimately I want Mothers who Make to become a vibrant, self-sustaining, empowering national network, both online and in person. It should be a resource for mothers at any stage in their mothering and in their careers. If you want to join us please email me at matilda@motherswhomake.org