I’m a documentary photographer and the mother of two young children. When I gave birth in 2012, the sudden shift in identity that came with motherhood was both beautiful and frightening. I loved learning to swaddle, nurse and love my little baby, and felt so connected to him I almost couldn’t see him as a separate person. He was part of me: an extra arm, a constant thought. But I was afraid of my baby’s potential to consume me, and I struggled to maintain a separate self.
So I started a series of photo essays that document the lives of working mothers who are also negotiating how to maintain their personhood while remaining profoundly intertwined with their families.
My son was a baby when I started this project. The first woman I photographed was Petrushka Bazin-Larsen, an arts education administrator. She literally balanced work and family, soothing her baby with one hand and answering work emails with the other while I sat nearby, pumping milk for my baby.
I was bringing my son to daycare when I got a call from Jen Carnig’s husband Dan telling me that she was probably in labor. I rushed through dropoff, kissing my boy goodbye and giving an accelerated rundown of morning details. Then Dan texted me to say that the contractions were getting closer together. I started to run and appeared at Jen’s home sweating and afraid I’d missed the baby. But I hadn’t, and I watched my neighbor move deeper inside herself as she worked to bring her son home. “Let go,” she said over and over. She did, and Wiley was born.
When I photographed Lucy Lang in court, I was not yet sure about having a second child. I was starting to see daylight: we were sleeping again, and our toddler had become a little person with a winning personality. I was able to think more coherently about motherhood and how it was affecting me – I was able to think more, period. Did I want to upset things all over again? Lucy’s ability to shift between work and motherhood was reassuring. Moving among roles as a prosecutor, philanthropist and mother with competence and humor, Lucy secured a conviction in a drug-related murder just a few weeks before giving birth.
The most difficult shoot came when I was so newly pregnant with my daughter that I didn’t yet know why I was feeling anxious, sleepless and nauseous. I photographed Kayla Jones, a nurse, assisting with abortions and pumping breast milk on break in her scrubs. She had given birth at Buffalo WomenServices, the women’s health center where she worked, four months earlier. As I photographed abortion procedures, I felt that my reproductive experiences had been biologically similar, but not comparable to the ones I was seeing. Having experienced the exhaustion, stress and unrelenting demands of having a baby, I couldn’t imagine having to raise a baby I didn’t feel prepared to care for.
I photographed Petrushka Bazin-Larsen again recently. She has a new job and a new pregnancy, and we were both overtired and slightly overwhelmed by our work and families. But her wry sense of humor, quick mind and hard work were unceasing as she managed her job and her daughter after childcare plans fell through, and I got to play hide and seek with Ila among the office cubicles while her mother took a call.
Most recently I’ve been photographing Marcie Paper, a painter and artist’s studio manager. She works on conceptual paintings, which means that the artist comes up with the ideas, and then she does the actual paintings. It reminded me of how motherhood is a way of making another person’s life using your own. My children aren’t infants anymore, so I have enough distance to watch Marcie and again feel the tenderness and fullness of being born as a mother.
As with all things motherhood, I learn and unlearn as I go along. I haven’t come out of this project with a series of life hacks for having it all. But what I do know is that the women I’m photographing are putting it all together with a kind of hardworking grace and an ambition that co-exists with a deep mothering love.
Most mothers in the U.S. do work, but the term “working mother” has become charged. I don’t intend to make a definitive statement about the nature of the role: these are personal photographs. Instead, I’m photographing to feel a little less isolated in those times when exhaustion grows over my thoughts like a fuzzy mold; when my baby issues a crying diktat announcing that morning has broken ahead of schedule; when my husband and I blearily rush to complete our intricate partner dance of breakfast and diaper changes before the curtain falls at exactly eight a.m. and the double stroller exits stage left.
Working on this project gives me a sense of common struggle and larger meaning when I start to feel like a cartoon cozy mom sipping a survival cup of coffee in a “fun mug,” or hooting at Jim Gaffigan jokes when the kids are finally in bed, squawking over sloshing glasses of wine with my girls. This role is particularly strange in a field full of masculine vision and constant travel, where the stories and whiskey start to flow right around the time I’m ready to go to bed and maybe pump a little milk if I’m feeling responsible. This is the nature of my life these days, and I want to understand it by photographing.
With love and ambivalence, working mothers seek to integrate our working and mothering selves. I am sustained by learning the stories of women who are engaged in the same difficult, beautiful work.
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Alice Proujansky is a documentary photographer covering women and labor: birth, work, motherhood and identity. She has been photographing Birth Culture since 2006, and Women’s Work since 2013. Her first book, Go Photo! An Activity Book for Kids will be published by Aperture in May 2016.
This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.