I’ve nursed a bit of a mom-prejudice.
I got married at twenty one. Nobody stopped me from doing such a wreckless, ill-advised thing because I have an iron will, and I was raised Mennonite. But the thing a lot of people took issue with was the decision my partner and I made not to have children. You can only hear so many aunts tell you, “You’ll change your mind when you’re older,” or sit through so many conversations about the colour and consistency of the shit belonging to a tiny human you did not give birth to, or see the disappointed eyes of complete strangers after you give them the answer they didn’t want to hear to a question they shouldn’t have asked anyway. I used to dream up complex answers about a bomb going off in my uterus.
Two things pulled me out of that prejudice. I’m not going to pretend I’m over it entirely; the language and tone of the paragraph you just read gives me away anyway, but I’m coming around. The first thing was aging nine years and realizing I could stop defining myself against other people. The second was reading the perspectives of moms like Andrea Mclaren. Andrea’s been posting images and words about her daughter Willa to Instagram for more than four years now, and the way she depicts her daughter and her experience of motherhood lets me glimpse a realm I had never considered before. On June 17th, Willa pops up on my Instagram feed standing among rocks, water, and brush, holding a pair of daisies in front of her eyes. Below, Andrea writes,
Months later those words still reduce me to tears. And I see what children can offer — a fresh perspective, a kind of return to the optimism of childhood, a sense of wonder. And while I know to the pit of my ovaries that motherhood is still not for me, I can appreciate that it’s the right choice for many people. More important is understanding that I can engage in meaningful conversations with mothers that go beyond diaper horror stories.
Andrea and I had one of those conversations a few weeks back while she worked on some embroidery, and I sat on her couch sipping water and fending off the friendly advances of her cat. We talked about motherhood, her work as an embroidery and cross-stitch artist, social media and mental health, because, believe me, they’re all connected.
FULL: I know you work as a caretaker for this building, that you run your Instagram feed about motherhood, and that you stitch. What are all the jobs you’re cobbling together at this point?
Andrea Mclaren: I do the mom thing. That often is work, as well as sometimes not being work. And then the care-taking here. I do prep cooking when it suits, when I have time, and it lines up with other jobs.
The stitching I would say I do more as a hobby at this point. It’s something more for my head than for making money. I still get a lot of people requesting orders, but I haven’t been taking as many paid jobs. I did a bunch for a while there, and something about involving money in the process, it got a little out of balance.
FULL: I think taking something creative that you’re doing as a hobby to relax and then turning it into something paid changes the way it feels.
AM: I was really hesitant when people started to ask about purchasing stuff, because I didn’t intend to sell anything at the beginning. The conversation around what my work is worth scared the shit out of me and brought other things into my mind. Is it art? is it craft? and charging accordingly.
Money is a weird thing that I don’t think about much beyond surviving. It made it more negative for me than positive, so I stepped away from doing that a bit. It’s been nice this summer. I’ve gotten back to just doing it because I want to do it.
FULL: Have you grown up with stitching? Was it passed down to you?
AM: I did a little bit of it when I was around ten or eleven. I really loved embroidery thread, making bracelets. I got into hooking rugs with a kit that I got as a gift, but that was pretty short-lived.
I returned to it around 2012 explicitly as a way to keep my hands busy and stay off my phone. It was one hundred percent wanting to do something else with my hands. I started cross-stitching. It was monotonous in a really good way. At that point, I was pretty new with my phone and it had that initial really strong clutch on me — stitching helped release that a bit. Then I started enjoying it more, the creativity. And other people started to notice. I switched from cross-stitching to embroidery inspired by making something for a friend. In the process, my dad told me about my late grandma, who was a very talented embroidery artist, but in my relationship with her when she was alive, she didn’t really embroider anymore. I hadn’t known that about her. My aunts dug up some of her old pieces. Any natural ability that I have, it totally comes from her I believe. Our embroidery work is very similar. So it was passed down kind of unintentionally or inadvertently.
FULL: When I was younger, I spent a lot of time cross-stitching and making bracelets too, but that was pre-internet for me.
AM: Oh, for sure.
FULL: But once the internet became part of my life, that ended up taking a lot of time. When you’re a kid particularly, there’s so many hours you have to fill with doing things. Those hours can so easily be swallowed by technology. That can have its positive qualities and well as some real negative drawbacks. What were the things, for you, that made you want to spend less time on your phone?
AM: Feeling like my heart and mind were turning to mush. I really love learning new things and thinking about new ideas — being challenged mentally and emotionally. I think my life really reflects that. I’m totally up for learning new things, meeting new people, pushing the boundaries of my head and my heart. But picking up my phone, opening apps without thinking about it, just all that sort of repetitive behaviour, it definitely did a number on my ability to connect as easily. I don’t know how to describe it, but all those things that would spark in my brain about new ideas or new experiences, that spark started to really diminish. When I let my phone be a really repetitive thing in my day, and then I step away from that, it feels like I’m missing out on things because I’m not going to see what people post. But if I take a few days away, which I often do now, I realize that it doesn’t matter at all. There’s so much good stuff out there, and I’m a big proponent of the good of the internet. I have lots of online friends I’ve never met that influence my life in a really positive way, but overall it just took away from the things I like about being a human in a tangible world. I think that’s what I like about working with things with texture that I touch all the time. It just seems like a real antidote to that. I like finding that balance. I still love being on my phone, and I don’t demonize it too much, but I have to keep it in balance.
FULL: Phones and the internet can definitely take over your leisure time. You just compulsively pick it up without thinking about it. I sometimes get frustrated with myself, because I think it’s really important to not work, but then I want to be mindful about my not working. I want to really enjoy it.
AM: Totally. Now, after a long day of whatever the case may be, I’m going to sit and look at my phone for however long with a beer and it’s great, it’s awesome. I catch up with people, get inspired. there’s so many positives. I don’t want to say it’s this awful thing. My kid won’t ever know what it was like before we didn’t always have a computer in our hands. We’re the ones who do have to figure out the balance and how to handle the things that come with it. I think it’s important to set an example.
It all brings it back to being mindful. “I’m going to go into that space now, I’m going to go do that thing.” Especially if you’re a very sensitive person, like me, because you are opening yourself up to lots of opinions, other lifestyles, people who are going to have more than you or less than you. I think we need to be mindful and own the place social media has. I hate it when people go, “Oh, it’s just social media.” Like they think it shouldn’t hurt your feelings if somebody unfollows you or unfriends you. I’ve heard so many people over the past few years be embarrassed or ashamed that it hurts their feelings. But if it hurt your feelings, let it hurt your feelings. Maybe we should talk about it more. It is a real thing, and we’re the first generation of people trying to figure it out. It’s important to step away from social media and process it. I find that doing something like embroidery, as opposed to reading or watching tv, I can think about and process thoughts while still being present with something, not being totally swept away. Sometimes I need something to help me stay grounded while I’m processing.
I love the linear, straightforwardness of cross-stitch a lot. You’re working with mostly straight lines in different ways. It’s refreshing in its monotony. I think there’s tons of room for creativity with colour and shape. It’s a way of getting things in my brain out of my brain.
Embroidery is much more loosey-goosey, I usually draw something collaborative with somebody that’s commissioned it. I tend to cross-stitch more in the winter and embroider more in the summer. That seems to be, for me, a reflection. I don’t deal super well in the summer, I’m definitely a winter person. I sometimes feel quite off-kilter in the summer, and I feel like that’s reflected in the loose embroidery. In the winter, I’m much more focused, much more comfortable, and things are more straightforward.
FULL: Why it is that you feel more comfortable in the winter as opposed to the summer?
AM: I don’t like the expectations that I put on myself in the summer. I interpret a lot of summer things as just pressure to do, instead of just being. I don’t know if that’s an exterior pressure, or if it’s totally in my head.
FULL: Especially on social media, you see people out at the lake or going to a festival, and because we spend so much time inside during the winter, there’s this expectation that you’re supposed to be out, you’re supposed to be doing things.
AM: And the number of times people ask me, “What are you doing this weekend?” It’s like “Shut up! I’m not doing anything. Why do you even care?” I get very annoyed at those expectations.
And going outside, living in Winnipeg, it’s so small, and because I’ve lived here my whole life, I’m fairly connected to people. Sometimes it’s really great to go out and bump into people you know, and
FULL: sometimes you wish you could just be more anonymous?
AM: In the winter that feels much more possible. I love being outside. But as an introverted person in the summer, I feel oppressed by the heat, the noise, and feeling like a lot of the places I want to go, I’ll have to interact with people. It will always end up being fine and good, but sometimes I just benefit from being outside, having a long winter walk and not seeing anyone. I end up leaving the city a lot in the summer — probably just perpetuating that thing about people being out and doing things.
FULL: On Instagram, you post quite a lot about your daughter, and I know a lot of people look to that and find it inspiring and interesting, your thoughts as well as your images of her. I’m curious about some of your choices around posting about her and your experience as a mom.
AM: Initially, family members expressed concern about how much I share of Willa on Instagram. I joined Instagram when Willa was one-and-a-half or two, and it was during the separation of my marriage. I was burnt by being on Facebook, but I was very desperate at that time for connection. I was feeling unbelievably isolated going through a really brutal depression. I connected with a bunch of moms pretty much right away. They were strangers that lived in Europe and the States. Sharing images of Willa to my thirty followers at the time, I didn’t think about it that much, it just felt like sharing the mom experiences I was having a hard time with and making something good out of them.
As my following grew, there have definitely been points in time where I would stop and go, “How do I move forward from here?” As Willa became older and more aware of me taking pictures of her, it became clear, because of her personality, that I had to start asking her if I could take her picture. That happened when she was around two-and-a-half. Now, I always ask her before posting. When she was three or four years old, she didn’t really understand Instagram or know what it was. But there was a conversation I wanted to establish with her from the get-go that she would understand more as she got older.
I was really glad that we had some amount of communication about it, because as my following grew, people would recognize her before they would recognize me. We would be out at a coffee shop, and total strangers would recognize her. That stopped me in my tracks and made me think about what I was doing.
The vanity piece is something I ask myself about. How much of positing to Instagram is wanting to be seen? I don’t necessarily need to be validated, mostly I just want my isolated experience of raising my one child to be seen: disagreed with even or challenged is fine too. I just want to be visible sometimes.
FULL: I think it’s important to make space for different kinds of experiences. And putting your experience of motherhood on Instagram can offer something to people who have similar experiences, but felt alone in them. Or maybe they haven’t been able to puzzle it out and articulate all the pieces of some aspect and you can start them on that.
AM: I feel safe expressing my wonderings about what it’s all for, motherhood, being a kid, working, life in general. It’s big stuff. People will give me a hard time sometimes about the topics that I’ll bring to silly Instagram, but the thing you can’t ignore is that I get a lot of feedback and conversation via direct messaging and comments, which is what I’m after. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen as much in our day-to-day life. It happens with care-taking this building all the time. I have small talk that turns a little heavier, and I’m always open to it. I find that it’s nice to have a place where I can post a picture and some words and interact in a way that’s a little more comfortable and convenient.
FULL: With cross-stitch and embroidery, you talked a little bit about the line between art and craft. Something I think about is how activities that are more characteristically feminine get associated with craft versus art, and I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve thought about with the line between art and craft.
AM: It’s history. Scott and I were reading Willa the Berenstain Bears, and Mama is embroidering, or Downton Abbey, the women will be sitting and embroidering. I don’t identify as that stereotypical female, but then I’m sitting here doing the thing that’s portrayed as so female.
The stuff that I make, and I think a lot of needlepoint artists make now, is still decorative, but it’s also very expressive. We can take any sort of art medium — weaving and other textile arts — away from the domestic, but then I feel like there’s some kind of contradiction lying there. As much as I don’t ascribe to that identity, I very much am a domestic person. I prioritize motherhood right at the top. But I do it in my own way, which is how I approach this stuff too. Taking all the traditions, taking all the history, and then just doing it my way: same with motherhood, same with marriage, same with most of my interactions. Taking traditional things and pulling and pushing them and taking them out of their convention, that’s something I’m really comfortable with. Come hell or high water, all of the things in my life seem to get reworked in that way.
FULL: That’s something I’ve played with a lot. I’m a woman and a feminist, but also, I really love to clean and be in my home. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I don’t have to act “like a man” and disavow anything feminine to be a feminist. That can become it’s own kind of misogyny.
AM: That’s something in my early thirties I really sat and wrestled with quite a bit. I like wearing tight clothes, or make up sometimes, and feeling that whole “bad feminist” thing. But then realizing the whole point is that you just get to be exactly what you want to be, and you get to do it for yourself. Recognizing what point of dressing myself, what point of my activity in a day is influenced by culture, and how much of that is just totally because I want to do that. That’s kind of what it’s come down to for me.
FULL: And I don’t think you can ever totally pull yourself out of cultural influences, but I think I lot about default settings. I don’t want to do something just as a default, I want to have tried it another way and see what actually works for me.
It sounds like you’ve been able to take cross-stitch and embroidery and use them as a vehicle for not only artistic expression, but as a tool to connect.
AM: And the whole piece of why I started doing it, getting off my phone, helping out with my depression and connecting with people, the collaboration part has been hugely important. Like I said, I like to get to those deeper conversations, and paid work has led the way for lots of that. Especially with the lungs I was doing. They were inspired by a good friend who wrote a piece about remembering to breathe, and she really loves flowers or anything floral, so I thought I could do lungs with flowers in them, and she would really appreciate that. I sent it to her as a gift, and she loved it. Then I got a lot of commissions from people who had lung cancer, I did some for children that are dealing with lung issues, asthma, I did a piece that a wife ordered for her husband who’s a lung specialist. It just comes back to connecting in a new and unexpected way. That’s the point of everything for me.
FULL: What you’re saying is something I really connect to through my experience with photographing people. It can be a vehicle for these really great conversations and learning other people’s stories. But something I have to balance that with it realizing how emotionally draining it can be to have those experiences with people.
AM: I did this piece that was an anatomical heart with an owl and some specific foliage and flowers. It was for the mother of someone who had passed on. It was a heart-wrenching story, and I think it was a really beautiful healing process for her to talk through what would be in the piece. But it was so hard on my heart to stitch. Usually I’ll stitch for an hour or so at a time, but I just couldn’t with that one. The piece took so long. I don’t know what it is about that transfer of energy. I thought a lot about the experience of that family and it was very draining, but very rewarding to finish and have it go into the hands it was intended for.