The awakening occurred at 1:27am with the pterodactyl-cry only uttered by toddlers. It continued around 2am when said pterodactyl joined weary moms in bed. Stinging tears splattered pillows with a swift headbutt to my nose, later accompanied by footied talons jabbing my ribcage as this tiny person became the human crossbar of a giant “H,” vertical moms arching precariously on either edge of the overstuffed bed. 5:30am came all too soon as both children arose, crows louder than any rooster, tired moms stretching their aching backs. Navigating this whole feminist parenting thing is complicated, y’all. As an artist, author, activist, and academic, I thought I had a handle on my identity and vocation; now I feel like motherhood is the only moniker defining my exhausted reality.
I was recently given the opportunity to speak at a conference for artists, academics, and activists, the so-called spiritual weirdos who think and create and do at the intersections of art, scholarship, spirituality, and social justice. It was enlivening and inspiring. What struck me, though, were the asides that often occurred when anyone asked whether I had children, and if so, what ages. Throughout my travels and during the conference, the consistent reaction upon sharing that I’m a mother of a two and five-year-old was, “Woah. You’re in the thick of it.” “Don’t worry. It gets easier.” “This, too, shall pass.” Rarely have I felt so validated.
Parenting littles has and continues to be harder than I ever could have imagined. I love my children. And I find parenting them incredibly challenging, exhausting, and draining. My wife and I have an open adoption with our five-year-old, a spiritedly rambunctious child with fabulous birth parents. We are fostering-to-adopt our two-year-old, a toddler who experienced more trauma in four months of life than many adults do in decades. They are curious and silly, playful and enthusiastic. We make every effort to queer our family and our parenting, paying thoughtful attention to children’s autonomy, subverting systems of power and dominance…all while living and working in an off-grid tiny house. Talk about close quarters.
Though I never carried my children in my body—something I can neither do, nor do I desire—I feel the endless weight of their tiny bodies each day as I brush my teeth, prepare meals, move through yoga poses, or attempt to be a professional artist and author. Once upon a time, I was a professor and a pastor, identities that defined and shaped me. I was an author and artist then, too, but those previous positions held more prestige, respect, and demanded that I comb my hair every day, something I’ve long abandoned as an artist-writer-mama living on an island. Along the way, I’ve questioned whether motherhood has overtaken by identities, struggling to find the creative energy and time to paint and write, thereby erasing opportunities to maintain financial sustainability, or an outlet for my creative spirit.
Recently, my wife accepted an additional job, thereby inching our family above the poverty line. At the cusp of the new year, we took time to reflect and decide how my vocation could be best honored now that I was no longer the primary breadwinner in the family. I don’t have to take painting commissions or writing gigs that don’t spark joy in order to pay the bills. I can choose. This is a luxury many do not have, and as someone who spent parts of childhood and adulthood working-poor, it is a privilege I do not take for granted. Still, I took this opportunity to be brave and bold, daring to take risks in my art and writing I otherwise avoided for fear of not selling.
Adding a visionary twist to the folk-feminist style that has defined my iconography paintings for a decade, I experimented with painting what honored and affirmed the complex realities dwelling within me. Mother. Artist. Author. Academic. Activist. Rather than continuing to view my scrambling, confetti-thrown approach to work—stolen in bits and pieces during naps and when we could afford childcare—as a hindrance, I decided to try and embrace it as part of my creative process.
It began with Mother Goddess, a continuation of the Virtue Goddesses in the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit. After a large canvas sat in my closet for weeks, I took it out and invited my two young children to the table. Using mama’s grown up paints and brushes made them bold, careful, proud. They each selected three colors and I guided them in covering the entire canvas in golds, greens, purples, blacks, and whites. Squiggles, swirls, blobs. Whatever they wanted. I explained this was the background of a new painting, and that I would paint over parts of it. The paint dried. The canvas returned to the closet until I could steal another glimpse of time to work on it.
First came the mother’s heart. The heart always comes first in my icon paintings. Red bled over my children’s work, but their colors and strokes shined through. Next came the mother’s face, lined with age, beaded with sweat, much like my own. Her greying hair tumbles out of its tie and, as in all my icons, her eyes are closed, but not necessarily because she’s enlightened, but exhausted. The faces of two young children fill her arms, the curls of their hair encroaching into her heart. Where I typically write the poetic cry of the icon’s heart, I wrote simply, “Mother.” Scrawled around the seeming halo that surrounds her head are these words: “at that fragile place where joy and exhaustion converge, her heart remains.” Stars fill the sky, reminding me both of the sleepless nights borne of having young children, and of my own mother who continues to embrace two of her children, even as her third child’s death scattered his broken body among the skies. Stardust to stardust.
The painting, which usually takes me a few days, took three weeks. In a cramped studio it remained, propped between paints and a laptop. In fifteen to thirty-minute chunks, I returned, etching out my life and vocation and family on canvas. Upon completion, I shared it with my children. My five-year-old pointed in pride and proclaimed, “I painted that,” continuing, “mama, this is so beautiful you can’t ever sell it. She needs to live with us forever.” He has said something along these lines ever since I’ve added this visionary twist to my style. Each time an original icon sells, he laments its loss, and I order a small print of it to hang in his tiny room.
My littles joined me in painting the background of my next two paintings, and I continue to steal away for moments of creation, all the while marinating on what images, shades, and colors will burst forth next. With a child on my back and a toddler around my ankle, I paint and write, protest and proclaim, a queer mother searching for my identity again and again and again.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the Founder and Creative Director of the Holy Women Icons Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion. A professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she is the author of seven books. As an author and professional artist, she is creating a retreat center with her wife and child on Hawai’i Island as a part of the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit.