My partner Adam and I have been together for 11 years. Adam’s a TV and film director, and I’m an artist. I always knew I wanted to be a mother – it was very important to me. I have six siblings and wanted to have a big family as I loved growing up in a full house. But after having two I realised I was content not to have any more. Now that Nancy and Albert are both at school, I have so much more time to work. My creativity probably satisfies any leftover broodiness!
There’s nearly three years between my children. It’s the same gap as the ones I had with my older and younger brothers, which was something I wanted to replicate. It’s close enough to have things in common, but not too close that they’re competitive. The first couple of years might have been a bit more challenging because of their proximity in age, but when I watch them together it now, it makes those many sleep-deprived nights feel worth it.
I was excited to be pregnant first time round. But I was also scared I’d do something wrong, so I followed the medical advice to the letter. I didn’t want to hear anything dark or scary but ended up having terrible morning sickness, which landed me in hospital on a drip. Once I got my appetite back (at around four months), I made up for the lost calories and devoured everything (I gained around three stone during both pregnancies). Thankfully, there was time during that first pregnancy to read all the books, do the pregnancy yoga, and look after myself a bit more.
When I was pregnant with Albert, I was a full-time mum already. Nancy was two and Adam was away for large periods of time with his job. Plus, I was working on a large commission for a hotel in New York and we moved house. I don’t think I read a single book, did any yoga or took one day off! When Albert was born, he didn’t sleep at night. I think he was so used to being on the move and the stillness was too weird for him.
Even so, I was less anxious when I was pregnant with Albert. I still followed all the rules – they had worked during my first pregnancy, so I didn’t want to change anything. The only difference was explaining to Nancy what was going on – I didn’t want her to have any negative or jealous feelings towards the bump. Thankfully, since Albert was born, they’ve always been very close.
Nancy was induced at 42 weeks. Three days after pessaries, drips, titanic contractions and her heart rate not agreeing with the induction drugs, she was stuck back-to-back at 9cm dilated, so I had an emergency caesarean. I was in a lot of pain for a good eight weeks afterwards, which surprised me. With Albert, I wasn’t even sure I was in labour. I’d never experienced a natural labour and had a false start a couple of days prior, so it ended up being a mad dash for the hospital at 3am. He was born about 90 minutes after we arrived, so we were able to be home by the evening. It was such a relief – I didn’t know how I would cope with another caesarean.
When Nancy was born, we couldn’t have visitors at the hospital. Norovirus was doing the rounds, but it was a blessing to have that time with her and Adam without any distractions, establishing our little family unit. Nancy and I were both exhausted from the labour, so it took a few days to find a rhythm with the feeding. We were so desperate to get home and Adam was able to take a good amount of time off work to look after me. We also limited visitors to one a day, so I didn’t get too tired.
Albert was born at the beginning of winter. A couple of days later, Adam and some members of our family – who had generously taken time off work to help out – all got the flu and Nancy got an ear infection. It therefore ended up being a very different experience. Albert also had very bad colic, ending up in hospital for three days at a couple of weeks old as his stomach was so distended. The bumpy start is probably what’s made Albert and I so close.
When I was pregnant, I was recommended Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth. It tells the stories of lots of different childbirth experiences, so I was aware each experience was unique. I was also so grateful to have an open-minded NCT teacher who prepared me for surgery should my labour not go to plan. She explained the roles of the various people that would be in the room, which was so good to know, as it might have freaked me out even more than I already was…
After having Nancy, I found I was able to work. Babies sleep a lot, and she went on her first site visit at just two weeks old. She also had devoted grandparents, which gave me more time. With Albert, I took on a big commission when he was about six months old, but looking back perhaps I shouldn’t have. Adam was travelling a lot, so I had decided to focus on the children until Albert started nursery. This wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew it was only going to be for a short time. I also knew I was in a very privileged position to be able to invest a lot of time in the kids. In hindsight, this has helped me appreciate what I do and allowed me to get back into it in a very focused and deliberate way.
It is possible for mothers to work – but only if they have a solid support system. With the right childcare, everything else falls into place. I’m currently preparing for my first solo show since I had Nancy, and I’m so focused. Meanwhile, Adam’s been very supportive with the children to allow me more freedom. That said, I do feel guilty when I’m not with the kids. But I have two signs above my desk to remind me I’m in the right place. One says: “Your children don’t need you to save them, they need to watch you save yourself.” The other is a Carl Jung quote: “There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent.” They’re both mottos worth remembering.
As a parent, I try to be relaxed. My rule is, if it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else then it’s okay. I once took Nancy into nursery exasperated because it had taken me an hour to get her dressed. Her teacher suggested I let her come to school in her pyjamas if she was being difficult. It made me realise we’re so conditioned to do things a certain way and it’s liberating to realise some things aren’t actually necessary. Adam is such a fun dad – one of the things that made me really want to have a family with him was watching how brilliant he is with kids. He’s also a great photographer, so it’s been special watching him document their childhoods.
Growing up in a house with so many siblings was fun. It was loud and my mum was always there, cooking for everyone or herding us to the park. I’ve tried to recreate as many of my childhood memories as I can for my own kids. I want my children to grow up not being afraid of feeling their emotions and to really embrace all that life has to offer.
Both the children are very creative. It’s not hugely surprising given what myself and Adam do for a living, but the kids love coming up with ideas for Adam’s shows and playing with his old slides and projectors. They’ve also had a lot of exposure to art, although I’m conscious of not forcing it. I try to give them space to find their own paths rather than imposing mine on them. I try to follow their lead – even if it isn’t what I expect.
Being a parent is really rewarding but there are some really difficult moments. Parents should feel able to talk about this more – specifically how tough it can be sometimes. It won’t make those moments easier, or make them go away, but it can help you remember you’re not alone in this.
Motherhood has given me such perspective. It’s helped me to see things as a bigger picture and made me realise I’m much stronger and resilient than I thought. The biggest lesson is not trying to be a ‘perfect’ mother – it simply does not exist. It’s much more important to be accountable, realistic and fun. Those are three principles I try to apply to all areas of my life.
Martha’s first exhibition in a decade, Mixed Messages, opens at the Nonemore Gallery at Rathbone Place in London on Friday 26th November. Follow @MarthaFreud on Instagram.