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Programming a weekend of fearless conversation

Bec Kavanagh and Jamila Khodja, the programmers behind M/OTHER, talk maternal rage, parental honesty and mother guilt.

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The idea for M/OTHER, the Wheeler Centre’s new series centring motherhood and the parenting experience, sprung from conversations between Bec Kavanagh and Jamila Khodja, two mums and Wheeler Centre programmers who wanted to deliver events that bring mothers and maternal figures together for conversations that amplify voices, and help these communities feel supported and seen.

Bec and Jamila sat down to talk about the impetus for the three-day programme and what they hope audiences can take away from M/OTHER this March.

Bec Kavanagh (BK): What did you think being a mother would look like before you were one? 

Jamila Khodja (JK): I grew up the eldest of three girls and was always told by adults that I was very nurturing and would make an amazing mother one day. I took that to heart and assumed I’d be a natural mum, loving both the easy and the hard parts. I think I had an Earth Mother vibe in mind, and I feel like the actual experience was so far removed from that!  

Did you feel ready to become a mum?  

BK: No! I never thought it was something I wanted, as I’d never felt particularly domestic, but I had this dream where I was a mother and, when I woke up, the feeling of loss was so profound that I realised it was something I wanted deeply. But none of that wanting prepared me for the actual experience (which I still feel unprepared for, to be honest).

Did you have a lot of mum role models? 

JK: Can anything prepare us for the actual experience? My mother is my ultimate mother role model — I aspire to parent as she did in so many ways, especially how she chose to parent daughters. That can be a double-edged sword though, because I sometimes feel like I’m falling short of the incredible job she did. The mother guilt seems to be something we all feel in one way or another.  

Does it manifest in any particular way for you?  

BK: I’ve felt this more and more over the last few years, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m a working mum, or a single mum, or because my kid is older now, but the undercurrent of feeling guilty for being too divided/too tired/too frayed seems to get a bit stronger with each passing day? Month? Year? It’s that constant pull towards the ideal, which keeps on shifting. Like, does being a ‘good’ mother mean working really hard and making sure I’ve got enough to cover our expenses and provide? Or does it mean having heaps of free time to play and chat? Does it mean role modelling independence? Does it mean being a friend or being a hard ass? I feel like the reality is some amalgamation of all of these, but we’re constantly faced with these standards of perfection that are impossible to meet and just leave us feeling guilty and exhausted all the time. I think there’s a lot of pressure to silo off all the parts of ourselves and keep them hidden, so to not be too much mum in professional spaces, or not work too hard when we’re meant to be parenting.  

How do you navigate your various selves? 

JK: This one is a constant work in progress for me. I went back to work (out of necessity) when my daughter was only six months old, and I feel as though I’ve only begun to find a bit of balance this year (she’s two now). Largely, this is due to how flexible my work can be, despite working full time. I’m very aware this isn’t the case for most working mums. I’ve found that being open with colleagues and friends about home life is what works for me — if I’ve had a night of no sleep or a morning of tantrums at home before making it into the office, I will say so, rather than attempt to act as if everything is totally under control.

It’s not just the professional and mum selves though—I find myself navigating how to be a partner as well, especially when your child is young and so physically demanding. One of the hardest things for me is to have my daughter needing me physically all day and then for me to try and inhabit my own body again. I should try meditating or something, but who has the time?!

Do you feel that your work or ambition changed after having a child?  

BK: I think it changed more after my kid’s dad and I split up. I had this real urgency to reclaim some part of myself after that happened, and I guess it also shook me out of any cosy illusion of domesticity. So I’d say that I’m more ambitious now, although it’s hard to manage the guilt of chasing that ambition. And, of course, there are those very real limits on what I’m able to commit to in terms of time and energy and finances. It’s also made me question my own motivations, and to consider what I’m chasing and why. I don’t have a clear answer yet, but I do know that the thing that drives me now is very different to the things that drove me when I was younger. I spend a lot of time thinking about this question of what kind of ancestor I’d like to become, and my role in my communities. I’m really thankful for that shift, and for the sort of raw generosity that I’ve found in communities of other mums. There’s something really unifying about the experience, even the crap parts of it. I’d say that’s where our conversations around this series came from, wouldn’t you? 

JK: Absolutely! I remember when I started at the Wheeler Centre, I was so thrilled to be working closely with you – another mum! I had my daughter in 2020 and so I didn’t get a mothers’ group or anything. I feel as if we both created this series with that idea in mind, the concept of mothers coming together and feeling supported or seen. So much of mothering happens in this bizarre vacuum, where it’s just you and your child.

I really want M/OTHER to open the doors and windows on the motherhood experience for all to see. I know we’ve only programmed three days, when really, we could fill so many more, and there are still so many experiences outside of what we’ve been able to capture. What are the main aspects you hope people will take from M/OTHER?

BK: It could be weeks, and we’d still barely scratch the surface! I agree, I definitely want it to open the doors and windows, and I also want it to cast a critical eye on the systems and stereotypes that are really broken. I feel like motherhood is still seen as this gendered default by so many, and it baffles me how under-supported it is. So, while I hope people will take a sense of connection with them from these conversations, because we are all connected to motherhood in one way or another, I also hope that it acts as an amplification of the voices that are fighting for better systems of support and care and creates a space that is as galvanising in its fury as it is in its celebration. 



M/OTHER: a weekend of fearless conversation takes place Friday 3 March, Saturday 4 March and Sunday 5 March 2023.  

Tickets are available now. Explore the full M/OTHER programme here

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