Editor’s Note: For more “Moms We Love,” click HERE.
What defines womanhood? What do women expect from the world today? What does the world expect from women today? Freelance photographer Ali Smith has been on the hunt to answer these questions for most of her career.
For her first book of photography, Laws of the Bandit Queens, Smith selected 35 iconic women to photograph and requested that each of them give one “life-law by which she tries to live.” Women featured included Alice Walker, Sandra Bernhard, Mary Karr, and Geraldine Ferraro. As Smith puts it, she was looking to prove that “you could be a woman existing somewhat outside of societal norms and still succeed and do incredible things.”
Smith brought this same spirit to her next project, Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives. Over a 12-year span, Smith captured the stories of different kinds of mothers, all of whom were questioning traditions and paving their own paths through motherhood. Additionally, personal essays accompany Smith’s photos.
Early on in the project, Smith decided to photograph her subjects, not in the sense of a traditional portrait, but in the raw, chaotic, and vibrantly colorful moments of motherhood that are rarely depicted in photos. In one photo, for example, mother Hannah Bright has a spoonful of dinner in one hand and the back of her daughter’s pajama top in the other to stop the toddler from jumping off her chair at the dinner table. The essay accompanying this picture is equally as colorful and universal. Bright discusses the idea of, “wanting your body back” (and your old life) after having a child. She ends her essay with a message relatable to a majority of mothers. “The problem is that there are so many words you can use to express the challenges—exhaustion, loss of control, time management, lack of support, career compromises—but there really aren’t words that adequately express the joys,” she writes. “I just know that I’ve had more laughs—more genuine, joyful belly laughs—since Lizzie’s been born than I’d had in the previous 36 years of my life.”
Bright’s message speaks to something Smith aimed for when she created this book. Of all the diverse paths a woman goes through to get to motherhood, there is one commonality. “The depth of love that you can experience as a mother is profound and a lot of the best moments are experienced privately,” Smith says.
When she began work on this book, Smith had experienced motherhood from the perspective of a stepmother, but had not yet conceived a child herself. “Motherhood seemed like a profoundly important secret society that I wanted to understand more fully before I signed up to join,” Smith explains.
About six years into the project, Smith and her husband decided to have a child. Taking what she had learned about motherhood from her own mother, along with insights she’d gleaned from her book’s subjects, Smith envisioned her own ideals about how this child would be raised. This vision included the idea that parental duties should be shared equally between mother and father. Luckily, her husband agreed with these ideals, but like all new parents, there were twists in the path they had not anticipated.
“We equally believe that we should be sharing the load 50-50. But even with us on the same page about it, when we first had my son Harper, he was tethered to me. It was my breasts that were leaking. Joshua would get up in the middle of the night and make me a sandwich when I had to breastfeed, but it was still me that had to breastfeed,” Smith says. “There were privileges that came out of this constant closeness, such as forming an incredible bond with my child, but the balance still started to shift in ways we hadn’t expected. For instance, I worked a lot less; my husband worked a lot more. We each had to accept that there were certain things that we hadn’t planned for, but they were going to be that way anyway.”
Harper is almost 5 now. After a rocky road to publishing Momma Love, Smith is now enjoying the sweet joys of both being a mother and having a successful career. She often refers back to the wise words of the mothers in her book and says they have helped make her “a kinder, more patient…more satisfied mother.”