Art for Baby – creativity and mental health for mothers and babies

Annette Reilly-Drummond, Learning Assistant, GoMA

“It is the strange lot of young mothers to be never alone, but often lonely. […] for many women, particularly those heroic superbeings we call single mothers, loneliness stalks the days like a tiger. […] You can smell a new mother’s hunger for company like the tang of vinegar, a little too strong, a little too sour.” 

Nell Frizzell, The Guardian, May 2018 

Art for Baby at the Gallery of Modern Art began on a Tuesday morning in March 2019. The programme, aimed at mothers with babies up to 1 year, developed after years of research and experience by the Learning department at GoMA and our ongoing focus on mental health and women. The date for the beginning of the programme corresponded to the opening of “Domestic Bliss”, new semi-permanent exhibition in our Gallery 4, which explores domestic labour and feminism, public and private space, intimate relationships and historical narratives.

According to recent research by the British Red Cross and Co-op, over 80% of new mothers experience loneliness in the first year of their child’s life, whilst half the women surveyed by the National Childbirth Trust last year reported that they experienced mental health issues or emotional difficulties in the year after the birth of their child. It is a strange yet piercing fact that what are meant to be the happiest, most fulfilling days, weeks, months of your life can also be the loneliest, most exhausting, sleep deprived and isolating that you may ever remember to have experienced. 

This was my memory of my own journey as a new mother. Maternal mental health matters. As a creative institution, the ethos behind our work in the Learning Team at GoMA has been to support and nourish the link between creativity and our mental health, to open up new ways of communicating with people who would benefit from this knowledge and experience, and to ground it to artworks which we chose to put on display. 

Art for Baby – A Walkthrough

Nick Waplington, Untitled, 1994, courtesy of Nick Waplington, Glasgow Museums 

“Untitled, 1994” by Nick Waplington, on show in GoMA’s exhibition “Domestic Bliss”, is the starting point of every of Art for Baby workshop. This is a powerful work, which initiates a discussion with participants on domestic life with new babies. As Waplington’s artwork masterfully represents, this is raw, unflattering, messy, chaotic and yet the unfiltered joy and beauty in this is apparent. As said in conversation with Lauren McLaughlin of Spilt Milk Gallery, “this is where the beauty lies.”

There is an unspoken acknowledgement that just by beginning the conversation at the Waplington artwork, an open, real communication between new parents is encouraged. The photograph sets the tone of how the rest of the sessions will unfold. 

During the first part of the session we encourage mothers to explore the gallery  and look at artworks with their babies in their arms, enjoying the experience with them. Although the needs of their baby is always their main focus, the workshop provides the physical and emotional space to have a creative conversation with a group of peers. Just like the Waplington photograph, Art for Baby is about embracing the chaos that having a room full of mothers and babies ensues. It gives them “permission” to be both mother and participant.

For the second part of the session, we head to our rooftop studio, which we arrange into a comfortable and relaxing space. We provide beanbags, soft foam mats and cushions, carefully curated sensory toys and books, so that the mothers feel free to chat, whilst feeding or soothing their babies. 

Each workshop lasts four weeks, during which the group works together on a small creative project. We have made together soft cushions, toys, puppets, all handmade keepsakes for their babies but ,more importantly, for themselves. 

Our impact so far

We believe that Art for Baby is different from typical baby groups. Walking into a room full of unknown other mothers can be daunting but, through our non-judgemental approach, we try to change that narrative to a much more holistic, warm and creative experience, which links creativity, art, and mental health. 

The impact of this process on the participants has been incredibly positive. This has been demonstrated by the regularly fully booked workshops which, in 12 months, have been attended by roughly 900 participants. 

We have broadened the audience to include fathers, carers, and grandparents to accompany the mothers.  

The greatest outcome is reflected in the feedback left by the participants. 

‘Thank you for hosting ‘Art for Baby’ we have absolutely loved it. Pregnancy and childbirth triggered mental health issues for me, so coming along the first week was a huge step for us. Over the weeks my baby and I have made new friends and my confidence in being a mum has grown. I have also rediscovered my creative side. Making things has been so mindful and fun.’

‘We have been coming to ‘Art for Baby’ every Tuesday. It is such a supportive environment. We make things and can feel free to share our experience of motherhood. I love the pace and creativity’.

‘I can’t praise these classes highly enough. I have struggled being a single parent and this is a safe, welcoming space to socialise with my baby. The opportunity to be creative always improves my mood and well being and this helps me cope with my baby and the long days.’

We hope to continue this in 2020-2021, to cast our net wider and to reach out to vulnerable mothers in the most deprived parts of Glasgow and its outer regions.

I would like to thank the whole GoMA team, the Learning Team and the Front of House team who deal with constant enquiries about the availability of places, and an ever increasing waiting list for our Art for Baby workshops.

I would also like to thank Dr Angela Massafra (Learning & Access Curator), Katie Bruce (Producer Curator), Dr Anthony Schrag (Senior Lecturer of Arts Management and Cultural Policy, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh) and Lauren McLaughlin of Spilt Milk Gallery, whom my conversations with have continued to inform and develop this project.

And to Nick Waplington, whose artwork has continued to constantly inspire the work that we do.


Leave a Reply