An Interview with Artist Patti Maciesz
What led you to the work you’re making today?
When I was eight months pregnant, Trump was elected president, and something clicked in me. All this self-limiting and lack of confidence in myself went away, and I felt very clearly that it didn't matter if I had a voice or made art unless people knew about it. That's the one thing that I have respect for in the president: he understands marketing. It’s just repeated exposure to a concept, badgering people over and over to say your thing. And I felt like motherhood had a marketing problem.
Because I realized how little I felt prepared. I was the first in my group of friends to have kids, so I didn't really know what to expect. When you go on a ride, you get a disclaimer. I felt like there could be a really long disclaimer on what parenthood actually is.
And so I started creating these invoices that tracked how many hours of childcare I had done during the week, and faxed those invoices to representatives in Congress. But nobody really cared, and I didn't get any response from any Congress people or senators. So in January of 2018, I decided to invest in a PR agency to get the word out about my project. That let me leave behind the timid artist Patti and be more ruthless and detached and think about how to market the work. I knew I didn't want to pander or make it more palatable, and I was less interested in seeing it up in galleries. My target audience is other moms. My whole motto for the project is “once we know our value, we won't work for free.”
And it totally worked. I got on the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, and there was such a great response that I built a website called billthepatriarchy.com to help anybody calculate how much time they spend on cleaning, household management, emotional labor, etc. So far over 3000 people have taken the survey, we’ve gotten 15,000 people to the site, and probably over 100,000 have heard about it.
But there's nothing new or radical about my idea of wages for housework. After doing this project I learned about so many feminists, artists, and labor organizers who've been doing this since the 60s. What I wonder is how that message got lost. Why didn't it stick in popular culture? Instead of feeling ashamed that you took five years off to raise somebody or take care of a dying parent, what if it was treated like you did like a service to society? How do you get a Super Bowl ad about motherhood?
Can you say more about some of those changes that you felt in your life during pregnancy? And afterwards?
The biggest thing is that I didn't realize having a kid would be traumatizing. Because you only hear about what a bundle of joy they are.
When my son was born, I was really worried about postpartum depression because I have a history of depression. So I told the doctors it was really important for me to try and breastfeed. I had heard that it makes the chances of postpartum depression a lot lower. But Abraham was premature, and a whole medical team came in and said “we're going to take him to the NICU if you don't formula feed him.” And I’m like, “I understand that. I don't want to hurt my child, but isn't there any other way we can do this?”
Luckily, a breastfeeding nurse came and said, “well, why don't we just try expressing it into this bottle?” So we did that. And it worked. But I had to really advocate for myself and put my foot down while in a very disempowered position of being strapped to a bed. Right away they stop asking about you. It feels like you're just there for this little person.
And in those early days, when everything felt like it was on fire and I was waking up every two hours to feed this kid, it made me start thinking about how some women have absolutely no paid leave. Do women just go back to work two weeks after a C-section? C-sections are routine procedures, but they're super violent and intense — I felt like they didn’t put my organs back right. And how do you go to work when you don't sleep at night? What about breastfeeding? The doctors say you're supposed to do that for the first year. How do you go back to work and pump every two hours? The math around motherhood and the expectations of capitalism just don’t make any sense. It felt like I was barely surviving, and I had everything that I needed.
I felt like motherhood had a marketing problem.
You talked a little bit about this, but I’m curious about how radical of a departure this was from your previous understanding.
It was a radical departure. I was a little mad the first couple times I talked to my mom. I was like, “Why didn't you tell me how hard this was?”
Even worse is that I think I had internalized a lot of misogynist thinking. I remember working at companies and being kind of pissed when the pregnant lady who had a kid left at 3:30 PM. It's culturally taught that it's okay to hate mothers, that they get in the way of work getting done.
But Ai-Jen Poo and her work with domestic workers has been so key in my understanding of this. Like, “No, motherfuckers. We make all the work possible. We’re making everybody's fucking lunches. We’re preparing everything. We're not in the way, we’re the gears that are moving everything.”
My mom was a single mom. She had shit that she wanted to do and she just had to work. The sacrifices become really, really clear. It makes me sad. That's a lot of voices that are missing from a lot of conversations.
How do you feel about those conversations being specifically tied to biological motherhood? Because there are a lot of people with different who can’t get pregnant, or who are building families in other ways.
I struggle with this. Sometimes it makes me want to stop talking about motherhood in general, because I do feel like there is a version of it that can be very trans-exclusionary, or hurtful to women who can’t give birth biologically, or who have experienced pregnancy loss. I've come across people who are very hurt, traumatized, and offended by my work, because I'm complaining about something that they feel like they would die for.
But I have ultimately chosen to continue to make work that focuses on my experience. I just need to be really strict with myself. As the doors continue to open for me, how do I help them continue open for other women?
And how has your work has impacted your immediate relationships and your relationship with your partner?
My husband went into parenthood more doe-eyed and bushy-tailed than I did, so it was really intense once he realized how much of a bomb this is. A lot of the tension was in not knowing who was supposed to respond when, and who was supposed to do what.
One of the things that we did that worked really well for us was that we would take shifts. We had a schedule: one of us is on while the other one is getting some time off, because you really need time to yourself to recharge.
And I always joke that the YMCA saved me and the marriage through our first year, because they are one of the few places in America that has, like, $3 per day childcare. You can go as early as two months old, and you can drop the kid off for two hours and use the gym. That was revolutionary for me. I hadn't had more than 30 minutes away from him for two months. I dropped him off and went swimming, took yoga, took a shower — and I cried. I didn’t even remember I had a body that was mine.
I just need to be really strict with myself. As the doors continue to open for me, how do I help them continue open for other women?