Hold my soul: Mothering while the world burns

Robin J. Freeman

We tell stories to make sense of our lives and to bear witness to the experiences of others.  Mothers tell their maternal stories to articulate what they know and who they are becoming as they mother (Ruddick, 1995).  What maternal stories will we choose to tell about our parenting in/through the COVID-19 pandemic?  Our realities shifted dramatically in 2020, as did our rhythms, priorities, relationships, responsibilities, and routines.  But our parenting did not stop—it could not stop.  

What follows is a glimpse of my own maternal story of becoming-mother during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Like so many others, I struggled to find a way to mother in what felt like a sudden shift to a parallel universe filled with physical confinement, new time constraints, and anxieties.  As I tried to move as a motherscholar (Matias, 2011) through what felt like an impasse (Berlant, 2011), I found artistic inquiry gave me ways to see the world and my movements within it with new eyes.  

Mothering as Becoming

I see mothering as a site of becoming (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994).  Becoming is a process of embracing variability and ongoing transformation, turning from stagnation to “create something new” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, p. 96).  As a mother, I experience my role as perpetually in motion, ever evolving.  My mothering practice shifts daily as I nurture, protect, and train my two children in an unpredictable world (Ruddick, 1995).  

My own becoming is connected to others.  I am enmeshed in a dynamic web of relations, both human and material.  My actions impact others; their actions impact me.  Karen Barad (2007) describes this phenomenon as intra-acting; she suggests that “particular possibilities for (intra-)acting exist at every moment, and these changing possibilities entail an ethical obligation to intra-act responsibly in the world’s becoming” (p. 178).  Relationships are in a constant state of flux.  It stands that my own becoming-mother is entangled in my becoming-with others, including my daughter and my son, and that I must consider how my movements in the world impact these delicate bonds.    

Sometimes events enter our lives that significantly disrupt our process of becoming.  These events force us to take risks with “who [we] think and feel [we] are and what [we] can become” (Massumi, 2015, p. 124).  I experienced the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as this type of disturbance.  I was teaching as a full-time music professor while working on my doctorate part-time when the virus came to the United States.  I lived just a few miles from the first epicenter in New Rochelle, New York with my partner and two children, ages three and six.  As we adjusted to being home together all the time, I struggled to find how to exist and persist in this space.  Time seemed to unravel.  A sudden swarm of variables—worries about health and safety, intensities of schooling two young children from home while navigating a sudden shift in my own full-time teaching responsibilities as a professor negotiating the now-permeable borders of home and work life—left me feeling disoriented, stuck, and drained.   

How could I parent in/through the intense discomfort of this “overwhelmingly present moment” (Berlant, 2011, p. 49)?  Every morning I woke feeling like I had already lost the battle for the day.  My doctoral deadlines and teaching load seemed to breathe down my neck as my children tugged at my hands and climbed on my lap, needing me to soothe them and to see them.  I found no rest; even in the evening, when the soundtrack of my children’s voices faded to peaceful sleep, I found myself on high alert.  This constant posture of defense continued to eat away at me.  In searching for a way to move through wave after wave of emotionally overwhelming moments, I became curious about how I could see my exhaustion not as a “state that needs to be cured” but rather a “threshold of transformation of forces, that is to say a virtual state of creative becoming” (Braidotti, 2019, p. 17).  If I viewed exhaustion as an invitation to “take [my] chances and re-invent [myself],” (Braidotti, 2019, p. 18) what might I learn, and how might I become?  


This multimodal arts-based autoethnography was constructed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The goal of arts-based research (ABR) is to invite “members of an audience into the experiencing aspects of a world that may have been otherwise outside their range of sight and to thereby cause them to question usual, commonplace, orthodox perspectives on social phenomena” (Barone & Eisner, 2012, p. 56).  Drawing on multiple ways of knowing, ABR uses forms of expression such as sounds and images to “convey knowledge that cannot be put into words.” (Jokela & Huhmarniemi, 2018, p. 17).  By combining artistic ways of knowing with autoethnography, adults can come to a deeper awareness of the self and others (Lawrence, 2005).  ABR can then give rise to “new constellations of what is visible and sayable” (Beyes & Steyaert, 2011, p. 100).  The power and possibility of the affective domain are central to the composition of this work.

To create this piece, I combined three forms of art-making: poetry, photovoice, and improvised musical composition.  The use of poetry in research is considered by Faulker (2020) as a “feminist methodology because of the focus on embodied experiences and attention to breath, line, form, and emotion-all things that speak to the body” (p. 20).  Photovoice research “places the medium of the camera into the hands of learners,” which gives them the “power to show and speak their own realities” (Clover, 2006, p. 275).  Lawrence and Cranton (2009) use photography as a means for looking “beyond the surface, beyond what is immediately obvious,” (p. 313) seeing the world with new eyes and inviting connections to emerge.  Finally, improvised musical composition offers a means for articulating what cannot be captured in visual or text-based modalities.  In improvising, individuals consult their own “internal music ‘libraries,’ built through life-long experience in hearing, feeling, and making sound, to musically converse” (Troester, 2014, p. 312).  These artistic modes of inquiry can inspire thinking about the intimate and sensory aspects of human experience (Thomas, 2021).  

Composing this work required a flexible approach.  Teaching from home with two young children, I did not have extended periods of time in which I could create.  I often took photographs while taking care of my children during the day, documenting my surroundings and the new rhythms of the pandemic, and used evenings to write poetry. 

After I had created a significant body of data, I allowed myself to be receptive to the artistic works that “glowed,” that “invited [me] in” (MacLure, 2013, p. 662).  Rather than searching for a singular interpretation that would explicate my experience, I moved pieces around, juxtaposing them to watch what new flashes might occur (Barad, 2017).  I discovered that this process, known as montage, generated “innumerable possibilities for re-membering the past” (Barad, 2017, p. 28).  I perceived different energy flows and patterns as I went between pieces, movements that resisted categorization and coding.  I felt a sense of amazement.  Viewing the data this way, I saw that it, too, was becoming, even as I was/am.  I freely composed the musical piece as an epilogue, months after the poems and photographs were taken, as a meditation on the assemblage of data.  

And so, reader, I’m at the point where I share these flashes with you.  What follows is a montage of artistic expressions of becoming, which are occasionally accompanied by brief stories.  You may enter where you wish and leave when you feel ready, allowing yourself to zigzag here and there.  The aim of this re-presentation is to create something new with each reading and reader, expressing the possibility of becoming.  You may notice an absence of theoretical explanation, of a definitive interpretation of the data.  This is done mindfully to leave a space for you to develop alternative imaginings alongside my own.  

My Becoming(s)

Figure 1. Tightly closed buds on a tree

It is a clear day, but biting.  I pull the collar of my gray coat closer to the nape of my neck.  We had to get out of the house.  I watch my children run on the pavement in front of the apartment.  I sit down on a concrete step and pull out my laptop, trying to respond to discussion board posts from my seminar students.  My responses come slowly from my fingers.  Is it the cold making me work slowly?  Out of the corner of my eye I see my son drop to all fours and hear him meowing in a plaintive voice.  He looks around, twisting here and there as if calling.  My daughter runs over to him.  I’ll take care of you, she says.

Figure 2. Broken robin’s egg

Macintosh HD:Users:robin:Desktop:egg.jpg

Our neighborhood is filled with birds.  On a walk one day, my daughter reaches out her arm suddenly, stopping me mid-pace.  Look, she says.  We crouch low to the ground to examine a broken portion of a robin’s egg.  The sun had solidified what remained of the liquid life growing within the shell.  She asks me: why did that happen?  I am not sure if she is asking about the solidification or the fracture.  I don’t know, I reply, thinking my response works for both.  We stay close to the ground.  We look to the trees.  We talk about mother birds and baby birds, and falling out of nests.  After a while, she runs off to play in a nearby clearing, but returns often to silently look at the cracked shell.  

Figure 3. Weeping willow from below

The unanticipated effects of breathing

It was simpler

When it was harder

When I didn’t think of every breath in

As a gift

That came out wrong

I mean

When I didn’t think of all my 


And how there are people

Just like me

With kids

Just like me

With lives they aren’t ready to leave

Struggling for a breath

All the little branches in my lungs

Sway in the breeze I inhale

(I think) they’re fine

But a man


A woman


Will try to breathe and find it impossible

Because this is now

This is not November 2019

This is April 2020

A year thick with grief

Figure 4. Airplane contrail and red foliage

Macintosh HD:Users:robin:Desktop:cut.jpg

I look up more these days.  Today there is a cut across the sky.  A tree the color of blood.  It could almost be a normal day.  Suddenly my three-year-old son says, “it feels like we’re on fire, and we’re fighting!”  I look back up to the sky and take a photo.     

Figure 5. Masked boy 


There were lots of wails today

But as we close in on the bedtime hour

This one hits me differently

Tears write themselves on his pinker-than-usual cheeks

And instead of trying to solve this problem (again)

Or calm him down (again)

Or distract him (again)

I let him go

I let him go and I see 

This tiny body in front of me

A perfect miniature person

Is my soul

My soul has been crying all day long

And I have been shushing 

And fixing

I finally look my little, weary, soul in the eye

Without a strategy for how to solve and move through

It crawls up in my lap

And I just hold it

Hold my soul

Figure 6. Mother alone with pile of books

They are restless tonight.  I can hear them in their bedroom, chatting, drinking water.  I’ve been in a few times already, reminding them to quiet down and find a sleeping spot in their beds.  How long will this go on, I wonder.  How long will any of this go on?  Tonight, I am worried about cramming in enough work on my dissertation advanced proposal so that I meet my deadline for my committee.  What does this matter, though, when the world is burning?  I slide down beside my bed to catch my breath, trying to ease the transition out of mothering mode and into researching mode.  Just a few more minutes, I tell myself. 


From the moment I wake

it’s hurry up

Dress, eat, car seats, school, kisses

Shuffle little bodies

Move faster 


Now the car sits in the driveway

Now the pajamas stay on past 9 am

But even with nowhere to go in this time vortex

I still say hurry

What am I teaching them?

What if instead I taught them to


Pat the seat beside me

Stroke the fine hair on their heads

What if I never said hurry again?

What does that day look like?

What does that life look like?

They run from half-eaten plates of pasta 

My daughter’s tinkling voice 

Says, ‘Hurry up, Lukie! Come on! Hurry!’

And they tumble toward the door

A spill of legs

From the bedroom I hear them 

‘Hurry! Pick up the toys!’

‘Hurry! It’s almost bedtime!’

‘Hurry! We want a story!’

I watch from the hallway as they scurry 

As they finish, breathless, they look up at me and ask, ‘do we have time? 

Do we, Mom?’

Did we move fast enough for you?

Figure 7. Tree buds in stages of opening

I imagine us all as shapeshifters, as blossoms still tightly closed.  We wonder, is today the day we see the sun?  Our very hearts push our petals out with more fervor everyday, hoping to break open, to expand.  The breeze rocks us.  The stream sings; the bees buzz close then fade as they continue on their way.  It feels like a new world is ready to burst into us and through us.  It calls; we shiver and stretch.  Can we dream ourselves into a new existence?  And if we can, are we ready?     


What does my striving to become mother sound like?   

What does yours?

Parting Words

We will not linger here long.  Through my arts-based inquiry, I have asked: how am I becoming in this impasse (Berlant, 2011)?  How do I parent in/through this crisis?  Through the lenses of becoming and arts-based ways of understanding, I awakened to ways I was intra-connected to my children, the natural world, and other parents across geographical and chronological boundaries.  There was no sweeping story to behold.  All I had were tiny, ordinary moments—walks, conversations, embraces, tears.  Art-making gave me a way to return to these moments that felt small, holding them in my hands, turning them over again and again.  It gave me a way to respond to chaos by remaking, reimagining.    

As we continue to mother through this pandemic and other human-generated catastrophes—racism, colonialism, climate change, to name a few—what matters next is how we learn to “stay with the trouble” in the face of the unknown (Haraway, 2016).  Could we learn how to see the world in ways that are ever more intra-connected?  If we embrace artistic ways of knowing, what different stories of mothering emerge?  And if we slow down enough to tell our experiences of becoming-mother, however fragmented they are, and witness to the power of others’ stories, would we—could we—story new ways of living and mothering for now and beyond? 


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