Her Clay Heart is a Los Angeles based collaborative duo Carla Coffing (photographer, PDN 30) and Hanne Steen (writer, PEN Emerging Voices Fellow). With our multi-media platform, we use photography, video and prose to gather and share stories in the hopes of inviting a dialogue, based not on what separates us as individuals, but rather what unites us.
“When we started the adoption process they told us, “Lesbians are at the bottom of the totem pole, nobody wants to give their baby up to lesbians.” I was so offended and I said, “I’m a woman, I can have a baby! I don’t need any of your permission!” I loved having a baby, I loved being a mom, it opened something I didn’t know was in me.”
“I really wished to start my family over again. My mother and father were very complicated. I knew my having a son would make them happy, but it completely changed their relationship in a positive way. They suddenly figured out how to be parents and were totally in love with him and it was beautiful. Having my son was a healing thing for my family.”
“I love children but I’m not sure I have the space I would want to give to my child. There’s still a lot of my own suffering I’m dealing with and sometimes I don’t know whether or not I’m willing to let it go. I know it so well down there in the darkness of the abyss. It’s like home, and there’s just no place like it.”
I sat perched with sweaty hands in a breezy Los Angeles apartment as I was asked to close my eyes and follow a spoken meditation, concluding with the simple request that I consider a single word: “mother”. I was lead into a discussion where I spoke about my experiences and fears, musing aloud on the topic of motherhood in a way I had never considered I might need to. After 20 minutes and 20 or so unannounced pops of a strobe I had been introduced to writer Hanne Steen and photographer Carla Richmond Coffing’s ongoing collaboration, A Mother.
The following conversation occurred a few minutes later.
How did the two of you decide to start collaborating with each other, and what are each of your roles in that process?
Hanne: We both moved to LA 7 years ago and both of us were feeling creatively frustrated and unclear about what we were supposed to be doing with our lives. In many ways we were in the same place in our lives as women, so the collaborations came really organically, as a way to get out, take trips to the desert, and explore.
Carla: Seeing how another person can help you grow as an artist has been such a valuable part of the collaborative experience. I love being around other photographers, but I had never worked with another type of artist. Our collaboration allows us to create work that is more vast, and experiential. Even if nothing comes of an image we make, the process is so cathartic.
A lot of what we do is just holding space. Space for ourselves, space for our subjects. It’s like therapy. We want to be part of the collective voice, about motherhood, about love, about attachment, about loss. There is an emotional urgency to making our work because we believe in the healing power of holding space for someone’s story, and the resonance of that healing through the sharing of their story.
Hanne: And all of our projects originate from a shared experience that Carla and I have, although we are often coming at it from two very different perspectives. So this project is also about helping us process our own experiences within a larger collective story. And I think that we are able to tell these stories because our experiences with an issue are so often polarized. There is usually this tension in our relationship as we go through different aspects of our lives and I think that helps us be better collaborators.
“The moment I had my first child, I remember going home, being in bed, and after three decades of being a pretty fearless woman, I felt like I could never leave that house again, I could never let him out into the world. I had never cared so much about something before, myself included. I couldn’t fathom the thought of anything happening to him, and it created a real panic. I thought it was hormonal but it wasn’t because it’s thirteen years later and I have it almost more right now than I ever have. Sometimes I think the fear of losing my children is incredibly narcissistic—of course you don’t want their lives to end because you want them to have their lives, but really the fear behind it is that I would be left behind, and they are my lifeline, the same way that my mom used to be my lifeline. If she died I felt like I wouldn’t have any reason to live. I’ve never been suicidal, but I feel like if my boys were killed I would kill myself. In my brain there would be no question. I can’t imagine how I would live. Yet I read people’s stories all the time of how they get through it, they move on. I’m so obsessed with this topic so I’ve read a lot about it, and it seems like the body and the brain shut down just enough to keep you dull and alive. I wish I didn’t even think about this stuff.”
“When you ask what it means to be a mother to me today—maybe it’s a societal thing, I would expect myself to be like, “Oh it means unconditional love and joy and this experience that everybody wants!” And what came up for me was struggle, and loneliness, and the image was of me standing on this hill by myself, trying to manage it all. It’s a huge responsibility. They need a lot, and my shit affects them, and that weighs heavily on me. And when you do it alone, there’s nobody there to help hold you up. There’s nobody there to reassure you that it’s okay, to be that person you can lean on when you’re struggling so that it’s not so hard and it’s not coming onto the kids so much.”
So then this project was born out of each of you coping separately with issues of motherhood – did one of you decide it was time to do the project or did you come together at the same time?
Carla: I think motherhood is a theme we’ve wanted to explore for a really long time. For a while, Hanne had some resistance to the project because of some of her own personal experience, but for me, I’ve been especially interested in this topic because this past year and a half of being a new mother has been so confronting for me.
Hanne: I know when it shifted for me. For a long time, I was really resistant, I didn’t want to do it. But Carla was busting at the seams. It shifted for me after I came out of a relationship with someone who had a child and it was particularly painful when we broke up because I had to break up with his kid too. It was at this point that I was like, “This thing is hurting me, here is an arena where I can process that and I can talk to other women who might also be having these experiences.” Going through that break up made motherhood feel personal to me.
“I didn’t have my own life figured out at all, but I knew it was what I wanted for such a long time, and it was very purposeful. I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do first. I didn’t get married. I didn’t have financial security. I still can’t believe I pulled it off. I feel pretty lucky.”
“I prioritized being an artist, and I couldn’t have everything, and that was the most important thing to me. I’m beginning to accept that I might not have a life that has biological children in it. Of course I have fears that I am going to miss out on this deep life experience that is incomparable to anything else, but I also know that it’s loads of hard work. Your life isn’t your own anymore in a way, and it isn’t something to be taken lightly. I feel like there are different ways of playing a mother role for people. Maybe later in life there will be a point where I could adopt or foster or be available to be a mother figure without actually having to be a mother and that actually doesn’t feel like second best and that can be really rewarding.”
“I’m in mourning because I’m not going to have a baby. I never thought I wasn’t going to be a mother. My age decided. When I turned fifty I realized, “Oh, it’s too late.” I was so busy with other things that it never occurred to me that I would lose that opportunity. I think I would’ve been a good mother.”
Can you talk, Carla, a little more about your experience as a new mother and how this project became so suddenly urgent for you?
Carla: There is an “opening” that happens when you have a child that’s so so beautiful and so scary. When I became a new mother, I felt this dissolution of self and it made me feel very vulnerable. I experienced these unfamiliar highs and lows. I felt a new connection to the universe, and a new capacity for love — and then at the same time, I felt a new depth to my loneliness and so much uncertainty about myself. I was having feelings of shame in admitting that it’s really hard. And I felt selfish missing my work, my time.
We want to create community, and a safe space for our subjects to share their stories — and to have their stories hold space for other women to relate their own experiences to. I want to take out that taboo, that fear of discussing this issue. Mothers are such a vulnerable population, whether you’re an empty nester or a new mom who doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing or you don’t want to have kids, it’s my hope that this project can help heal the mother in all of us.
“I know that I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for my first child. I had her when I was twenty-one, I was a baby. She was born into chaos, into a very thick, toxic dysfunctional situation. She became my higher power. She gave me this sense of purpose and hope. She injected a sense of worth that I never had until I had her.”
“I had ten abortions as a late teen and in my early twenties. Finally, after a series of terrible choices, I thought I wanted a child. I realized I wasn’t going to pick the right person if I followed my heart so I just followed my mind. I went with an ex who was an outstanding, kind man. I knew that even if I screwed up, he would be a good father. I wanted my kids to have a good father, a present father because I didn’t have that.”
“I’m sure it is an amazing experience to bring life into this world but I feel like that is not what I’m meant to do. People tell me that I’m going to regret it because I won’t have anybody when I’m old but I tell them that is not what kids are for.”
Hanne: We want to tell stories about what motherhood means today. This project is meant to include members of the LGBTQ community, men (on their experience or perspective around motherhood), everyone. We’re addressing what the archetypal mother means in our culture today. We want to include all experiences of motherhood. A big part of this project is about creating community, creating a dialogue, so that we don’t all feel so along with our thoughts because that can be incredibly isolating.
Carla: It’s a relationship that’s unavoidable. Everyone has a mother.
“There are women who just know they’re supposed to be moms and I just don’t know that feeling at all. I don’t know if that means I’m just not ready for it or if I’ll never be ready for it. I wonder where that innate instinct comes from and why I don’t feel it.”
“The most fun thing about being a mom is to do stuff with their kid, like taking them to the park or watching something with them. The hardest thing about being a mom is having to deal with all the baby stuff, like making them go to sleep and making them stop crying.”
“I think there’s a part of my mother that sees me as a reflection of herself. When I came out to my mother I realized I had disappointed her image of herself, and that was very difficult to navigate. It took a while to get past that, to realize there was always love there, it was just her own shock, her own fears, and expectations. She’s my mom, that’s all there is. There’s something unbreakable about that.”
How do you see this project evolving into the future?
Carla: Because this project is so much about the process, and we grow every time we do it I see us continuing this conversation for a long time.
Hanne: We’re hoping to incorporate other aspects into the work as well. Video and audio, writing, and curating stories from other artists around the theme of motherhood. We could do only this project for the rest of our lives and never hear the same story twice.
“You worry if you can provide your son or your daughter with everything they’re going to need, you worry about feeding them, giving them the right education. Till they grow up, they’re gonna stay under your skin till you die. Your job is not done when they leave the house. You still worry about them, about their kids. If you think you’re done with your job and you can enjoy your life, you’re not. This is me maybe. I’m still emotional about my kids, I still care about them every moment, I want to hear about what they do during the day, during the next hour.”
“Being a mother right now would be so incredibly insane. I’m just starting to get it together and if I had to take care of someone else, I would not be a fun mom. I’d be the really uptight, stressed-out mom. I don’t even have room for that magical partner who could come in and be the father of my children. I’ve made everything so specific for me. I have everything for myself but I want to have space for that person. I’m working on making that room. Like rearranging my furniture so that it’s nice for other people to be in my space. Or getting a queen sized bed instead of a full-sized bed. And then motherhood—I’ll work on that when that happens.”
“I have a lot of sadness in my family. Two years ago my middle sibling shot himself in the head. There’s a lot of weird weight associated with suicide that’s not like a car accident. I had talked to my mom that day and she had said something about my brother—it wasn’t particularly bad, it was just sort of a sting, but then he passed away that night. Suicide is so loaded and everyone feels so much guilt. Words have so much weight, you have to be careful what you say and when you say it. I think about that with my son, but he’s a toddler so it’s different, and I think about how happy he is. We’re in a good place and I feel very fortunate for that.”
As much as she couldn’t relate to me, she always believed in me. Through all the shit that I have done, the times that I have been arrested, the times that I have called her and said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” she was always just there for me to figure it out myself. When I moved out to LA I was twenty-one and I didn’t know anybody. She sent me with a list, because she is a Virgo. There were three or four things on the list: “Don’t wear midriffs. Say your please and Thank Yous. Money is the root of all evil and cocaine is the Devil’s candy.” I was like, “What the fuck,” but that’s all I needed to know from her because she believed in me for filling up all the rest. That is what I think of my mother. Someone who fully believed in me and who has been there for the outline but trusted me enough through all the other stuff. I failed so many times and she never showed me that I failed. She’s a hardass too. I would be like “Mom, I don’t know what to do,” and she would say, “Well, I don’t know what to tell ya.” But it’s because she believes in empowering me. Because of that, I don’t have fear. Because of that, I try to think of myself as a solution-based person. Because I was never babied, I was always believed in, I am a very protective person for the soft person that is inside me.
Oh, I was so happy to be a mother, so grateful. You see, I had difficulty getting pregnant. I had many miscarriages. You know, God gives you blessings, but after all of my miscarriages I worried that God was not being kind to me. But God does care, and he cares about me. He gave me my children.
To see more of Carla and Hanne‘s collaborative work, please visit their website.