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This Mom Says: The Egyptian Artist Telling the Complex Story of Motherhood Through Illustrations

We always hear about how amazing it is to be a mother, but Mariam El-Quessny wants to shed some light on the truth, by portraying both ups and downs in her 'Motherhood Illustrated' series.

It takes a lot to be a mother. It’s the one occupation that you can’t just try out for a stretch of time, before deciding that it's not your thing and moving on to another vocation. Motherhood is a lifelong commitment, one which involves plenty of juggling, and a lot of crying. We've all seen it; whether living in a household with a mother, or a father who had to take on the role of a mother. Some of us haven't had the chance of having parents, and ended up taking the maternal role while growing up.

With that role, there tends to be a lot of unspoken thoughts and repressed emotions, usually for the sake of preserving a happy family. Mariam El-Quessny, an Egyptian mother, interior designer and artist based in California, channels all this in Motherhood Illustrated - a series of ink and watercolor paintings that tell the story of motherhood. The illustrations are compelling renditions of photographs, each post beginning with "This Mom Says," followed with personal anecdotes submitted by mothers, or about mothers.

This Mom Says:

““It took me 40 hours to birth Zein who was so set on having his way this early on in his life. A home birth developed into a c-section, and for his first few months of life, he only slept on my chest. And that is how it started, I sit next to him during his naps, willingly. I sleep when he sleeps at night, willingly. I write this as he sleeps on me, one year old Zein el Abedin. I can see how much he’s grown over the past year, I know I have grown, too. I have grown comfortable in the space and time I give us both - that I would have otherwise labeled as 'wasted time doing nothing.'"

Mariam El-Quessny Says:
"The original photo was taken on November 23, 2017, two weeks after my mom died.
The photo was taken next to her nightstand. It was a mess and I made sure to criticize her for that.

I’m left now with a whole lot of stories of a single mom who made it work. 
I never saw the sweat or tears and probably wouldn't have wanted to. 
This mess is a reminder of her realness, her humanness, and her struggle. 
I love you and I see you."

As a mother herself, having to balance home and family with her job, Quessny admits that she struggles to find time to work on her recreational hobbies - chiefly art. The stories published in the project's album tell similar tales of struggle to find work-life balance as a parent. There is a lot more to motherhood than just "the joys and wonderment that are often associated with motherhood,” Quessny said in her project brief. “The series also captures instances where [motherhood] is experienced as loneliness and loss.”

There tends to be a lot of unspoken thoughts and repressed emotions, usually for the sake of preserving a happy family.

Some of the stories published in the project's album tell similar tales of struggle of finding parent-life balance; other stories are heartwarming, uplifting, or heart-rendering. Submitters can choose to remain anonymous within their post.

"[There are] many different ways motherhood is experienced," the brief continues. It's not all rainbows and butterflies like we usually see in our social media feeds; there are plenty of thoughts that some mothers have and are afraid to openly voice, in fear of creating an uncomfortable environment. This fear stems from the 'negative attitude' towards the unconventional image of a woman in Egypt, according to Journal of Nursing Education and Practise

This Mom Says:
“Nadeem was diagnosed six months earlier. Ramy was three months old in the picture. March 2010. Between grappling to learn about Autism to help Nadeem and a new birth, I was overwhelmed beyond words. And it was Ali who could see it all, every single layer, and catch it in this moment.”

Quessny told us about her own personal experience, transitioning into motherhood. It's an overlooked feat that many tend not to acknowledge in more ways than usually is spoken about. Quessny discussed the identity changes that she experienced. 

"It starts with losing control over your body during pregnancy, and then painfully pushing this ginormous creature through your body," she told CairoScene. "For that to happen, your body transforms once more, expands, tears, then heals." She also talked about the surprises of breastfeeding for her, and how she's lived all her life without hearing about the astonishment and state of bewilderment that hits a mother when such changes to your body. "Think about every person on earth; a mother went through all of that to start them off into this world," she added.

There are plenty of thoughts that some mothers have and are afraid to openly voice, in fear of creating an uncomfortable environment around them.

This Mom Says:
“We physically lost my love, his father, our supernova six months after this photo.
There comes a lot of moments when I really wish I’m sharing everything with Amro, but it's our son I’m raising and that what matters now. Joy, love and gratefulness are my everyday; but so is loss, heartache and grief.”

We can't imagine it ourselves, having never been mothers yet; many expect to be mothered, inconsequentially asking for favors and requests, while expecting to be receive unconditional love and support. Quessny hopes to establish a dialogue for mothers to talk and reach out, as well as a reference for non-mothers or mothers-to-be to get a better picture of what motherhood is actually like, rather than the rosy Instagram pictures and stories we've grown accustomed to.

"I want my work to be truthful, to portray the invisible struggles of mothers in their hard-working lives," Quessny said.

Check out the full album on Mariam El-Quessny’s Facebook Page here.

Main image from Mariam El-Quessny's Mother Illustrated Series.