Pin It
Sophie Ebrard 01
Photography Sophie Ebrard

Sophie Ebrard’s photos explore the conflicting emotions of motherhood

The photographer speaks to friend and writer Jo Forel about her latest project, which takes us along for a tender, uncomfortable ride through motherhood

“He fixed me,” I say, looking down at my yoghurt-smeared son. Ebrard glances at me in a moment of sudden recognition. She looks down at Louison, her second-born, a girl. “She fixed me too.”

That was the moment that photographer Sophie Ebrard began to talk to me about her latest project. Friends since the heady, headachey days of advertising careers and zero responsibility, we were together for a rare weekend in London. It was different this time, full of naughty steps and pancakes for breakfast. Louison, by this point, was a dribbly, wriggling creature, learning to toddle and tantrum. But it’s not what she was learning that matters. It’s what she’d already taught her mother. 

“She transformed me. When she was born, I was reborn.” Months later, Ebrard and I are apart again, calls and emails bouncing between Catford and Amsterdam. 

Ebrard is about to throw open the doors to her home and the darkest recesses of her heart in her new exhibition, I Didn’t Want To Be a Mum. The show is a multi-sensory experience where images of herself and Louison are heightened with smells and sounds. Room by room, picture by picture, we wander through Ebrard’s visceral, intimate and therapeutic journey through the most sacred relationship of all, that of a mother and her child.

“I felt sadness... I experienced loss for the woman that I had been and uncertainty about the woman that I would become” – Sophie Ebrard

It began with the birth of her son in 2013, at the exact point her photography career was taking off. Small and charming, Ebrard had always taken pride in her ability to slide into a community, to morph into any role. But when Jules arrived after a long and complicated labour, motherhood didn’t fit. 

“When I became a mum, it was pretty much a slap in the face…I wanted ten more years to enjoy my life the way it was. I didn’t want children to disrupt this beautiful path I was on. I was determined that motherhood would not own me, or ruin me. I fought against its uncool image. I had just been shooting my best personal work on porn sets, how could I now push around a pram?”

But motherhood is the myth of all myths, so you play the game. Carry on, as usual, wear the dungarees, hope for the best. Blind to the fact that you might have been ripped apart, sewn back up, and exhausted to the point of delirium, society mandates that it will be the most joyful moment of your life. But that famous rush of love doesn’t always come, and it certainly doesn’t always rush.

Matrescence, the term used by anthropologists to define the process and challenges of becoming a mother, is rarely mentioned. Nobody tells a woman that the identity shift from the person she’s spent decades defining to a mother can shake her to her bones. That a transition period is entirely normal. That it won’t happen overnight. That there will almost always be a phase of mourning for the ‘old her’. 

“I felt sadness,” Ebrard tells me. “I experienced loss for the woman that I had been and uncertainty about the woman that I would become. This in-between space left me feeling vulnerable and quite different from the brave, risk-taking, task-initiating, world-travelling, independent, and professional woman that I had been before giving birth. In fact, up until the four weeks before my son was born, I was shooting in different parts of the world. But everything changed with those first few weeks postpartum. I felt an intense feeling of isolation and helplessness.”

She, along with countless other new mothers, struggled, ashamed to admit how she felt. She dealt with it, as you do. She made it ok. And then, three years later, she was pregnant again. Louison, however, was a different story. This kid had clearly read the birth plan, emerging as intended: drugless, bloody, and at home on the sofa. As Ebrard healed, not just from the birth, but from the years of doubt and alienation, she began to think objectively about her experiences. About the conflicting emotions that come with the transition into motherhood. After all, we all feel it to some extent, so why aren’t we talking about it?

With so many taboos dropping like flies these days (it’s not a real dinner party if you haven’t disclosed your personal debt), it seems strange that maternal ambivalence remains unacceptable. It’s fine to be the ultra mum, airbrushed to poreless perfection with a nice line in #buggyreviews. Or the ha ha humble mum, who takes the ‘real’ approach but never lets it sit, always adding a wink, a joke or a gin to smooth the rawness away. Be any kind of mum you like, society tells us. But don’t be too honest, whatever you do. Don’t make us uncomfortable.

In I Didn’t Want to Be a Mum, there are no filters, no nervous laughs. The images are big and they are brave, pinkish pale skin against stark black backdrop. In contrast to her earlier work, where environment was as intrinsic to the image as her subjects, there is a minimalism at play here. In much the same way that mothering is all-consuming, you literally can’t see past the baby. We are faced with the uncompromising reality of a child. Her skin, in folds and dimples. Her violence, in the tiny foot pushing an overused breast out of shape. Her cry, supersized, the opposite of pastel-wearing, Prozac-beaming infants on televisions everywhere.  

The show is shot and set in Ebrard’s home, the intensely personal space where she is a mother above all else. And, striking as they are, it’s not just about the photographs. Like It’s Just Love, her sympathetic and critically-acclaimed backstage view of the porn industry, the exhibition uses a sensory approach. She has bottled the smell of newborn baby head. There are wrenching bawls echoing around the space. There is a diary entry which makes me cry. Ebrard is using every tool she has to tell mothers that it’s ok not to be ok.

Two weeks before opening day, there’s a nervousness crackling down the phone line from Amsterdam. The family are getting ready to move out and their personal possessions are being swept out of sight, out of mind. The photographs are inching their way out of the press. Jules, now six, has been painting all over a particular test print, great thick lines of red and blue snaking their way around the last image in the exhibition: the only one of him. Ebrard wonders whether to make it part of the show. Worries it’s a step too far. Worries it’s too “happily ever after”. Worries what people will say. Worries about her son. 

That’s the thing about Ebrard. She gives a damn. She cares. And it’s clear that she could never have created this exhibition if she wasn’t in a better place now. If she didn’t love both of her kids. 

I ask if she’s worried about the reactions to the show.

“Well, I’m naked in a few of the images, there are explicit pictures of Louison’s birth, including the moment she is born; and I reveal myself in the diary entry…it’s quite a lot. I won’t lie, it’s slightly scary right now. But I hope that starting an honest dialogue free from guilt or judgment will benefit future mothers. I hope it creates a platform for other women to come forward and express themselves without guilt or shame. And if I can help one person to come to terms with her feelings and start a conversation, then I will be happy. I would not have done this for nothing.”

And there it is. The title of the show lays it all out straight. It’s the phrase you might think but couldn’t say. Until now. Because I Didn’t Want To Be A Mum isn’t a confession. It’s a coming out. An education. A call to arms and a silent hug to every overwhelmed mother out there.