What I Have to Say: Michelle Gardella /// Reclamation of Self

“How do you balance it all?” she asked, and I could tell by her expression she was genuinely looking for a helpful response. Some people ask the question as a flippant compliment, but this woman’s eyes were searching.

“I am a hot mess,” I tell her. “I am a walking disaster who has, honestly, lost her way.”

She laughed but I could tell she was disappointed. I wanted to have a perfect answer for her, I wanted to tie my life up with a pretty bow and deliver the algorithm, tidy and simple. But I’ve never been one to be dishonest and the truth is, I don’t believe in perfection.

The past six months I have been consumed with the question of what it means to be a woman living in my skin. What does it mean to own our worth? I’ve spent hours reading essays and literary journals and reflecting on my own truths. I’ve realized that somewhere in the imbalance of things, I got sidetracked from my soul. I love being a photographer, a teacher, a Mama and a wife, and yet, there are still beautiful things I haven’t dared to dive into. And while I don’t have all of the answers, I know that I am a collection of contradictions, a patchwork of priorities, a walking example of the fragmentation of the modern day successful creative woman. I know I am not alone.

This morning I checked my email. The multiplicity of unread messages is the perfect illustration of the layers: Lily’s teacher, Braedon’s soccer coach, Girl Scouts reminder, wedding inquiry, student question, retreat payment, college recruiter, recipe from a friend, mortgage bill, River Story confirmation, volunteer commitment, party invitation, meme from my Mom… My brain tap dances around, switching hats with each click of the mouse, a different role moment to moment. The vertigo of modern day motherhood is exhausting.

We don’t have any hired help. There was a time when my daughter was a baby that we had a nanny and a studio manager, a housekeeper and a grocery delivery service, but I’m telling you even then this fragmentation was ever present. Sure, it was easier to pass tasks on to other people, but it didn’t change the endless hustle. The struggle, it seems, comes from inside.

I’ve thought a lot about why this is. Why do so many creative businesswomen I know have so many different things going on? Is it money? Is it that offering just weddings or just family sessions or just classes isn’t enough to pay the bills? Maybe. But I think it might be something more closely related to a deep-seated belief that the more women give, the better we are. Is it possible that our innate human desire to be loved and accepted drives us to shatter ourselves like glass being dropped on a sidewalk? Thousands of tiny pieces, refracting light, blinking wildly.

The artist in me wants to run around the woods naked, smear my face with river mud, make pottery by the sea, forget about money; but the mother in me wants to do the dishes, braid the hair and read the books, hold the parties and behave well. The question of, “How do you balance this?” is, I believe, a trick one. Equality among all fractions of ourselves is not possible. So the question instead needs to be, “How do you live in a state of imbalance?” And, more importantly, how do we – particularly Mothers – not ignore our beautiful wildness, our deepest desires, and our greatest potential? How do we not get stuck on only one side of the coin?

I believe the answer lies in the elimination of guilt. When we can give up the quest for a singular perfect illusion and instead settle into our multi-tasking realities (I’m tying my daughter’s shoes, while on a call, while dinner is cooking, while a client gallery is uploading, while the UPS man is delivering someone’s album to my front door, while I am printing out handouts for the Girl Scout’s meeting, while my son is showing me his hair to make sure it’s okay…) we can then sink deeply into the richest inquiry of all: Are there parts of myself that I have forgotten in the chaos? If yes, then what do I need to grant myself permission to do?

Sometimes, in order to honor our highest self, we have to give up the quest to be perfect. We have to come undone. When we give up the facade, we can begin to courageously craft the future.

Michelle Gardella | Michelle Gardella

Michelle teaches a number of classes at DEFINE, including Foundations of Black + White, a four-week online course for anyone that wants to deepen their understanding of black and white photography and learn new ways of seeing the world around them.

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Our “What I Have to Say” Wednesday series features established photographers and artists with messages they just can’t keep inside. Authentically and honestly, our writers share words of wisdom to challenge, encourage, and inspire.

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