"It was a wild and beautiful place to be. We lived at the whim of the weather and the wildlife, which was totally romantic and often very brutal. Rats nested underneath the caravan, brambles grew in through the cracks and ice climbed up the inside of the windows at night. But our mornings were bathed in golden sunlight year round and we spent our evenings watching a barn owl roost in the tree."
Thirty-three-year-old photographer Naomi Wood is remembering the first, precious year she spent living in a static caravan deep in the Somerset countryside. Having resided on a boat for a decade prior to this, Wood and her partner, Jack, were no strangers to a living situation that was something other than the norm but this was still a stretch further into the unknown. They hoped to live quietly and cheaply to save money so they could buy a place of their own someday and so it was that on an untamed parcel of land on the outskirts of Frome, the two began their next chapter together.
That was in 2017. By October 2018, Wood had become a mum. Two became three and suddenly those wild surroundings were tinged with a new presence. Motherhood wasn’t like she’d hoped – "I thought it would feel magical but it didn’t," she recalls – and what once felt like pure peace became something closer to isolation. Her baby’s cries pierced the air and lingered in the silence. The oak tree outside became her main marker of time. She remembers the clocks going back just as she gave birth, the darkening of the days converging with the beginning of new life. She struggled, and her surroundings only intensified the experience.
"That early point of motherhood, particularly that first year of my son’s life, I felt so vulnerable," she says. "My emotions were really heightened and the smallest comment from another person would send me into a spiral of anxiety. It was like my whole being had changed overnight in such a way that three years later I’m still struggling to put it into words." Without words, she turned to pictures and began to use her camera to process her feelings. "Initially, I was just recording my everyday life, as I often do – journalling and photographing to make sense of my experiences, as a habit and a kind of therapy," she says. Later, that complicated mass of pictures became something more substantial. I Wake to Listen: is a deeply personal photo project about becoming a mother in isolation.
The pictures in I Wake to Listen: are lovely and incredibly moving, tinged with solitude. Shot against a shifting backdrop of wintry days and balmy mornings, they depict Wood and her son moving around in each other’s orbit, depending on each other between light and deep shadow, their bodies often connected via feeding and bathing and sleeping together. Many of the images are reminiscent of the first few moments of waking up, where everything is still a little bleary and sleep images linger. They are starkly truthful too, unafraid of messiness and revealing the reality of extreme tiredness and tears. They’re a perfect mix between motherly softness and the sawing anxiety of loneliness.
"When my son came along, my life shrank down to this one small corner of the UK. Most of our days were spent within the confines of this 12-foot-wide metal box, everything slowed down and sped up all at once," she says. That idea of time passing is everywhere in Wood's pictures. We see it in their sleepiness, in the way light travels across her walls and the landscape changes beyond her window. "Living in the caravan, so exposed to the elements, the seasons really dictated our days. And like my hormones, nature dictated how I felt each day," she says. "Life was this one big mess of hormones and nature, time became unpicked and un-linear. Instead it felt cyclical. I stumbled through day and night, endless naps and wake-ups punctuating the time."
On this note, Wood recalls one of her most memorable images. It's one of her most visually impactful, too, because it really distils the state of mind she was in at the time. In it, Wood frowns intently into the lens as she holds her son, the two of them bathed in a pool of light. "The sun was screaming in through the windows," she says. "I’d woken up every half hour that night and instead of basking in its glory, I broke down in tears at the sight of that bright, warm light. The first sunny day in a freezing cold February. My son was about 4 months old and I couldn’t face another day on such little sleep that I was unable to engage in life. I felt dead." Just like the branches outside.
In the end, motherhood has been a foundation-rocking experience, at once changing and affirming. "I’ve found the whole experience to be a huge challenge to my being," she says. "Constantly I find myself learning and digging deep to solve problems for my children. Sometimes I want to scream and cry and often I do but when I can work past that point, switch to playing instead of screaming, let meltdowns wash over me, I find something much sweeter and I see endless joy and love. It’s a whole process I think most parents are going through constantly and I think the nuances are so rarely depicted. I’ve been pouring my experience out in front of my camera in this way because I want everyone to feel it with me and meditate on what it means to leave parents going through this often with very little support." The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the lack of support for parents, she says, and intensified isolation for many. So in many ways, this project finds a very visual way of representing what that’s like.
After her time making this project, and her intense odyssey of becoming a mother in solitude, Wood says she’s come to realise how "constantly pushed out of society" mothers are. "There’s no space for mistakes in a culture that values capitalism over everything else," she says passionately. "In our sleep-deprived, milk-stained states we make mistakes frequently and so you see less mothers in important spaces like parliament. As a result, issues which affect mothers and parents are rarely prioritised or given voice and family life becomes underfunded, under-supported and totally devalued." Her words are crystalline and resonant, and painfully true. She offers some advice to any new parent who may be feeling alone like she did: "If you’re finding parenting hard, please know you aren’t doing anything wrong. It is f*cking hard, it’s brutal, it’s a struggle and it’s almost impossible to do it in isolation. It’s a community activity. Childcare responsibilities should be divided among a group of people, meals should be prepared by many and feelings, emotions and experiences should be shared."
Wood has just given birth to another child, a little boy, and she’s being kinder to herself this time, seeking comfort and community. Her out of office – "I’ve just welcomed a new baby into my life and I will be taking time out to get to know Albie Joseph and enjoy a restful winter" – shows the intention with which she’s entering new motherhood again. It’s refreshing, and a beautiful thing to read.