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Up until recently, when anybody asked me who my role model was, I would have replied in a heartbeat: the late Agnès Varda – a prolific filmmaker, photographer, artist who was an outspoken feminist and a positive force for change. Her work is powerful, sometimes light and quirky, sometimes solemn, always imbued with curiosity, wonder and originality.

Now when people ask me who my role model is, my answer invariably raises eyebrows or provokes chuckles. “My baby girl” I would say. “She’s x months old.” (I started saying it when she was 5 months old, she’s 14 months old as I write this). Actually I most often refer to her as my “spiritual guru” because her behavior and evolution never cease to amaze me.

Before she could even hold her head up, my baby girl inspired me for her assertiveness and tenacity. If she wants something, she surely makes it very clear – without words. When she has a goal in mind – say, picking up an object that belongs to me, that’s high up on a shelf she can’t reach – she is relentless in the pursuit of the goal, crossing our entire apartment and standing right below the object of her attention, studying ways to get to it. She is strong and sweet, knowing when to deploy her contagious laughter to make us melt – and bend to her desires.

You may say, “aren’t all babies like this?” Yes, maybe? But I am in a privileged position, as I’ve spent every day since she was born looking after her (my parents insist I was not like this at all as a baby, very quiet and obedient. Their granddaughter is something else…)

Nobody ever tells you how inspiring it is to see a tiny human being – your favorite human – coming into their power as they grow up. It motivates me to be more outspoken and more assertive, because if a 5-month-old is that strong and confident, what is stopping me? She can’t even go anywhere without me… she wears a diaper (which she can’t change by herself), depends on my cooking for her survival and can’t construct full sentences yet. And yet… she’s the most formidable human I know. At 14 months she is discovering the power of her voice – it’s endlessly amusing and inspiring for me to see.

I wonder, do all mothers experience this awakening?

Mammartist Elena Rossini life lessons from my baby

A self-portrait of me and my baby girl when she was 4 months old

All that said, over the past year, sometime along the way, I felt that I lost my voice. More than my voice, my sense of self. I’m not sure who I am anymore, when my life has changed so drastically overnight. The old Elena is long gone, a distant dream. I am reminded about my past life, pre-baby and pre-pandemic, thanks to my journal and its prompts “On this day”. I’ve got 8 years’ worth of detailed entries, dating back to 2014, and those lived experiences seem so foreign now. When my daughter was born, I was also reborn. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to figure out what I really want out of life.

Accounts of the early days of parenting are often focused on how hard it is. Yes, 5-6 months’ worth of sleepless nights can break your brain. But her first year has been the happiest year of my life.

What I know is this.

I spent the past 14 months looking after the health and wellbeing of a tiny human.

My life, up until her arrival, had been all about external goals, wanting to make a name for myself, having a successful documentary, empowering women and girls while speaking truth to power. I had a charmed life, but a sense of unfulfilled professional goals hung like a dark cloud above me. Unless you are an A-list director or someone up and coming with a shiny contract with Netflix, most people see you as a failure. Or so I thought. A lot of that was ego, I now realize. Well, the arrival of my baby girl annihilated my ego in one quick sweep.

I spent the past 14 months following my heart, living in the now, connecting with my favorite tiny human. And life has never felt so good.

Mammartist Elena RossiniA typical evening: the sun is setting in our living room. I have just given my baby girl her dinner, I take her out of her high chair and we go sit on our sofa. I prop her up on my lap and she says “Baby.” Her first English word (she’s being raised trilingual) and her cue for reading Feminist Baby. I grab the book and she enthusiastically turns the pages as I read to her. “THIS is happiness” I think.

I was a filmmaker and photographer. And then I became a mom. A mom/artist – “Mammartist.” I’ve relished in documenting her life through photographs and videos (some 20k photos and 8k videos to date). My new creative goal at the end of each day is: have I taken any great photos of her today?

Now my creativity needs recalibration. I’ve swung from 100% focus on my work to 100% focus on my tiny human. And as she gets older and more independent, the need to recalibrate my focus gets more apparent. It’ll be good for her. And for me.

What’s up with the business of losing my voice? Well, if I have one regret about the past year is that I didn’t properly document what it’s been like for me, as her caretaker. I’ve been so concentrated in serving her that my sense of self got lost along the way.

I often quote the words of the late Neil Postman when discussing technology (since my new film will be about the effects of social media on our self esteem and self-image). Well, Neil Postman said this about technology:

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean “ecological” in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none. This is how the ecology of media works as well. A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.

Yesterday I had an epiphany. This applies perfectly to the arrival of a baby, too. You don’t have your old professional self plus a baby. EVERYTHING CHANGES.

My baby girl in her playpen

I know that for this new life and new opportunity, I would like to be more assertive. And more visible. It’s always been easy for me to shine a light on the work of other women (see: 120+ interviews on No Country for Young Women, 100 Days of Women in Film, hundreds of GIFs showing inspiring women). But I’ve been mostly hidden, behind the curtain, afraid to show myself… Fear of what? Maybe of appearing too self-centered, too narcissistic, too… too much? Our culture often punishes women who are vocal. I must have internalized this along the way. The writer Emma Gray perfectly captured this problem in the latest issue of Rich Text: “The Attention Trap.”

Here’s the thing: I would like my daughter to see what I’m like… what my life and work are like now… So that, many years into the future, if she ever takes an active interest or curiosity in my life, she can see what it was like. And maybe, in the present, this could help budding filmmakers and photographers? Some of my favorite memories are from screenings of my film The Illusionists at high schools and universities and the always thought-provoking, inspiring discussions that followed with students.

I spent almost 15 years telling the stories of other women, but failed to talk about the person I know best. Myself. So this mammartist may finally be getting the courage to do just that. Thanks to her feisty and curious 14-month-old who is her spiritual guru. Two new lives begin.