Motherhood and Art

“Indeed, to relocate the heart of existence in the home and in motherhood is an inherently subversive artistic act. If Kim Brooks worries that the job of art is to unsettle and the job of a mother is to soothe, perhaps there is no more unsettling solution than to insist she can do both, that there is, in fact, no conflict there, that motherhood itself is dark and uncharted and frightening. What if, in fact, motherhood is a boon to the artist? What if writing motherhood is the frontier, is the uncharted territory into which we must step if literature is to advance?”

From “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe

Yes. Speaking to the heart of the frozen terror I feel in the mothers playgroups, surrounded by pastels and toys and singing inane songs in a circle. I can’t breathe and I want to run with all the urgency of a wild beast feeling the cage and the collar. I run into my night and knaw on my own limbs – what’s wrong with me? Why do I hate this?

I am also the woman standing in the baby aisle at the supermarket, weeping over the tiny soft baby things, the clean plastic and rows of bottled food. She iso empty of life and so hollowed out by yearning she can’t breathe, so tormented by dreams of a child she can’t stop the tears running down her face in public.

And then there’s the place where my art founders, confused and lost, in the halls of the great artists and among the ideas of what real art is – imbibed in such small, sweet, daily doses I don’t even notice the poison – that my art isn’t real art, that my life isn’t the source of real art, that my pain or disability or suffering are the things that prevent me making art because they could never be appropriate topics of art. We do not speak of those things. They are subversive, and the subversive is for richer, free-er, bolder, stranger, or better insulated women than me. There’s always a cost to breaking rules and I have broken so many since breakfast.

Selfishness and selflessness. The domestic and the sublime. The mundane and the world of soul. I am a mother. I feel the bind – that I should be this at all times. That if I break the role I must do so in secret. When the child returns I switch back so instantly, conscious of all the traces I’ve left of living some other life in their absence: ink on my fingers, paint on my desk, pages on the blog. I wanted this family; I work hard at it, I give myself to it. And yet.

How do I set them free when I am not free? How do I teach them to listen to their small voices when I can’t hear my own anymore? How can I hear their small voices and move beyond the quiet numb disconnection of relationships that revolve around schedules and plans and who’s turn it is to do the dishes? If I hide my own wildness, how will they know to protect theirs, to nourish and nurture it, to endure pain for it, to hold onto it as precious when all else has washed overboard?

I adore being a mother. The skinless agony of disability and loss are clothed so gently in this role. A child turned up at my door in the night, sweet with love and bloodied with betrayal and my heart opened to fit her as if I’d been waiting for her all my life. Something wretched in my soul started to sing. Another child I birthed roaring in the dark water, endured so much for the ecstatic pleasure of her tiny head resting on my chest.

Being a mother terrifies me. The generic straight-jacket of a role with so little diversity or individuality, so aggressively policed. Mother and Artist are so often positioned as opposite roles, contradictory life choices. Mothers don’t make Art, they ‘craft’. Their raw outpourings about life at 3am are merely ‘mommy blogs’. Exalted beyond angels and bound into rules of self-sacrifice and humility, we are not really human anymore. We are transformed into a wholly other thing that consumes all traces of what we once might have been.

Wise friends counsel me – it’s okay to be afraid. Maybe my task isn’t to map myself to the role of motherhood, it’s to change the role around me so that I can take it on with more authenticity, who I am, as I am. Stretching it out like shoes and bringing more and more of my self into it. Making it rich and strange and complex. I can feel the shadow cast by the needs of child or friend and fit myself to it, almost perfectly, like mixing a cake from the right ingredients. So much of me is then left waiting in the wings, in the small hours of the night. As hard as it is for me to bring them into the light, it’s so hard too for those around us to let go of that perfect role, to not hold each other to play parts in our own lives where they are fitted to our empty places, but allow them to be human – stranger, deeper, more contradictory, more free of us, outside of our understanding, walking their own paths. Is there room for that freedom in such an intense relationship as Mother and Child? How can I teach a child to be free in love, if I don’t feel free? To hold tightly without crushing. To love deeply without caging.

Tonight, Rose drove us all into the hills to feel the wind on our faces. We are no longer solitary lovers, now we navigate a family of needs and perspectives. Poppy wails in the car and Star is stressed by the millipedes in the toilets at the park. And yet we still find a little sense of freedom. I stand barefoot beneath the trees, a very long way away from the shiny halls of power where the windows never open and no breeze ever dances, and I remember that I am human. 

On a park bench in the gathering cold of the Autumn evening, I hand express milk from an overfull breast onto the soil. Knees apart I cradle Poppy in my lap and she nurses as I watch the birds swooping in the pines, the light falling through the poplars with their tattered, pocked leaves.

This is the task, as it always is, in so many forms throughout my life. To find ways to be human, to honour the humanity, the vulnerability, the darkness, and the transcendent in each of us. This is the space between Mother and Child. I walk Star to the toilet and praise her courage honestly. I hold a millipede in my hand. I nurse Poppy on the park table, leaves under my bare feet, my milk spilled on the cold earth. There is Art here.

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