I am including an image of the Sacagawea gold coin for two reasons. Firstly- I find Sacagawea immensely inspiring. I mean, the woman traversed North America with a baby on her back while interpreting and gathering food and helping with a major expedition. She cast votes, weighed in on matters great and small, all while caring for a baby. Meriwether Lewis said of her:
“The Indian woman to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard all matters being now arranged for our departure we lost no time in setting out.” She basically singlehandedly- again, with a baby on her back- saved the Lewis & Clark Expedition from major loss.
Can you imagine? I try to avoid taking my two kids to the grocery store at the same time.
The second reason I chose this coin is because the image on this coin is based off of a sculpture by Glenna Goodacre. Glenna calls herself a “little ‘ol clay masher.” She was born in Lubbock, just like I was. Sculpture is an art form that is even more underrepresented by women than painting, and Glenna had a tough time of it- not solely because of her gender (although she certainly faced some discrimination because of it) but also because her subject matter, which often includes children.
When I see Glenna’s sculptures- like this one of Sacagawea, or her others like the beautiful sculptures of female nurses at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial- I am struck often by the life in them. One of my favorite sculptures of hers shows children jumping-and I love how something so heavy, like bronze, can also be so joyful and bright. Like parenting, I suppose.
This painting is attributed to Claudia Tremblay. She is a self-taught artist whose art grew out of an inspiration for the colors and mystery of Guatemala, where she spent 13 years. She paints women from a variety of cultures and ethnicities, and tries to capture a sense of both wonder and melancholy, which I think is a pretty good description of what motherhood can feel like a good chunk of the time. She says she tries to imbue her work “a dream-like quality she hopes pays tribute to life’s daily miracles.”
I chose this painting because it reminded me of the women I met in Ghana who would carry buckets like these on their heads with their babies on their back. Even though our lives are so different, there is so much we have in common.
Today I’d like to share this photograph, “Migrant Mother,” which was taken by Dorothy Lange during the Dust Bowl in 1936. The reason I decided to include this photograph was that I realized that I am the same age as the woman pictured here- 32. The name of the woman pictured here is Florence Owens Thompson, and she’s said in interviews that she wished Lange had never taken the photograph. The notes that Lange included read, “Seven hungry children….Destitute in pea pickers’ camp….because of failure of the early pea crop…” They had been living on frozen vegetables and on birds the children killed.
For a long time no one knew the true identity of Florence, but when she was found, she gave interviews and told people about how she would put her babies in bags and carry them alongside her as she worked rows of cotton for 50 cent/100 pounds of cotton.
I cannot pretend that I know what Florence experienced, or what it would be like to worry about feeding my children. I can say that I can relate on some level to this image, and that I understand why this photograph because so iconic, so immortal. As a mother I am constantly thinking about my children- I worry a lot, too much. I am concerned for them. I want to protect them. I am determined to do so, but I also know the world is a harsh and often unforgiving, sometimes cruel place, and that things are not likely to get better.
This photograph is so bleak, but it also makes me think about things that are more eternal, about the ways I can provide for my children, how I can show them hope and point them to the light.
Looking through so many images of motherhood over the course of the past few weeks, it occurred to me that the reason I love these paintings and drawings and installations so much is because I see a bit of my story in all of them. To that end, I will be hosting a live storytelling event centered around the theme of motherhood next month. Several women will share their stories about motherhood. They are varied and while I’m not sure of what each woman’s story will be, exactly, I know that there will be stories about life and death, about adoption, about alternative definitions of motherhood, of what it can and could be. Even though all of our stories are different, there are some things that are like a thread that unites us all, and motherhood is one of those things. Whether you are one, have one, or want to become one- motherhood is something that impacts all of our lives. I think it will be a powerful evening.
Yesterday, I cancelled three piano lessons because typically my husband watches the kids while I teach. I am so thankful he supports me in my work. But yesterday, a woman was experiencing a long labor with many complications, and my husband eventually had to perform a C-section.
I couldn’t get a hold of him because he was with the mother-to-be or in the Operating Room, and I was extremely worried- for him, the mother, the baby.
C-sections have been on my mind. I was born that way; so were my 3 sisters. So are a third of all babies born in the U.S. I used to think of C-sections as undesirable, despite having been born that way and even though my husband performs them regularly. It pains me and embarrasses me to acknowledge that- I think it was a result of seeing data that twice as many women birth by C-section as recommended by the ACOG– I believe that sometimes, the option of how to birth is taken away from mothers and placed in the hands of usually well-meaning, but sometimes overly eager-to-control obstetricians who are drawn to a predictable, controlled, and efficient method of delivery over the unpredictable, wild experience of a freer labor and birth. How else do you explain that data? But at the same time, babies can get stuck. Mothers can be exhausted after days of labor. Life can be put at risk. And C-sections can be absolutely life-saving.
Birth is so personal, so emotional, so raw- and so highly variable. I believe in natural labor and the power and beauty of the design of a woman’s body, the glorious processes of birth physiology. But birth is beautiful whether it happens with a push or with a knife, and neither is to be feared. Our bodies don’t fail us if our babies come out of one opening or another anymore than the color of our eyes or skin fail us. How ridiculous. All of these variations can be beautiful, and c-sections can be as miraculous and powerful as any other kind of birth.
I love this painting partly because in addition to being a mother, I am also a pianist, so this painting speaks to me! Kershisnik paints many paintings that take on the idea of motherhood. Once, in an interview, he was asked if he could explain why he focuses on motherhood so much. He replied, “No, I can’t explain it; it’s too close to my core. I just don’t fight it.”
This painting is called “The Delivery,” and is subtitled “Oh my Baby! Oh My Baby!” The artist’s name is Amanda Greavette, and the first line of her biography reads, “She is busy raising four beautiful children, painting and serving her community.”
This piece of art speaks to me because when I was preparing to give birth, I knew that I would not be able to have an epidural because my spine is fused as a result of extensive surgery to correct a severe case of scoliosis. People told me I was crazy for wanting a natural delivery, or told me my plan to forego pain medication was unrealistic; I was told I didn’t need to be brave or be a “hero.” Most of them didn’t realize that I didn’t actually have a choice.
I heard people talk about those ridiculous women with a birth plan were, and how by the time they reached transition, they’d be begging for an epidural. Was I one of those crazy women? I did a good job of not appearing nervous or even scared- at some level I even convinced myself that I was not afraid of what the pain might feel like.
This painting, though, made me feel strong and capable, like it was possible to have something happen that was bloody and painful, but still beautiful, empowering, triumphant.
This is a photograph of an art exhibition, “Postpartum Document,” by Mary Kelly. It is a collection of feeding charts, diaper stains, records of words her son said and bits of reflection leading up until her son could finally scribble across her documents. Here is a link to Tate Museum’s write up on the art: http://bit.ly/1BP9BQ1
At first, I didn’t like the art- I thought it was a cold and impersonal “portrait,” of motherhood. But then, I watched an interview by Kelly that changed my mind- she explained she didn’t want to provide a figure or portrait in the traditional sense- she wanted to show a more analytical demonstration of the output of the work of Mothering.
Her discussion of the post-partum document begins about 5 minutes in.
It reminded me of how someone gave me one of those Itzbeen timers as a gift- the little things that keep track of diaper changes, how long a baby’s slept, how long its been since they were fed, etc. I remember thinking it was a completely ridiculous device. Then, after I had my first child, I was completely tied to that thing- I couldn’t ever remember which breast I’d nursed from last without it, and in my sleep-deprived state I relied on that timer to help me keep track of everything. I thought of Kelly’s work in a new way.
What do you think? Do you like this alternative “portrait” of motherhood? Did you keep track of feedings, words, schedules, etc?
According to Amy Mullen, author of Reconceiving Pregnancy and Childcare: Ethics, Experience, and Reproductive Labor, this painting represents the woman cut away to reveal her primarily as a “mere container,” of the (fully developed, male) child within her. She goes on to suggest that the animals in the background are suggestive of what the mother’s role and purpose should be, and she argues that this painting is part of a tradition that thought of pregnancy as a solely a physical event, and ignored other aspects of pregnancy, such as emotional or spiritual elements.
I’m curious- when you were pregnant, did you feel like a “mere container,” at times? What is the importance and significance of the emotional and spiritual sides of pregnancy?