Mothering Lineages Conversations

I chose to consult a friend who is an art historian and asked her what came to mind when she thought of representations of mothering in art. This friend, is not a mother and the art depictions of motherhood that she suggested leaned towards the dark and existential, such as the moody and expressive prints of Kathe Kollowitz, who lived in Germany through both world wars and made art illustrating the horror associated with loss of children and mothers that happened as a result of violence. She also recommended looking at the Japanese memorial ceremony called Mizuko Kuyo, where small sculptures are created to represent babies that died in miscarriage, stillbirth, and abortion. Another suggestion was to look at the images of Mary Cassatt, and she described them as “a never-ending resource of mother/child saccharine fuel.” The three people that I consulted about depictions of mothering in art, all suggested Mary Cassatt, and each had a differing relationship to the imagery.

Another friend, who also has a background in art history, just experienced mothering for the first time in the last year and we explored her relationship to representations of mothering in art. She spoke of the enormous amount of fear she has encountered in motherhood, “Fear when you find out you are pregnant, fear in utero, fear   out, the most fear I have encountered in my entire life. Fear keeps me up at night thinking of all the horrible things that could happen. Keeping this human alive who is dependent on you, your entire world becomes about their happiness and health.” She also spoke about the difficulty she experienced breastfeeding, the judgment she received from other parents, competitive parenting and how hard it is to raise a child on low income with no outside support. She spoke of how magical and yet repetitive it is to be with a child discovering everything for the first time, "it’s amazing and it’s boring all at once." She shared with me a performance art piece by Ukeles representing a mother dressing her children and undressing them again. 

We also talked about one of my favorite artists, Alice Neel, who has been called a “bad mother” because her relationship with painting took priority over care for her children. Painting always came first for Neel. It is interesting that she painted many representations of mother and child and in the mother’s eyes you can always see strain, fear, stress and a quiet desperation. "They call her a bad mother, but it is so much more complicated than that." My friend described how she has started to develop a deeper sense of compassion for her own mother through the experience of mothering. We looked at the Carrie Mae Weems photograph of a mother brushing her adult child’s hair and we talked about the new rules of intimacy that continue to be created and evolve as the child grows into adulthood, but the mother remains a mother and can almost always make the daughter feel like a baby again.   

Last I spoke to another friend who is a painter and mother of two children. I remember when she gave birth to her first child in her home, after which she made a painting of her placenta. She went on to make many paintings of both of her children as infants and as they grew. She and I share a deep love for the artist, Jenny Saville, and we talked about how Saville has become a mother in recent years and has created these great drawings and paintings depicting motherhood based on Leonardo Da Vinci drawings. My friend spoke about how amazing motherhood is now that her children are old enough to be somewhat autonomous. She is no longer lugging around snacks and toys and having to adhere to sleep and eat schedules. They explore and travel and play together, and they constantly shower her with love and cuddles. They comfort her and make her feel ok which she’s had a bad day or hurts her finger. She also suggested Mary Cassatt, her favorite being an intimate depiction of a mother lovingly bathing her child.

These conversations with these women were so incredibly engaging and transformative for me. Learning of their personal experiences with mothering was made even more rich by being able to bring visual representation into the conversation to talk in detail about the artist’s possible intentions in their visual communication of similar ideas. The scope of motherhood is broadening in my mind, and strangely, none of this has scared me from my intention to become a mother. I want to experience all of these things, even the difficult parts. 

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