Things have changed since having a baby: I like going to the dentist. I go alone; the hygienist introduces me to The Great Canadian Baking Show and I watch two full episodes as she cleans my teeth. My mouth waters looking at all the things a dentist would say don’t eat: chocolate ganache, lemon custard, crème caramel, black forest cake. I am the very hungry caterpillar I read to my daughter at night. My body has changed in ways I’m not sure are reversible. The caterpillar bursts into a beautiful butterfly but all I seem to do is burst. I’ve ripped two pairs of jeans buckling my daughter into her car seat.
I am naming parts of the body when we dress, bathe, play. I show her my belly button—a deep-set cherry in a sponge cake. Lots of bounce back, the judges look for. Her finger finds it with a pirate’s enthusiasm when landing on buried treasure. Every diaper change, she lifts my shirt. Then we find her belly button—a bulbous thing like a door handle splattered with a café au lait. My mouth homes in on it.
After the dentist, I shop. Gone are the days of rushing back to nurse her, the anxiety of growth curves. She drinks cow’s milk now—another change that is irreversible. I push a cart through Winners. It is lighter than a stroller and doesn’t have snack cups or water bottles flung from the sides. I buy jeans that fit, taking my time trying on this pair, then that one, going back for a second look, smiling. I’ve pulled off a great disguise.
In the car, I welcome every stoplight, belt out an adult song and take the long way home.
In light of Mother’s Day recently, I’m revisiting artwork of mothers and children. This relationship is on my mind a lot as a new mom myself, but also because I was gifted this wonderful book of poems for Mother’s Day from a close friend:
Written by Vicki Rivard, the poems land like small, soothing balms to cracked hands. They are sometimes shockingly short. I kept nodding along to the words. Yes, THIS! This is what I need to hear! This is exactly how I feel too! Here’s one example:
the baby rocks the mother too. her whole world, in fact.
This is my own picture of the painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’m trying to remember what I liked about it enough to snap this photo back before I knew what this earth-shaking experience was like. Maybe because I could recognize a sacred moment: the sleeping babe and the mother who has eyes for nothing else but her child. She is enraptured with this creature, but now I wonder if there is perhaps doubt and fear and anxiety there too. What mother doesn’t cycle through all the emotions?
Mother and child are each other’s worlds. Enmeshed. Interconnected. Morisot shows this by having the mother (Morisot’s sister) and baby make the same gesture with one of their hands: rest it by their face. This creates a diagonal line between mother and child. As the Musée d’Orsay describes in the link above, the diagonal line is further emphasized by the angle of the curtain in the background. In her other hand, the mother holds the bassinet’s veil, putting a screen between the viewer and her child. I love this subtle but powerful gesture. It says everybody out; I’ve got a baby to learn.
Another mother/child Impressionist painting that been a long-time favourite is Coquelicots (Poppy Field)by Claude Monet. This painting is also found in the Musée d’Orsay and like The Cradle, it has a strong diagonal composition. The diagonal runs between the mother and child pairing in the background to the one in the foreground. They are the same mother and child, Monet’s own wife Camille and their son Jean.
I’ve always thought it was a bold move to portray the passage of time not through changing scenery but through human movement. Mother and son enjoy a leisurely walk through a poppy field, starting on the crest of a hill. By the time they reach the base, the mother has opened her parasol and her son has picked a bouquet. The viewer’s brain fills the space and time in between, imagining their stroll: boy running ahead a bit, stopping every so often to pick the poppies; Mother getting warm, relishing her son’s delight with the flowers, how they are almost as tall as he is, how he has grown so quickly. Wasn’t he just a baby?Oh what they say is true, I know now: the days are long, the years are short.
It’s impossible to think about mother and child paintings without at least one of the Virgin and Christ Child coming to mind. I saw more of them than I ever wanted to in The Louvre, many with golden halos and unrealistic faces. But that’s not the case with The Virgin and Childdrawing by Raphael that I visited in the British Museum last spring.
I marvel at Jesus’ fleshy plumpness and think good job, Mary! And good job Raphael—you made him look human. Jesus’ stance is so babylike, leaning in to his mother, his safe place, unlike many Virgin and Child paintings that make Jesus look like a grown man—stiff, formal, and wise beyond his years. Here, he looks like a regular baby. But of course he’s not just a regular baby. Mary cradles him but her eyes betray that they are somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the future and what makes her son different.
The slight turn of the Virgin’s head away from her child and her lowered eyes eloquently convey a sense of the burden she has to endure, her thoughts clouded, even in moments of such intimacy, by the knowledge of her son’s fate. Such telling details give the composition a psychological depth not found in the quattrocento sculptural models on which it is based.
– British Museum website
Back to Impressionist depictions of mothers and children, I turn now to an American, Mary Cassatt, who has a painting that rifts off Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Christ, such as the one above.
Here, Cassatt underscored the importance of the maternal bond by evoking religious art. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo.
The Met website
The contrapposto stance originated with the Greeks but is famously depicted in Michelangelo’s David. Contrapposto means “opposite” and refers to the way one leg carries most of the weight, while the other is bent.
Unlike Raphael’s drawing, Cassatt shows an older son looking away, while the mother’s gaze is fixed on her child. While Cassatt’s painting lacks the psychological depth that Raphael’s and Morisot’s have, I appreciate that Cassatt elevated the mother/child relationship, recognizing that these tender, ordinary interactions are important and worthy of being immortalized on canvas.
In a similar way, I am doing this (or attempting to) with my writing. Being a mother has given me a new range of experiences to process through words. I wrote one such poem called “they say you will teach me more than I will ever teach you” when I was pregnant and had the pleasure of finding out this past week that it was the winner of a poetry contest put on by Pulp Literature. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she is old enough to understand.
You can hear me read the poem on the video below—the announcement of being runner-up comes at 23:54 and my reading at 42:26.
After four months postpartum, I am ready to enter the world again. But the world will not let me, nor any of us right now.
I am grateful I became a mom before COVID-19 took over. For those difficult newborn months, which Lydia Laceby accurately describes as “The 100 Days of Darkness,” I had help: family and friends coming over and even staying the night to hold my daughter so I could (try to) sleep. Helping me feed her when it was a multiple person job. Bringing us food. Cleaning our house. Keeping me company while I pumped. Calling and texting to check in and offer support.
There was some trauma in my transition to motherhood, but I want to remember that season because even though it was the hardest one I’ve lived, it’s also the season I’ve felt the most loved.
I wonder if I’ll look back on COVID-19 and say the same thing: that it was incredibly hard and people loved each other fiercely in creative and surprising ways. Both/and.
There are a number of sites and shows emerging now that share good news stories around the world, such as SGN by actor John Krasinski.
A local Facebook moms group I am part of has requested videos of our children doing silly/funny/cute things to put together for a seniors’ residence to lift their spirits during this acute time of isolation and loneliness.
I FaceTimed with a close friend in Ottawa who said her dad can’t visit their mom in her room at a nursing home anymore where she is suffering from Alzheimers. But he can arrange to come by her window and speak with her through the glass. She said there was something poetic about that image of her parents. A bit like Romeo and Juliet. I could hear the smile in her voice as she pictured it.
I strangely feel more connected with neighbours, chatting over fences, seeing each other on walks, and coming out of our cocoons for the 7pm ritual of applauding health care workers. One baked us paska (Easter bread).
I go for bike rides in this glorious Vancouver spring and look for houses with hearts in the windows that spread love from a distance and provide an outdoor scavenger hunt for cooped up kids.
I ride under blooming cherry blossom trees that are oblivious to a global virus, reminding me there is still beauty in the world.
I hold my daughter close, thankful for her giggles and pterodactyl noises. For the way she smiles with her whole mouth, showing off her two bottom teeth, when we lift her above our heads for flying lessons. For her lack of inhibition in putting any and everything in her mouth like a scientist testing out all the data. The way she can dismantle her activity gym with one fell swoop. For her intense curiosity of hands, straps, and zippers. The way her eyes sparkle when I say the word “gobble.” The way she lies on the change pad, legs bent like a turkey. How she thumps her feet against the bed in excitement after a nap, indicating she’s ready to play.
During these dark days of COVID-19, I find myself needing and wanting to practice gratitude while not ignoring the grief. Grief over the loss of lives, jobs, skin-to-skin connections, routines, stability, you can fill in the blank______. There are collective laments and there are individual ones. My pastor friend wisely reminded me that just because your griefs might not be as bad as other peoples’ (you’ll always find people who have it better and worse than you), it is still legitimate to feel them, name them, and grieve them.
It is Holy Week and I said to my friend how no one should give anything up for Lent this year since we’ve all had to give up too much already because of COVID-19. She wholeheartedly agreed: “This is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented.” And just like that, I was laughing at the silliness of the phrase and how true it felt.
I remind myself that a Lenten season doesn’t last forever, even though when you’re in it, it seems that way.
A friend sat next to my bedside when I was severely suffering from insomnia (despite my daughter being a great sleeper) and spoke similar words of hope over me:
“This isn’t the whole story. Though you’ve been more awake than anyone should be for the past three months, this won’t last forever.”