The Mother as Anchor for Play
I will be getting back to more regular posting of minor gestures. I've gone back to work part time since almost 2 years & have been figuring out my new temporality. Thank you for your support. x
“Oh hi! Let me introduce you to….” a vernissage’s familiar and occasionally annoying lead. I had forgotten how much I took this phrase for granted since the pandemic began. Yes, to all the people. Hello! I am Magda. I am interested.
The day after S—’s 7th birthday, and the day before we finally got sick, I brought him to the launch of esse’s 107th issue at VOX centre de l’image contemporaine in Montreal because I had a feature article, The Mother as Anchor For Play, in it.
One of the editors and a former student turned friend, Amelia Wong-Mersereau, asked me to submit a proposal for their “Family” themed issue. It was right before we secured part time childcare, and to write something with a brief turn around (it was right before their deadline) seemed impossible. O— was still up multiple times a night nursing and crying. When and how would I write this?
How does a mother write about mothering?
A few days later Amil Niazi, writer and brilliant person I want to be friends with, shared a vibrant painting on her feed. It was a straight on perspective of a mother covered with dozens of tiny hands, busy in motion as she stands still—touching her body, painting her nails, brushing her hair, cutting her hair, pinching her skin, tousling her hair, covering one of her eyes, putting a finger in her mouth, and of course twisting her nipples. I had never seen such a funny, surrealist, and apt depiction of motherhood. It was Madeline Donahue. That night I stayed up late on a deep dive of her work, knowing I had to write about it.
The high of writing about motherhood and my love of art for a larger public took care of any imposter syndrome (I had never written a feature article for an arts publication before; I was sleep deprived; I had a few weeks and limited time to write it).
While writing anything with a baby is difficult, it is also the baby that has allowed me the perspective to write. My children endowed me with the ability to pursue my dreams. An idea I would have rolled my eyes at before having them, ok, I’m still rolling my eyes, but it’s true! I didn’t ask for it, and I certainly didn’t expect it. Like Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “I had never been interested in babies, or in mothers; in fact those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting.”
I wrote my first novel at 10, but always felt being a writer was for others that were more talented, more courageous, more apt with grammar and words. How narcissistic of me to center myself, and not the writing.
Only after having children, I realized I didn’t want to be a writer. I needed to write.
For the article, inspired by painter and ceramist Madeleine Donahue, and photo and video artist Alison Chen, I wanted to re-frame the narrative of the subsumed mother: the mother that has to sacrifice themselves for themselves, that being an artist is at odds with being a mother. Yes, it can be, but being a mother can also make you an artist, or the artist you have wanted to be. It’s never a binary and the feelings are never static. It’s easy to get stuck in a feeling of exhaustion, wondering when will it end—to see the children as in your way.
In 2017, a year after S— was born I wrote about how motherhood, for me, was a series of sacrifices. A year or so earlier, Kara Jesella, a writer I admire, wrote against motherhood as sacrifice shortly after her daughter was born. I read her with envy when I was still pregnant or maybe shortly after I had S—. At the time, I would use S—’s naps that were with his dad to do my nails, still strong from all the prenatal pills, and cover my face with Weleda’s Rose cream, bought on credit. This was my rebellion against myself. Yet it was artifice against sacrifice, because I was unable to stop believing I was sacrificing critical-yet-undefined time for frivolity. Frivolity, in this case: a person in survival mode doing their make up. I couldn’t grasp the temporality of parenthood and kept ploughing into it. Our own parents weren’t equipped to teach us how to tell time. Maybe I should have bought a watch instead of the Rose cream? Kara is also wealthy and lives in Manhattan. I am not wealthy and live in Montreal. It’s been written in magazines I do not own that Montreal is like the New York of Canada.
Sacrifice, subsumption, and everything related consumed me as S—’s mother, or at least that is what my memory has kept—the disconnect between what was supposed to be happening to me and to us based on what I had seen, read, or been told, and what was. Everywhere was insisting that babies can exfoliate even the most callous families, and to reach out for help. And so when I was on the phone begging my mother to come help a few weeks after S was born, and she couldn’t because a farm she was volunteering at had a big garlic festival sale she was committed to, or the obtuse attempts with other relatives, how could I imagine anything outside of sacrifice?
“Our life is impossibility, absurdity. Everything we want contradicts the conditions or the consequences attached to it, every affirmation we put forward involves a contradictory affirmation, all our feelings are mixed up with their opposites,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace.
At its core, the article for esse, including its title, The Mother as Anchor for Play, is a re-framing of motherhood for that person I used to be—the person with PPD (post partum depression) who wasn’t able to or given the opportunity to see the optimism in ways I knew were possible and saw around me. The love other mothers were experiencing seemed implausible. Could they be faking it? How can one be so in(side) love with a newborn? I now know, after the birth of O— it is possible. I am no longer the person who saw actions as sacrifices. Our family life, and my dreams, are not at odds with each other. We hang out, we chat, even baby O— has a deep joy, squealing and gasping at whatever discovery has come her way through exploring, touching, and climbing (me) to hold on to something new.
And so we play.
I would love to share the PDF with you, but I cannot until June. In the meantime, you can read “The Mother as Anchor for Play” here, or you can buy a physical copy. I would love to know your thoughts. You should read the entire FAMILY issue; it is beautiful and provocative.
A short excerpt:
These works depict mothering as a series of playful performative encounters that address the porous boundaries between children and their mothers. Crucially, the mother remains the central subject, often centred in the frame. However, she is immobile or still while life moves around her. She is the anchor around which childhood happens. Although this could be read as the banal trope of the invisible mother subsumed by her children, the often-abstract positioning of the children or their body parts in the frame creates a shifting perspective.
What’s captivating about these contemporary works is precisely how they reorient perspective to acknowledge and highlight the oft-cited invisibility as a reality that isn’t rooted solely in melancholy or lack.
In time for Donahue’s highly anticipated solo show, Strange Magic (2022), at Hesse Flatow in New York, the author Amil Niazi writes a love letter to Donahue’s work subtitled “Madeline Donahue captures the ecstasy and agony of being a mom,” and she isn’t alone in her reverence.
Despite the feminist interventions following Mary Kelly’s iconic Post-Partum Document (1973 – 79), when motherhood became more than a niche consideration for artists, distancing from parental obligations as a sign of elegance and seriousness of craft continues. We need more intricate representations of the abundant simultaneity of a mother’s emotions — the agony and ecstasy — of and in their bodies. Judith Butler argues, “One is not simply a body, one does one’s body.”
Gorgeous post. Motherhood has really helped me understand “sacrifices” as simultaneously holding many truths and beings. Can I buy a physical copy of *esse*?