The Beginning of What Will Never Be The Same, or the Artist/Baby Thing
My earliest baby thoughts were part of a fantasy I constructed in my pre-teen years. Having no use for boys, I dreamt that someday my sister and I would buy a huge farmhouse. There, we would raise stray dogs and stray babies, one big happy family. The visuals included outdoor dinners under the trees at very long tables, like in Europe, followed by nights around the campfire, playing guitar and singing James Taylor songs.
Unlike some of the poor, nervous women I see these days in my pre-delivery classes, I’m no stranger to the baby thing..... my parents, good Catholics that they were, had three of us in quick succession, followed by a second round years later. So, at a fairly young age, I diapered, I burped, and I knew how to hold a newborn head so it doesn’t fall off. I was so comfortable around babies that when I left home for Paris at age eighteen, I requested an au pair family with an infant, and got one. Taking care of five-month-old François for five hours a day seemed like a fun and fairly effortless means to the end of studying at The Sorbonne and living on the Left Bank for a year. When I returned to the States, I found to my surprise that I missed the physical sensation of constantly having a baby on my hip, and actually had to restrain myself from grabbing women’s infants when they would prop them on my framing counter at Prints-N-Things.
Concurrent with my 30-hour workweek putting endless Monet prints behind glass, I was taking a full course load at SUNY Binghamton, where I discovered Women’s Studies classes. Endless discussions of Biological Imperative, my ever-strengthening passion for art making, and reading lots of Simone De Beauvoir led me to the conclusion that if I really wanted to accomplish something important in this life, I simply had to be childless. I spent the following 20 years in complete, unwavering devotion to art making and living A Big Life (travel, sexual freedom, dinner parties with interesting people). I let nothing get in my way.
At my ten year high school reunion, I was in the middle of grad school, desperately poor, but doing what I loved, and most of my classmates were passing around baby pictures. After being asked for the tenth time about my marital status, I recall suppressing the distinctly cynical comment lying in wait on the tip of my tongue, “And what have YOU accomplished in your life?.... no, I mean... something that dogs and cows cannot do?”
I honestly was not thinking about children at all while I worked towards getting tenure, finishing that next piece, or procuring that next exhibition. I ignored the boyfriends who told me that I did not know how to relax, and lived to work. But, somewhere along the way, the endless striving, the hundreds of all-nighters, and the constant fixation on the next accomplishment to the exclusion of all else began to feel unbalanced, bordering on pathological. I sometimes found myself in a dark and empty place. By its very nature, the life of a workaholic does not allow for much self reflection: you keep yourself so busy that you never have time to stop and think about why you need to keep yourself so busy.
I began to make room for some other things... redefining my concept of A Big Life. First came the dog, followed by a commitment to a man I actually thought I could live with. This expansion thing felt good, so we worked on a having a baby. We were both open to what the universe would decide for us. Blessed with the gift of passion for my work, I never felt the desperation for pregnancy that I hear so many women my age talk about.... I even began to feel guilty that maybe I did not want a baby badly enough. The fact is, I felt quite confident that I would be happy with or without a child, and could see the pros and cons of each kind of life.
This ambivalence ended sometime last September.
You see, for many years now, I have been making work about human vulnerability and strong emotion, pointing out how American society in particular discourages the display of frailty. I plummeted the depths of my own soul and put it on the canvas. I’ve made crying self portraits, a series of crying men, references to my hidden psychological maelstroms, and dark familial dysfunctionality.
I thought I was being brave and confrontational. I felt like I was way out there, putting it all on the line, and holding nothing back. “Here I am”, I thought, “I have eviscerated myself, and give it as a gift to you, the viewer, so you will not feel alone.”
But there I was, this past September, lying on my back in a dark room. They turned on the monitor, squeezed the warm, slippery goo on my belly, and turned on the ultrasound machine. Up on the monitor, I saw a creature, wiggling its butt. I suddenly had the sensation of having lived in a pitch black room for all of my life, and opening the door to a light so bright that I felt certain it would kill me. I quickly closed the door because I couldn’t stand it, it took me by surprise, but I had caught a glimpse of what was to come.
I knew in that moment that whatever hell I had been through in my life, however genuine I had been in my efforts to convey that rawness in my work, none of that compared to what I was facing at this instant. I thought of all the proselytizing I had done about the depths of emotion, laying one’s self-bare... and realized that I was an imposter; I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. My daughter is not even here yet, and I can feel my capacity for every possible emotion stretching wide open: my fears for myself are nothing compared to my fears for her, and I can barely imagine how joy might be, amplified to this extent.
I know I am about to experience something far beyond what I could ever envision, as my heart is removed from my body, and I prepare for the day that I hold it in my hands.
Of course, I can’t wait to see what it does to my work.
And... more importantly, I remind myself... I can’t wait to see what it does to my life.
Labels: artists and motherhood