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  • Writer's pictureWendy Mckay

Motherhood; evolving? The good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

“Whether your pregnancy was meticulously planned, medically coaxed, or happened by surprise, one thing is certain—your life will never be the same.” – Catherine Jones

It's slightly ironic that one of the most iconic painters of motherhood never married or had children.

Mary Cassets paintings were the vision of modern motherhood and domesticity and filled with symbolism and depth due to the tension between her art and life. One could say her art supports traditional thoughts of ideal motherhood; soft, graceful, and a domestic space from the hectic, industrialized, and modernizing society. But her consuming focus on the subject could also read unfulfilled desire, underlining the idea that women without children feel incomplete. Another theory is that Cassatt's paintings show her ability to value motherhood without wanting it for herself. It becomes more about tolerance and choice. Her art shows that a women can be happy as stay-at-home mother and her life says that a women can be content as a single, childless, working artist. Neither is right or wrong and both are purposeful in their own way.

It's 2:00am, I feel a sharp twinge of pain from my cesarean scar, everything in my body hurts, and the sound of his cry makes my heart drop. Here we go yet again, two hours into my sleep cycle woken by my baby's sharp wales. There's something they don't tell you; how terrible your body and brain will feel night after night, month after month, of broken sleepless nights; how you loose yourself completely to another human life, whom you would do anything for, even at the cost of your sanity. Buried underneath the exhaustion and depression, however, there is a part of me that knows this lived reality will not last and that my perspective will change, as motherhood is a continuing revolving door of varying stages and challenges that come along side.

Artists live by perspective in their work. It is a technique for creating an illusion of three-dimensions (depth and space) on a two-dimensional (flat) surface. Perspective is what makes a painting seem to have form, distance, and look "real." Lately, I've been thinking a lot about perspective in art as it relates to life. We can look at a piece of artwork from different angles, like Cassatt's paintings, and draw conclusions from these. Motherhood is much the same way; a shifting, moving, and rotating masterpiece. There are those extremely difficult and taxing moments where your view is on a slant, with the colors appearing muted, dark, muddy and the lines sharp and jagged. Then there are these moments, where the painting looks so different to you; the light hits it in such a way that make the shades appear more vivid and the lines are softer and more focused. It is like this in motherhood; dark seasons that include times of struggle and pain, but then stages throughout, where it feels as if perhaps your heart may explode with a kind of joy that you never knew existed and the colors are brighter illuminating the darkness.

When I think of normalizing the discomfort of motherhood, Alice Neel's Mother And Child comes to mind; artfully depicting the sheer exhaustion, fear, and emotional intensity of early motherhood. Rachel Cusk's memoir A life's Work is also relatable. The public's reaction, to her brilliant and honest account of early motherhood, was harsh; with surprisingly much of the judgment it received from other women. She was accused of being a child-hater and selfish. All for telling her honest story of the struggles of motherhood. Much of what she writes is in fact humorous and relatable: "My grasp of the baby's caloric intake, hours of sleep, motor development and patterns of crying is professorial, while the rest of my life resembles a deserted settlement, an abandoned building in which rotten timber occasionally breaks and comes crashing to the floor, scattering mice". She was criticized for over intellectualizing motherhood. As in, it may undermine a deeply held idea that mothers dwell in a place of ingrained nurturing' and that to question it is unnatural.

Cassatt shows us it is okay to sit in and with these tensions...not to wish them away or pretend they do not exist but to simply observe without judgment or criticism. To some, it may have seemed strange her paintings focused on motherhood when she herself had no children. Similarly, people thought Cusk spoke about the hardships of motherhood too candidly. I wish to emphasize that there is space to acknowledge the pains, struggles, and tedium of motherhood; and at the same time, how you could not imagine loving another beautiful human as much. "I remain fascinated by where you go as a women once you are a mother, and if you ever come back" Rachel highlights the mystery of motherhood. We need to not just accept these notions but, as a society, we should to be much more gracious and intentionally curious towards each women's individual lived experience. Is that not what modern day motherhood is? Whether you respect mothers but chose to have none yourself, are a mother of multiples, or a mother of one. In the words of Cusk "As it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience sense of exile from the world they knew."

Has motherhood evolved? I'm not sure...but we can choose to lift up our modern day Madonna's, and in an age when we have decided its okay to be pushing our opinions at each other like it's the Inquisition, Cassatt's message needs to heard clearly: to each their own. And personally, I believe most mothers will agree with me, motherhood is truly a work art.

Written by Wendy Swanson

Modern Madonnas, Dieter Hanf, (2022)

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