We discussed this painting today in the group I’m currently running at my local library, ‘Exploring Motherhood through Poetry and Art’. Here is where this piece of art took me.
Our living room can sometimes feel like my entire universe.
There are times when my big blue armchair is a delicious hug: Quinn nestled into me, his soft warm flesh melting into my soft warm flesh. Other times my armchair is a sinking, suffocating prison that seems to require a momentous burst of energy to eject myself from, and I am trapped under a hot and damp infant.
It is those latter times that I look across at the shelving unit on the other side of the room, and I feel a kind of enraged panic rising in my belly. It is one of those Ikea units with the big deep squares where you can shove all manner of things, but it is really the top surface – or rather, the disaster-zone that is expanding across the top surface – that causes my breathing to rapidly increase. The Ikea shelving unit is one of the unofficial Dumping Zones in the house. One of us might place a jumper there and then, later, balance a pile of papers on top of the jumper. I swear, there are times when I feel that the best place to store any more literature from the hospital, or the child and maternal health nurse, or the doctors, or the parent group, is a bonfire…for the love of God, NOT on top of the Ikea shelving unit. If you have lost something, it is probably there, hidden behind a glass jar of musty flowers and underneath the boxes of photo prints of Quinn.
The worst thing is being incapacitated to do anything about it. I am practically strapped into the armchair, with the baby practically strapped to me, helplessly watching the leaning tower of disorganised stuff grow higher and higher. Having a baby has given me insight into what it might be like to be confined to a wheelchair. I direct Dave to do things for me in very specific ways – not because I want to be difficult, far from it – but because, like most people, I like things to be done in a certain way (say my water being the right temperature), and actually if I could I’d really rather do it myself. But I can’t, because I’m trapped under a baby. Motherhood, for me, has been an experience of what it feels like to have my freedom restricted: freedom to get up and make a cup of tea just how I like it, freedom to have a spare half hour to clear the top of the Ikea shelving unit once and for all, freedom to go round the corner and get my legs waxed if I want, freedom to go on a bike ride at a whim, freedom from having another person completely and utterly dependent on me.
Occasionally, I get a little piece of freedom, doled out to me like a lolly placed in the palm of a child’s hand. A single hour, fully autonomous, where I ask myself, “What do I want to do with this little piece of time?” These are precious commodities made for sucking slowly. The tiny stretches of alone-time are all the more delicious for being so rare: which is actually how I experience all of motherhood, in a way – all the many moments made more sweet and beautiful because of how incredibly fleeting it is.
When Quinn was a few days old I moaned, ridiculously, for all that had already passed, that he was already getting older and that I would never have Quinn as a newborn again. Every time he learns something new – the ability to grasp an object, or smile – it is so delightful and I am buoyed by the thought of all the years ahead, watching him unfurl into more of his Quinn-ness. Last week I told my Mum, excitedly, about the latest new thing Quinn was doing, and she responded with a little sad sigh. “Oh, that means he’s growing up,” she said. I suppose my mother had watched this process so many times, the bittersweetness of the unbabying process: the small, warm, trusting little marsupial curled up in my lap, the softness of his head, the sweet baby smell, the fantastic baby dinosaur sounds he makes when he sings with me. The way that sometimes, the only person in the world he wants is me.
The green in the mother’s dress, in the painting: is it the colour of bile, or is it the colour of moss in a lush forest, or dry paddocks turned alive after a week of rain? Surely it is all those things. I feel caged and disabled one moment, and engrossed in the beauty of my brand new son the next – who, a year ago, was just a little tadpole or some such. Women with children only a year older than Quinn look at him dreamily, remembering the softness, the warmth. I suppose my mother looks at Quinn and remembers a time when we only ever wanted her.
To be the only person someone wants, needs – it is both divine and debilitating. Somewhere there, in the both/and of those things, surely lies something essential about motherhood.