4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
It happened slowly… and all at once. Last week I was 29 with a rounded, peach-skinned face that I disliked for its pudginess, and BAM! It’s fifteen years later and the collagen has left the building.
The kids’ pediatrician, in describing the origins of their collective eczema, referred to my skin as “crepie” skin which sounded like something between crappy and creepy, but which was supposed to reference “crepe”, the wrinkled polyester-ish fabric that makes for bad Betty White mother-of-the-bride dresses. (And for the record, I’d give anything for Betty White’s skin.)
My mother was beautiful in her 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I remember looking at her and thinking she was like an angel. She’d paint her toenails red and give us each a nickel to rub cream in her smooth, thin legs each night. She’d dress up for hospital visits and doctors’ appointments, much the same way I dress up now for date night. She’d wear a fitted wool suit, ribbed turtleneck, red lipstick, and when we were old enough, we’d blow-dry her hair and style it into two perfectly flipped wings that met at the back of her head. Beautiful.
And now I begin to wonder, when did the guys at the gas station pump her gas last instead of first? When did she stop wearing her polka dot bikini by the pool? At what point did jeggings take on a whole different meaning on her stick thin legs?
In graduate school fifteen long years ago I made navel-gazing art about family, identity, fertility, my relationship with my mother, what it meant for me to be a woman in that time and place. (Sounds a lot like a blog you may have heard of?) The images were all so heavy though, even the hastily scribbled stuff. You just can’t put a headless doll, a pair of scissors and a right-wing anti-abortion newsletter from the 70’s in the same piece of art without seeming like a pretty angry woman.
And so I developed this group of characters I called white girl Jersey anime. They’d race through the paintings and flip you off, climb up across the frame of an awkward family portrait and scribble mustaches on people. They were like little yellow-haired gremlins. There were seven, and their personalities were distinctive.
Little Red Dress Girl was a skipper, twirler, underpants forgetter who was fearless (although she probably should have been a bit more fearful of the creepy teenager up the street, but perhaps that goes without saying.)
Skinny High School Girl was all big hair and short skirt. She didn’t go very far or do much, because she was hungry most of the time and weighted down by hairspray.
Pissed Off Artist wore overalls and a tank top with crazy cat’s eye glasses. She was Queen of the one finger salute, painting over, under and through anything.
Runner would mostly just run away, away, until she collapsed, only to stagger to her feet and run again.
Pregnant Mama was nude, with tiny limbs and a gigantic belly. She always seemed to be trying to regain her balance, struggling against the pendulous breasts and distended belly, beyond caring that every bit of her business was exposed.
Middle Age was ineffectual, apple-shaped, slumped shoulders, with jeggings and an unattractive bun.
And then there was Old Woman, a ghostly figure in white, shuffling barefoot with a walker. She moved steadily, with surprising grace, gesturing wisely.
And if you haven’t guessed it, these characters were me, painted by an art student who hadn’t really met the last four versions of me to come. If pressed to verbalize who these characters were, I would have said I thought they were the stages of a life, a woman’s life, my life.
But now I realize that they were all me, all the time.
I picture them like Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, a way of describing the diversity of intelligence: kinetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and so on. Strong here, but not there, but likely we have some measure of each intelligence at any given time. Or maybe they were like the geeked out graphic equalizer on my father’s old stereo. Red lights blinking, more bass, less treble, dial this frequency up and that one down.
Today, March 14, 2014, I am so much Little Red Dress Girl and Runner, striving for the more aged wisdom of Old Woman, relying on Angry Artist to communicate, and Skinny High School Girl to get dressed in the morning and brush my hair. Pregnant Mama, all selfless motherhood, she crops up, too. But Middle Age is a vision I shamefully based on my mother after my father died and we’d mostly moved away, no one to feather her hair or put moisturizer on her legs. I am trying to avoid that version of myself. I avoid the woman who won’t wear the polka dot bikini ever again, who believes that she shouldn’t.
Now though, with the realization that time in our lives is more than linear, I need to embrace the multitudes of me that exist… or at least the seven I’ve discovered. And maybe my imagined version of Middle Age is the place where I’ve heaped a pile of demons: disorder, awkwardness, neediness, emptiness, weakness, weakness, weakness. She’s always been there, fumbling around unable to do anything but hide inside her own slumped shoulders at the party, ineffectual, the one person who is no longer needed by anyone. Poor Middle Age.
But if Little Red Dress Girl can pull her out onto the dance floor and Old Woman can point out that no one in the room is actually watching, that being whole and wholly yourself wherever you are is like a virtual polka dot bikini, then maybe, just maybe she too can live a little.
Here’s to the multitude of people we each carry with us every single day. Here’s to loving them for who we are, wherever we are.
“As long as we believe in sequential time, we see becoming, instead of being. Beyond time, we’re all one.”
~Richard Bach, Bridge Across Forever
(This piece was written in celebration of the decrepitude of my 43rd birthday, in admiration of Betty White, and as a response to WordPress’s Weekly Writing Challenge, Golden Years.)