4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
Today I lost an hour of my day. It was there and then I went looking for something, and then it was gone. The thing I was looking for was a photo, but not an actual piece of paper. I don’t think that would’ve taken quite so long. I was looking for a virtual photo somewhere in the great abyss we call the iCloud.
If you know me and you know my artwork, you know I often work from photos. But I don’t work from photos in that way that helps you figure out proportions or how to draw a tree or what grass looks like. I like to figure out that stuff mostly on my own. I work from photos, because the act of working from the photo means that I’m trying to say something new about something that is old.
I used to do this by going to my parents’ old photos, black-and-white images of my mom standing in front of a hotel somewhere along the cross country drive from Haddonfield, New Jersey to a remote airbase in Madeira, California in 1960 where she would give birth to my oldest brother, nearly entirely alone, left to manage his grave disabilities mostly on her own. Or a photo of my mom on the lawn holding an adorable St. Bernard puppy by the scruff, this dog she would grow to loathe over the years as was told over and over again in family lore. I was fascinated by how the thing that would happen could almost be identified in the shadows of the things that were. I was amazed by how the near past laid like a sheet of smudged and tinted glass over that original image and its distant past.
Now the images that move me are about my children. And it’s a different thing. Because there has not been decades of grave truth to tint these original images. And yet, there is still something. Something about loss and hopes and beauty and self-conscious awkwardness. And of course there is always something about danger, danger of loving something beyond your control and outside your body with such a fierce love that injury to the object of its love would be the end of breathing altogether. There’s that little thing.
I was looking for a photo of my girl sitting on a blanket in the yard with a friend wearing princess dresses. It’s vivid in my mind’s eye, but nowhere to be found. When I pulled out my camera that day, they threw their hands towards me in rigid claws and growled and contorted themselves from the tiny heaps of fluffy tulle and crinoline they’d been only moments before. The alchemy of girlfriends and twilight and a camera had turned my innocent princesses into feral vampires. You can’t beat that.
I couldn’t find the photo though.
What I did find was that time, as usual, has been a strange and addled companion. I found a photo of a close girlfriend and I standing side-by-side in the yard and I thought that must’ve been last year or maybe the year before. But then I swiped to either side of my carefully ordered iCloud and I found that my daughter was wearing diapers in the bordering photos. Five years, at least! How is that possible?
I zoomed in to find that the boots I wore in the photo, are the same worn Frye boots I wear today. (Thank you, Frye corporation, for making leather boots that have that sort of longevity.) Because it appears that nearly everything else about that photo has gone. The smooth skin on my face, my slim physique, the babies that flank me on all sides. I swipe left again to a video on that same day and my children can barely form words in high-pitched voices of swallowed Rs and slurred Ss. But I’m still wearing those boots! I think, “How can everything else have gone?”
Oh, God, I need to start taking more video. I need to pay more attention. There are so many photos of them smiling for the camera, why aren’t there more of them just in repose, playing quietly on the floor, sitting in their row of high chairs, shoving Cheerios into their mouths? Because those moments are irreparably, irrefutably gone.
Today I noticed a strange smell on one of my children. And I’m here to tell you, it was the beginning of that strange odor that happens in one’s armpits. That child, surrounded by soft blankets and stuffies is beginning to smell like puberty. What in the world?
And it’s getting hard to write about. Because these moments don’t just belong to me anymore. That scented armpit belongs to that child who is growing more and more into someone separate from me.
I always wondered what happened to those mom bloggers I loved to read, the ones with the lyrical words that captured that sense of time passing and treasured moments and of tragic boredom, enveloping love, and strange humor that comes in young motherhood.
And I am beginning to think, I know where they went. They went forward. And their children went forward. But, as is healthy and normal, their children didn’t move forward in the same direction or at the same pace and certainly not in the same time, as they moved.
I’ve seen women ahead of me find their way. Develop their voices to talk of what is theirs, without intruding on what is their children’s. (Thank you, Jenny and Dawn with your kids older than mine and your voices still vibrant and moving.) But I’ve witnessed most go silent, at least with their writing, at least as far as I can tell.
I see now, it wasn’t easy, this moving forward, and it feels as normal as puberty does or menopause will feel any day now. Like a tearing away of something, a tooth that just won’t come out, that requires wiggling, and internal reflection, a tongue probing and a small white nugget, a dash of blood on the gums. A loss. A necessary making room for the next thing.
And so I continued to scroll through the photos. I looked back at the images that seemed the most far away, diapers, frog boots, and princess dresses worn throughout the entire day. For an hour of my day I did this, an hour that never existed before when all four of my kids were home with me waiting for the next play date, for the next cut up organic hotdogs or Cheerios, naptime or all those things.
I scroll through and look at what was. I consider what is and the growing distance between the two. I gather what is mine of these times, these tulle princess dresses and frog boots, and I preserve the light and the shadows, the beauty and the danger, the friction between these things in my mind’s eye to be stretched and contorted into a work of art that will be entirely mine. And the hour passes in an instant, the years scroll by in a single swipe.
We all grow older, grow up, get stinky, lose track of time. We remember, and then we hold tight suddenly, lamenting. There’s nothing to be done about it at all but this, this one hour outside of time, to celebrate, to mourn, to repurpose into something new that we can hang on a wall to remind us of what was. And then finally, we make way.