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Happy Mother’s Day to the Originators

I was an artist before I was a mother.  And in this pre-materfamilia time, minutes were more friendly for creating.  They were mine, and mine only.  They were quiet.  They weren’t tangled up with asks and wants and needs and toys.  They never hungered.  As an artist who is now also a mother, nearly every single minute is shared.  Even when my two sons sleep, they are slumbering in my psyche.

Since giving birth, my art practice has changed.  There is a force that goes hand in hand with motherhood, a vigour that has seeped into and often times bombarded my subsistence as an artist.  It has been both harmonious and hostile.

I look at art through two, sometimes three pairs of eyes now.  And while I was teaching art to children, I viewed art through eyes aplenty.  I see things I may not have previously considered, and I appreciate the sincerity, the unfiltered, inexperienced, non-formulaic art pieces my sons and students have created.  I relish in the fact that my sons have been exposed to more art in their young lives than I’ve seen in the last three decades.

I haven’t had the opportunity to create as much as I would like, but it’s all there, brewing.  Those hushed, lone minutes will return.

This US Mother’s Day, I pay tribute to all the mothers who are artists. and I salute the following artists who have chosen motherhood as a theme in their works.

 
 

Shira Richter, Push, photograph

 
 

 Amanda Jane Crouse, ceramic figures

 
 

 Louay Kayali, Mother and Child,  1973, oil on wood

 
 

 Alison Saar, study for Sea of Nectar, 2008, wood, ceiling tin, bronze and tar

 
 

 Masud Alam Liton, All About My Mother, photograph

 
 

 Catherine Haley Epstein, Wore & Piece – Ne Me Quitte Pas

 
 

 Sofia Kapnissi, Statues-II, acrylic

 
 

 Gertrude Kasebier, Lollipops, 1910, photograph

 
 

 Roshanak Ofstad, My Future Is in Your Eyes, photograph

 
 

 Montserrat Gudiol Corominas, Motherhood, 1964, oil on panel

 
 

Miriam Schaer, from the series Baby (Not) On Board, 2010-2013, red thread, baby clothing

Happy UK Mother’s Day – Body of a Motheress

Flaps of fabric at the mercy of a relentless wind or the invariable fluttering of ample bird wings. That’s what I heard when I listened to my son Enlai’s heartbeat for the first time while eight weeks pregnant.

I imagined his tiny heart beating inside the echo chamber that was my womb, thinking about how for a time my body would be host to two heartbeats, each beating at its own rate. Eventually, my frame would accommodate two of every organ, four eyes, eight limbs, and countless veins, arteries and capillaries.

The woman-to-mother metamorphosis, with panoptic physical changes, made me observe and appreciate my own form as I never had before. My wonder and respect for the female body’s capabilities has grown as I have grown, from being barely pregnant to a mother of a six-year-old and a 20-month old – its ability to conceive, to house and nurture, to deliver, to feed, to care for, to soothe.

I realised that I and my fellow pregnant women were all too oft required to surrender our bodies during pregnancy, not only to our unborn child, but also to doctors, midwives and nurses, to passersby on the streets. While visiting my midwives during the last trimester, I remember on several occasions having my legs open to their easternmost and westernmost points with my knees north, allowing latexed hands inform as to whether all was okay. As I walked along streets, into shops or onto public transport, strangers would touch my belly. My bump was no longer mine; it seemed to belong to anyone who found it fascinating. I never minded; I was touched by the touch.

While pregnant with my second son Lumen, I was more attuned to my body’s adjustments. I knew I was pregnant before an early predictor test could tell me I was. When I began bleeding in my first trimester and assumed I miscarried, my body was hinting to me to go slow, to perhaps listen to more of Miles’ Kind of Blue, less of his Bitches Brew. I learned that I developed a subchorionic haematoma, which the outer fetal membrane eventually reabsorbed. It is at this same time that a friend told me she had miscarried and another friend divulged that her son and daughter were conceived via a donor.

This is a woman’s body, when she decides she would like to have a baby, until the time her body says to her she can no longer have a baby – her blood speaks to her like the hands of a clock speak to the rest of the world, her fallopian tubes may reveal to her that her uterus will have to welcome the eggs of another woman, her abdomen may hint at loss of life, her skin may become discoloured, stretched, freckled, moled or swathed in bumps, her hormones may wreak havoc, her breasts may swell to the size of watermelons and then become saggy apricots, her hair may become as full as the girl’s in the shampoo ad and then fall out en masse. Her hairline might change altogether. She may be confronted with haemorrhoids, spider veins, or varicose veins. She may get a tingling in her breasts when it is time to feed her baby or a throbbing and fever when the baby wasn’t hungry. She may suffer pelvic organ prolapse, she may urinate without knowing she has. She may welcome prominent biceps from carrying this, and back pain from carrying that. Her foot size may increase. She may have new curves, loss in muscle tone and changes in fat deposits. And when her body wants to say to her that she can no longer bear her own children, she may cry, she may scream, she may be grateful for what her body has already given her or mourn what it could not.

Contemplating the body of a mother, I embarked on a project which entailed photographing mothers’ body parts. The initial concept was to document a change in identity when a woman becomes a mother, highlighting the forgotten, whether they are body parts consigned to oblivion by a partner or the woman herself when she became a mother. I gave them the option of telling me which part of their body they’d like me to photograph or allowing me to choose.

As projects do, this one evolved. While some moms offered their Caesarean section scars and the stretch marks on their breasts, bum and bellies, others asked if there was a way I could photograph their insides – “My insides are ripped apart when I see my child hurting. How do you photograph this?”

Throughout my sessions with these moms, I was reminded of Robert Frank’s words – the eye should learn to listen before it looks. My eyes listened. Just as my heart listened when I heard my son’s heartbeat. And when the eyes and heart listen, stories unfold. Stories of life lived and given. Given and lived.

 

My Breasts Are Better Than Kate Upton’s

With the amount of breastfeeding news stories in the media, what else could there be to say about the topic? Compare my mom boobs to a model’s jubblies? Maybe. Add that to a few other observations about the sweet suckledom, a subject which seems to invite the most opinionated, some of whom shock the bra straps right off me.

The first person – an elderly gentleman – to provide a mouthful on my own mammary glands proclaimed, “Oh, this is most inappropriate. You should cease this nonsense immediately.” I was in an embassy, and I began to breastfeed my 12-week-old son in what I thought was a discreet manner. Mind you, I never used a nursing cover – an apron-like garment that conceals the feed. I assumed that if I wasn’t keen to eat under a blanket during meal time due to a feeling of suffocation, my son probably wouldn’t be either. This gentleman – or not-so-gentle man – made me cry with his unsolicited comments. Due to still-settling hormones, and what felt like a betrayal by the breast is best campaign, I wept, tears falling on my feeding son’s cheeks. I said nothing to the man, but I wanted to say, “I make milk. The boob juice feeds my child, best stuff on the planet for him right now. It’s a bit of a superpower I have. What do your man-boobs do?”

The second time I was the recipient of comments of the anti-boobs-au-lait-in-public variety, I was having dinner at a local pizza joint with a friend, my five-year-old and my five-month-old. There were two other diners – a man and a woman – across the room from us. My friend asked if I heard the comments the man just made: “Oh that breastfeeding is putting me off my food. It’s outrageous.” I’m happy I hadn’t. What I found odd is that this man’s back was to me. The woman he was dining with felt obligated to inform him that there was a semi-visible breast in the vicinity. The man kept turning around, and it was after the fourth or fifth time doing so that my friend was tempted to say something. I finished feeding my son, we got the bill and we left.

There were other times when observations voiced were kinder, more innocent. When I fed my son Lumen in the playground, a handful of my older son’s friends felt compelled to gather around me as if I was Santa redistributing gifts that the naughty kids never received. Some giggled, others asked why I was doing this, and one young boy asked, “Does it hurt?” I answered honestly, saying that there were times when it was painful. He then asked, “Then why don’t you stop?” I responded, “There’s a little thing called sacrifice that mothers do for their children. And of course the meta-analyses of scientific studies of this milk that’s coming out of my breast and into Lumen’s mouth right now prove that his immunity is being boosted and that feeding anything else to him right now is more likely to make him ill.” The bemused little youngster ran away. One young girl, part curious, part frightened of cannibalism, shouted, “He’s eating her. Aaahhh. Run away before he starts eating us.” Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Frieze: The Art Edit

It’s no big secret that I love art.  I’ve put pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – about a variety of art-related topics, about how my father exposed me to art from a very young age, about exhibitions my sons and I have been to, about teaching art to little ones.

So it comes as no surprise that come October every year, as a Londoner, I get this giddy feeling in my belly.  I anticipate all the works that I will be able to see, all the art my sons’ pretty little eyes will be able to take in.

It’s not all about that miniscule art fair in Regent’s Park every tenth month of every year.  Frieze, I think it’s called.  It’s about the air in London for those whole 31 days.  It’s autumn and chilly but the sun still comes out.  There’s rain, but there’s a crisp day not too far away.  There’s half-term and Halloween, but above all, there is art.  It’s everywhere, hiding under burnt-orange and red-yellow leaves, beneath the tyres of black cabs, ebbing and flowing with the Thames, splashing on brollies, lurking in old stairwells and inside gargoyles’ mouths, and hovering in Turner skies.

The Frieze Art Fair is like the patriarch who invites his entire family of galleries – the distant cousin in Bogota, the grandchildren in New York, the aunt in Beijing and the nephews in Paris – to come to town wearing their best garb and showcase themselves as if they were Prince Harry’s “crown jewels”.

And like patriarch Michael Corleone, Frieze can be intimidating.  Especially if you’re a parent with a child whose attention span is…oh, did someone say pizza?  Or if your child is having a tantrum and in so doing, about to knock over an £8,000 sculpture.  This year, while I would like to take my boys to Frieze, I think that for health and safety reasons – my health, their safety – I’ll opt to take them to the Frieze Sculpture Park, as well as expose them to art at different white cubes around town, on alternate days.

It’s good for their being, this art stuff.  While at the “Photography, Motherhood and Identity” exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery (which runs until 5 January 2014), my six-year-old Enlai asked a lot of questions and made a lot of comments, including noting that Ana Casas Broda’s body was different than mine.  We talked about female bodies and how they may change after giving birth, and I reminded him that this is often how humans learn and make sense of the world around them – by comparing and contrasting.  And this led to a conversation about balance, about responsibility, about unconditional love.  All this from looking at one photographer’s project. Read the rest of this entry »

2013: An Allergy Odyssey

I look at pasta and baguettes, at pastries and ice cream with disdain.  In the back of my mind I know they’re inanimate objects, but when I stare at them, I imagine they are lurking with malevolent intentions.  When I walk past bakeries, I sometimes resent that alluring aroma that invades my breathing space.  And when I pass the nut section in my market, I get this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I’m not worried about what these foods may do to my waistline; I’m the mother of a child who is severely allergic to multiple foods.

Months ago, my now 14-month-old son Lumen suffered a series of anaphylactic reactions.  I suspected the culprit was milk after his first anaphylactic reaction.  What I didn’t imagine was that he would be allergic to over 20 additional foods.

After his second anaphylactic reaction, he was given a skin prick test and an immunoglobulin E (IgE) blood test which measures the blood level of IgE, one of the five subclasses of antibodies. The immune system makes antibodies, proteins that attack antigens, one antigen being food allergens.

During the time we were awaiting the IgE blood test results, Lumen suffered two more reactions, one from breast milk.  The doctor ordered me to go on an exclusion diet, eliminating all the foods he suspected Lumen might be allergic to.  While only trace amounts of the allergens were likely coming through my breast milk, these scintilla quantities were enough to cause a reaction.  This is exactly what happened.  As I was breastfeeding Lumen in the hospital, he started to develop a rash all over his face as well as become agitated.  The doctor who was sitting right next to me told me to stop feeding immediately.  She gave him an antihistamine and told me that I was no longer allowed to breastfeed my son.  What had nourished him exclusively for the first six months of his life was now threatening his life.

Test results in, the doctors confirmed that Lumen was severely allergic to multiple foods, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, rye, barley, oats, soy, corn, peas, green beans, sunflower, sesame, lentils, chickpeas, coconut, strawberries, and bananas, among others. Read the rest of this entry »

Anaphylaxis, Blurriness and Life Lines

My son was gasping for breath.  I felt my baby, my seven-month-old Lumen — whose tongue was swollen and whose lips were so inflated his top one was blocking his nasal passage — slipping away. And I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know what was happening.  He was crying, wheezing and burying his head in my chest.  And then he closed his eyes.

I called emergency, and when the ambulance arrived and checked his vitals the paramedics informed me that he had suffered an anaphylactic reaction.  This was to be the first of four within a matter of days.  All of them were similar, except for the third, when he woke up at 1am with his left eye so swollen he couldn’t open it. He stirred and then started crying hysterically, and because due to recent events I was sleeping with the lights on, I could see that this reaction was different.  He couldn’t catch his breath, and he was floppy.  Anyone who knows my Lumen knows he’s not floppy, even when he sleeps.  Two days prior, I was taught by the A&E doctor how to administer the EpiPen.  And in those early hours, I jabbed my son in the outer, upper third portion of his thigh. His demeanor changed.  He smiled at me, and he was bouncing up and down on the sofa.  If one administers this adrenaline injection one is required to call emergency.  When the paramedics arrived this time, they informed me that I may have just saved my son’s life.  Bittersweet words for any parent.

When we walked down the stairs to climb into the ambulance, I had to hand my son to the paramedics because I could not stop shaking and crying and feared I might drop him.  In the ambulance, they monitored Lumen’s vitals.  Because his heart rate and blood pressure continued to drop despite the injection, the paramedic said they would have to turn on the siren and inform the resuscitation team at the hospital to be ready.

The last month is blurry.  I see Lumen, and I see his big brother Enlai.  I see them giggling and crying.  I see both of them scared, sometimes for the same reason, sometimes for different reasons.  I see the inside of ambulances, with maternity kits, defibrillators, and the irony of gurneys branded with Pegasus.  I see eczema and blood, a nurse’s empathetic visage, and words on paper I don’t want to read.  I see life all around me, and again, I see death.

There are questions about life and death that I will never know the answers to, and maybe I shouldn’t.  As if he was following some sort of foreshadowing brief,  Enlai was asking questions about death and dying the week prior to Lumen’s anaphylactic reactions.  “Ma, what does ‘dead’ mean?  Will you die first or will I?”  I have my own hypothesis about what happens to humans when they die, and I shared my theory with Enlai.  Although he is five going on about 20, despite my explanation that we humans are unaware who will die when and that chronology doesn’t always factor in dying, he insisted that I would die first.  I responded that I don’t think we can say this with certainty, and that when a friend read my palm years ago, he declared that I had the longest life line he’d ever seen.  Enlai asked what a life line was and why I was talking about my palm, so I translated.  “Enlai, I will be here to take care of you and Lumen until I’m very, very old,” I said, and added, “Lumen and you will always have each other and should always look after one another.”

During the course of Lumen’s anaphylactic reactions, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the cemetery where my granny is buried.  There is a section for babies, and I would often wander to this section after visiting her grave.  I don’t know why.  I remember thinking how small the plots were and how short of a span that dash on the gravestone represented.  I am not a morbid person, nor do I have a fascination with death.  I do, however, have an appreciation for the confrontation and acceptance of death, and for artists such as Damien Hirst and poets like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe, who underscore death in their respective art and poetry.  They, I believe, have a special understanding of life and what it is to live.  Viewing and reading their nods to mortality, I seem to appreciate life more.  I live more fully.  I live and I laugh.  And I love.

Despite the fact that food allergy-induced anaphylaxis is not a death sentence, it can be life-threatening, and this scares me. US data extrapolation — with similar findings reported in theUK — shows 150 deaths annually per 100,000 people, and a study in Denmark detailed an incidence of 3.2 cases of food anaphylaxis per 100,000 inhabitants per year with a fatality rate of approximately 5%.

The term anaphylaxis comes from the Greek words ana, meaning against and phylaxis, meaning protection.  But Lumen is not against protection.  He has me, a vigilant mom who loves him and his brother more than anything.  The gods, or whomever sent Lumen to me and then threatened to take him away four times, have only proven that they do not know me.  I’m biased, to be sure, but I know the world needs Lumen.  And I’ve reassured Enlai by showing him Lumen’s life line, which is as long as they come.

My Lumen

You, my week-old son Lumen, are a miracle.  My belly was not plump with your presence by conventional means, nor was everything straightforward during the pregnancy.  I stare at you now with an overwhelming gratitude for every cell of which you are composed, every utterance of your petite lips, every grasp of my finger with your tiny hand, your wrinkly knees and strong legs, your cry to which I will respond for all of your days, your light.

After feeding you at 4am this morning, I somehow thought of Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”.  I must have been pondering how quickly time goes.  Your brother — him with his four-syllable words, logical explanations and eyes that seem to have experienced several lifetimes — will be five years old this month, and it seems like last Wednesday I was cradling him in my arms as I do you now.

I want to hold on to this time, the right here and right now, these moments with you and your brother, these moments which remind me of Wordsworth’s lines: 

Ye blessed creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all…

…Behold the Child among his new-born blisses…

To my special, special Lumen, thank you for these first days of what I know will be an extraordinary life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more photos, please visit Oomphalos on Facebook.

Father’s Day – Thank You for the Music

It’s Father’s Day, and for those that have followed my blog, you are aware of the love and admiration I have for my dad. Although we speak regularly, it has not been easy living in different countries. There are things I miss about him – his quiet way, his cooking – but what really saddens me is the time he and my son are missing together. I tell my son stories about his grandpa, show him photos, and remind him of all the times they wrestled around as superheroes and played on the beach. And now with the sweet pea that will make its way from my belly to the outside world in a few weeks, I am already thinking about the moments that will be missed.

For the rest of my days, I will tell my children stories of their grandpa. I will tell them about the time I didn’t want to tell grandpa that I had a school field trip because it meant grandpa would have to make me a packed lunch. As a single parent who was working full-time, I understood how difficult things were for him, as much as a seven-year-old can, and I didn’t want to burden him with one more thing. As he dropped me off at school, he saw that there was a bus waiting for us, and asked me what was happening. I lied and said I didn’t know. He walked up to my teacher and asked if there was some sort of field trip, and she said there was and asked if I had told him. At this point, he told me to get back in the car, and drove me to a nearby 7-Eleven and bought me a sandwich, some Funyuns, a Sno-Ball, and a Welch’s grape soda, and the attendant packed it up in a brown paper bag that was as big as me. I didn’t usually bring a lunch to school, but when I did, my granny packed me what I refer to as “the monochromatic lunch”. The brown bread bag served as my lunch bag, and inside was a peanut butter sandwich with wheat bread, some graham crackers and some Saltines. So on this field trip day, unintentionally or not, my children’s grandpa made me feel like a princess. I had the best lunch of everyone on the bus that day. I was the envy of all my classmates.

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Father’s Day – My New Pair of Glasses

We have just finished reading bedtime stories.  One for each of you, and I knew beforehand which one you’d each pick but somehow the fact that it is always the same and you know all the words is charming rather than infuriating.  And then we counted in the dark until we got to fifty – all the while each of you mimicked one another and had lots of giggles.  Now it is quiet, and from one side of the bedroom I hear a faint wheeze that tells me one of you is sleeping.  As I stare at both of you, I reflect on Mama’s request to think about fatherhood for Lisha’s blog and what it means to me.

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My Tyke’s Treasure Trove of Tantalizing Trinkets

     

What feels like fourscore and seven years ago, I put my quarter into a toy vending machine and magically, not one, but two bubble cases came out.  The first case had a black, plastic spider ring in it and the second a marbled bouncy ball.  These two items remained my coveted treasures for months.  They became familiar with every pocket lining in my wardrobe, the warmth of my closed fist and my perpetual ogling.  I loved them like Mrs. Beckham loves her Louboutins.  Maybe even more.

In addition to these treasures, there were also the amazing assets of the pyrotechnic variety to be found on the post-Fourth of July hunt.  My cousins and I would walk up and down our neighbourhood streets in search of fireworks remnants, of unused bottle rockets and snake pellets and half-used sparklers to reignite.  The Fifth of July was our own special independence day.

Thankfully, my four-year-old son isn’t trawling the London lanes in search of mini explosives like his ol’ ma, but due to the sheer amount of walking we do – eyes always peeled for washed-up worldly goods – Enlai has amassed a large collection of so-called treasures.  To him and perhaps to many a youngin, this assortment of prized and peculiar possessions is a trove to be reckoned with, something worthy of bequeathing to the Association of Accumulators at a later stage.

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