Mama at the MOMA
It is Free Museum Tuesday in San Francisco and I couldn’t be happier. I quit my job four months ago after having my first baby and it feels like my daughter and I are hibernating, the only difference being bears get to sleep and I don’t. I am on baby duty all day while dad is at work. The hours spool out with breastfeeds, diaper changes, and one-way conversations in infant-ese. Don’t get me wrong; I am relishing this time with my daughter, her tiny eyes searching mine, her fragile sighs, fingers like tendrils curled around my pinky. I know how lucky I am to have the choice to stay home. But I didn’t realize before I quit just how much I would be staying home. It is high time baby and I made a public appearance. Clearly, she is lacking culture.
After pumping the required quarters into a downtown parking meter—enough to cover three museum entrance fees—babe and I set off for the Museum of Modern Art. I feel my blood pressure spike as a flood of pedestrians sweeps us through an intersection jammed with cars. It eases only on discovering it actually is possible to get jaded urbanites to smile at you on the street. Just strap a fat-cheeked, flower-hatted mini-person to your chest.
The featured artist at the MOMA is Cindy Sherman, and the exhibit is as crammed as the crosswalk. Sherman has spent the last 35 years photographing one subject: herself. My initial impression is underwhelmed. Hundreds of people are here to see hundreds of pictures of just one person. Who is more in need of a life here? But as babe and I bump our way through the crowds, I’m sucked in. A deft costume and make-up artist, Sherman transforms herself into a new female persona for each self-portrait. Countless characters line the walls. Here is a coy ‘50s call girl, here a fitness buff with a tiara and a fake tan, here a dejected medieval nursemaid. Each tries hard, sometimes laughably, to project a certain image for the camera. I stand longer and longer in front of each life-sized photograph. I want to get inside these women’s heads, penetrate their shoddy facades.
We shuffle from room to room with the throngs. It is surprisingly quiet in the exhibit, the volume never rising above a whisper. That is until my daughter decides to start squawking like a seagull. The security guard, standing stiffly beneath a portrait of Sherman dressed as a deranged clown, flashes me a look of disapproval. I bounce and shush, but babe caws on, and I start scanning the room for the nearest exit sign.
Then I stop myself. Don’t my daughter and I have as much right to be here as the next person? Should the great art of the world be denied to new moms just because the presence of small children shatters our ultra-adult pretensions? Modern art is about breaking boundaries after all. If Cindy Sherman can plaster her contorted face atop a giant vagina (her “grotesque” period), shouldn’t my 4-month old be permitted a few excited squawks?
We resume our tour. “See the pretty colors?” I whisper as we sway before a larger-than-life rendition of Sherman as a psychologically disturbed heiress. The subject appears to have had an anxiety attack applying her lip-liner. Babe falls suddenly silent and gazes at the image transfixed. A single strand of drool escapes her gaping lip. She’s as observant an art-goer as anybody in this place, I congratulate myself. Then she starts to cry. Even louder than she squawked. When the cry turns to a shriek I start pushing my way through the crowds. Apparently she didn’t find the colors so pretty.
I transport my now hysterical daughter downstairs to the museum café, where thankfully there is one table open at the very back. While she nurses herself into a relieved stupor I sit wondering what I was thinking by bringing her here. Was it selfish? Too ambitious? Inconsiderate of her needs? Of the other museum-goers?
Maybe it’s the sleep-deprivation, but I can’t tell if I’m welcome here. Since my daughter was born, it’s been a bit of a head trip navigating life in public with this this new little appendage. Baby behavior that seems to offend some people, others find adorable, or at least understandable. So I am left studying expressions and body language, trying to read the social cues.
Most surprising to me is how this guessing game about others’ perceptions has shifted my perception of myself. One minute I am a proud emissary, sporting my little ambassador of joy. The next I am an irresponsible chaperone, ruining someone’s outing. Either way I am suddenly and irrevocably a Mother first, no longer a free agent entitled to a personal experience of art or anything else I encounter in tandem with baby.
This sense of identity vertigo has engulfed my professional sense of self, as well. Three months ago I was a publicist and an arts educator. Now I am a stay-at-home-mom. Did my essential nature change when I took on this new role? Of course not. And yet I confess I felt demoted when my tax-preparer documented my professional status as “homemaker” on this year’s tax form. Then I felt guilty for feeling demoted. I swore I would not fall victim to the culture wars pitting the working moms against the stay-at-homes, but it’s true I have assumed a touchy self-consciousness about my new SAHM status. I used to walk out of the house in the morning sporting blazers and dahlia lipstick. Now my signature wardrobe accessory is spit-up.
Sherman’s women flash back to mind. They, too, feel haunted by a preoccupation with others’ perceptions. Their staged smiles beg the question: do we as women take on the identities we assume others pin on us? Have I? The problem, of course, is that most of the time I have no idea what other people are thinking about me (if they are even thinking about me at all). I can only project. So when I find myself trying to live up to—or escape—someone else’s idea of who I am, it is really my own expectations playing the oppressor.
My daughter’s eyelids start to droop and I relax back into the minimalist chair. Perhaps I’m wasting my time bemoaning the identity I think I’ve lost. Maybe I need to take a cue from Sherman herself—Sherman the artist—who tries on and discards identities like a kid playing dress-up. Revel a little in the possibilities of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a human being. That’s what I want for my daughter, after all, for her to experience life as a journey, not an itinerary to land her at some fixed definition of herself: publicist, educator, artist, mother.
I glance up to see another woman struggling to bottle-feed a squirming infant a few tables over. Our eyes meet and we share a chuckle. I wonder how many other baby-toting women are slinking through the museum and wish I could invite them to pull up a chair. A little solidarity might convince us we have the right to be out participating in public life, little squawkers in tow. Mothers are integral members of society after all. Hell, we perpetuate it!
I emerge from the museum with babe to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I shake my head thinking of the slot machine’s worth of quarters I could have saved, but I am half-smiling. I feel energized, high on the power of art to throw a different lens on the world. Babe is content after her milk and I figure the parking ticket secures my space for the afternoon. So—which museum to next?
Bonner Odell is an arts and culture writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes primarily about dance (for the SF Weekly, East Bay Express, Dance Studio Live Magazine and others), but when she became a mother in 2012, she started writing poetry and essays on the new experience of parenthood.