Parenting The Art of Letting Go, As an Artist and a Mother
Like a drawing is and is not mine once I’m finished with it, my son is not mine, not really, because he is himself.
The only light in Kir’s guest room came from a green-shaded lamp in the corner. The bed was big, softer than a fairy tale, and the curtains hung thick from a carved wooden dowel. My newborn, bald and rooting, gaped his mouth at my full breast. The release should have been euphoric, but it wasn’t. I was certain that at any moment a car would careen off the road and straight through the glass, smashing us where we sat, propped up on feather pillows.
As I nursed him, stroking the bridge of his nose and watching his eyelids grow heavy, I plotted the ways I would tuck and roll us to safety when it happened. The thousands of ways our bodies could break or be broken, the countless ways I might fall short as his mom. The weight of this fear felt vestigial, ancient, and lodged somewhere deep in the folds of my belly.
In order to appear as if I knew what I was doing, I stretched my mouth into a smile when I left the guest room. I couldn’t let anyone know I was so inadequate, so ill-prepared for what was supposed to be a magical phase of my life. But when Kir, who had been my friend before I was a mother, opened her arms from where she sat on the couch and reached for my milk-drunk baby, I flinched. And she saw me.
I flinched because I was afraid I’d drop him if I passed him over. But instead of telling her this, I said, “I don’t want to wake him,” and clung tighter to his body as I eased us into a patched leather chair.
When she asked me if I was OK, I assured her, too quickly, that I was. She pushed.
“Do you think you might have postpartum depression?”
I was offended at first, not just by her question, but by her eerie ability to see through my veneer. I averted my eyes to the painting that hung above her worried face, a portrait painted by her grandmother of a woman dressed in red, gripping her tiny, shiny baby in her hands. From where I sat below her, she appeared to glow, her downcast eyes full of serenity. I stared at her, indignant. Envious.
This painting was familiar; it had hung in every place Kir lived for as long as I’d known her. But now I saw it differently. Before, I had admired it because I was a painter. Now, holding my own baby tightly in my arms, I recognized something in the shadows of the subject’s face, in the position of her body. I was looking at a painting of a woman holding her baby, painted by a woman who had had babies. It felt like a hall of mirrors.
Shaking my head, I denied Kir’s accusations. Although she was right; my tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios at every doorjamb and window were a piece of the puzzle I now understand as my postpartum experience, I didn’t want her to be able to see that I was not mothering right. The idea of acknowledging PPD made me feel like a failure, like a fraud. What Kir couldn’t have known, when she asked me this question, was that my current symptoms were reminiscent of an older fear: a fear of not being good enough, mixed with a concern that someone would find out I wasn’t good enough.
I recognized this feeling in my mothering because it had snuck into my art-making first, in the form of imposter syndrome—a psychological phenomenon in which an accomplished person fears that they will be outed as a phony. Imposter syndrome is why so many shun praise, deny talent, or belittle accomplishments.
My imposter syndrome begins as self-doubt. With every line or brushstroke that I struggle to get right, an inner voice questions my artistic abilities. Then, once I move my work into a public space, the self-doubt spreads, bubbling beneath my skin, fizzling like peroxide in a wound . That inner voice, louder now, tells me that others will see the flaws in my work, and then will see me as a fraud.
Once a piece of art exists separate from the artist, it is no longer truly hers. It belongs to the viewer, to the world, a reflection of the person that made it, part of her but separate from her.
When I think about art as it connects to motherhood, I wonder at what point my son will no longer be mine. I made him; I raised him. I know only this: like a drawing is and is not mine once I’m finished with it, my son is not mine, not really, because he is himself. But I am responsible for bringing both my art and my son into existence, and so they are manifestations of me. It is this exposure that reveals the possibility of failure, and I feel that pull: Am I good enough?
The self-doubt spreads, bubbling beneath my skin, fizzling like peroxide in a wound.
This nagging question and the imposter syndrome I developed as an artist followed me beyond those early days of motherhood. And so did Kir’s painting.
The day I pushed my toddler’s stroller into the library was ordinary. The same soft carpet in the hallway buffered the outside from the inside, and the same row of shelves sagged beneath the weight of old books for sale.
But on top, as upright and sturdy as my son, leaned a copy of an art book, the kind meant for coffee tables. The book was Mother and Child by Mary Lawrence, and on its cover was the painting that Kir had in her living room, the same painting that looked down on me the night I held too tightly to my newborn, afraid that everything I thought about motherhood was wrong.
The idea that Kir’s grandmother’s painting was a recreation of someone else’s work had never crossed my mind. Seeing it in the library on the cover of a book felt uncanny, as if it had been stolen, somehow. I was jarred by the understanding that the painting I had so deeply connected with wasn’t what I thought it was. I had assumed Kir’s painting was an original and so had seen it as a merger of art and motherhood, had imagined that it was on her wall as part of a maternal handing down. I checked out the book and carried it out on my hip while my toddler pushed his own stroller out the door.
In the privacy of my living room, I allowed my son to watch TV so I could study the book. I needed to know: If Kir’s grandmother wasn’t the first creator of this image, who was?
Mary Lawrence’s Mother and Child taught me that Kir’s painting is a replication of Georges de la Tour’s 1630 work The Newborn . In this photograph of the original that hangs in France, I saw the same heavy-lidded eyes, the same smooth features, the same perfect highlight on the newborn’s tiny face that Kir’s grandmother had painted. And I saw again what drew me to the painting, and, I’d like to believe, what may have drawn Kir’s grandmother to recreate it: The serenity in the infant’s sleeping face is a study in peace, while something about the mother is tinged with a recognizable apprehension.
The woman, who is perhaps the Virgin Mary, is lit from somewhere below and off to the left. A strong shadow is cast across her face—the light source must be a candle. Her right hand supports her infant’s new neck. Her fingers are bent; tender, yet tentative, so that only her palm and fingertips touch him, as if she’s afraid she might harm him. Her other hand is dark, blurry even, as if she is quickly trying to bring him closer. In this moment, I was brought back to those early days of motherhood, those dreadful hours in dark rooms wanting to hold my son closer and fearing I would be the one who hurt him.
I see myself in this woman, and also in the artist. The book with The Newborn on the cover includes a two-paragraph description of the painting, written by Barbara Ingram. She explains how la Tour and his work went largely forgotten for two and a half centuries, that his paintings were attributed to others.
The first time I saw the painting, I credited it to Kir’s grandmother, which was correct, though not the whole story. I misunderstood its origins in part because art, like children, inhabits the world independent of its maker. But I am a mother and an artist, so I know this is not entirely true, because even with independence there is an invisible, umbilical, tethering.
Every time I release my art, I worry that I have failed to create well. And when the time comes to release my son into the world, I am sure I will feel the same way. But there’s more. I fear not only that I have failed to create well, but also what will happen to me when my art and my child have left me. Not only am I anxious about being revealed as an imposter, but I fear that I will be forgotten.
Though la Tour was not so much forgotten as temporarily misplaced. His painting and his life remind me that meaning and understanding shift as time stretches thinly forward. How much this, too, feels like motherhood.
My son, now eleven, is walking home from the bus, using his key to let himself in, and making himself a snack—he does these things because I taught him how. Once, I drew a boy on a piece of thick paper, and even though it was likely thrown away, I know that it existed. Kir’s grandmother recreated an image of motherhood and whether or not she knew where it came from, it landed on a wall where I saw it and it stirred in me and understanding of myself.
His painting and his life remind me that meaning and understanding shift as time stretches thinly forward. How much this, too, feels like motherhood.
There’s a constellation forming here. Pinpoints of art and motherhood, of the ways we look and are looked at, how we hold on and let go. Perhaps there is no “good enough” when making art or raising a child, perhaps what is important is the experience of the growth and release, of being both the watcher and creator, and embracing the changes as they happen. When my art, when my son, leave me they will be reflections of me, or they won’t. This does not mean I will be lost or that I did it wrong.
Imposter syndrome creeps into my mothering and my creative work, though I realize that my fear of not measuring up gives power to audiences made up of people I might not even know. It is happening right now, as I give this essay to you and wonder, will they like it? Am I saying this correctly? But to teeter on the brink of failure is to know that something is being done, something new is being made.
Creating art, raising children, makes us vulnerable because both require a letting go. I have been an artist my whole life, a mother for over a decade. Perhaps I need to relinquish the control my imposter syndrome has over me, too.