“As a mother, I see the ethics of care on a macro level. Motherhood is not a paid position. The statistics for caregivers, primarily women, equates to trillions of dollars in unwaged labor across the globe.”Tweet
When he was a baby, he could not take his eyes off of me. Everywhere I went in the room, his eyes followed me. That has been the case ever since. And it has always been clear that I am his primary caregiver. It was my responsibility to take care of him when he cried. If his diaper was dirty, I changed it. I was to teach him not to grab things from others. He slept with me so that I didn’t have to get up to nurse him in the middle of the night. He is seven years old now, and his brain is still a sponge as he learns the language of habits that he will carry with him through adulthood.
I have been home for ninety days during the COVID-19 pandemic. I always secretly liked a life of solitude, so everything now is much like it was before in that sense. The difference is that I have more time to focus on my work. However, those open stretches of time to paint are limited by the daily schedule of homeschooling. Each ten to twenty minutes (his attention span) is so compact with his constant curiosity. Everything has slowed down, so there is more time to look at things.
As a mother, I see the ethics of care on a macro level. Motherhood is not a paid position. The statistics for caregivers, primarily women, equates to trillions of dollars in unwaged labor across the globe. Now I am contributing to that workforce by homeschooling, child rearing, cooking, and cleaning, as head of household. When I have to remind my son why he needs to listen to me and I say, “I am your mother, that’s why,” chills go down my spine, because yes, I sound exactly like my mother.
“Not in the mood to write? Too nice of a day? Let’s write outside. Bring Annie.” (Our new pandemic dog). “What’s the sentence you want to write for your independent study?”
“I never said I wanted to write a sentence.”
“I am asking you to write a sentence.”
“So? I want to play tennis. So…are we going to play tennis? Come on Mom, let’s play tennis!”
Part of me can understand why many artists choose not to have children. My time and space is shared with another human whose behavioral development I am responsible for facilitating. Right now, during the pandemic, I have to teach him how to read, write, and count by twos. At the same time, in order for him to thrive, I need to ensure that he experiences pleasure, stimulation, and discovery. Children learn by experiencing, by touching, and so often this is forbidden. Many adults don’t want to risk an extra mess or take the time it takes to teach the whole human. I, on the other hand, allow my son, for instance, to create kitchen concoctions. (The other day it was fried grapes.)
I am the most relaxed when we leave home and are in nature. My son is instantly more interested in finding wild creatures than he is in demanding things of me. I can surrender more easily to the absence of structure. I feel simultaneously connected to him and also start to enter a void in beginning to let him go. But that’s the goal: for him to become independent. Near a river or in a field, rather than within four walls, this awareness takes the place of harshness. The shadows around us move, our bodies can move in all the new directions in this added dimension of the outside world.
Through my son, I learn about myself. Most often my new directions occur when I get twenty-minute spurts of studio time. I use materials that are readily available, like crayons and markers so I don’t have to clean up. I’ve had to learn to accept acrylic over oil paint. I work on several paintings at a time to be sure I can work continuously and look later. They need resting time, as do I. I explore the complicated contradiction of being drawn and repulsed. I am always questioning my inward vision towards change. I know it is much easier to feed my ego in the studio by doing things my audience tells me I am good at. If I go this way, it runs counter to my goal, which is self-discovery.
My studio is my sanctuary where I allow beauty and danger to cohere in paint. I explore change through chance. Since the time my son was a baby, he has been allowed in the studio with me. And if he’s not, the door is always open, so that he can see me working. Lately, in keeping with the natural artistic development of children, he’s been asking me why my paintings are made of “scribbles.” I explain that I can paint realistically, but that I choose not to. However, I tell him that in my current project I am trying to return to painting portraits in watercolor, a skill I learned in high school. He said: “It’s easy Mom, just make a circle and a neck. Then add the eyes, nose, and mouth.” He is more than happy to demonstrate for me, and I let him work directly on my canvases. I have been trying really hard to render at least the form of a head and neck for the past six months with my series of Anonymous Portraits. My son has been reminding me to stay on track.
Today, he struggles with a building project: “I don’t know how to do this. It isn’t working.”
I try to reassure him, “It’s okay, you don’t need to know what it will be until the end.”
He replies, “It doesn’t work that way Mom. I need a plan.”
I want to instill in my son the idea that nobody’s experience can be invalidated. The portrait helps to signal identity, and I hope through my portrait work that I can help to define human growth. I try to teach him emotional intelligence, so that he can express his feelings. His learned behavior will be handed down from me, his mother.
After I left my husband four years ago, my social relationships with my family and the community in my small town were changed forever. I had to make new definitions of power for myself as an artist and mother. I taught myself how to restore plaster walls and finish them decoratively. I embarked upon a two-year project, restoring an apartment in New York City. Gold-leafing antique wallpaper, stripping away paint to reveal pre-war steel trim riveted into the wall, patterning wet metallic plaster with a cheese slicer to be oxidized: anything my clients needed, I taught myself to do. I took the train down every other weekend, putting in twelve-hour days. I would return in a complete state of exhaustion, but I was gratified knowing that I’d done what I had to do to provide a safe and beautiful shelter for myself and my son.
This project has evolved into a unique situation and opportunity. My clients invited me (rather than my having to pursue them!) to hang eleven of my paintings throughout their apartment on the walls that I had just restored. They are looking forward to having a showing. After my divorce, my sense of community was shattered, but the trusting and empowering relationship I have built with these clients has deepened my idea of what a support system can be.
I like to remind my son that I have a life outside of being his mother. He knows that I am in the process of finishing my MFA, researching, writing, and painting. But he is still at the age when he needs most of my attention. So I’ve invited him to participate in the creation of my final exhibition, one large and several small inverted baskets using sticks and bulrush in the backyard. The inverted baskets can be used next year to support a garden for the neighbors to enjoy. I am showing my son that one can be responsible for others and oneself at the same time.
He is learning to saw wood and start a fire. For our exhibition “opening” we will invite community members to bring a secret written on paper to burn in a fire ceremony.
I try to role model joy as resistance, because as Audre Lourde says, “hate functions to distort beauty and internal power.” As the helmswoman of our ship, I cannot live up to someone else’s normal. I learn from mistakes. I make space for self-discovery and change. How else do humans evolve? As a maternal and ecofeminist, we empower creation and interconnection. We know the value of caring. We know why it’s important not to lie to ourselves. We know there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle. We understand differences in women. Each one of us is here because someone before us made it so: our mothers.
Sometimes I ask myself if time is stolen for mothers. For me, it seems to expand, but I wonder how at the same time it vanishes so quickly. Each moment with my son opens the world again and anew, and he grows so fast. Life is uncertain, and I can accept that. I know that once something has happened, it can disperse quickly like a smudge in a painting. The process of making a painting is similar to life in that way: it grows, it changes, and its end can’t be predicted. Why do we expect an answer then? Why must we be comforted by what we already know? Why do we need a plan?
My son is proud of his ability to train our new dog, and loves taking her off the leash so she can chase him. She is still getting used to the surroundings, and she is very anxious about the neighbor’s cat.
“Don’t take her off the leash right now and let her chase that cat,” I say sternly, but without raising my voice. So he does anyway, and Annie chases the cat. He tries to run after her and call her back, but Annie is already in the neighbor’s yard. He trips and panics. I see Annie head in the other direction. We run after her again, but she’s still chasing the cat into the woods. He trips again on a piece of barn wood, screaming and crying, he was so terrified of losing her. I react and this time I yell: “I told you not to let her off the leash!” My mistake, and now a regret.
Getting kids to listen respectfully isn’t an easy task. By blaming my son, I reinforce the guilt and shame he’s already experiencing.
“I am a horrible person,” he says.
I say, “No, you made a bad choice.”
We eventually get her back, but it is traumatizing for him. I may have contributed to the trauma, and I can’t take it back.
Later after a bath, we talk about what happened. I tell him that Annie is his dog. I tell him I am responsible for him, which means that I’m responsible for Annie too.
“When I ask you not to do something, please listen to me. I may not yell it, but I still mean it to keep you safe.” It is a great opportunity for us to think constructively and problem-solve together.
He confesses, “I am afraid of what everybody will think about me losing Annie.”
He sleeps now in our lovely cave-like room after a long day at the lake. Our bedtime story brings Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves out of the Forest to the Mountain where they plan to meet Smaug, the dragon. Today he caught three Eastern Newts, yesterday a frog, and the day before a baby turtle. A tick bit him. I removed most of it, but I imagine having to take him to the doctor. I imagine being in the waiting room with others who may be infected with COVID. I wonder if any other kids in our area are experiencing symptoms. If he gets a fever, is it COVID or Lyme? If he gets sick, can I keep him with me until he gets better?
Tonight, in my studio, I listen to Tibetan monks chanting. I mend a rip on the edge of a large piece of watercolor paper with leftover grass wallpaper from the job in the city. I make a small wash of cadmium-free, deep red watercolor for a face. It’s blood loss. I continue to check the edges of the large paper for tears. They are fifty-by-fifty inches, so difficult to maneuver from the floor to the wall. The green from the acrylic paint is so flat. There is no depth to it. Oil paint wouldn’t look like this even if it was the same hue, saturation, temperature, and value. I continue containing and painting faces. I contain the face within a black line, sometimes white and sometimes with no container except the frame of the paper. Finally, all the voices leave my head, and the silence gives me time to retract. I hope it means there is room for growth. My son is sleeping in the next room. Children grow while they are sleeping.
The meadow is full of dandelions and Annie runs in her ‘circles of joy.’ My son is falling on the ground laughing. Annie pounces on him. This is a moment without labor or work, a moment of bliss.
Renée Bouchard is a painter, mother, and activist living in Vermont. She attended the Phoebe Flory Watercolor School, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and graduated from the Maine College of Art in 1999. Now she is finishing her MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Art. She is a Barbara Smail Grant nominee, an Individual Artist grant recipient from the Vermont Arts Council, the Power of Art Grantee from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and holds other nominations from the Phillips Collection, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper Union, Kate Millett, and the Vermont Studio Center.