Motherhood

On women’s work, failure, and a little art history

Michelangelo Pietà
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This piece is written by Sara Softness and originally published in her newsletter. I asked her for permission to post it on my blog. Through her commentary on art and culture, she captures perfectly the conflict of motherhood, identity loss, and societal pressure.

Sara Softness is a curator and writer in New York. In addition to a culture newsletter, she writes interdisciplinary cultural criticism combining her interests in art, feminism, and public commemoration. See more on her background at sarasoftness.me, or read her digest and other written work at sarasoftness.substack.com

I recently met and had the chance to work with the artist Marsha Pels, whose haunting Pieta sculpture you see above. Pietàimagery is a recurring motif in Christian art, depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the recently murdered Jesus. We may all be familiar with Michelangelo’s famous, standard-bearing version in marble at St. Peter’s Basilica—Mary the grieving mother, full of compassion and pity (pietà in Italian, hence) for her son. But there are thousands of examples in both painting and sculpture to be found all over Europe. (Actually, pietà statues first developed in Germany in the 1200s, and were called Vesperbild.) And Marsha, for one, having spent three years living in Italy, saw many and found it wasn’t always just sorrow on view, but ambivalence.

Marsha Pels, Pieta, 1998 at Lubov Gallery. More info on exhibition here.

Totally disembodied in a gas mask, leather fetish gear, and holding her baby like a bomb, Pels’s Pieta undoubtedly wrestles with maternal ambivalence. We don’t know what has happened or why for this woman and her child, but she doesn’t even have a body—just her adornments of war and sadomasochism. It’s a brilliant and devastating piece, pointing to the absolutely-not-talked-about-enough complexities of motherhood, almost-motherhood, and pre-motherhood—the pain, the shame, the loneliness. And it’s an occasion to think twice about who gets pitied in the pietà motif. Mom could use compassion too.

Conveniently, the Italian word pietà can also mean piety. And it seems it’s at this intersection of piety and pity that moms today are held up for judgment. How dutiful and devoted is she to her kids (to the exclusion of everything else)? And how well can she perform this devotion with diminishing support or sympathy (personal, professional, governmental, etc)? Anne Helen Petersen had two excellent essays recently (part of her Culture Study newsletter, which I recommend) that go to the heart of this issue in different ways. The first is an interview with sociologist Jessica Calarco, co-author of a project called the Pandemic Parenting Study, which looked at mothers navigating parenting and working in the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, it’s super bleak. She speaks about the particularly troubling finding that women blame themselvesfor their various “failures” in this pandemic—blame which is direly misplaced. The piece is titled with a sound bite from Calarco, “Other countries have social safety nets. The US has women.”

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1490s

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1490s. Thanks, Wikimedia Commons

This relentless pressure to perform as women and as mothers is, naturally, really disturbing. Take Michelangelo’s Mary—she is so beautiful and composed, downright placid, and looks younger than her 33-year-old son…and this on the day he was crucified. How about some ugly human grief—think Viola Davis, Frances McDormand? When queried about his subject’s unrealistic youthfulness, Michelangelo replied, “Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?” (I love Michelangelo’s outraged “Do you not know?” retort.) Desireless, dutiful, forever fresh—the model mother of the Judeo-Christian Western world.

Petersen’s other essay describes this pressure-to-perform phenomenon—not only for mothers but for women more generally, and especially millennial women for whom that performance is also tracked on social media. She also talks about how, in a society so unhealthily driven by work, busyness and productivity (or the appearances thereof) even during leisure time have become more valuable than actual rest or restoration. In the case of motherhood, that no-rest-for-the-weary mentality obviously leads to burnout, and again, insidiously, absurd self-blame. Certain perceived failures—like choosing whether to send a family holiday card—seem fairly innocuous, and certainly the province only of ultra-privileged families. But women often internalize such “failure” nonetheless: “There are all sorts of signals that women fear they’re sending when it comes to actually opting out of compulsory bourgeois practices,” Petersen writes. “Does it mean you’ve given up? That your marriage is struggling? That you’re struggling? That you’ve dropped one ball or all of the balls? Instead of what it is — deciding that you don’t want to dedicate labor on this particular performance of family — opting out can feel like a freighted failure.”

[Sidenote: the thanklessness of motherhood was hilariously summed up in this weekend’s SNL “Christmas Morning”sketch.]

[Sidenote 2: A tangentially related, totally bonkers essay by Alexandra Tanner details her surreptitious obsession with a subculture of young Mormon mothers on Instagram, who proudly hawk COVID and other conspiracy theories while enacting “perfect” motherhood: “The mommies are posting infographics about how every Covid death is really a death caused by the rollout of 5G. The mommies are sure you will love this perfect wrist wallet. The mommies are retiling their kitchen backsplashes. The mommies are ready for the return of the Messiah.”]

To consider real and unconscionable failure, it should never be far from anyone’s mind how America is failing its Black mothers. Maternal mortality among Black women is nearly FOUR times higher than it is for white women. Add to that the “Unbearable grief of Black mothers” as A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez describes in an article from this spring. In this pandemic, Black mothers have had to reckon with the ravage of disease, from which Black Americans are dying at a rate three times higher than White Americans, on top of the mortal threat of living while Black. Meadows-Fernandez figures Black motherhood, then, as a sort of continuous, just-beneath-the-surface pietà tableau: a vicarious carrying of all the children of Black mothers who have been murdered, amid the fear that their own could be next. In that context, the labor of Black motherhood requires a pitiless degree of grin-and-bear-it: “Growing up, when my family experienced anti-Black racism from the outside world, or disrespect from men within our orbit, I used to be upset that no woman in my family had modeled authentic hurt. But now that I have two children of my own, I understand. Unattended grief is heavy and slows one down. Black mothers don’t have time to spare.”

Liza Lou, Kitchen, 1991-96 at The Whitney (detail)

Lastly, I leave you with an image of Liza Lou’s Kitchen, currently on view at the Whitney. Lou spent five years creating the painstakingly detailed kitchen, with paper mâché and glittered beaded mosaic on every surface. She describes it as “arguing for the dignity of labor”—as much in the highly gendered-labor connotations of the sparkly kitchen as in the artist’s work herself in creating it. You can’t help but cringe at the fraught metaphor here, of the aspirational glittery surfaces of domestic life against the never-ending (women’s) work—visible and very much not—inside it. The piety and no pity. Above is a detail you could miss, a decorative quilt on the side of the stove with a stanza from Emily Dickinson (rest of the poem here):

She rose to His Requirement—dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife—

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