Maternal Metaphors

Jennie Klein

Recently, while doing research for a project other than this catalogue essay, I came across an image of a young woman dressed as Coatlique, the mother of the Aztec deity Huitzlipochtli. A video production still from Our Lady of L.A., produced and conceived by Cheri Gaulke, Kathleen Forest, and Sue Maberry, the image of Coatlique was adapted from the formidable eight-foot high statue presently located in Mexico City.1 As I compared the two images, I was struck by the difference between the two, a difference that I felt illustrated rather nicely the issues around motherhood, ideology and representation that Maternal Metaphors has hoped to raise. The horrific Mexico City Coatlique, truly the classic, pre-symbolic mother of psychoanalytic theory, has no head. Huitzlipochtli, when threatened by his jealous brothers and sisters, emerged from the top of his mother’s head, destroying it in the process. Thus, the Mexico City Coatlique has a “head” made up of two snakes that face each other. Representative of the blood associated with sacrifice, menstruation, and childbirth, the snake appears again as her woven skirt and as a hideous flow of menstrual blood that dangles like a flaccid penis between her legs. The Coatlique from Our Lady of L.A. by the group of young women artists who had not yet had children but did have a firm belief in the power of the goddess, is cleaned up with one head, a woven skirt and no menstrual blood/afterbirth. The Coatlique of Our Lady of L.A., despite being made by a group of young, alternative, feminist artists associated with the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, is more typical of how mothers, and motherhood have been depicted in the history of Western art. Sanitized, her head restored, she becomes one of many abstract symbols of a goddess, safely removed from the dangerous realm of childbirth and childrearing.2 Although Mothers, from the Venus of Willendorf to Mary Cassatt’s images or Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Madonna, have always been represented in Western art, until recently they have rarely been its creators. As the philosopher Sara Ruddick has pointed out, “feminist thinking was of limited use in forging a representation of mothers as thinkers. …feminists tended to speak as daughters trying to forge a daughter/self-respecting connection to their mother’s lives.”3

The artists included in Maternal Metaphors, almost all of them mothers, are trying to articulate what Ruddick termed a “maternal perspective.” They are making work that addresses the ongoing issue of what it means to be an artist and a mother in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. For many of these artists, the starting point has been a feminist reading of psychoanalytic theory regarding the position of the mother vis-à-vis her (usually male) child. Although psychoanalytic theory is more concerned with the development of the child rather than the subjectivity of the mother (even Nancy Chodorow’s groundbreaking The Reproduction of Mothering dealt primarily with the psycho-social development of the girl child, rather than

MARY KELLY, Post-Partum Document, 1978
resin and slate, 25.4 cm x 20.3 cm

that of the mother), it is nevertheless a starting point that is not obfuscated by the hoary ideology of the mother as either self-sacrificing and self-abnegating victim, or the monstrous agent of rage and repression.4 One of the first artists to engage productively with the discourse of Lacanian psychoanalysis and motherhood was Mary Kelly, whose Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) sought to explore the discourse through which both the child’s and the mother’s subjectivity were constituted. Following the anti-scopophilic logic first articulated by Laura Mulvey in her seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (published in the British magazine Screen in 1976), Kelly attempted to thwart the fetishized relationship of the mother/(male) baby dyad by exploring how this relationship actually develops through a meticulous documentation of the first four years of her son’s life. Post-Partum Document, with 135 pieces, is a dense and theoretically rigorous work that includes everything from fecal stained diapers, accompanied by a detailed account of what the baby had been fed that day, to meditations on the mother/child relationship accompanied by castings of her son’s right hand. An exploration of the pleasure of maternal femininity and a clinical examination of that pleasure, Post-Partum Document both makes literal the Lacanian articulation of the constitution of the male subject and, for the first time, the manner in which the mother’s subjectivity is also formed and re-constituted through the process of becoming a mother. Significantly, this process is just that, rather than an instantaneous transformation that occurs at the moment of childbirth.

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Included in this exhibition is Kelly’s Primapara, a series of photographs from 1973/1997 that document the first bath and manicure of her son. Interestingly enough, these photographs, often characterized as an offshoot of Post-Partum Document, initially preceeded that work. In an interview with Juli Carson, Kelly noted, “Most of my work, including the Post-Partum Document, began with photographic studies.”5 Deciding, as she put it, to move away from the “icon to the index,” Kelly kept Primapara separate from Post-Partum Document, returning to the images again in 1997. Given Kelly’s close association with British feminism in the late seventies and early eighties, it would be logical to assume that her work would be anti-visual in an attempt to thwart culturally determined scopophilia. In fact, this is not the case. As Kelly herself wrote, “the image, as it is organized in that space called the picture, can refer to a heterogeneous system of signs—indexical, symbolic and iconic. And thus, that it is possible to invoke the non-specular, the sensory, the somatic, in the visual field; to invoke, especially, the register of the invocatory drives…through ‘writing.’6 The images of the baby’s face and head in Primapara stand in stark contrast to the more traditional images of children that grace the covers of parenting magazines. Cropped, difficult to make out, along with a text that is not linked indexically to the images, they thwart fetishistic closure and suggest the sort of interruption of the scopic field for which Kelly has called in her critical writings. The close-up, cropped images of the baby’s face are uncanny—in the sense that they are both strange and yet terribly familiar—just as the images of the manicure, with the tiny fingers placed in nerve-wracking proximity to an ordinary nail clipper, are both familiar and disturbing. Many mothers, myself included, have fetishistically devoured every aspect of their baby’s tiny bodies with their eyes and fingers—particularly resonant, for me, is the image from Primapara in which Kelly’s thumb and index finger are visible as she lifts her baby’s earlobe in order to wash underneath. Most of us who have had very small children


Primapara, 1974
Bathing series, 12 units
Gelatin silver print,
10.5 in. x 8.5 in.

have in fact experienced the same series of images that Kelly has presented in Primapara. It seems to me, then, that part of the reason for the continued “uncanniness” of these images is that they show not the child, but the mother’s experience of the child. They document the mother becoming mother, rather than the baby as an entity already separated from the mother. One of the strengths of both Primapara and Post-Partum Document is that they engage in a dialogue with Lacanian theory, rather than simply illustrating it. At the same time, there is a certain amount of clinical detachment that is almost reminiscent of medical photographs. In looking at the photographs of Primapara, I cannot help but contrast them with those of Gail Rebhan, shot several years later in 1986. For this series, appropriately titled Babies, Rebhan used a 20 X 24 Polaroid format in order to explore, in exquisite detail, the unique facial features of very young children. Rebhan’s Babies are overwhelming. Larger than life, often crying with tears and mucous mixing freely, they are at once both horrible and adorable. “I also stimulate in the viewer two emotions that many parents have when holding their young child. One is the feeling of being overwhelmed and overpowered completely by a baby…the other is to inspect the child’s face in great detail.”7 Rebhan’s photographs of babies permit no distance between viewer and viewed. To look at these oversized, often crying faces is to lose oneself in an ocean of need. There is no detachment here—the mother/ viewer has become the essential but silent Other—the pre-symbolic field from which the newborn will slowly

GAIL REBHAN, Baby, 1988, Gelatin silver print, 16 in. x 20 in.

began to wrest his or her identity. Although both artists have used close-up images of baby faces in their respective series, there is a fundamental difference in approach. Rebhan uses humor and parody to exaggerate the significance of the baby vis-à-vis his or her parents. Kelly, on the other hand, is in essence conducting a clinical experiment—using her own psyche as grounds for an exploration of what it means to become (or be interpellated as) a mother.

Kelly is as well known for her critical writing as she is for her art,8 where she is careful to maintain the same critical distance that she maintains in her visual work. Ellen McMahon, by contrast, has eschewed that critical distance in her writings about motherhood published on her web site ( In “A Little Bit of Loss” written between 1996-2000, McMahon is brutally honest about her struggles to be a good mother to her daughters Alice and Della. Written like a diary or a daily journal, “A Little Bit of Loss” chronicles McMahon’s inability to wean either of her children from breastfeeding, get them to sleep in their own beds at night, control Della’s temper tantrums (McMahon resorts to giving herself a “time-out” in a bathroom that has a broken lock), or get ten year-old Alice to not wear high heeled shoes to a family gathering. McMahon has clearly struggled to be a good mother with no particular guidance (at one point she mentions feeling alienated from her own mother). She has thus created several sets of flash cards, like the ones that children use to learn how to read, in order to acclimatize mothers to their new role as caretakers of infants. Baby Talk Flashcards (1998) is a boxed set of twelve 6 in. x 4 in. cards that feature an object, the baby word for that object, and the English translation on the other side. All words, the description guarantees, were actually spoken by a real baby. Pre-Verbal Flash Cards (1998) is a set of eight cards with images of medical objects used to care for a very young baby, such as a suction device and a medicine dispenser. With tongue in cheek, McMahon writes that these flash cards are designed to return the adult who is weary of the demands of rationality to the pre-speaking world. All of these objects cause both pain (more for the mother than the child) and healing (which brings relief to both of them). Along these same lines, McMahon’s Suckled Series (2000), an exquisite series of drawings based on a bottle nipple, manages to suggest both comfort and complete dependence—breast and bottle are extremely soothing to children, who must nevertheless be eventually weaned from them. McMahon’s nipple is twisted and deformed—rather like her own probably were after nursing two children for a total of six years. More to the point, the Suckled Series is emblematic of what happens to mothers after many years of mothering— they are pulled completely out of shape.

ELLEN McMAHON, Suckled II, 1996-present
Charcoal on Rives BFK, 20 in. x 13 in.

McMahon’s flash cards seem to have been designed for the mother of Gail Rebhan’s overwhelming baby. Like Kelly, McMahon, albeit in a more lighthearted and humorous manner, deals with the mother’s retreat from and the child’s entry into the symbolic. The baby develops words as the mother loses her own. Unable to process adult conversation anymore, the mother can find solace in McMahon’s flash cards. Unlike Kelly, who avoids producing objects that could be fetishized, McMahon deliberately makes fetishistic objects. Trained as a medical illustrator and graphic designer, McMahon is very familiar with the codes of consumer desire. Her flash cards, which mimic the visually arresting flash cards designed for children, appeal to the inner child in the audience of adult mothers she addresses. McMahon’s flashcards and Suckled Series, like the work of Mary Kelly, are very much grounded in postmodern discourses about language and representation. With the luxury of working approximately fifteen years after Kelly began Post-Partum Document, McMahon is able to reintroduce some of the sensuousness (and pseudo central core imagery) of the art from the seventies feminist movement in the United States without the worry of being accused of essentialism or lack of intellectual rigor. Working in Britain in the early seventies, Kelly felt compelled to repudiate what she perceived as the errors of the early feminist movement. Primapara was created at the same time that feminist artists in America were mystifying birth and motherhood through an invocation of feminist spirituality and a/the goddess. More dependent on consciousness-raising than psychoanalysis and firmly entrenched in masculinist avant-garde notions of the primacy of painting and drawing, many of these women constructed object-based representations of motherhood in quasi-mythological/mystical terms, exemplified by Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-85), a series of textile (embroidered, needlepoint, woven, etc.) panels made from drawings and paintings done by Chicago (who is not a mother). The titles of these pieces—The Creation, Birth Tear, etc.,—suggest the connection that Chicago sought to establish between the act of giving birth and a feminist cosmology. Widely criticized for their supposed essentialism9, they have obscured object-based work that attempts to deal with the complexities of motherhood as a lived condition that is constantly evolving. Judy Glantzman’s decision to attempt to articulate motherhood in paint is one that strikes me as being especially courageous, particularly given the rather strident essentialist/anti-essentialist discourse of the past few years. Designated a Neo-Expressionist by critics such as Holland Cotter in the mid-eighties, Glantzman made a name for herself showing figurative work (in some cases, plywood “cut-outs” of people) painted with enamel deck paint on bits of street rubbish that she had found in NYC.10 Part graffiti and part expressionist, Glantzman’s heavily manipulated canvases are richly textured and dense. In reviews of her work, Glantzman is often compared to the expressionists, mainly women artists such as Paula Modersohn-Becker. In some ways the comparison is apt. Like Modersohn-Becker, whose powerful primitive visions of Ur-motherhood continue to resonate today, Glantzman has made densely textured images of infant heads and mothers’ arms that are also evocative of the work of Kathe Kollwitz and Edvard Munch. Glantzman’s process is intuitive:

I begin to see imagery—like a face or a hand—and I try to use line to articulate that form. The result is a pile up of mostly heads, and some hands. These are disembodied figures that cluster together to make larger formations. They seem like spirits, or a visual rambling, a cast of characters inside my head.11

JUDY GLANTZMAN, Untitled, 2003, Oil paint on canvas, 80 in. X 70 in.

Glantzman’s intuitive, modernist process of image-making is completely opposite to Kelly’s detached, clinical approach. When viewing Glantzman’s paintings, the parallels between l’écriture feminine12 and her obsessive mark-making are striking. Glantzman believes that her cast of characters reflects the relationship that she has with her daughter. Her paintings, however, are less about the specific aspects of that relationship than they are about how a mother might write/ represent motherhood through the agency of writing/mark-making. Glantzman’s process is not direct: she begins by making intuitive decisions about line and color that resolve themselves into faces and arms (especially faces in the case of her more recent work). Space is ambiguous and elastic; the faces emerge from the background as though still connected. Glantzman’s decision to use an expressionist vocabulary is significant. The loose, tortured brushwork, ambiguous space and autobiographical lines of expressionist painting have come to serve as the sign of the tortured male artist. Very few of these painters have been women; even fewer have been mothers.13 As Susan Rubin Suleiman remarked in 1979, “Mothers don’t write, they are written. Simply expressed, this is the underlying assumption of most psychoanalytic theories about writing and artistic creation in general.”14 The tortured male avant-garde writer or painter—ubiquitous in the expressionist canon—attempts to re-write the body of the mother, the “essential but silent Other.” Of course, Suleiman noted, mothers do write, and that process can be categorized into two broad themes: those mothers who view motherhood as an obstacle and those who view it as a “source of connection to work and world.” For Glantzman, at least, it is the latter category that drives her to make images—a reflection of the “blurred boundaries and complex feelings of joy and intrusion” that characterizes being a mother. The dense and ambiguous space of Glanztman’s recent work, all of which is untitled, seems to me to be a literalization of the chora, the psychic space theorized by Julia Kristeva in which the mother and child co-exist prior to the child’s entry into the symbolic. There is a connectedness between mother and child (more apparent in the two paintings with only two figures) that is redolent of a psychic, ropey mucous—the kind of mucous that is associated with childbirth and pregnancy.

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In the same essay quoted above, Suleiman suggested, “motherhood, which establishes a natural link (the child) between woman and the social world, provides a privileged means of entry into the order of culture and language.”15 Aura Rosenberg has made this statement literal by using her child (and the children of friends/colleagues) as a link between her own practice and that of other—often male—artists of the avant-garde. Working in collaboration with well-known artists such as Mike Kelley, Laurie Simmons, Mary Heilmann, Jim Shaw, and Kiki Smith, Rosenberg has them paint a child’s face and then photographs that

Mary Heilmann/Eve and Carmen, 1997
C-print, 40 in. X 30 in.

child in a format reminiscent of commercial photographs and mug shots. Associated today with birthday parties, fairs, and rainy days at suburban malls, face painting is the benign solution for a middle-class clientele that doesn’t want anything more permanent on the faces of their children. In fact, Who Am I, what am I, where am I? was developed from the photo portraits that Rosenberg made as a benefit for the Winter Fair at her daughter’s elementary school. One of the most popular activities at the fair was face painting, and Rosenberg obligingly made portraits for the parents of her daughter’s school friends. As she made these portraits, Rosenberg was struck by the effort to balance disguise and authenticity—to play with the idea of the masquerade, which children absolutely love. And yet, as Rosenberg herself asks, “Painting a child’s face can be beautiful, but who in the end takes it seriously? It can seem as debased as black velvet painting.”16 Rosenberg gives an avant-garde cachet to face painting while simultaneously permitting the children who are being painted to engage in the sort of identity play that is so compelling to them and to us. What has emerged, however, is hardly your ordinary painted face. In the hands of Rosenberg and her invited artists, the painted faces of the children can become uncanny and frightening: Caucasian “primitives” whose atavistic visages stare menacingly out at the camera. Jim Shaw/Joe Sienna (1995) depicts a child that has become a hungry maw with not one but two mouths of gaping teeth. The first, full of sharp, shark-like teeth, covers Joe’s entire face. Echoing the larger mouth is Joe’s actual mouth, snarling for the photograph and full of emerging teeth. Rosenberg’s own child Carmen, in Mike Kelley/Carmen looks like a refugee from a Goth camp, part supplicant Mary Magdalene and part heroin addict, with her black lipstick, pasty white face makeup and black-lined eyes. At other times, the face painting collaboration has yielded charming results. In Laurie Simmons/Lena, Lena is made up to look like a cat puppet with the aid of sock ears, a bow tie, and some sort of band that makes her mouth appear jointed to her body. In Kiki Smith/Carmen, Carmen’s attractive young face is covered with delicate line drawings of flowers, butterflies, tear drops (all things that young girls are taught to love) as well as words such as “nectar” and “sojourn.” The effect is oddly beautiful, particularly since the image is so unconventional.

I first encountered Rosenberg’s work in an exhibition about childhood and childhood subjectivity entitled Presumed Innocence (Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, Spring 1998), premised upon the notion that the psychic lives of children are not as innocent and saccharine as popular culture would have us believe. Rosenberg, whose most recent project (2002) is a photo/text presentation of a Berlin childhood (Berliner Kindheit, based on a book of the same title by Walter Benjamin), is deeply concerned with the psychic construction of childhood and is not afraid to acknowledge that it is not always as innocent as we want it to be. In her article “Playing and Motherhood; or How to get the Most Out of the Avant-Garde,” first published in 1990, Suleiman argues “playful inventions of avant-garde writing, starting with surrealism and continuing to present work, can provide an impetus, perhaps even a metaphor or model, for re-imagining the mother in her social and child-rearing role. This re-imagining takes the form of a displacement, from what I call the patriarchal mother to the playful mother.”17 The mother that Suleiman imagines is a laughing mother who “plays” with her notion of self and self-boundaries. Noting that humor, in the Freudian sense, is both pleasure-producing and rebellious, Suleiman suggests that mother’s play provides a means by which change in the patriarchal regime of “sadistic, narcissistic, angst-ridden” child/male artists might be challenged. What often goes unremarked in reviews and articles about Rosenberg’s work is that in setting up a three-way collaboration between herself, the child, and a well-known artist, she undercuts the masculinist construction of avant-garde subjectivity in which the alienated and often male artist works in solitude to produce “great” works of art. The artists who participated in the Who am I? series are constrained by medium, support, and desire of the model who must “wear” whatever they produce. Rosenberg meanwhile has only partial control over the final outcome of the “work”—she has become one of three collaborators, rather than the sole auteur. Avant-garde play comes at the expense of avant-garde angst. It is hardly surprising and quite appropriate that several of the art world’s most notorious “bad boys” including Mike Kelley and John Baldessari, show up as collaborators.

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As a mother of two children slightly younger than Carmen was when she participated in the Who Am I? series, I am struck by Rosenberg’s ability to incorporate her child into her art in a manner that was fun for the child. Reviewers of Rosenberg’s work have often not seen it that way. One of them, Robert Mahoney, actually went so far as to criticize Rosenberg’s mothering skills: “What mother would let Mike Kelley anywhere near her daughter?”18 Many of the artists included in this exhibition, while not attacked in print for their mothering skills, have agonized over the time that art has taken away from their children.19 Monica Bock has been making work about her children since her daughter Thea was born in 1993. Shortly after the birth of her son Tristan, Bock decided to leave her native Chicago to take a tenure-track position at the University of Connecticut. “Early in my tenure process,” Bock writes, “and with the example of other mothering artists in academia, I realized that my family life would not be recognized as pertinent to my work. So it became imperative to make art with and about my children, in order to make our reality known, but also to stay close to them even though half the time it’s the work that preempts my actually being with them.”20 In Maternal Exposure (or don’t forget the lunches) (1999-2000) Bock created a gallery-sized installation of embossed and folded sheet lead and cast glycerin bags.

Maternal Exposure (or don’t forget the lunches), 1999-2000; Glycerin and lead bags, detail

Inspired by the anxiety produced from exposing one’s children and nurturing skills to public scrutiny, the sacks contain the daily menus that Bock prepared for her children to take to school and day camp over the course of approximately one year.21 For this exhibition Bock has recreated her installation Tooth for a Tooth (2001). Silver casts taken from then eight-year-old Thea’s mouth as she lost her baby teeth are displayed on shelf-like pedestals as though they were the precious relics of a saint. Tooth for a Tooth is the three dimensional realization of Tooth No. 1-4, a series of four photographs that document Thea losing a front tooth (complete with bloody drool). While Tooth No. 1-4 is somewhat disturbing, given the apparent violence with which the tooth is removed from the mouth, it is nowhere near as grotesque as the cast teeth. In Tooth No. 1-4, the inclusion of the bottom portion of Thea’s face gives the teeth an indexical context that precludes reading them as abject. Children’s teeth fall out, and the mouth, jaw, and lips containing those teeth are obviously those of a child. Tooth for a Tooth, on the other hand, has no such context. Seemingly precious, because they are silver and placed on a pedestal, these castings of a very normal moment of childhood development (it is only those with something wrong with them whose mouths don’t look like that of Thea prior to puberty) become free floating signifiers of both motherly obsession and eugenic unfitness, reminiscent of the photographs taken of deformed heads, mouths and bones from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the review of Rosenberg’s work shows, it is all too easy to point fingers at supposedly unfit mothers. Bock’s choices—home birth, career, limited vaccinations, suspect nutritional decisions—can be read as either a very good mother or a very bad mother. It is not by accident that at least one version (there are several) of Maternal Exposure included on the wall the text of a poem by Zofia Burr, which began

This is for the bad mother in me I love
Wanting to be kept. For
the Bad mother I love—wanting22

Bock has continued to work with teeth as repositories of memory and signifiers (literally) of loss. In Sunday News (Mother) (2001), Bock has displayed a row of miniature lead frames containing an Holocaust image of a young child rising up from his dead mother’s arms that was published in the Sunday morning paper. Below these haunting images is a row of sculpted and cast teeth embedded into the wall. At the end of this row is a real, gold-capped tooth. Reminiscent of

MONICA BOCK, Maternal Exposure (or don’t forget the lunches), 1999-2000
Glycerin and lead bags, detail

the gold teeth taken from Holocaust victims, the tooth is in fact an indexical link to maternal sacrifice as it comes from Bock’s mother. The companion piece to Sunday News (Mother) is Sunday News (Daughter) (2001) a single lead frame with the Holocaust image flanked by six of Thea’s baby teeth. Bock suggests in these pieces that to be a mother is to always experience loss, even while desiring the increasing autonomy of one’s child.

Like Bock, Sarah Webb has also created installations of ephemeral and delicate objects such as eggshells, doll clothes, and wax covered flowers that take up the themes of memory and loss. In milk and tears (2001) Webb has embroidered the text of a poem by Ann Sexton along the edge of twenty-eight birdseye weave cloth diapers that run for thirty feet.

I ate you up.
All my need took
you down like a meal.

In the history of western art, women’s breasts have been symbols of male desire and female sexuality. Confronted by the need to breast-feed her young son and come to terms with her mother-in-law’s battle with breast cancer, Webb was struck by the way in which breasts could be both the source of nurture and the symbol of disease: “As bodily fluids, milk and tears are metaphors of both a mother’s inexhaustible love, but also to the pain to which she yields. Leaking, dripping, milk and tears stain our skin, our clothing, and our lives in between the cycle of birth and death.”23 The diapers in milk and tears hang from the wall like the deflated breasts or belly of a mother who has breastfed her children.

SARAH WEBB , milk and tears, 2001
Birdseye weave cloth diapers, thread; detail

Children literally “eat” up their mothers—first stretching their taut, pre-pregnancy bellies and breasts out of shape and then leaving both looking like a deflated balloon. Webb’s choice of cloth diapers, disposable objects, and blood red embroidery—long associated with women’s work—makes this installation especially poignant. It is what Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith have characterized as an enactment of cultural memory: “the product of fragmentary personal and collective experiences articulated through technologies and media that shape even as they transmit memory.”24 In milk and tears Webb represents the debased objects of child rearing and women’s work in order to retell the story of motherhood from the perspective of a feminist, artist, mother, and grieving daughter-in-law.

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Many of the artists included in Maternal Metaphors have used their own histories in order to re-write and envision a collective cultural memory that is anti-hegemonic, feminist, and maternal. Judy Glantzman’s most recent paintings, full of the heads of children with different racial and ethnic characteristics, serve as a kind of counter narrative to The Family of Man ideology which posits that we are all the same—i.e., we all want to be middle class Caucasian Americans. Glantzman’s figures almost seem to swim in a sea of amniotic fluid—all different, yet connected by the maternal chora. Ellen McMahon also created a work that tied together her past with her present in a productive use of nostalgia that does not reinforce the status quo. Love Objects (2000) is a series of forty pencil drawings on index cards found in her mother’s attic that were made the year McMahon was born. The objects chosen came from around the house and included the snout of a rubber bug that her daughter named “Stinky.” Playing on our desire for the lost innocence of childhood, Love Objects makes history—and art—out of garbage, transforming these small unremarkable objects into repositories of cultural memory that begins with the mother, or at least the mother’s attic. These unremarkable objects, viewed together, form a narrative of McMahon’s journey through her mother’s attic and then her house, a journey that included her daughters. As their title suggests, Love Objects are psychic family photographs—images that speak to the subjectivity of McMahon, her mother and her daughters. In another piece, Alice’s Idea (2002), a folio containing a shaped text and a silver gelatin print of a young girl with writing all over her body, McMahon tells the strange and wonderful story of how her daughter Alice, fifteen at the time and on a family vacation, asked her for help with her own performance art piece. Retreating to an upstairs bedroom, McMahon helped Alice write parts of her journal onto her body and then photographed her while Alice directed. At one point, she looked in the mirror, saw herself and Alice reflected back, and took the shot that is included in the piece.25

Alice’s Idea, although not typical, belongs to the genre of the family photograph, a repository of cultural memory that in spite of its conventions and codes is nevertheless most meaningful within the family’s own narrative. Alice’s Idea is not a typical family portrait—rarely are children

Alice’s Idea, 2002
Gelatin silver print and Text
16 in. X 22.5 in.

photographed with writing all over their bodies—hence the need for a narrative explanation. Both Judy Gelles and Gail Rebhan have also used the genre of family portrait in their work in order to counter the hegemonic narratives and dominant myths of the nuclear family implied by most family photographs.
Judy Gelles’ Family Portraits (1977-1982) are wonderfully candid images of her family life when her two sons (now both grown up and employed in NYC and Los Angeles) were very small. Family Portraits started when David, Gelles’ second son, was three months old. Wanting to take the perfect “Gerber” baby picture, Gelles enrolled in a photography class at a local university. She soon gave up the idea of producing that perfect portrait and instead decided to record the mundane events and occurrences that come with the limitations of raising two small children. Most of the images in Family Portraits are both funny and poignant. My personal favorite is Living Room (1979), in which the detritus of children’s toys, a wave of clutter that cannot be contained, has overrun an obviously middle-class home. In another image, Self Portrait Watching TV (1979), Gelles writes below that “on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon Jason is at nursery school and David naps and I have one and a half hours of free time to be creative and do important things.”

JUDY GELLES , Bedroom Portrait, 1977, Black and white Iris print, 16 in. X 20 in.
Printed in 2004

With the invention of “Kodak” (based in Rochester, where this exhibition is taking place), the photograph has become the family’s means of self-expression. Bound by conventions of class and ethnic affiliations, the typical family photograph reinforces conventional gender roles and social expectations of the people being photographed. In many ways Gelles, who chronicles her life in the artist’s book When We Were Ten: A Photo Text Story of a Mother and Her Son, has lived the typical middle-class existence promoted by the media. College educated, she married a professional man who worked while she stayed home with the children and “dabbled” in photography. It was only after her children were no longer toddlers that her career as a photographer began in earnest. As she put it in the introduction to When We Were Ten, “although the text recounts personal events, it is interesting to observe how many of these are shared by countless others. What began as a personal recording has turned into a social document.”26 Like Gelles, Gail Rebhan has also used the convention of the family photograph to deconstruct the fiction of the seamless middle-class life. Unlike Gelles’ Family Portraits, which are often shockingly candid (in Bathroom Portrait, she sits on the toilet and remarks that she would love to be able to go to the bathroom by herself), Rebhan’s “portraits” are manipulated images that combine text, found images, and photographs taken by Rebhan. Her critique of family life is also very funny and in many cases even more pointed than Gelles’.

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M.R.I., 2003
Ink jet print, 25 in. X 23 in

In M.R.I. (2003) a text, highlighted against an image taken from Rebhan’s M.R.I., narrates a blissful experience of relaxation and repose: “I feel calm. I am inside a tunnel, flat on my back, not moving for 45 or 55 minutes… The M.R.I. is great. I feel rejuvenated. Why don’t I just lie on the floor at home and space out? The next day I try. The phone rings, my kid comes over to talk. It just doesn’t work.” In Jackson – Age 15 (2003) Rebhan made “portraits” of her son by assembling found objects—a dirty sock, CDs, candy wrappers, and coke cans—and photographing these objects. In Family Shield (2003), Rebhan assembles images of her family and archival family photographs of the Kachor family (spelled several different ways) next to a large menorah/family tree. These images, especially those that include archival black and white photographs from the turn of the century, are a powerful and intimate invocation of the history of one Jewish family. They also seem to reassert an identity onto Rebhan’s extremely secular sons, whose Jewish identities are in danger of being washed away in a stream of Coke, if we are to believe Rebhan’s narration in her artist’s book Mother-Son Talk. Next to an image of a plastic Santa Claus and Torah scroll, Rebhan writes:

When my older son was about three or four years old I realized that everything he was learning about Judaism was negative. The things we don’t do: We don’t celebrate Christmas... My husband and I decided we needed to start observing the Jewish holidays and rituals more frequently. After the silent prayer at our first Friday night Shabbat service, my son told me he prayed that he could celebrate Christmas.27

Rebhan and Gelles are both at great pains to articulate their Jewish identity in their work, although it seems to be somewhat of an uphill battle. In When We Were Ten, Gelles recalls,

I had been the only Jewish student in the high school. In my ninth grade history class, when asked by the teacher to describe the Jewish race, Russell D. raised his hand and said Jews have big noses, big lips, and dark curly hair. I was too scared to confront him. The teacher never said a word.28

In Diversity (2000), a picture of her son’s soccer team, Rebhan writes:

...I overhear two mothers talking about how much they enjoy living in this neighborhood. They especially like the diversity... I realize they are talking about my son and me.

As suggested by the stories above, to be Jewish is to be still considered not quite white. In spite of their commonalities with their white, middle-class neighbors, Rebhan and Gelles are still considered different. Gelles’ story, in particular, raises the ugly specter of eugenics, the pseudo-science developed by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 based on the idea that it was a moral imperative to improve humanity by encouraging the best and most able to breed.29 From there, it was a short step to encouraging the less fit not to breed. In Nazi Germany, Eugenic science went hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism and the ultimate extermination of millions of people. American eugenics, which flourished during the first three decades of the twentieth century, fortunately did not result in the mass extermination of any group of people. It did fuel instances of enforced sterilization and discrimination against those perceived to be less “fit”—initially the poor, often Jewish and Irish immigrants who crowded the cities and eventually people of races that were other than Caucasian, particularly African-American. Although the science of eugenics has been largely discredited, its specter still looms large over contemporary notions of motherhood and child rearing, which are as class-based in the early twenty-first century as they were in the early twentieth century. Mothers can now be blamed for both rearing their children incorrectly and passing on bad genetic material (although now they do it unknowingly). “The Idealized Good Mother,” Sara Ruddick has argued, “is accompanied in fear and fantasy by the Bad Mother…. The Really Bad Mother’s evils are specific, avoidable, and worse than her own.”30 The boogey woman (Really Bad Mother) always lurks behind the scenes, waiting to jump out and sabotage the Really Good Mother. Some of the fascination with, and discursive structures around, two spectacularly bad mothers—Andrea Yates and Susan Smith—has to do with the fact that they were apparently really good mothers at first. Generally though, the territory of bad mother, and blighted child, is more nebulous. It is this territory that Marion Wilson explores with her bronze cast sculptures of babies, made from a mold of an anatomically correct male doll. Although the features of this doll were Caucasian, Wilson introduces several disturbing elements, including racial indeterminacy (thought by eugenicists to be an outward manifestation of degeneracy), cross-dressing, and disturbingly prescient behavior such as holding guns and running upright. Blushing Yaksha (2002) is based upon a Hindu (and sometimes Buddhist) Indian nature deity who is closely associated with fertility and abundance. Clad in a marvelous hat that resembles the roof of a Hindu temple, Blushing Yaksha has emerged from beneath the foot of Siva Nataraja (where he ordinarily gazes adoringly up at the deity) and seems to be running amok. The Grand Thaumaturge (someone who is able to heal with his touch) and The Artificer’s Twin (2002) are the younger brothers of the armor-clad babies from her 1999 installation Playing War. Cross-dressed in fringe and what appear to be chenille coats, these small figures are creepy children/babies who have been left unsupervised. Almost feral, they run around with strangely blank faces and inappropriate clothing. In Guns for Newborns, Wilson has presented the viewer with a row of six small

Guns for Newborns, 1998
Bronze, cast water guns
5 in. 3 24 in. X 4 in.

guns. Cast in bronze from a mold made from a water gun, these little artifacts are much more lethal looking than their plastic counterparts. A commentary on both the insanity of children playing with guns (little boys are enculturated to play with guns) and the definition of what constitutes a good mother (Andrea Yates never let her children play with guns), these relics of childhood play are a mute testimony to the violence that lurks in even the sunniest portions of suburbia.

A child such as those depicted in Marion Wilson’s installation grows up to be an Aileen Wuornos—a sad, lost child who became a sad, lost adult with a murderous habit. The mothers of these children are often marginalized, as they are precisely the kind of people the eugenicists sought to prevent from breeding. In the United States, these lower-class bad mothers are often presented in the popular media as being predominantly Latina or African-American rather than Jewish or Irish, as they were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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The close association in the media of women of color with practices of unfit parenting contributes to the impact of the oversized images from Renée Cox’s Yo Mama series. The original Yo Mama (1993) showed Cox, nude but for high heels, holding her male toddler out in front of her while staring defiantly at the camera. Cox is the Phallic mother, powerful and muscular with small breasts and visible biceps. Struck by the power of this image, Andrea Liss has suggested that, “Cox issues a call and response back to the small, jewel-like mammy and child daguerreotype portraits. Her contemporary portrait explodes the myth of domestic bliss embedded in the mismatched nineteenth century “family” portraits and bestows black mothers with renewed value and respect.”31 In consumer culture, the naked bodies of black and Latina women are visible signifiers of sexual fecundity, availability, and in some cases excessive fertility. Dark skin is usually an indexical marker for lower class origins as well. I would also argue that Yo Mama, along with Yo Mama At Home (1993) and Yo Mama The Sequel (1995), both of which are included in Maternal Metaphors, have as much if not more to do with images of pregnancy in contemporary culture than they do with the “mammy” daguerreotypes of the Antebellum period.

Renée Cox’s images of herself while pregnant can be read against photographs such as Bruce Davidson’s image of a pregnant African-American woman from the book East 100th Street (1970). As Laura Wexler and Sandra Matthews have noted about the image, it “uses a familiar trope of exoticism on an unfamiliar subject, offering up the pregnant figure as a passive odalisque, ripe for the male gaze. Perhaps because the woman is black and pictured in poor, crumbling surroundings, class and race-based conventions allow her to be more openly objectified.”32 Yo Mama At Home, by contrast, is none of these things. Seated on an elegant wooden bench in an NYC loft, Cox, nude and pregnant, appears cool and collected as she gazes back at the viewer. Nor does Cox succumb to the damage that pregnancy generally wreaks on the body. Both Yo Mama and Yo Mama The Sequel depict a firm, taut body—one that appears to have never even experienced the pregnancy that has resulted in the two beautiful children.

Yo Mama at Home, 1993
Gelatin silver print,
48 in. X 48 in.

Cox’s partner, according to Liss, is of Caucasian descent. The muscular and very healthy bodies of the children contradict the Eugenicists’ claim that miscegenation would certainly result in degeneracy and deformity. Looking at Cox and her children, it appears that the more likely result is a super race of incredibly strong and attractive people. Cox has managed to “get her body back” not once, but twice. Getting the pre-partum body back, is, as Hilary Cunningham has noted, a class-based, generally Caucasian achievement: “Today, the postpartum body of white America is still slim, still attractive, and it belongs to women continuing to wrestle with the archetypal home-work dichotomy. But it is also a body that increasingly is associated with women who are ‘sexy’ and ‘wealthy’—in other words, these are the bodies of the elite super-moms who now set a kind of body standard for all mothers.”33 Cox’s insertion of her own body into this movie star and super model narrative of hot body to baby to hot body again is startling precisely because she is “black” and yet refuses to adhere to the codes that govern representations of black women. Rendered something other than middle-class through her unapologetic nudity, she remains less rather than more like Demi Moore, in spite of the similarities between their bodies. As Liss puts it, “Cox’s courageous and exquisite self-representations and family portraits challenge us to envision black female bodies as new terrain for expanding black maternal visibility, for giving evidence of the tremendous strength involved in vulnerability and caring.”34

At least part of the power of Cox’s unashamed images of pregnancy and motherhood comes from the fact that she is part of a world where pregnancy and childbirth are regarded by women and men alike with suspicion and mistrust. According to Liss, the fellow participants in the Whitney Museum of Art program greeted the news of her second pregnancy with shock and amazement, clearly unable to imagine anything more foreign than wanting to be pregnant.

In 1992, M/E/A/N/I/N/G published a forum entitled “On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie,” for which they requested contributions from dozens of women artists on the intersection of motherhood and art.36 Many responded, although more than one artist wondered how the editors had discovered that she even had a child, so separate did they keep them from their careers. One artist who did not hide the fact that she had children was Myrel Chernick, the curator of Maternal Metaphors, who wrote that she wished it were not so difficult for women “to both create and procreate.” Although Chernick lamented that she did not have the time that she wished she had in order to make her work, she has managed to put together an astonishing number of installations, many of them dealing with the relationship between being a mother and being a person with agency and subjectivity. In the video installation Mommy Mommy from 1994, a television set playing a video of a headless woman holding a baby is placed on the same chair that the woman had occupied earlier. The video begins with a scene from Stella Dallas, where Barbara Stanwyck, the epitome of the self-sacrificing mother, holds her screaming child and tells her “there, there, mother’s here.” Just prior to that, a young child (Chernick’s daugher Tanya) wearing a flowered dress is shown calling for Mommy, insistently and expectantly. In between are scenes of one mother holding her calm baby and another holding her screaming baby, over which a fairytale, the genders changed to protect the guilty, is narrated. Scenes of Chernick’s twins, six years old at the time, make it all too clear how quickly children become acclimatized to gender codes. In the fairytale told by Chernick’s son, a wizard turns into an evil witch, who is then killed. Chernick’s daughter, on the other hand, sings to a plastic doll very much as the real mothers soothe their babies. The message is clear: the mother, who is an overwhelming and significant force for the small child, is gradually “killed” off as the child gets older and moves further and further away from the original unity that he or she shared with the mother. For the male child, this ritual death is often violent; the female child, on the other hand, kills her mother through incorporation, becoming the mother herself. The only hope is the altered fairytale, which features a princess rather than a prince as the hero and dragon slayer. “Is the mother’s power a fairytale?” Chernick asks. “She is a myth: Powerful to her child, but soon repudiated.”36

In On the Table (1996), Chernick takes on the larger myth of the good/bad mother as constructed by popular culture and in the media. On the Table is comprised of an old yellow Formica table and chairs with two very old television sets placed on top. One set shows women sitting at that table while narrating incidents about their mothers. These incidents range from bizarre—one mother uses a blackhead remover on her daughter’s chin but refuses to acknowledge that she has a bad case of acne—to terribly poignant—another mother who was forced to drop out of college accompanies her daughter to her future university and tells her that she will love it there. These stories of motherhood serve to unpack the ideological construction of mothers and motherhood as white, middle class, and self-sacrificing. The women seated at this table—itself a nostalgic evocation of a childhood from the fifties, sixties, and sometimes seventies—are of different classes, races, ages, and gender preferences. What they bring to the table is not so much a universal narrative of motherhood as a commonality of having mothers, as well as the implicit suggestion that what motherhood is or is not is very much based on a variety of social factors. The other television set, playing in black and white, alternates between images of Chernick and her family having breakfast at the Formica table, women’s hands carefully setting and clearing the same table, and a straightforward presentation of the story of Alice Crimmins, who was convicted for murdering her children in the mid-seventies. An attractive woman who was “a former cocktail waitress,” Crimmins denied that she had murdered her children right up until her conviction. The inclusion of Alice Crimmins’ case, read against the more moderate descriptions of motherly intervention, calls into question the construction of the bad—as opposed to good—mother. Alice Crimmins supposedly dated many men after the breakup of her marriage and was apparently out with one of her boyfriends just before the children were murdered. Newspaper accounts of the Crimmins case emphasized Alice’s appearance, clothing, former (and brief) profession as a cocktail waitress, and numerous boyfriends. Even today, the issue of Crimmins’ guilt or innocence remains unresolved. What was at stake, as Chernick’s video makes clear, is Crimmins’ transgression of the norms of the institution of motherhood. The fact that Crimmins’ children were murdered is almost beside the point.

“This I know for sure:” Chernick wrote to the editors at M/E/A/N/I/N/G. “The children grow up, and so quickly that time with them becomes an even more precious commodity. And the art world will not go away.”37 When Chernick wrote those words, her children were barely in first grade. As they get ready to go to college, Chernick has returned to an ongoing project that she began many years ago entitled Artists, Artwork, Mothers, Children, representing more than fifteen years worth of work. Many of these photographs come as something of a shock, given that some of the artists are not known for having had children. Playing on the trope of the discreet black and white photograph of the artist published in catalogues and textbooks, Chernick brings artist, artwork, and child together in one place. Jenny Holzer and her small daughter Lili are photographed in front of one of Holzer’s signature signs with the word mother on it. Aura Rosenberg’s tender interactions with a very young Carmen who happily plays with the components of her mother’s installation make it clear that Carmen is more than simply fodder for Rosenberg’s career.

Aura, Carmen and Dialectical Porn Rocks, 1991,
Digital print, 13 in. X 19 in.


Being a working artist and a mother in our capitalist-driven art world is difficult at best, impossible at worst. And yet, the warm interaction between mothers and children in Artists, Artwork, Mothers, Children suggests otherwise. It seems somehow appropriate that Chernick is examining the relationship between working mothers and their children at this time, given the number of articles that have recently appeared on mothers who have advanced degrees but have chosen to stay home with their children instead of continuing to work. These mothers, all of them upper middle-class, seem to accept the end of their professional aspirations with a disconcerting Stepford wife calm. Chernick’s artist/mothers, by contrast, are unique individuals with a singular vision who have decided not to give up their careers.38 They are not, however, alone in their experience of mothering and being mothers. As Adrienne Rich wrote about her own experience, “slowly I came to understand the paradox contained in ‘my’ experience of motherhood; that, although different from many other women’s experiences it was not unique; and that only in shedding the illusion of my uniqueness could I hope, as a woman, to have any authentic life at all.”39

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1. The image of Coatlique from Our Lady of Los Angeles can be found at accessed March 13, 2004. An image of the real Coatlique can be seen on numerous websites, including that of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City,

2. Cheri Gaulke and Sue Maberry, who are partners, subsequently did have twin girls. Their conception is the subject of a beautiful video entitled The Sea of Time (1992).

3. Sara Ruddick, “Thinking Mothers/Conceiving Birth,” in Representations of Motherhood, Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrere Kaplan, ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 30.

4. For a discussion of the prevalence of these mother stereotypes, even recently, see E. Ann Kaplan, “Sex, Work, and Motherhood: Maternal Subjectivity in Recent Culture,” included in Representations of Motherhood and Motherhood and representation: The mother in popular culture and melodrama (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

5. Juli Carson, “Mea Culpa: A Conversation with Mary Kelly,” Art Journal 58 n.4 (Winter 1999). Accessed through Proquest/Academic Search Elite.

6. Mary Kelly, “Desiring Imaging/Imaging Desire,” Mary Kelly (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1997), 123.

7. Gail S. Rebhan. Artist’s Statement: Babies 1986.

8. Kelly has authored two books in addition to numerous articles. See Mary Kelly, Imaging Desire (Boston: MIT Press, 1998), and Postpartum Document (London: Routledge 1993).

9. See Amelia Jones, ed., Sexual Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

10. Holland Cotter, “Review: Judy Glantzman,” Arts (November 1984)

11. Judy Glantzman, Email to the Author, dated March 8, 2004

12. A type of writing, defined by French feminist theorists Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, that is open-ended, playful, and corporeal—exactly the opposite of masculine writing which is linear, serious, and detached.

13. Paula Modersohn-Becker died as a result of complications from the birth of her first child. Her images of mothers were painted before she actually became one.

14. Susan Rubin Suleiman, “Writing and Motherhood,” Mother Reader: Essental Writings on Motherhood, Moyra Davey, ed. (New York and London: Seven Stories Press 2001), 117.

15. Ibid, 125.

16. Aura Rosenberg, Artist’s Statement, n.d.

17. Suleiman, “Playing and Motherhood; or, How to Get the Most Out of the Avant-Garde,” first published in Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990). Quotation taken from the revised version of the essay published in Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, eds. Representations of Motherhood, 273.

18. Robert Mahoney, “Aura Rosenberg, ‘Who am I, What am I, Where am I?’” Time Out 1998

19. Also see “Forum on Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie,” in M/E/A/N/I/N/G: contemporary art issues 12 (November 1992):3-42, for a collection of candid responses from women who are both mothers and artists.

20. Monica Bock, “Maternal Exposure,” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 3 n.1 (Spring/Summer 2001): 58.

21. See my article “Motherhood” New Art Examiner (March 2001): 16-23 in which I discuss this piece.

22. Zofia Burr, Dedication, reprinted in Bock, “Maternal Exposure,” 61.

23. Sara Webb, Artists Statement—milk and tears, January 2001.

24. Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith, “Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction,” Signs 28, n. 1 (Autumn 2002): 5.

25. McMahon also made a video of the piece called Scorpio is Bright (2003).

26. Judy Gelles, When We Were Ten: A photo/text story of a mother and her son (Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop, 1997), 2.

27. Gail S. Rebhan, Mother-Son Talk: A dialogue between a mother and her young sons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop 1996), 26.

28. Gelles, 31.

29. Most of my information about eugenics comes from the excellent web site Eugenics Archive, found at I would like to thank Dr. Sandra Esslinger for bringing this archive to my attention and for her invaluable comments about the relationship between the ideology of motherhood and eugenic theory.

30. Ruddick, “Talking About ‘Mothers’” from Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (1989). Quotation taken from Mother Reader, 189.

31. Andrea Liss, “Black Bodies in Evidence,” The Familial Gaze, Marianne Hirsch, ed. (Dartmouth College: University Press of New England, 1999), 281.

32. Sandra Matthews and Laura Wexler, Pregnant Pictures (New York and London: Routledge 2000), 42.

33. Hilary Cunningham, “Prodigal bodies: Pop culture and post-pregnancy,” Michigan Quarterly Review 43, n.1 (Summer 2002), 434.

34. Liss, 289.

35. Susan Bee, Mira Schor, eds, “Forum: On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie,” #12 (November 1992): 3-42.

36. Myrel Chernick, Artist Statement n.d.

37. Chernick, “Forum: On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie,” 11.

38. The most egregious of these articles is that published by Time Magazine. “The Case for Moms Staying Home,” Time Magazine 163, n. 12 (March 22, 2004). This article barely takes into account the fact that many of these women are upper middle-class, rather than poor and unable to give up working.

39. Adrienne Rich, “Anger and Tenderness” from Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), quoted here from Mother Reader, 97

Updated: January 22, 2007 5:12 AM

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