The lessons of parenting – and becoming a parent
I talked a few nights to a friend about summer plans and mentioned that his primary goal was to visit his mother, who lives in another country. I remembered that he had recently made a long trip for his mother’s birthday and asked if everything was okay with his aging parent. Yes, my friend explained, but after the long lockdown, when no one was allowed to travel, he now felt an urgent need to see his mother more. And since his mother didn’t feel like moving, my friend simply had to take more long-haul flights, even though he didn’t like constant travel and his life was between his own work and raising his own children. York, thousands of miles away.
I could relate to that. My mother lives just a train ride away, but over the past year I’ve found myself wanting to visit her more and more often—even if those visits only require a side note to make me feel good. like an annoyed teenager over and over again. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been reminded more and more that he’s getting older too, and regardless of the sometimes challenging dynamics of our relationship, I have an internal compulsion to spend more time with him. It made me think about how delicate and complicated this relationship between parent and child can be, and how it changes over a lifetime.
In a double portrait by David Hockney In “My Parents” (1977), the British artist paints a domestic scene that one imagines reflects his view of the central aspects of his parents’ personality and how he understood the relationship between them. The artist’s father, with his head resting on a magazine in his lap, is positioned somewhat more in the foreground of the canvas, although his attention is clearly directed from the artist, the viewer and his wife sitting next to him. His feet are not completely on the floor, as if he is restless and impatient to be let go. This is a person completely in his own world, despite being in the presence of his family.
Hockney’s mother sits upright on the left side of the canvas, her feet on the floor, her hands folded in her lap, and she is completely attentive to her son, the painter. His expression is dutiful and accommodating, as if he is used to this role. A green sideboard on wheels stands between them. On its surface is a tray with a flower vase and a table mirror. In the reflection, on the opposite wall, a small copy of a painting, Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ, is partially visible. On the bottom shelf is a stack of books, including one about the 18th-century artist Jean-Siméon Chardin, who was famous for his own seemingly simple paintings that infused domestic scenes with an even more emotional energy.
In this picture, a couple seen together proved sustainable, but perhaps distant, with some unspoken dissatisfaction or sadness. Born in 1937, Hockney painted this at the age of 40. But two years earlier, he had begun to create a portrait titled “My Parents and Myself,” which includes his own image in the mirror. He abandoned this painting, which upset both parents.
It makes you wonder how Hockney could have painted his parents when he was 20, when he was barely a man, when he was just learning to go through the ups and downs of adulthood – or 60. they change to each other and to us as we go through our own life experiences.
When I turned 31 or 32, I remember being the same age my mother was when she decided to take her life and ours in a new direction, eventually moving to a new country. I saw my mother and the situation from a completely different perspective than I ever had before. When we are children, we believe that our parents have all the power and unlimited choice in the distant adult world they occupy. Now there was a little more compassion in my assessment, because by then I had experienced what it was like to be an adult who could not fully control the circumstances of life.
How could any of us paint portraits of our own parents at this point in our lives as opposed to when we were younger? What would we include? How would we illustrate the way we imagine them in relation to us?
I was impressed with the arrest work “Melanie and I Swim” (1978-79) by British painter Michael Andrews. Based on a photograph of the artist and his daughter, the painting shows a father waist-deep in the river teaching his toddler to swim. The father’s attention is focused on his child as he grabs her by the arms and soothes her as she splashes her little feet. Thick strands of brown hair fall into her face as she smiles, both horrified and delighted. The water is dark and we can barely see what’s underneath.
There are so many metaphors in this painting about how we move through life. Even though this child can probably stop at this shallow depth, he still looks to his father to guide him, as he may in the future when he is away from solid ground. But you may not always get that support. Sometimes you have to rely on yourself. It’s a lesson in swimming, but it’s also a lesson in survival.
Yet what’s terrifying and moving about this image is how it speaks to another brave aspect of parenting. Time and time again, you have to release your child into an unknown world where you simply have no means or control to protect them. This can happen at any time in a child’s life, including adult children who still need active support and parenting due to developmental issues or their lifestyle. And some parents face this terror more consistently because of how the world has been socialized to see and treat children who look like theirs.
Shaina McCoy: “Smile II” a 30-year-old Minneapolis-based artist, is a 5-inch x 7-inch painting, but it immediately grabbed my attention as I walked through his current exhibit in New York, The Look. Two little girls are facing each other. One of the children wears a colorful polka dot top and mauve shorts, and her braided hair is held up by a pink tube. He holds a camera to his eyes and kneels in front of the other child, a toddler dressed in a white shift dress, who falls off his shoulder and takes his picture.
McCoy doesn’t paint faces on his figures, but we still feel the intimate scene of play and life training. There is something beautiful about this moment when children watch and watch them. The mutual gaze carries with it the recognition of belonging, security, the feeling of being valued enough to be looked at with interest and attention.
There are no parents in this painting, but parenting is hinted at by the careful dressing of the toddler, the camera that someone has taught him to use, and the toddler that he knows is being cared for even while playing. We can approach that someone was telling this little photographer something about self-worth, about finding beauty in faces like hers and her sister’s, and about taking the time to look and see another person.
But there is something poignant and depressing about raising children in this picture. The feeling that no matter how we raise our children to value themselves or to see beauty in the world, the world does not always receive the same loving gaze. This will be true for many parents, but even more so for many parents of black children—especially in the United States, where the news regularly reminds us that we live in a society that does not always treat our children with respect. which we see or have taught them to see themselves.
I love how McCoy keeps his figures faceless. Discipline would be imagining any child as valuable and extending care to them, no matter what they look like or who they belong to.
This painting also reminds me that we are all someone’s children. And there are ways in which we still carry the children we were, the ways we were taught to be in the world, and the lessons we learned, for better or worse, from parents like our own. to be the adult me.
What we begin with these teachings and lessons is the parenting we must all learn to do ourselves. Sometimes that means rethinking our upbringing and recognizing what lessons we learned from our parents are holding us back from life-giving patterns and relationships. Sometimes that means remembering and reclaiming powerful and positive teachings that remind us of who we can be in the world, despite what the world suggests or demands of us.
Follow Enuma on Twitter @EnumaOkoro or e-mail him at [email protected]
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