Gallery Hopping: One New Mom Discovers the True Art of Parenting

By Heather Atwood
Issue 93 March/April 1999

mom out with babyA mother has no right to expect a calm baby who takes long naps if she herself needs a daily five-mile run to redirect the tension in her life. Babies are not all the same. More importantly, neither are mothers. Know yourself, and you will forgive your baby her weaknesses.

Years ago, single, and in my twenties, I worked in an art gallery. A scene from this job has lodged permanently in my head: A young Asian woman strolled in, looking long and thoughtfully at the show while her baby slept soundly on her chest.

In the days when I lived on cappuccino and wore black, I thought that someday I would be that Asian woman. I wanted the intellect and love that that image represented for me, a woman deep in concentration while her child slept soundly against her, a mother with a vital inner life of her own.

Initially when I had my daughter, I tried to prove to myself that I could be that mother. Isabelle was ten months old. She and I were going to expand our five-block radius, heading downtown to see an art exposition. I delicately organized her schedule of feeding and napping, hoping that sating her biological needs would create 90 minutes of happy time. But after packing stroller, diapers, toys, and snacks in the car, driving downtown, and being forced to park ten blocks away, I discovered the exhibit had closed the previous day.

Another time we tried the Chicago Art Institute; but a rainy, free-admission Tuesday translated into hideous mob scenes. Isabelle, terrified by the lights and voices ricocheting in the large marble rooms, screamed loudly enough to stir the stone lions on the Art Institute steps.

There is a valuable lesson here, buried in the question: Which came first, the disorganized mother or the difficult child? But I haven’t figured out the answer, so the lesson’s still elusive.

As a new mother, I realized there was much about that scene in the gallery long ago that I hadn’t understood. Was that woman’s child always so calm? The hour before, had he been quietly suckling or lustily screaming? I couldn’t now remember his mother searching in deep pockets for little toys to eke out another three minutes of quiet from her child. Had she worried about where she would be when her baby woke up screaming? Isabelle, I knew, couldn’t nurse just anywhere. It had to be calm and dark or she’d crane her head all about, still crying with hunger.

For me, leaving the house meant precisely charting my course. Would people nearby understand when Isabelle began to wail, or would they sneer? Gallery assistants would sneer. Starbucks employees would smile. Guess which establishment I frequented?

Perhaps all childless women are deceived by scenes like the Asian woman in the art gallery. Before I had Isabelle, the image of a woman pushing a child in a stroller was an icon of serenity. Now, when I see a woman pushing a child in a stroller, I think of the work it took to get that baby out the door, the manipulation of equipment, the military-style organization.

Now I understand and accept that the baby in the art gallery was fundamentally different from my own. There are babies who can sleep through art openings. And there are those who can nap contentedly in strollers. Isabelle is neither. But she and I are finding our particular way together. I have had to chart my life around my child’s needs, which seem so different from those of the child in the art gallery. But accepting our strengths and limitations as parent and child is the point. We each create our particular vision of family. The art galleries are always there. We just have to find our own ways of getting to them.

Heather Atwood is a painter and mother in Rockport , Massachusetts . She and her husband have two daughters .