This work appeared as part of the Future Forum, in Both/and: Artist-parents in conversation, a session that I organized involving women of colour in dialogue about the intersection of caretaking and art-making.
First-time parenthood these past nine months has been an extraordinary see-saw between corrosion and renewal. A second wind arrives at 5:30, a third before midnight, and sometimes, there is just none to be had and you wake from a nap after the sunset. During the day, the baby hands me slivers of time to reply to an email, jot something in a notebook, make a change for the occasional client, edit a few photos. But the 15, 30, 60 minute windows dissipate readily and I return to him… to eager, fluttering hands, glycerin-like tears, a sharp and curious sense of hearing, and a concise internal clock. He is becoming more independent now—a godsend—but I am still very much beholden to him, as I will be for years to come. I knew I was entering into some semblance of this, but acceptance of the intimate ways in which we are bound to one another is a constant surge and slump.
Navigating these contradictory feelings is tied to the ways I hold myself to harsh Western capitalistic ideals around productivity and performance, desire, and self-improvement. They are sorely embedded in my behaviour and the expectations I make of myself and sometimes others—the baby, even!—emerging in moments on edge:
the resentment and dread of being repeatedly interrupted while working after everyone else is asleep;
desperate middle-of-the-night Google searches about sleep training and weaning in order to reclaim some spaciousness for myself;
yearning to sustain my professional identity, while finding it near impossible to accomplish care and career work jointly;
self-applied pressures to tackle domestic duties when I am already so worn down, a trait no doubt inherited from my tireless mum.
The ways I bring institutionalized practices of labour into my parenting stem from seeing them modelled and internalized since a young age. They have been replicated in my artistic and freelance work similarly. Self-employment over the past few years has required buy-in that non-quantifiable, unwaged labour—like reading, researching, attending talks and workshops—is in fact valuable. Being glacially slow and perhaps overly meticulous is how I create, with rejection and failure certainly a part of that story too.
It has been an uphill battle to be okay with this way of functioning while also trying to reshape that approach; one that lies in contrast to a market mentality that centers hyper-individualism, and rewards relentless momentum and excess in work.
So much of this type of labour is complicated by my own proximity to whiteness and Westernness. As a racialized woman, it arises in how I uphold structures bolstering the model minority myth, one that demands absurd standards of achievement at every turn. Now with a child, the recurring pull towards a construct like sleep training—just to have more freedom to “earn a living” and to avoid being singularly defined as someone’s mother—feels baffling and awful. Bedsharing has been the ideal arrangement for our family, so why do I keep desiring to conform to dominant Western attitudes? Why do I keep trying to push him away?
My would-be live performance at the Future Forum morphed as we became more housebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With usual and unusual stressors extra amplified in our studio apartment, rethinking the work felt natural and necessary. Thus, Beside(s) Myself became a piece led by my son’s first times discovering a balloon.
In the photographs and video, I mimicked his play, with no real end goal in mind. It is a simple idea but a novel one for me. It symbolizes a departure from my traditional workflow:
from calculated overthinking and design;
from always needing to have a concept and its development all figured out before truly beginning;
from formal art education that says every artistic decision needs to be thoroughly justified;
from the obligation to make something that can be packaged as a commodity (whether an exhibition, a sale, or grant money);
from the gravity of identity politics, the defining focus of my artworks.
This piece is silly and light-hearted, a welcome distraction from the unrest and upheaval of this health and economic crisis. Strange and a stretch as it may seem, letting a baby lead an art piece is an act of resistance—one that finds worth in pleasure and process.