Paying Attention or seeing with: mothering at the Detroit Institute of Arts
When I was a kid and we traveled my mom always took us to museums. In New York City we went to the Met, the MoMa, the Natural History Museum. Twice visiting Chicago alone I’ve gone to the Field Museum, making little notes for poems about evolution, about birds.
Trying to think of something to do with my mother-in-law, on a half day in Detroit, on our now-annual trip to my wife’s homeland, we decide to go to the DIA, with our now seven-year-old. We have a talk about how to behave in an art museum (quiet voice, no touching, no running I tell him, and have him repeat back, ticking off on his fingers) and hug my mother-in-law on the street and get our tickets.
Once inside, Jasmine asks that we try to stay together, which is nearly impossible. I follow J out of the Diego Rivera mural room, through an exhibit of American road trip photographs. He likes one that shows an old house on fire, behind a farm stand where a firefighter buys a pumpkin; he likes another with three poodles in the backseat of a slick old car. In another, a woman’s hair blows like flames around her face as she rides, golden, in the bed of a truck.
At first we try to draw his attention to things, things we think he will like. Look at this, isn’t that neat? He just shrugs and moves on, darting into the next gallery to stage-whisper Holy Goalie, an expletive of his own creation, at a Louise Bourgeois sculpture or a column of colored blocks, green enamel, brightly lit, reaching up to the ceiling. He puts his face very, very close to some things, but only once do I see him touch anything; I too am scolded for gesturing too near a painting.
Attention is strange, complicated. I am as guilty as anyone of telling J: pay attention or focus, as if using these words will turn his mind where I want it, keep it there. His gears spinning and clicking into and out of place.
One of his doctors explains it to me better, though, that attention is complicated. You have to judge what’s important- -and tune out the other things, have to determine that someone else’s micro-movements are not a threat to you; that the air conditioner or a lawnmower outside the window are not important, are not vital information or at the very least, interesting. If you get distracted, which we all do, startled by a sudden noise or drawn to something interesting in your peripheral vision, you then have to find your way back to the task at hand, to your place in the task at hand, returning your body and emotions to an appropriate state for the task at hand; you also have to keep in mind (literally, your working memory, which I imagine as the forehead) how you’re expected to behave while doing the task at hand, remember not to talk if talking is not allowed; remember to stay in your seat if staying in your seat is expected. To take it apart like that, something most of us take for granted most of the time, breaks my heart.
Here is what he likes, though, where his attention goes and thus mine does too: the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry murals, in particular the details such as mean bosses and sad workers, marching away from the cars they built with identical metal lunchboxes in hand. He likes the video of Marina Abramovic holding a heavy bowl of milk for five minutes; he watches anxiously to see if it will spill. (the drama of carrying dishes full of liquid is well known in early childhood: careful hands, we might say.) The heavy wooden sculptures, the bones, the deconstructed boats: the blind leading the blind. Variability of similar forms. We stand for several minutes in front of Sarah Sze’s ersatz nature, a Rube Goldberg of fishtanks, lights; bubbling, dripping water; steps and flowers cut out of Styrofoam plates. Look, Mama! He whispers to Jasmine.
He does not like- but has an experience with- the mummy, gazing down at the gauze-wrapped bundle and at the tiny CT scan showing the bones inside. Mummies are one of those things– like snakes and dinosaurs—that are supposed to be interesting to kids, a certain type of quirky little boy, like mine. But, like snakes and dinosaurs, if you really think about it, a mummy is terrifying: a dead body wrapped in rags and pulled out of the earth centuries later, placed in yet another box, this one glass, in a museum.
I think, I am not good at wholeheartedly encountering things, but he is: moving his body with joy towards an object, around it. In the encounter he is deeply present, captivated.
Parenting has utterly changed me, destroyed me and reassembled my pulped and bleeding components, changed my consciousness, my writing, how I pay attention. My mind is split. Maybe this is some instinct, the caregiver’s ability to track where the child is, so it doesn’t fall off a cliff or get eaten by a wolf or carried off by marauders. When he’s out of my sight, something is still running in the background, a low hum: he’s in the backyard; he’s at my mom’s house; he’s darted into the next gallery.
My experience of museums is often meandering slowly and looking at wall text, trying to decide what I should see, how I would describe it, if I wrote about it, later. An experience of trying to feel, which is not unlike commanding someone to pay attention. To have a certain kind of experience. Now, here, with my twitchy and ecstatic son, I don’t have to make myself feel: I am feeling with, seeing with.
* * * *
It is a hearty debate between parents and non-parents, or between strict and permissive parents—the rights of children to be in public space, or shared space with adults who are not their parents, and how the children will act once they are there. Parents kicked off a plane because their baby was crying; scathing essays decrying parents who let their children throw food in Starbucks; criticism of parents who both distract their children with screens in restaurants and parents who don’t. Well-behaved children welcome, gift shop signs in beach towns read. Or: Children must be accompanied by an adult. As if some negligent, vacation-dazed parent would send their child alone into a nautical-themed antique store and ask them to go pick out something they like.
Some parents then respond, give them a break. They’ve been parenting all day. They just want to enjoy their meal. Stop JUDGING MOMS. (This is the greatest accusation that one mom can make of another: she’s judgy. There’s even a word for this: a sanctimommy). Meanwhile, childless people, or people whose children have since grown, say: you need to take that child home/put that child down for a nap/control that child/give that child a swift pop on the bottom.
(I remember a week after J was placed with us, I took him to a thrift store, to try and find him some clothes that fit. I was trying to wrangle him into the dressing room—a child who was basically a stranger to me still, and I to him– and a woman looked at us and said, “well, he’s bossy, isn’t he.” I blister thinking of that now; I want to snap at her you have no idea what the fuck is going on here; but at the time I think I just laughed nervously and herded him into the dressing room with an armload of pants.)
But what is the right of my child, who has an invisible disability, or any child, neurotypical or not, to enjoy an art museum, and what does that mean for him? What parameters is it reasonable to place on his behavior, on his museum-going? Quiet voice, no touching, no running, I think, are reasonable. But I’m not going to tell him how to look at art, how long to gaze at each thing.
He’s intensely curious, to a level of detail that most children, at least most children I know, are not. The whys and how does this works are rapid fire; he stores this information away to bring it up, unprompted and with no antecedent, weeks later. He’s like a very empathetic alien from another planet, without the contextual knowledge we as adults have. Children are supposed to expand a parent’s sense of wonder, teach you to see through your child’s eyes, some bullshit about innocence, which my child has not. But this sense of wonder, like other things, is multiple; complex and nuanced. The child doesn’t just ask you to see with, but to encounter and explain. To make sense of. And that kind of engagement; to make sense for another, is an act of love, it is the work of love, it is exhausting.
So it isn’t just a part of me, my mothering. It’s everywhere, in everything. Maybe this will horrify my queer feminist friends, maybe not. This radical engagement and changed-ness, willingness to be changed by the other—I think that level of risk and vulnerability—is queer. I cannot just tell him to be quiet and let me enjoy my coffee or my trip to the art museum, and turn off the mothering part of my brain.
And I do feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, parenting. My partner and I spent a few years of our middle and late twenties getting here, which is on the early side for queer parents, mostly- at least those who make a deliberate choice, have to work at becoming parents, whether through adoption or assisted reproduction. Being a mother makes things harder, this split attention. Maybe I ought to say being a parent. Being a primary caregiver. It makes writing harder. It has affected my career. It makes meandering through a museum in quiet contemplation impossible.
* * * *
In the museum gift store I offer to buy him a book about mummies, but he declines, tries to negotiate other things, the wasteful little tchotchkes I’m trying to avoid, plastic party favors that fall apart, end up in the car crumpled and broken in a scurf of smashed granola bars. He’s had enough, I can tell by his dilated pupils, the way his eyes dart away from mine when I bend down to talk to him.
I do what we learned in our trauma-informed parenting group. Take the child’s hands and request they look you in the eyes. You are also supposed to tap their chin. Let me see those beautiful eyes, Karyn Purvis (rest in peace) purred in her lovely Texas accent, her huge gray hair bobbing towards the recalcitrant (or more likely triggered or overwhelmed) child, in the videos we watched. Let me see those beautiful eyes. What color are those eyes, I can’t remember. He hates if I tap his chin though, he jerks away and says it hurts. So I just say hey bud, my eyes are here.
He looks at me for a moment and then his eyes dart away. Hey puppy dog, my eyes are over here. This time he looks at me long enough for me to say I think we’ve had enough, I’m going to take you outside and he protests softly but then wraps his wiry arms around my neck and I carry him, his long legs flapping and his bird heart beating under a skinny chest.
When we get outside I put him down and we walk, hand in hand, across the wide green lawn, sit on the tall fountain, watch bulldozers and steam rollers and excavators noisily make the road wider, flat and smooth. He eats half a muffin I’ve been carrying in my backpack, enraptured by his beloved machines.