Other Voices, Other Rooms

Private Lives Public Spaces

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through July 1, 2020
(The museum is temporarily closed. Movies from the exhibition can be seen online at moma.org.)
Illustration of mother and child
Illustration by Eleanor Davis

People told me motherhood would feel like deprivation—losing time, losing sleep, losing freedom—but in the beginning it felt more like sudden and exhausting plenitude. Turns out there were more hours in the day if you never slept. My baby opened a seam in the night and pulled me into the strange dark world beyond, those silent hours between 2 and 5, when she slept on my chest as I watched terrible reality television about aspiring Australian models, or paced the living room looking across the street at the single lit window on our block, wondering, Who? and Why? On our walks, during our endless days, I started noticing things I’d never noticed before: the fountain hidden in the courtyard of a brick apartment building, the purple-lit windows that suggested something hydroponic growing inside, the photographs of shoplifters posted indignantly at the entrance to the gentlest twee toy shop in our neighborhood (stolen toys made of wood!). I learned the names of trees I’d been walking past for years: London planetree, silver maple, Siberian elm. As the branches beyond the nursery window turned from bare to bud to bloom, I remembered my first sponsor in twelve-step recovery saying her Higher Power was just the sheer fact that trees could grow from seeds—that this transformation was simultaneously radical and commonplace, happening in plain sight.

Being with my baby every hour of every day demanded close attention, not just to her—whether her fluttering eyelids meant she was waking up or just dreaming, how close she’d rolled to the edge of our bed—but also to everything else, because the alternative to paying attention was growing bored out of my mind. My hunger for stimulation meant my gaze was sensitized, the way your eyes can see more after you’ve spent a few minutes in the dark.

It’s often easiest to ignore what’s right in front of us. As the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote:

The everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold…. It is the unperceived, first in the sense that one has always looked past it. [It is] what we never see for a first time, but only see again.*

Those newborn months made the everyday visible again. It was all suddenly there, the humdrum moments stretched like a holy skin across our days: my daughter’s giggling as she nursed, milk dribbling from her mouth; or the pin-prick drizzle against our skin on rainy afternoons, when I’d walk for miles with her sleeping against my chest. The warm breeze of her breath swelled against my ribs. Her hands in their fleece-lined mittens startled like birds when she woke.

At a busy press preview at the Museum of Modern Art, set to reopen after a four-month renovation, I…

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