October 14, 2011 / Opportunity, Sexism, Women's History

MOM Takes Manhattan: The First Museum of Motherhood Opens


Reprinted with the express permission of Pajamas Media and its author, Phyllis Chesler. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Join us for three performances of ‘Sex In Mommyville’; Thurs., Fri., and Sat., at M.O.M. this week. Diva’s Do Lunch with Shira Adler and more. Buy tickets online here or call our front desk. 212.452.9816 (Check for the exact location at the bottom of the Schedule page.)

Everyone who has ever been born has had a mother; most women have been mothers; women have been mothering children since the dawn of time. Historically, most women have spent up to twenty to forty years of their lives being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding, and tending children and grandchildren. Until recently — and still today — this meant facing an agonizing labor, potential death, or lifelong injury for the sake of perpetuating the human race.

Where, then, are all our MOMs — our Museums of Motherhood? Until last month, there were no such museums, at least not on planet earth. But on Sept 1, 2011, the visionary and energized Joy Rose, a mother of four, a rock musician, the founder of “Housewives on Prozac” (1997-2007,) and an organizer of countless conferences, fairs, and festivals for mothers all over the country, opened the first such museum. It is located not far from where I live on the Upper East Side.

A rare sight to see on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Visiting it is a redemptive experience. In non-motherhood museums, in marble silence, women are hanging, beautifully clothed and beautifully naked, painted by great artists who loved the female body. Strange how few of them are pregnant. A hint, a swelling, a critical interpretation is all we have to represent the most common female experience in history. Similarly, there are few high fashion models who are shown while pregnant. Imagine the demoralizing psychological effect this has on women who understand that pregnancy and motherhood, or at least pregnancy and womanhood, go together. Those women who want children desperately and who love being mothers do not see themselves and their choices valorized or even depicted in High Culture.

Here at MOM, the Museum of Motherhood, pregnant women, women in labor, and mothers with children are cherished and displayed throughout the museum as brave champions.The subject is not hidden because it is sacred. It is honored for precisely this reason. The cheerful, brightly colored space is filled with artfully painted plaster casts of real women’s pregnant torsos — like so many modern-day versions of ancient fertility goddesses, like so many Venuses of Willendorf.

An increasing number of contemporary women are casting themselves while pregnant. Here, at MOM, they can have an artist paint it to their specifications. The museum also displays and sells a “pregnancy vest” that weighs 40-60 pounds, the amount of weight that many women gain while they are pregnant.

The pregnant woman has also become a source of inspiration for many photographers, painters, and sculptors. The works of Alexia Nye Jackson (who created the installation “Mother: The Job”), Deborah Putnoi, Ella Dreyfus, Jo Jayson, Elizabeth Coe Sheehan and Joy Rose, Paula Rendino Zaentz and Ronnie Komarow are on display. Artist April Bey has been acquiring and painting the mannequins that dressmakers once used to fashion dresses for pregnant women. Bey’s mannequins are vividly striking and boldly colored. They are the kind of work that may soon go on display at the MOM.

By April Bey

I’ve described visiting MOM as a “redemptive” experience. Here’s why.

Before I became pregnant, I did not “see” pregnant women. Somehow, they were mysteriously invisible to me. After I became pregnant — I saw pregnant women everywhere.

Before I became a mother, my ego knew no bounds. I thought I could overcome all obstacles through force of will, not by bending to circumstance, or trusting in forces larger than myself. For me, motherhood was something of a reverse Zen experience. Having a child was a passage from detachment to attachment.

Becoming a new-born mother changed my life. It humbled me, slowed me down, made me kinder, and infinitely more vulnerable to cruelty. I learned that life does not stand still, that it is always changing, growing, dying, being renewed. For years, when I had looked in the mirror, I always looked the “same” to myself. Time became real for me when I began to measure it by my beloved son’s obvious, visible growth. Time became more finite.

I comprehended, in my body, that one day I would die. I quickly came to understand that pregnancy and newborn motherhood was one of the greatest human rites of passage. I needed to read books — even one book — with this perspective as I was going through this experience. It was 1977, and there were no such books to be found. I decided to write the kind of book that I needed to read.

I could not easily find a publisher. One female editor literally said: “What is this bulls***? You can write a ‘real’ book, why waste your time on this non-subject?” A male editor at another publishing house, whom I’d never met, told my agent: “What could she possibly write about pregnancy or motherhood? She’s a feminist, a career woman, she’s not a ‘normal’ woman and she can’t be a ‘normal’ mother.” A third publisher said that the subject had already been “done.” Ah, by whom I asked: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes? Proust, Hemingway?

And so I came to study and write about the experience of motherhood for the next thirty three years. I published With Child. A Diary of Motherhood, (1979); Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986), and Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M (1988); I have just published an updated twenty fifth anniversary edition of Mothers on Trial with eight new chapters. This work documents motherhood under siege, what “good enough” mothers must endure when their custodial right to mother is unjustly challenged, often by violent fathers, sometimes by “good enough” fathers.

I did not expect to see a museum such as this in my lifetime.

But, then came Joy with her infectious optimism, passion, and deeply spiritual nature, an essence coupled with a very American “take charge, can do” attitude. Joy is tall and blonde and beautiful but she is also incredibly maternal, protective towards other women. She wears a lot of “magic” jewelry (amulets, etc.) and sometimes frosts her hair bright pink.

Joy describes MOM as a “pop-up exhibit,” one which will last for four precious months in a 2,500 square feet space.

The Museum of Motherhood smells good. The air is perfumed. The ambience is a cross between Gymboree (from whom she is renting the space), and a fantasy country fair. It has many different “areas” including a “Greif-fitti” wall, where “stories of grief and loss can create a path to healing.” MOM has visual displays, historical photos of and information about suffragists, information about ancient and medieval birth practices, films, rotating photography and art exhibits, and an arresting list of the tasks which every mother performs and what purchasing those tasks would cost on the open market. Joy Rose and her team (of both men and women) also co-ordinate writing and art workshops, poetry “slams,” musical performances, all-day conferences, and events for children.

I recently took a quick, private tour and was charmed by the mother-friendly, child-friendly, atmosphere and by the sweetness of Joy’s right hand man, Paul White, who helped Joy show me around. Then, I interviewed Joy:

Q: What motivated you to establish the Museum of Motherhood?

A: We have mustard museums, marble museums, car museums, but until now, there have been no museums dedicated to this all important job of creating the next generation of human beings. This museum will give all of us an opportunity to study and understand this most important job of “mother.”

Q: When did you start this work?

A: This has been a project of a lifetime. It has been years in the making and there has been, at any given time, a small group of dedicated individuals who have given generously of their time to make this museum happen. This first exhibit, as part of our Pop-Up museum, brings home to New York City the fruit of conferences, exhibits and festivals around the world.

Q: When did you become interested in motherhood as a subject?

A: The obvious answer is: after I became a mother.

Some things have not changed. For example, quality child care is still beyond the economic reach of most families. Upon divorce, child support payments are minimal or non-existent especially among families where one or even both earners make only minimal income.

But here’s what has changed in the last forty years. In the past career women were often asked to choose between their jobs and motherhood, and were given no time off, certainly not with paid maternity leaves. Now, some are — and there are some paternity leaves, too. In the recent past, universities did not offer courses about motherhood. Now some do. There were never any conferences, academic or otherwise, which focused on this life-changing and life-bringing event. Now there are some. Joy herself organizes many and I have had the privilege of speaking for her. Where once there were few books about pregnancy, labor, newborn motherhood, lifelong motherhood, motherhood under siege — there are now many such books.

And now, we have our first not-for-profit Museum of Motherhood. Please support the Museum of Motherhood’s Capital Campaign so that it can remain open at its current location for the next two years.

* * * * *

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of 14 books and an emerita professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies. She once lived in Kabul, Afghanistan.

She may be reached through her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.

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  • Henrietta

    Historically, we don’t know much about women or girls, period. From the nonstop work that women did which ranged from childcare even before baring children or pulling thread while they are doing a multitude of other things. We don’t know about women’s relationship with money which legally enslaved us. We don’t know about the actual work that mothers did.

    Mothers are certainly more visible now. Mothers on sitcoms have a bit of say. In the media now, everyone is searching for that next, great celebrity bump. When a woman without children hits 30, everyone wants to know when you are going to start trying. Pregnant moms are now thought “sexy”. We have clothing that does not hide our bumps. But what has happened is, motherhood has not become respected, it has become fetishized.

    The work that women do “growing things” is what needs to be acknowledged and respected. I like the idea of a motherhood museum. I was not at all interested in making a cast of my pregnant belly when I was pregnant, but I can see the appeal of this, especially in a historical context. I would like women to be respected as the 52 percent of the population who bear children and/ or raise them, and/ or nurture them.

    I’ve done a little bit of research on those societies that some call “matriarchal”. There is a small cultural group in China, one in India, one in Indonesia and one in New Guinea that are “matriarchal” for lack of a better word. Rape is almost non-existant. Women are respected. As one man who lived in the Indonesian cultural group explained, he would not want his cultures group to change their attitude toward women because women help things to grow. And that was their grounding cultural value.

    I wish I lived in New York so that I could visit the Motherhood Museum! And I hope the imagery of mothers go far beyond the bump :)

  • yttik

    That really is a neat idea. Congratulations to Joy Rose for getting it done! I hope it expands and spreads across the country.

  • Nancy Kallitechnis

    Anyone can learn how to develop a caring, protecting and nurturing attitude toward people, animals and things. Some people discover it by learning how to garden. Children can learn the skill by being entrusted with caring for animals.

    Pregnancy and childcare duties are an excellent opportunity to discover the skill and be transformed by it. And I say opportunity because some mothers are unfortunately terrible mothers who torture and/or murder their children. Pregnancy and childcare provide a “curriculum” on how to develop a nurturing attitude which transforms a person’s identity to seeing themselves as a nurturer. And once one learns how to be a nurturer, it naturally extends to many people, animals and objects.

    One thing about women is that nature automatically places us in the “nurturing curriculum” when we become pregnant. Like when a person goes to college and they have to take core courses. Whereas for men, once they have completed their role in assisting a woman to start a pregnancy, nurturing is an “elective course” that they may feel pressure to do but nature doesn’t require it of them as it does for women who find themselves pregnant.

    It is possible for women to “drop out” of the nurturing course by getting an abortion, as in school there are consequences and opportunities for dropping out of a course. However, my emphasis is that nature has set up a system that funnels many women (and not men) in an excellent nurturing course via pregnancy and often does so repeatedly to the same woman. Thus, nature has given women as a group a huge advantage over men in learning nurturing skills which they can transfer to anything like nurturing a country as President, nurturing the environment to create a bountiful harvest, nurturing a company to make a fortune, etc. Of course an individual man can learn to be more nurturing than an individual woman, but nature has rigged the system to give women much more opportunity to learn the skill.

  • Henrietta

    Is it sexist of me to think that women are just hardwired (on some level) to be better nurturers? I am not of the “men and women are equal” camp but I do demand that men and women have equal representation. Of course I think a woman with something of a nurturing sensibility would make for a great President. I want representation, not equality if equality means that we have to think of men and women as being born the same. My sister is far better with my daughter than her two uncles even though my sister does not have children yet. I see this often with aunts vs. uncles. I do see men who are excellent nurturers. I wonder if these same men have more respect for women. I think men would make for better nurturers if the nurturing that women brought to this world were more respected. Instead, often enough I feel like our culture treats mothers like dumb fluffy bunnies who nurture on mindless autopilot.

    Mothers need real, honest and respectful representation. This is what I like about this museum. Representin’ mothers! It’s about time.

  • Bes

    Well one thing men contribute to the history of civilization is war and fighting, they consider this an honorable occupation and create myths and stories of great warriors, monuments to great wars and warriors, government run hospitals for warriors, entire bureaucracies to administer government benefits to old warriors and of course museums of war and weapons. Of course not all men are warriors.

    One of the things women contribute to civilization is birthing and growing children and families. I don’t see a lot of myths and stories in modern culture featuring great mother figures. I don’t see Mothers Hospitals run by government, museums of motherhood, The appreciation of Motherhood I do see tends to come from conservative religious groups. Of course not all women are mothers.

    So I think it is quite clear that war is valued much higher than the nurturing of life by The Powers That Be. That said I shudder to think of motherhood being represented by Corporate Media. I for one am glad they have ignored it and I hardly think presenting air brushed images of pregnant abdomens or paint splattered images for that matter qualifies as deep exploration of the topic. It seems more to be the cheap techniques Corporate Media turn on all things female applied to a new topic.

  • Nancy Kallitechnis

    Henrietta, you bring up an important point when you say “a woman with something of a nurturing sensibility would make for a great President.” A nurturing President is more concerned with nurturing the country rather than taking bribes in exchange for promoting programs that hurt the country but enrich the bribers, lobbyists, etc. And a nurturing President focuses on helping the country unselfishly rather than being a selfish egotist who wants to be president to inflate their ego.