The Woven Child – reflections on the Louise Bourgeois art exhibition

The Woven Child – reflections on the Louise Bourgeois art exhibition

Opening Disclaimer: Please note as was expressed in booking at the gallery, it is important to mention that should you wish to visit, the following exhibition includes artistic depictions of a sexual nature, nudity, pregnancy and childbirth – which may or may not be triggering to those attending or reading this article.

It was my absolute pleasure to spend a Spring afternoon at the Hayward Gallery in London, exploring this vast yet intimate collection of key pieces of art by the artist Louise Bourgeois.

I must confess that I knew very little about the artist prior to the exhibition, however am grateful to have a friendship circle whom are self professed textile enthusiasts, and suggested we go together, which in itself was lovely as one of my first ventures back into the “real world” not only post lockdown but also sans children, signalling the transitional end to my maternity leave and return to *clinical work (*I make that distinction as anyone whom has children knows, looking after children is an very much hard work in itself which should be treated with respect and recognition).

The collection itself is the largest curated body of her textile based art work, which I was surprised to find out that she only pieced together in the last two decades of her life, from the age of 80 until her death in 2010, at 98 years young. Of the many reflections I have of the exhibition, this is probably the most poignant, as it got me thinking about how many of us rush through life like there is a deadline to complete, or achieve milestones by a certain age or imaginary date – pressured about the uncertainty of our final hour – when in actual fact there is no age limit on our ability to evolve, create or start a new chapter.

Despite my morbid introduction, the exhibition itself focussed very much on the aspects of birth and mothering, both the child and the woman herself as she is “birthed” into the role of motherhood . Louise was able to articulate and express herself through beautifully intricate yet simple sculptures, paintings, and textiles. She experimented with various fabrics and objects, often jarring with one another (delicate silk lingerie, next to jagged wood for example) the manipulation of a number of techniques to include weaving, embroidery, sculpture, quilting, printing and painting, to name a few.

One of her most famous art installations is that of the Maman, a large sprawling metallic spider sculpture made of steel, which gave her the apt nickname “spiderwoman”. I have memories of this being installed at the Tate Modern in London over twenty years ago now, though at the time in the follies of my youth I never thought to think of its significance. Louise describes the Maman as “an ode to (my) mother” – and likened the spider to mothers in how they weave a web of family life and memories together, and are also helpful and protective creatures as they eat mosquitoes, an insect carrying toxins and that would bring harm to others. This is not unlike the many mothers I meet in clinic and on maternity ward, whom, within a few seconds of giving birth, note a complete overhaul of their priorities, roles and responsibilities, and where the “mama-bear” protectiveness becomes paramount. The Matriarch is born in front of our very own eyes, and even when a child grows up, leaves home and has a family of their own, these somewhat primal instincts and neurochemical tinglings of love and affection never truly fade, as being a mother takes centre stage in her core identity of being.

I was moved by a number of the works, but mostly the namesake of the exhibition which was on the ground floor. I was particularly struck by the doll like woven padded female figurines placed in various positions not uncommon in the mothering journey, including the pregnant body, image of the foetus (incased in a pink mesh), lying in the foetal position on the bed and another on her back with baby born still attached by the umbilical cord. The art works were sexual and graphic in nature, and at times shocking and uncomfortable, but still retained an element of femininity and wonder – much like pregnancy and childbirth itself.

Its hard to pick a favourite piece of work, but if I had to choose I would say it was the sculpture of the “Good Mother”, pictured above. It is of a female figure, on her knees, her breasts attached to 5 spools of thread around her. The art evoked in me a strong a sense of sacrifice and selflessness, to have the spools attached, or should I say, literally hanging by a thread off her nipples whilst she has a tired and forlorn expression. I am yet to meet a mother whom has not had that experience, often smiling through the exhaustion, of trying to being more than “good enough” (which although Winnicott writes about poetically, is often easier said than done). I also began to wonder what these spools represent in our busy modern lives – Louise Bourgeois created a lot of art with themes centred around not only motherhood and parenting, but also on domesticity, childhood trauma, hidden emotions, mental health, sexuality and the patriarchy. In actuality, there are many things, places or people, both past and present, in our fantasy and our reality, that we may be holding onto, even by just a thread. Those of you whom have worked with embroidery thread will know that it may appear dainty and fine but it is extremely strong and not something you can easily break – so the act of being pulled in different directions, coupled with our efforts to continue to live up to the exceptions (of ourselves as much as of others), is enough to weigh anyone down.

The Woven Child is on display until the end of the week, 15th May 2022, so if you are in the area and/or passing through Southbank in London and have an interest in motherhood, sexuality, perinatal mental health or just want to see some great textile art – please do consider going along.

Final Disclaimer: It goes without saying, but I suppose I must declare in the world we live in now that this was not a paid or sponsored post – I am not an “influencer” in any fashion, but rather just someone that enjoys art and wanted to share her reflections as a Perinatal Psychiatrist, Mother and Quilter (not necessarily in that order).

Mummy can’t breathe

Mummy can’t breathe

Hi all – it’s been a long time – I wrote this over a year ago, and it has been sitting in my drafts gathering virtual dust. At the time it was incomprehensible that the coronavirus would continue to cause chaos in our lives. I’m sharing this because the story might resonate with someone, but also because I think it is time and a story that needs to be told.

On my first mothers day I woke up in the morning unable to breathe. After almost of week of feeling poorly with a cough and on/off high temperatures (? spiked by watching the news) I was sitting with my 9 month old baby singing nursery rhymes, and I couldn’t get past the “Old” of Old McDonald had a farm without gasping for air. You don’t need to be a medic to know that this state of breathlessness is not normal, so, reluctantly, I called 999. As I gave my name and address, I profusely apologised for “wasting their time” and, whilst struggling to speak still managed to say

“I’m (gasp) sure (gasp) its (gasp) nothing”.

A couple of hours later I was being blue lighted through the empty inner London streets in the back of an ambulance with a Respiratory Rate of 44, Temperature of 39.6 degrees Celsius, and an oxygen saturation around 85% – worse than a lifelong chain smoker (for the record, something I am not). When the ambulance crew arrived it was plain to see I was seriously ill – yet even with all my years of training and expertise I refused to go to hospital, because I refused to leave my baby. She needs me, I kept saying. We had not been even an hour apart since the moment she was born. Shes breastfeeding. “I can’t leave her” I gasped, over and over again. To this day I’m very thankful to the paramedic, whose name I cannot remember whom casually said “hey I tell you what – just come with us, let us check you out in A&E, make sure everything is OK and you will be back home in a few hours”. Obviously that was a lie, but one of those little white lies that saves lives that sometimes we have to do.

The next 4 days was a blur. I was placed in “isolation” – alone in a large magnolia coloured room with a small window that faced a red wall. Nurses came to check on me regularly, albeit from a distance covered head to toe in personal protective equipment. I was placed on oxygen therapy and given antibiotics. I was in such a septic rush that I didn’t pack anything in my hospital bag but some old pyjamas, a gym t-shirt (?), a small bottle of holy water from my mother that I’ve always carried with me whenever I travel, and a portable phone charger which was only 10% charged itself. I used my phone sporadically, only to face-time my daughter for a few seconds at a time before her naps. I didn’t pack a breast pump, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind – until a few hours later when I was struggling with engorgement and doing my best to hand express into a kidney dish through the night to stop myself getting mastitis on top of everything else.

A few days later with improved oxygen saturations I was allowed to leave hospital as I was mostly better (on retrospect not fully recovered by any means – but I think they gave me the benefit of the doubt being a “sensible” doctor, whatever that means…)  I was told a few times that I should stop breastfeeding and be separated from my baby for a number of reasons – “coronavirus could be in the breast milk”, “you could harm your baby”, “you could infect her” , “the antibiotics might not safe” , and possibly the most patronising “well you have had a good run”, all of these claims totally false and founded in fear rather than facts, and although I knew it was false with my clinical expertise I was too weak to argue with them at the time so chose to save my (much needed) breath.

As soon as I came home, I gave my daughter a huge hug and she went straight back on the breast like nothing had ever happened. Since then so much evidence has come out about the benefits of breastfeeding and its immuno-protective qualities – something that needs to be shared more and one of the reasons I have chosen to share my own dual patient and professional experience. I have also written to our government and with organisations behind the scenes to support the often neglected needs of breastfeeding women admitted to hospital and separated from their children, both on a practical and emotional level.

It took some time to recover, but I am thankful to say that from a physical perspective I am back to normal and honestly it is a wonderful feeling to not only be alive, but to be able to breathe, talk and sing with ease again. Being unable to breathe is so anxiety-provoking, not surprising as the breathing control centre, stress and anxiety are intricately linked by the vagus nerve. Deprivation of the breath of life also conjures images of death – since writing this original article, the world witnessed the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020, repeatedly stating “I can’t breathe” to his oppressors, igniting the black lives matter movement for the next generation.

Psychologically speaking, I also feel very well and grounded – but even the process of writing this has raised a lot of questions for me; how mothers/daughters/women in caring roles default to “putting others needs before their own”, and how the line between doctors and patients is truly blurred in times of sickness and health. These questions are something I explore a lot with my patients, so pertinent in the perinatal period, but maybe we can talk about that another time.

I’m thankful to my husband whom looked after our infant alone in lockdown without any support from family or friends during that first (of many) lockdowns. 

I’m thankful to the lady on the end of that breathless 999 call who told me to take care of myself.

I’m thankful to that paramedic that told me a white lie.

I’m even thankful to the junior doctors whom did countless arterial blood gases on me (with and without local anaesthetic).

I had to make a split second decision about coming into hospital, and I’m thankful I made the right one.

.. and even though its taken me over a year to gain the courage to do so – I’m thankful I am able to share my story.