Last Friday, December 6, Whitewall and re:source hosted “playdate,” a family-friendly event with President of the Arison Arts Foundation Sarah Arison and assistant curator at the Whitney Rujeko Hockley held at National YoungArts Foundation.
The morning began with coffee, juice, and breakfast bites, while attendees caught up on the week’s happenings, babies crawled about, and children engaged with an art activation designed by State of Kid.
Whitewall’s Editor-in-chief Katy Donoghue and re:source’s co-founder Helen Toomer then welcomed guests to gather for an “Art Mamas” conversation with Arison and Hockley. All four women, who became first time moms within a year of each other, discussed what it’s like to navigate the art world in this new role of being a parent. While Arison and Hockley discussed maternity leave and their transitions back to work, their daughters moved from their laps, to the floor in front of them, while Toomer’s son Harry worked on an art project with State of Kid in the back.
Between bottle feedings, an accidental water spill, pickups, and microphone drops, the conversation continued. With a room full of supportive people, many of whom were parents themselves, these moments didn’t feel like interruptions. This is what it’s like to have a child—you are neither in work mode or in parent mode—it’s all happening at once and the two cannot be divorced.
Hockley discussed what it was like to co-curate and open the Whitney biennial while being pregnant and giving birth to her daughter, Zenzi. At nine weeks she started coming into the museum to help with installation, imagining she might be able to wear Zenzi, but, “Turns out, nine week old babies cry a lot and don’t want to be in the carrier for the whole day. And also, it’s an insurance liability,” Hockley said. From then on, Zenzi stayed home with her nanny and family, which Hockley described as, “institutionally, it was really fine. Emotionally, it was very hard.”
Arison gave birth in late April to her daughter Olivia, and felt lucky that it was right around the time the art world calendar slowed down. “I actually felt like I had a pretty significant maternity leave just because the industry is very slow,” she said. She went on to say that since then, people have been understanding of her asking to move a coffee or in-person meeting to one that’s over the phone. “I felt incredibly fortunate throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave, because I was able to have that flexibility, but really thought a lot about women who were not in my situation,” she said.
Toomer shared her experience going from a Type-A, organizational machine prior to giving birth, to feeling a bit fuzzy when she returned to work. She had to accept, she said, “that you can’t do everything as well as you’d like to.”
Arison agreed, “I feel like I’m trying to do everything. I’m trying to be a mom and trying to do my job, and trying to still be a wife, and still have friends, and maybe take care of myself every now and then. But I’m doing it all really poorly.” She asked that we acknowledge that more openly, so mothers and parents can feel less alone. “We all feel like we’re doing it poorly. Everybody needs to say that,” she said.
Each discussed what it’s been like to bring—or more often, not bring—their babies out to exhibitions, fairs, and the like, and the challenges that come with it. Working in the art world by nature is very social, with travel, evening, and weekend events. That can mean changing social relationships and shifting priorities. For Donoghue, for instance, that mean leaving her son Royal at home while in Miami last week. “We try to just be like, everything’s the same and it obviously isn’t. It’s a work in progress,” said Hockley.
Arison talked about the early days of being a mom, which she called the “dark days”—a phrase Donoghue used to describe that time, too. Arison described a morning when her friend came by to help. She and her daughter Olivia were napping, so her friend let herself in, walked the dog, and dropped off some food. “I woke up and there was food and a note saying, ‘The dog is walked. Here is your dinner and I love you.’ I lost it. I burst into tears,” Arison recalled. “Now a piece of advice I have for friends that are like, ‘Okay, my friend just had a baby, what do I get her?’ I say, ‘Don’t get her blanket. Show up to her door with food. Feed her because she’s not feeding herself.’”
Donoghue added that she now offers friends to come over and hold their babies while new moms get some much needed sleep. “Sleep was our struggle.” She explained that she felt guilt she wasn’t able to get her son, Royal, to sleep well, and felt ashamed she relied upon the Snoo, a bassinet that sways babies to sleep. “I remember talking to my mom and at one point she was like, ‘Katy, is he sleeping now?’ And I was like, ‘Yes.’ She’s like, ‘Shut up about the bed.’” Donoghue offered that her number one piece of advice for new parents is to do whatever is needed and seek whatever help they can—no guilt.
Hockley agreed, saying, “The struggles are real, and I wish somebody told me that supplementing with formula was not a big deal. It’s a non issue.” Arison seconded that, literally, while proudly feeding Olivia formula from a bottle in the middle of the panel.
After noting the importance of sharing more, supporting more, and working to creating a greater visibility for new moms and parents of all ages, Toomer and Donoghue asked Arison and Hockley their thoughts on practical next steps. Donoghue suggested the simple action of getting spaces like art fairs to offer visible, accessible pumping rooms or stations, as she described the not so pleasant aspect of pumping in public stalls all week in Miami.
“I have the financial ability to take care of [my daughter] for whatever she needs. I have a supportive partner. I have full time help. I had everything, every advantage possible to make it as easy as possible. And it was still so brutally hard,” said Arison. “Having gone through this, it’s more important than ever then that we are looking out for the women in this country and their reproductive rights. That was something that really hit home for me.”
Hockley concurred, saying, “Now I think so much more deeply about reproductive rights,” she said. “The fact that [people believe] women are not thinking so deeply about what they’re doing when they make a choice…it’s infuriating and insulting beyond words.”
Toomer, who shared that she had a heartbreaking miscarriage prior to her pregnancy with Harry, and didn’t feel like she could tell anyone about it, expressed her interest in supporting not just moms, “but those who want to be, those who can’t, talking about the entire journey because everybody’s journey is so, so different.”
The morning “playdate” concluded with an open discussion among guests as well as gift bags generously provided by Anthropologie with goodies from Glossier, Whitewall, YoungArts, and re:source—a community of innovative leaders formed to support the interests, concerns and growth of women-identified creatives founded by Kristi Gushiken and Helen Toomer.