Louise Bourgeois' Maman and the Pathos of Modern Parenting
Updated: Aug 30
"I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it." -- Louise Bourgeois
It was the winter of my discontent. Well, actually, it was the winter of my daughter's discontent. She had been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend and was reeling. If you’ve had a teenage daughter suffer heartbreak, you know what I mean. It’s a traumatic ordeal, the misery is so abject.
Sometimes it hurts to be alive.
As is the inevitable burden of parenting, your child's misery becomes your own. When misery aggregates, it is magnified and becomes a stinky miasma that permeates the household and flushes out all the light.
I wanted to stick my head under a pillow and silently scream. The pain of it wears on my soul, already battered by a gloomy winter and broken rib.
But that wouldn't be very maternal. So to mollify my daughter, I watched The Bachelor with her. Over and over and over again. I wished I could take her on a geographical cure instead, but they seem to hold little appeal for teenage girls. So I was stuck with The Bachelor.
As anyone with intelligence will agree, watching this mind numbing reality show is a monumental sacrifice. An affront to the senses. The vacuous nature of the contestants reminded me of a character from a recently read book who said: “Look deeper and deeper and eventually you’ll find nothing. We’re mostly empty space. We’re mostly nothing.”
"I have a feeling the drama is just getting started," chirped a platinum blonde with two inch eyelashes and the perfect nude pink lipstick.
I exhaled heavily. As I bit my lip, I tried not to glare at the screen. I thought about the peaks and valleys of being a mother and the nature of maternal sacrifice.
My mind leaped to the Louise Bourgeois sculpture I encountered in Bilbao Spain. Such is the strange alchemy of connections in the brain. Such is the tendency of my brain to grasp for something more meaningful when confronted with the over-processed, repellent pablum of popular culture.
The sculpture that I speak of is a towering 30 foot bronze and steel spider called Maman, the French word for mother. It adorns the exterior of the famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain and was created by French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois.
Bourgeois was an eclectic artist whose art intersected with many avant garde movements. She was successful in the art world at a time when few women were. Bourgeois was a trailblazer in the burgeoning feminist art movement and continues to influence feminist-inspired work and installation art.
Bourgeois is known for her highly personal themes, many reflecting on trauma from her turbulent childhood, which featured an adulterous father and a loving mother. Bourgeois transformed her experiences into visual images by adopting objects such as spiders, cages, medical tools, and mirrors. Racked by doubt and pain, her art reflected the universal ordeal of being human.
Bourgeois also hosted a "Sunday bloody Sunday" salon where she would critique the work of young artists. Though Bourgeois was ruthless, an invitation was nonetheless coveted.
Maman is her most famous work. Of it, Bourgeois says:
"The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."
Maman is huge, her twisted Gothic leg-arches dominating the skyline. And her maternal aura is likewise immense, implicitly threatening anyone who would hurt her children. The symbolism is apparent. The spider with its silk spinning ability can ensnare its prey, cocoon it, and kill it.
As I thought of the towering sculpture, I reflected on my recent parenting. I wondered whether I had been sufficiently clever and protective, whether I had imparted the right values to my daughter, whether she would ultimately be a fierce woman like Louise Bourgeois.
And I wondered whether I could silk spin her betraying boyfriend into oblivion.
"It's gonna be ok," I said, my voice indicating a confidence I didn't particularly feel. "Sometimes life sucks, but it passes. I promise it does." I saw another fleeting look of pain fill her puffy purple skinned eyes.
I snuggled closer, reached for the remote, and hit play to start another episode of The Bachelor.