By Anna Altman May 31, 2020
Motherhood, at least in its first days, can resemble quarantine. As the mother’s body recovers from childbirth, and the infant learns the rhythms of the world outside the womb—how to eat, how to sleep—the nuclear family spins a cocoon, fortifying new bonds. In some cultures, this time apart is strictly imposed, as, for instance, in the traditional Chinese practice of “sitting the month,” in which mother and child are forbidden to leave home, or in the Latin American cuarentena (the same word means “quarantine”), a forty-day period of convalescence. Eventually, the isolation ends: the infant gets her first shots, the mother heals, and the family ventures into the world.
Not these days. The pandemic has caused parents and children across the globe to live confined in their homes. They’ve lost the structure of school and day care, the support of friends and community, the diversion of activities and responsibilities outside of the home. To capture families in their newly circumscribed lives, the Australian artist Lisa Sorgini has been working on a photo series, titled “Behind Glass,” showing women and their children in their homes in New South Wales. The project expands on Sorgini’s ongoing portraits of mothers and their children. Now she shoots from outside her subjects’ houses, using the window as a framing device. Sorgini offers ethereal portraits of mothers tending to their children. One woman, standing behind a glass door wearing only white cotton underpants, nurses her baby; another holds a child up to the pane to glimpse the world, as though a sliver of sky can stand in for life outside. A third mother lies languid on her back on a window seat, her twin infants sitting on her, her body their furniture, their support, their comfort.
Although Sorgini’s photographs are animated with bodies—many mothers and children appear nude or in undergarments, their limbs intertwined—they have the quietude of still-life paintings. Wedges of watermelon, dried flowers, and an empty jam jar stand as though posed amid sensuous scenes of fine baby hair, rumpled linens, pregnant bellies, and swollen areolae. But Sorgini’s photos also have a touch of Sally Mann, peopled as they are by undressed, feral-looking kids. Like Mann, Sorgini seems to want to achieve a timeless quality—there’s no technology in these images, no brands or screens to place the mothers and children in our contemporary world.
Sorgini dwells on the physical bond between mother and child but not on the work of motherhood, which remains largely implied—and, these days, inescapable. Out of sight are the diapers, the dishes, the laundry, but also the frustration, the fatigue, even the anger. (In her few photographs of mothers with teen-age children, the tensions are more apparent.) Motherhood is hard labor under any circumstances; even in households with two parents, and especially in this unusual time, mothers often bear the brunt of child care and chores. Yet in these photos that daily drudgery—the domestic chaos that ensues when there is no escape, no moments alone—is largely elided.
Sorgini, who has two young children of her own, told me that her goal in “Behind Glass” was to honor her subjects, and that the title of the series refers not only to isolation but also to her wish to elevate these mothers and their children, to place them on a pedestal. As a mother to an infant myself, I find this impulse both beautiful and somewhat out of touch with the moment. Where Sorgini’s mothers appear primal, earthy, instinctual, as goddesses, I spend my quarantine days in breast-milk-stained T-shirts. At least half the time I’m nursing my daughter, I’m also staring at my phone, texting with friends or trying to catch up on the news.
Stay-at-home orders amplify the struggle that mothers already face—a feeling of isolation, the endlessness of parenting, the difficulty of finding an outlet for other parts of ourselves. Over Google Hangouts, Sorgini told me that the pandemic has caused her to lose her editorial and commercial photography work. To compensate, her partner, a landscaper, is working more, leaving her in charge of child care. Her younger son, a seven-month-old, isn’t sleeping; her older son, an “energetic” five-year-old, needs snacks, attention, activities. “I’m not a craft mom,” Sorgini said, laughing. “I see a lot of people baking sourdough or doing crafts, and I’m just not that person.” The baby’s sleeplessness had left Sorgini in tears that morning at 4 a.m. Even over our grainy video chat, as we sat in our respective homes across the world, I could see her eyes grow moist as she spoke. She said that she misses getting outside, seeing friends—the structures that shored her up before. Part of that is the lockdown, she told me. And part of it is motherhood.