From Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film The Lost Daughter (itself an adaptation to the eponymous book by Elena Ferrante), our culture currently abounds with ambivalent attitudes towards parenthood. Specifically, it abounds with examples of creative or literary women who fear, or believe, motherhood will impinge on their work. Heti’s narrator wrestles with whether starting a family will impact on her artistic freedom; The Lost Daughter features a 40-something academic called Leda who talks, often, about the difficulties of balancing a career and two daughters.
I have my sympathies. In fact I have written about them, in an essay for FOMU’s Trigger magazine about the new wave of books on women’s contributions to photography, in which I wondered if female photographers can ever get on an equal footing if they’re still doing most of the housework (among other obstacles). Towards the end of the article I quoted one of the four demands of the UK’s first National Women’s Liberation Conference in 1974, free access to 24-hour nurseries. The spectre of the pram in the hall looms, described by English critic and writer Cyril Connolly as the most sombre enemy of good art.
From Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film The Lost Daughter (itself an adaptation to the eponymous book by Elena Ferrante), our culture currently abounds with ambivalent attitudes towards parenthood.
And yet I hesitate. I wonder if we’re asking the right questions. Deciding whether to have kids is very personal, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. But does it have to feel like choosing between work and family? Finance companies such as BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, and DE Shaw now offer female employees thousands of dollars to freeze their eggs, or buy them from donors, so they can postpone having children. On one hand, this offers women a wonderful degree of control over their bodies, and therefore their lives. On the other, are these employees too busy working to reproduce? Isn’t that a little dystopian?
Perhaps the answer isn’t to keep toiling away as if kids don’t exist, or to conform to outdated employment structures that assume someone else – traditionally a wife – is handling the childcare. Perhaps what’s needed is a different conception of work, life, and the relationship between the two. In search of more positive examples, I’m inspired by JG Ballard, who wrote his most famous books while single-handedly raising three young children, and described these years as rich and happy. I’m also inspired by Rato Tesoura Pistola by Pedro Guimarães.
Or rather I’m inspired by Rato Tesoura Pistola by Pedro Guimarães and his kids, Nuno and Emma-Sofie Engstrom Guimarães, because this book features Guimarães’ images, Nuno’s drawings, Emma-Sofie’s pancake masks, plus other masks made by the artist Sara Bichao. It’s published by XYZ Books, which Guimarães set up with artist and editor Tiago Casanova; it was designed by Dayana Lucas. In short it’s a group effort, a salvo from a creative world in which individuals large and small co-exist and collaborate. As such, it suggests that having children doesn’t have to rule out work or creativity. Quite the opposite. After all, kids are the most creative people there are.
The title translates as “mouse scissors pistol”, a twist on the game “rock paper scissors” that Guimarães has invented with Nuno and Emma-Sofie; I had to cheat and ask him about this, because there’s no text in the book beyond credits. There’s an absence of authority all round, an unwillingness to dictate what’s going on or what to do. As with the kids, the idea is you contribute by getting involved. In fact the folding pages and intersections of image and drawing make me think of Exquisite Corpse, the surrealist game in which one person starts a drawing then hands it to the next to continue, and so on. In the end you see what strange beast you’ve come up with together.
Something similar is at work here, the wild masks and landscapes and creatures intermingling and self-propagating, inspiring each other and testifying to a shared universe. One spread pairs an urgent drawing of a smiling eyeball with a shot of a bouncy castle, which is modeled after “Bob Esponja” and is similarly vital and eyeball-dominated. Later there’s a medical shot of the interior of an eye, and a close-up of two emerging adult teeth that looks like an x-ray. It’s not all fun and games being a parent, but then it’s not as child either. Demons and emotions are being worked out through this art, though we’re not told what they are. It’s work in the psychoanalytic sense, or play as in music or the theatre. It’s play, that is to say, that’s serious.
The title translates as “mouse scissors pistol”, a twist on the game “rock paper scissors” that Guimarães has invented with Nuno and Emma-Sofie
The images were shot in Portugal and Denmark from 2012-2020, and many of them suggest surrealism, a wonky, unexpected look at the everyday. There’s a shot in which Nuno’s head looks entirely disembodied, for example, and then there are those missing teeth, a normal experience for kids but one which both looks and feels pretty peculiar. For children everything is new, so everyday life is peculiar; children, perhaps, are natural surrealists. If so, to spend time with them is to spend time with artists, ones who teach by example. To collaborate with them is a privilege. The pram in the hall can be welcomed.
Of course, it’s a question of degree. Guimarães can’t have made all of this book with the kids in tow and in fact doesn’t live with them full time, something which he doesn’t state in the book but which feels important to acknowledge here. JG Ballard wrote when his children were at school, not when he was literally with them – and in his case, as with those who work for BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, and DE Shaw, his work couldn’t actively involve them. If employees are going to work fewer hours to spend more time with their families – or on other interests – wages will have to rise.
But Rato Tesoura Pistola makes me think about work and play and creativity. It makes me think about how we consider our kids and how we value time spent with them, both as parents and as a society.