Parenting As Performance Art?


A 36-year-old woman put on quite a show last month at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery. She gave birth as performance art. It was called, “The Birth of Baby X.”

Inside a cozy area made to look like a bedroom — complete with a birthing tub, the bed in which the baby was supposedly conceived, a portable shower, a fridge, a microwave oven and other comforts like a rocking chair — Marni Kotak hung around inside the museum then went into labor, giving birth to a baby boy weighing in at 9+ pounds in late October.

She was lucky in that her labor, attended by a midwife and a doula, went smoothly, as many births don’t go as cleanly or as peacefully as Kotak’s did. They can, as we know, be messy, bloody and turn women who are normally in control of their faculties, to lose it and bellow in pain in front of strangers in scrubs.

Better her than me, I thought after I read the stories about the birth and the exhibit, which will run through the beginning of November. According to news reports it will include video of the blessed event, as well as “blood-stained pillows and sheets” and the placenta, umbilical cord.

When I gave birth to twins, it was a freaking circus with medical personnel on hand to attend to me, doctors for the babies, and nurses, med students and an anesthesiologist packing the room. The only person other than my husband who I’d actually met before I was put into a vulnerable position as I delivered my 5½ week premature twins was the ob/gyn who delivered them.

I simply cannot imagine throwing paying customers into that mix. Certainly I wouldn’t want to expose myself to criticisms of how I was laboring (slowly), how I was responding to the pain (ear plugs were needed) and whether I’d dolled myself up for the occasion. (An article in the Boston Globe last year spotlighted women who felt it important to go glam while pushing a baby out of their nether regions. I clearly never got THAT memo.)

But for Kotak, this isn’t a one-and-done kind of exhibition. She’s decided that the way in which she raises her son, Ajax, is going to be her next, on-going piece of performance art. “She plans to re-conceptualize her role as a parent to baby Ajax into a work of performance art that will last for the rest of her life,” reported the Washington Post.

On her website, she said of her new project, Raising Baby X, that it will focus on “the everyday act of raising my child as a work of art.” “The long-term project will ultimately encompass the overall span of the child’s life from birth through attending college and developing an independent life,” Kotak wrote on her web site. “Various aspects of raising the child will be taken into consideration such as food, education, clothing, the child’s room, healthcare, playtime, travel, safety, discipline, entertainment, and simply loving the child.”

Well, I’ve got some news for Kotak: Parenting as performance art is something most of us do every day, whether we want to or not.

Unless I remain holed up in my house and never emerge from my cocoon, it would be difficult to avoid others witnessing my parenting first-hand and doing that judging thing people are wont to do. And once children start school, people’s parenting indeed becomes a public performance because folks always assess the caliber of the child-rearing a kid receives by how that child acts in public, which makes the parenting we do the ultimate public act that will live on, its effects rippling.

Think about it. When you take your kids to the grocery store, as I did last week, you know that people are casually observing your interactions with them (which is why so many parents feel obliged to reprimand their kids in low voices through gritted teeth when they’re in public).

People witnessed me shooting down 9 out of 10 of my kids’ requests to buy this product and that one, me telling them to put back the really crappy cereal and later accepting the modestly crappy cereal. They saw me dispatch the children around the store to go get things so they’d stop pestering me. They saw me break up an argument over who was going to push the cart. What they learned from my performance: Mom was in dire need of coffee. Or a drink.

Another example: When my 10-year-old wants to head out the door for school in shorts and it’s in the 40s outside with frost all over the grass, whether I’ve allowed him to wear shorts is kind of a performance of sorts (or an indication that I either decided not to fight him that morning or that he opted to wear shorts under his pants and plans to change in the boys’ room).

Parents on the sidelines of their children’s games, some of them feel as though how their offspring perform on the field, court or ice is a reflection upon them, on their athletic DNA and parental nuggets of playing wisdom that they’ve bestowed upon the progeny (even when it’s not).

If you see a little girl who’s wearing an outfit that’d be better suited for someone who works a stripper’s pole, don’t you think people will judge the “performance” of the parents who bought her that outfit or let her wear it in public? And I haven’t even delved into the notion of how people “perform” their parenting online in blogs, Facebook and other social media.

While it’s highly unusual for someone to give birth in front of people who aren’t either medical personnel, friends or family, the rest of what Kotak is planning — to conduct her parenting in public as art — isn’t all that uncommon.

The only difference is that we non-arty folks don’t call what we do every day “art.” We call it living life in the world where we’re all observed, whether we or not we want to be.



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