My son, a few months shy of three years old, comes out of his room in the morning, having slept late. Rubbing his eyes, he asks, “Where are the sisters?”

“They left for school before you woke up,” I tell him gently, knowing he’ll be disappointed. His siblings are the demigods in his pantheon, the heroes of his small life.

“Don’t say that,” he demands.

“Sorry, buddy, but they’re not here. They’ll be home really soon, though.”

“NO! DON’T SAY THAT!” he screams, a flash of red pajamas running down the hall to search their room.

“But I can’t change where they are,” I say, knowing it’s already too late to reason with him. As clear as a funnel cloud touching down on the flat prairie horizon, I can see what is coming next.

“NO! SAY THEY ARE IN THEIR ROOM!” he cries, flopping onto the carpet in a burst of tears and thrashing.

A mother of three, I have witnessed scenes like this many times over the years and have tried numerous approaches to calm and soothe my children during their countless tantrums. What I’ve concluded, by this point, is that there is nothing I can say or do to resolve things. Part of motherhood is feeling helpless and then sitting with that feeling for . . . I don’t know . . . ever, I guess? Swept up in his own “big feelings,” he is not even totally present. I can only stay with him and make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.

But, this time, I do one other thing: I grab my iPhone and surreptitiously take a few photos.

After the tantrum has ended and we’ve had a pleasant morning playing with Play-Doh, after his sisters come home and everyone works on a Duplo castle, after the merest bit of screen time, and after a whirlwind of dinner and cleanup and baths and bedtime stories, I sit down at the kitchen table and stare at the image of my son mid-tantrum. I get out my paints and do a quick watercolour sketch, trying to capture the intensity of his expression as well as the sweet, plump lines of his cheeks, his hands, his feet.

I look again at the pictures of my son. They are visceral. You can almost feel the energy coming off his twisting body. He looks fully alive and fully himself.

I posted the finished sketch of my son’s tantrum on an Instagram account I’d started earlier that year to try to build an “author platform” (whatever that means). I had recently signed with a literary agent in New York, and she told me that a social media presence might be helpful in making my manuscript more palatable to big publishers. I began posting daily drawings—some funny, some earnest—mostly centred on my family life.

My tantrum series grew out of that daily practice because, with a toddler in the house, so many of my days involved tantrums. At the time, it seemed to me that motherhood on Instagram was portrayed mainly as art-directed vignettes of cheerful children in curated environments wearing shades of grey, denim, and cream. I wanted to present something more ordinary, more realistic—a faithful record, I hoped, of my own experience as a mother. The series was also extremely funny to me, especially when I quoted my son for the title of each portrait. No Daddy, Just Mommy and I Don’t Want To Because I Don’t Want To have the feel of found poetry and still make me smile years later.

But, as the number of tantrum portraits grew, I began to feel conflicted. Was I harming my current or future relationship with my son by posting these images? Was it at best unfeeling or at worst unethical to use my child’s emotional pain for an artistic pursuit? And was a social media post even art? Was it all just for the likes?

Or was I depicting something other mothers needed to see in order to feel a little less alone as they, too, wrangled their writhing, unrelenting creature-children? Was the tantrum series an accurate depiction of life as a mom—and therefore an affirmation of sorts?

In a 2016 Vela Magazine article about motherhood and Instagram, author Sarah Menkedick writes about how posting pictures of her daily life was motivated in part by wanting to elevate the quotidian above the epic and to “lend validity to a life that is often invisible.” She goes on to add that “the domestic life of women and children, in spite of its cheery ubiquity in advertising, is largely hidden, belittled, oversimplified, ignored.”

It’s true. I wanted others to see the storms of emotion that passed through our otherwise nondescript suburban home, to see the big in the small. I also needed it for myself, a reminder to pay attention to life as it unfolded in front of me, whether I liked it or not. As the cliché goes, the days are long, but the years are short, and I knew my son would soon outgrow the tantrums and never really look like that again. His facial features would sharpen and come into clearer focus, his body would lengthen, and the baby would melt away.

In the end, I stopped not because of my ethical concerns but because he began to notice whenever I took out my phone to snap a photo of him.

“Don’t take my picture!” he would demand. So I didn’t. And I wasn’t a good enough artist to draw without a reference.

Now, at age six, he’ll sometimes scroll through my Instagram posts to look for images of himself. He seems unbothered by my paintings of his tantrums, probably because those moments don’t register as memorable in his young life. In fact, whenever he finds one, he smiles and says proudly, “That’s me!”

When I look at the portraits now, I see that there may be more to them than I originally thought. David Hockney’s 2016 exhibition 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life was born in a time of crisis for the artist, a time when he found himself unable to paint or draw for several months. He fought his way out of the darkness by returning to portraiture, embarking on a grand project to paint his wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

I’m no Hockney, but I now realize that I, too, was going through a crisis of sorts when I started the tantrum series. My manuscript had gone out to a large number of publishers in the previous months, and they had all rejected it, saying the story was good but they just couldn’t see it “breaking out” in the market because of its topic: postpartum depression. One editor wrote that he didn’t think mothers who had been through PPD would ever want to relive it by reading about it.

The week before I painted the first tantrum portrait, my agent dropped me, telling me over email that there wasn’t anything else she could do for my book. In that moment, it felt like all my hard work had been for nothing, and my hopes for publication were crushed.

These days, I look at the twenty paintings I made of my little boy, lying on the floor, crying with abandon, and think about the woman who was standing over him each time, feet just out of the frame. I remember her and how hopeless she felt about her creative life, how much she wanted to lie down next to her son and howl along at the injustice of it all.

Most of the time, I don’t know what I am making while I’m making it. I work by instinct and impulse, putting down line after line until something comes to life on the page. Until it gathers a certain mass, the work is formless and fragile, extremely sensitive to light and quick to dissolve. The key is to hold open a space long enough for it to grow and become a real thing.

I believe that mothers in particular have trouble doing this because we have neither space nor time. Instead, we have a giant load of guilt, which manifests itself in many ways but almost always comes down to a single question: Will doing this creative work that feeds my soul damage my child somehow?

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I know the answer now, and I think you do too. Keep going. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or right or taking too much time. Don’t worry about how your work will be received.

My book was eventually published, and the tantrums are mostly in the past. But the creative impulse remains, disruptive and uncontrollable as ever. My only job is to stay with it and to let it become fully alive and fully itself—just like the child in my care.

Excerpted with permission from Good Mom on Paper, edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee, © 2022. All rights reserved. Published by Book*hug Press.

Teresa Wong
Teresa Wong is the author of the graphic memoir Dear Scarlet: The Story of my Postpartum Depression. She is the 2021/22 Canadian writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary.

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