Nora looked down at her feet; she can’t see them past the folds of her post-pregnancy tummy. Her beautifully manicured toes are hidden from sight. Three babies and what is left of her svelte figure is a terrain of undulations, flaps and scars.
When Tom brushes against her accidentally, a thousand ants bite. She recoils into herself when he suggests intimacy. She’s happy with the odd night out but can’t wait to come home to her babies; there’s always the excuse that the babysitter is a high school student and has a curfew. The reality is that her post-natal body has become an excuse for going to bed with the kids.
Martin shuts his eyes as he comes inside her, his right hand cupping her left boob. The sensation is so intense that he collapses on top of her seconds later. Sharon is relieved that it’s all over. She pushes Martin off gently; he snorts in his post-coital slumber and mumbles something incoherent. Sharon gets up and takes a pee, her post-coital routine. She habitually tiptoes into the twins’ room to listen to their breathing as they sleep. A euphoric sense of satisfaction fills her to the core; there is peace in her world.
At high school biology, Mrs Carter said that pregnancy occurs when a sperm meets an egg; gestation takes 40 weeks; human mammals have one of the shortest gestation periods, and the most helpless offsprings at birth. An elephant’s gestation is 22 months and baby elephants are expected to stand upright almost immediately after birth.
When Sharon and Martin got married, she’d wanted children immediately. Who would’ve thought that it would take 6 miscarriages, 3 failed IVF attempts before Jenny and Heather finally arrived. Mrs Carter was wrong: pregnancy doesn’t come so easily; biology lessons don’t tell you the whole truth.
Nora breastfeeds Lilly as Sharon buys the coffee. The two women met at a ‘mother-and-me’ dance class a year ago. The twins are strapped into their double stroller waiting for their babycinos. Sharon is the more organised of the two. Fifteen years in corporate finance means schedules and datelines are met even on the home front. Sharon stopped breastfeeding when the twins turned 12 months exactly. She is also strict on the exercise: pilates on Mondays and Fridays. boxing on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Yoga on Wednesday mornings. When the twins were 6 months old, she decided to take another 6 months leave and subsequently decided not to go back to work at all. She figured that the corporate finance world didn’t need her and she didn’t need them either. Martin makes enough to support them all and with more embryos frozen at the IVF centre, they could even have a couple more children. Nora has always gone with the flow; Kylie, her oldest was unplanned which took her and Tom by surprise; she was on the Pill too. Nora had a good position in a marketing company and was looking forward to a promotion when the doctor told her that her food poisoning was really morning sickness. She remembers floating out of the GP’s office dazed but very excited. Julie came fourteen months later and finally Lilly when Kylie was five.
Sharon says that she has no body issues and that Nora should love her body for what it is. Easy for Sharon to say this, she’s as thin as a rake. Nora chuckles as she pondered on the phrase; for the first time, she finally understood this saying which she’d learnt as a child in ESL classes. Sharon really had the dimensions of a rake if Nora had to be honest. She shakes her head in mock disbelief as it dawned on her just how much a picture really speaks a thousand words. Yet, she knows that Sharon’s size didn’t come easily to her; years of dieting and obsessing about calorie intake and food consumption kept her the size of a gardening tool.
For Nora, obsessing about weight is a privilege that only other folks had. She lived with her parents in a one bedder above a takeaway in Chinatown when the family first arrived in Sydney; she was nine years old. There were no rakes in her cockroach infested room. Her parents had shared the apartment with Mrs Chen, also from Hong Kong. Mrs Chen, the landlady, would sometimes babysit her while Ma and Pa were at work; Mrs Chen had all her possessions under the sofa which doubled up as her bed. Ma was a cleaner by day and waitress by night and Pa washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant nearby. When there was food, everyone ate their fill. Nobody talked about big bottoms and flabby arms or six packs and toned biceps when she was a child.
When Nora started high school, some of her female classmates were always talking about the latest dieting fads. Christine was on a low carb diet. She refrained from eating potatoes and rice; Nora couldn’t understand Christine’s reluctance to eat rice since it was a Chinese staple. In Nora’s home, rice was a precious commodity; her parents couldn’t always afford to buy rice; sometimes they had congee because it took less rice grains to make a pot of rice porridge. Christine must come from a rich Chinese family and therefore privileged enough to push away a bowl of rice. Nora was impressed but she kept her circumstances quiet; nobody asked and she didn’t offer answers either. Then there was Cheryl who kept going on about thigh gaps; Nora had wondered what that meant. She learnt about thighs gaps later when she met Tom who couldn’t stop talking about his ex and how thin her legs were and how much space she had between her thighs and crotch. Nora thought that she had a normal body until that day. Yet, she listened to Tom; Asian bodies are so different from Australian ones, he had said. Nora didn’t have a thigh gap; her hips are too small; her stumpy legs too short to leave a space between them. But Aunty May Ling had said the opposite. Aunty May Ling, her mother’s boss, had said she had hips wide enough to give birth; Aunty May Ling was Chinatown’s matchmaker, she owned the speakeasy which doubled up as a brothel at night.
By the time Nora started working in advertising sales, she learnt that talking about diets and detoxing were popular topics amongst the girls; they came up in conversation naturally. To fit in, she indulged in eating less carbs; she allowed herself to order a soya latte and talked about being lactose intolerant. Every once in a while, she would remember how hard it was for Ma to get Min the milk powder she needed. Min was two years old when she died; Pa had lost his job at the restaurant when the owners invested in industrial dish washers. Ma’s salary wasn’t enough to pay rent, buy food and the special milk powder that Min needed; she was severely lactose intolerant. The doctor had said that death from lactose intolerance is rare. The social services came calling and took Ma away for questioning. She told her interpreter that she couldn’t breastfeed Min because she was working two jobs since her husband had lost his. Min’s case is a tragic one, the judge had said. There were no further prosecutions because both parents had tried their best within their circumstances.
When Nora had her first child, breast milk was the only option; Kylie was breastfed until she was four. No child of hers would ever die of lactose intolerance, if she had her way; Lilly, her youngest, is still on the boob at three. All three children were breastfed until they could eat solids and then were given soya milk as an alternative.
Tom feels that Nora complicates things far too much. Co-sleeping with each child meant that sex was a rare occurrence. He accepted the reality of their marriage and found that he actually enjoyed sleeping in a big bed by himself.
Nora’s nightmares continue even whilst hugging one of her babies during the night. She slept with the three girls in the guest room on a queen size bed. In her dreams, Nora finds herself alone, running away from being caught by the spectre behind her; she is knee deep in sludge and instead of running, she is wading, arms flailing to keep from falling facedown. She is breathless, her chest is squeezed, she is enveloped in fear. She cannot be caught. One of the girls stirs and Nora wakes up with a start and is relieved that her world is safe and her babies are snoring softly.
“You have to remember that men are simple compared to women,” Tom announced during a dinner party one night. “The man I am now, at forty, is the same boy I was at fourteen. Women are complicated in comparison.” Everyone laughed for this is true. Nora took a long sip of her wine.
“I wish that I could have the same privilege as you Tom,” she said slowly whilst looking at her husband. “I wish I could be the same girl I was at fourteen now at forty. Life just took over, I guess.”
This oil painting is called Waves on the Hudson River by Yayoi Kusama, [YAYOI KUSAMA]. She painted this in 1988.
Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is an influential Japanese abstract artist who was influenced by Surrealism. Her artworks are reflections of her mental state and many speak about her psychosis: she is obsessed by ‘self obliteration’ and she expresses this by using dot motifs in many of her works. She says that the dots obliterate the subject, the subject is often herself. Yayoi Kusama has been living in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, the year she voluntarily checked herself in. She set up a studio nearby where she works daily, creating art that manifests her internal angst and suffering.
To interrogate her work, is to enter into her psyche.
I like this oil painting because the undulations are mesmerising. There is a calming effect upon prolonged viewing of the canvas. This painting is abstract because the wavy tubular lines are meant to represent the waves that Kusama saw on the Hudson. But it could represent anything for the viewer who hasn’t read the title. Dots never leave Kusama’s work; you can see them in orange on this piece. The dots mirror those that Kusama sees in her hallucinations which she’s had since childhood. Dots have become her emblem and signature.