Within a year, Guy’s hair darkened and grew into soft brown baby curls, his big, tweety-bird eyes solidified in their sockets, and his full pout gave him the look of a tiny rock n roll star, pursing for a long-legged Bambi love interest. He started talking, and almost immediately became a little jokester. He’s gentle and loving. I am proud of him. Proud of his kindness and curiosity. However I have to admit: music class at the local library, playdates, playgrounds, parks, and pretend still make me want to do almost anything else, still make my brain feel numb and bored and uninspired, desperate to focus on something more adult.
When the World Trade Towers fell on September 11, 2001, I had never heard of them. I’d never been to New York; I only knew the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, which has a poem at the base that I had to memorize for history class when I was in eighth grade in Indiana, just a couple years before. The world was different then, I guess. The internet was nascent. I wasn’t allowed to watch Sex and the City, or even Felicity; all I knew of New York was from the Bell Jar and a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the stories my maternal grandparents told me about their American dream childhoods.
Twenty years later, when I was established in my career as an art dealer, I took a call from a friend who was a curatorial representative at the Oculus, Calatrava’s monolithic, spine-shaped, surreal hub which replaced some of the fallen buildings at Ground Zero. She was trying to fill an 800,000 square foot atrium—a stark white, soaring hall roofed by what look like architectural ribs—with art that could be engaging and impactful to the public. I immediately thought that whatever was in the rotunda could function as a respite for the heaviness visitors would be confronted with right outside. I started searching for something big and optimistic for her.
Nancy Rubins, an American sculptor who makes large-scale works by transforming heaps of industrially made items—like mattresses or single-person airplanes—into impressive sculptures came to mind. In one series, Rubins took aluminum animal-shapes, reclaimed from playgrounds, and welded them together in rhizomatic structures secured by ropes. They reminded me of the idea espoused by the early 20th century Dutch theorist Huizinga, in his seminal text Homo Ludens, that humans are driven by an innate desire for fun; that playing teaches biologically important skills and lessons, is a necessity fulfilled in different ways at different ages.
I sent my curator friend these works, sure she’d admire their spirit of buoyancy and cheerfulness, and she called me almost immediately. Thank you for sending your proposal, she said, leaking calm tears as she explained that they couldn’t proceed with it. World Trade Center 5 had a nursery, she explained. The kids were all rescued, but it was such a traumatic moment—I don’t think these sculptures would be right. I cried, too, when she told me. Of course I was horribly sad for those babies and their families—those tiny children just learning all the ways that life would allow them to play—living through an act of immense violence; an act completely at odds with joy and humanity. But it also made me think of the capacity for resilience and optimism that children have, and how they can feel protected and nurtured in so many ways.
Tremendous research has been done regarding the connections between mothers and children and the types of interactions that lead to kids becoming successful adults. The psychologist Beatrice Beebe has written extensively about the importance of simple recognition. From 10 minutes after birth, babies interact with adults, communicating through a series of small movements that mimic and react to behaviors they see around them. Beebe has been able to track patterns of interaction occurring as early as four months and favorably correlate them to future intelligence and social development. Her work has been used to support legislation at the state level to encourage more generous parental leave, as well as education for OBGYNs providing care to Medicaid patients.
I do not doubt that my lack of interest in play is related to the type of attachment I had to my own mother—who wasn’t so into play herself—which I would guess could be in turn related to how she interacted with my grandmother, and so on. I also do not doubt that a factor in my feelings on play was my own mental state after Guy was born. For traumatized mothers—ones who had less than perfect childhoods themselves, or maybe those who suffer from any sort of postpartum depression and disappointment with the narratives surrounding motherhood, like me—connecting to and recognizing the emotional states of babies can feel like more of a challenge.