I adore the first picture taken in the hospital of me and my newborn son. My eyes gaze on the small face resting against my chest. The dark rings below my eyes, formed from my wife’s two and a half days of labor, extend to the top of my cheekbone. I tilt my head to study the tiny features of the face cradled in my hands, only a few hours old. My soul intertwines with the nine pounds of soft flesh sleeping in my arms. A sacred beginning unfolds.
In Pablo Picasso’s painting Mother and Child, I recognize a similar gaze. At six months old, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Henry and I viewed Picasso’s famous painting. A mother, draped in a white robe, her infant sitting in lap, tilts her head downward to look in the child’s eyes. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person; her large, round features provide the child a harbor. They are tethered by the mother’s body language.
I hold the picture of myself and Picasso’s painting side-by-side. My gaze in the photograph sets the tone for my relationship with my son. The bald, blue-eyed creature becomes the center of my world. Early in the morning, I wake with him and stare into his eyes, while I sip my steaming coffee and feed him a bottle. Upon finishing, breast milk runs out of the corners of his mouth as they raise into a smile. His face reminds me of my holy responsibility as a father.
The mother’s gaze offers protection from hostility; the child anchors down in her crossed legs. The emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of the infant is underpinned by the mother’s eyes. I imagine only the child in the picture, lying on the floor, mother absent, and emptiness overcomes me. A connection lost. A foundation of support vanished.
Picasso painted Mother and Child following the birth of his first offspring. I discovered at the museum he included a father early in the creative process, but painted over him for the final version. Why did he remove the father? Did he believe only a mother can nurture a child? I envision the father standing next to the mother and child. He gazes into the child’s eyes. The gaze knows no gender. Its roots are in the soul of both men and women. It sprouts from a divine place. A child arrives and a light switches on; suddenly, we witness the most gorgeous creature. Mother Nature has performed her finest work.
I don’t know the reason Picasso removed the father. I do know when I look at the picture of myself and my son a few hours after his birth, a warm sensation fills my chest. It reminds me how naive we are to categoricaly divide motherhood and fatherhood, as if they have been cleanly severed. The relationship is complex. “Fatherhood and motherhood aren’t separate conversations, despite the unique parenting experiences you find at any single point on the gender spectrum,” writes Jason Tucker. I wholeheartedly agree, they are entangled.
How do we define fatherhood? We discuss it alongside motherhood, because parenting a child is more complicated than the portrayal offered by Picasso’s painting or society’s narrow gender roles. Both are fluid, not static.