Snips and Snails and Puppy-Dogs’ Tails

Essay by Sarah Braunstein | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger

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Even as an infant, my son hated being infantilized. That’s barely an exaggeration. Baby talk seldom moved him; he wanted books. He disdained the rattle. At nine months, he was roaming the house, one hand on the wall to steady himself, exploring with ferocious concentration. I felt obligated to teach him that word—infantilized—when he was in first or second grade and a waitress in a Portland restaurant gushed for so long about his cuteness that he grew mortified.

The waitress meant well. And frankly, she was right. But early on, he perceived that his cuteness, smallness, his large eyes and sweet manners, meant that people didn’t take him seriously. It was, he said when we left the restaurant, as if he was only cute—like a baby. As if he had no other attributes. Since my son is the kind of person comforted by the right word and unafraid of the multisyllabic, I shared infantilizing with him. We looked it up. We took it apart. Talked about it. He gave me a satisfied nod.

Once in possession of this word, he used it whenever it was called for. Which is to say: he used it a lot. In doing so, he helped me see the many and subtle ways in which people discount the intelligence and perceptivity of young children.

This is an essay about my home and how I live in it. I started by writing about my child because I think my home is a way that I take my son seriously. It is a place for him to learn. The things that we value are on display: original art, good books, games, protest signs. We read and write and play a lot of cribbage here. We like oddities, and prickly plants, and things that are old and almost broken.

I remember being pregnant and worried that the place was about to be overtaken by Disney nonsense, the plastic fantastic, all the cutesy art and bright bins and hideously patterned Boppies, cheerful paraphernalia of a middle-class babyhood. I never understood why a child’s room was supposed to be pastel, or why nursery furniture was so often painted white. Gendered colors offend me. By the time my son was born, in 2007, people were challenging these notions; I wasn’t unique in my refusal to infantilize my home. 

At the time, I was taken by Mid-Century Danish. I was ready for a grown-up space, done with the yard-sale style of my grad school days, and had invested in some pretty decent furniture. What I wanted was a spare, modern, clean place. Nothing taped to the fridge. Everything put away. I wanted this, I should say, in no small measure. I am particular about my home, known to be a bit obsessive. 

And yet, as my son grew, I felt it important to display his life, to honor and celebrate what he made, and to allow his objects to sit alongside mine. As much as a spare apartment pleased me, I grew to feel it was a responsibility of the parent to include the child’s voice and vision, the child’s imaginative productions, in the decor scheme. His stuff shouldn’t be confined to his room. So I decided I’d let it fill all the walls, but I’d try to curate it. This was a way to take him seriously, to reflect his personality, without forgoing my own aesthetic. Neither of us would be infantilized. 

The home grows and evolves as the family does. Salon-style hangings rotate. His elementary art-class gems join my collection of works from friends and galleries and vintage shops. When he remarks a certain piece seems babyish or embarrassing to him, I take it down, and he makes me something that reflects his current abilities, his more mature vision. His obsessions, his collections—for he is one of those fantastic people who dive deep into what their minds catch on—find their way onto and off the walls. 

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But certain pieces I’ll never take down: the unframed drawing we did together one afternoon when he was a toddler, a series of lines and squiggles. And his kindergarten self-portrait in which he is as much creature as boy, in which he has captured something in himself that a camera cannot. And a piece of art he made before he could write or, really, draw: a visual representation of a dream. (“Mama, I dreamed the moon had a hole in it,” he said, back when making sentences was new, and I put a marker in his hand and told him to show me, and with righteous effort he made two wobbly circles—the moon like a doughnut. The dream on paper. First material record of the unconscious.)

Nor will I put away the welcome-home card he gave me when I returned from a trip to France. “Come Back” in gold marker. The face above these words delights me; it is a new way of seeing a human face—Picasso has nothing on that two-wheeled mouth. Inside, in the same gold letters: “Happy Home Mama.” (A card made with his stepmother’s encouragement. She is undoubtedly one of the reasons this boy thrives.) 

A child’s art is a demonstration of tremendous effort. It is evidence of willful concentration, deep care, a sort of attention I am forever pursuing as a writer. These pieces were not easy to make, as simple as they seem. The hand–eye coordination he was developing, the fine motor skills, the hard-core exertion required to communicate the private contents of a mind: all this deserves to be celebrated. It’s much more than cute.  

Other things may eventually head to storage, or into the trash: the bowline and figure-eight and sheepshank hanging on the wall after his months-long obsession with The Ashley Book of Knots. The elaborate paper airplane collection, the origami zoos, the math trophies and road race bibs and million charming doodles. We live in a small apartment; his boyhood ephemera can’t be displayed forever. 

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And yet for now I love living in a home so vividly colored by his presence, so full of the things he collects, invents, glues together. It’s cluttered but tidy, full of color, and full of love. Oh, how I want to delete that last clause—“full of love.” So sentimental. Too on-the-nose! And yet it’s how I feel. That our tableaus and collections are as accurate a representation of our love as I can point to.

On our first family trip, to New Mexico, we each found a souvenir in the desert. More stuff. Knickknacks I would have scorned in an earlier life. A kachina doll for my husband, who moved to Maine from the desert to be with us. A carved buffalo for me, a fetish that is supposed to help one overcome fears. And for my son, a googly-eyed rock in a felted outfit, a chance gift from an art vending machine at The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe (a home created by an art collective and, to my mind, a wonder of the world). Three figures standing together on a door frame. 

As much as I long for a clean, bare fridge, right now it’s full of stuff: newspaper clippings and math tests and baby photos. It’s a little bit of a mess. It triggers my OCD, if I’m honest. But I believe in a messy fridge. I believe in evidence of a child’s growing up, in artful curation of the detritus of childhood. Although you have to take it down, too. That’s the hard part. You can’t cling to it, or else you’ll have no space for the new, for the next version of this person. Living with a child’s art (like living with a child) is living with impermanence. You have to let it change. 

 My son is a fan of The New Yorker’s back-page caption contest. They provide the comic, the reader sends in a caption. Awhile back, one of these comics featured a shoot-out in the Old West—the standard cowboy in the dusty street, but he’s facing a guy in a modern suit, holding not a gun but a balloon. My son took his pen and bore down on the page. When he was done, he looked up at me. I could tell he was proud with what he came up with. “Stop infantilizing me!” he had written. This lives on the fridge too.

Sarah Braunstein