I was raised by a single mother. When I was young that seemed unremarkable — or if remarkable, maybe something to be embarrassed about: It meant I had a shitty dad.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that having a single mother was incredibly formative, maybe even one of the defining truths of my childhood. I grew up watching a women who did, literally, everything. She worked. She took care of us. She had a toolbox and if something broke, she fixed it. She was the ultimate boss in my house and in my life, so I knew from an early age that women can, and do, wear many different hats at the same time.
My mother was also a talented artist, who worked a 9-to-5 job she hated and made art on the weekends. I saw her frustration at not being able to spend time doing what she loved, so when I was considering a career for myself, I decided I would be a lawyer. Although I was undoubtedly a creative person, when it came to work I wanted something solid.
In college, I studied political science, but my plans took a detour when I went to Paris to be with my boyfriend one summer. I stumbled into an internship at a photo agency — I’d been taking pictures since I was 17 — and discovered that photography could function somewhat like a real job. Once I realized that, I pursued work as a photo assistant. Rather than come home to finish my degree, I stayed in Paris for six years. By the time I left, I was a photographer.
My life continued. I had relationships. I moved back to New York and founded a magazine. I got married (and, a year later, divorced). I worked a lot and traveled a lot, and through some combination of luck and sheer force of will, achieved more or less everything I set out to achieve.
Then, my first daughter was born.
As strange as it may sound, until she was born I hadn’t given much thought to how being a woman had affected me. I absolutely would have called myself a feminist, but, in the next breath, I also may have claimed that my own life had been influenced very little by being female. I never thought there was anything I couldn’t do or didn’t do because I was a woman — and I didn’t think that my opportunities had been limited in any way (spoiler alert: I was wrong. Of course).
What changed when my daughter, Oona, was born? To quote an oldest, truest cliché: everything. I have often told friends considering whether or not to have children that when Oona was born it felt as though a curtain I didn’t even know was there was suddenly pulled back. I could see a whole other half of the world, and the most shocking part was that I hadn't even known that I wasn’t seeing it before. In an instant, the world became twice as big.
Some aspects of that reveal were amazing. My heart and capacity to empathize exploded. I felt connected to other people in a way I never had. On the flip side, I could see new darkness as well. I thought back to experiences I’d had as a teenager and young woman — and realize how wildly lucky I had been to emerge from them relatively unscathed, how easily they could have gone in a different way. Having grown up in the city, being catcalled on the street wasn’t something I had ever given any thought to, beyond learning how to smile just enough to not be called a bitch, but not so much as to signal interest. Once I had a daughter, the idea of her having to learn that and thinking that it was something to “get used to,” made me go white with rage. I could (and can) feel on an elevated level the fragility of life — how vulnerable we all, but especially women, are in this world.
At the same time, I was having this expansion of my experience of being human, which should have fueled the possibility of awesome new creative work, I bumped into, for the first time in my professional life, the limitations of being female. There are specifics to my industry, but any working mother can likely recognize the outlines: hiding my pregnancy from clients, hiding that I was nursing, hiding that I was bringing my infant daughter with me on work trips because I couldn’t bear to be away from her when I traveled, but I also couldn’t tell my clients that she was traveling with me because then they might think I was unserious or uncommitted. People who had supported my career for years suddenly didn’t any more. Clients who had booked me for years suddenly didn’t any more. I had never worked so hard and, all of a sudden, I felt like I was just running in place.
So I did the only think I knew how to do: I just worked harder. I took my tiny baby with me all over the world for the first two years of her life. She stayed in hotel rooms with my mother or a nanny or with babysitters I had just met, while I went off to work long days and rushed back after working instead of socializing with clients, just so I could sleep next to her at night. I pumped in airplane bathrooms and ice-cold toilet stalls during winter, while the handle jiggled and I could hear the crew outside asking where I was. I was determined to be everything, all at once. On top of my own drive to succeed, I also now had to succeed because this small human was relying on me for everything. Never mind that she had a dad, a good dad, I was her mother — and as I mentioned before: to me, mother meant just that… everything.
The summer my daughter was three, we moved into a house that was in the middle of a gut renovation. I took on a huge work project for not enough money, knowing it was more than I could handle, because I was scared to turn down any opportunity. From May to September, I worked every single day, coming home at night to a debris-filled house without a kitchen. Every morning, driving my daughter and stepson to camp, we would pass by a fountain. Every morning my daughter would ask me to take her to it. Every morning I would say, “Sure. We’ll do it this weekend.”
I probably don’t have to tell you how this story ends. It was September, after Labor Day, and we drove by the fountain, now on our way to school. Once again, Oona asked if we could go, and once again, I said, “Sure, we’ll go this weekend.” Then I realized that we wouldn’t go this weekend, because I was leaving the next day for Europe for work, and when I came back it would be too cold. An entire summer had passed and I hadn’t even managed to take my daughter to the park so she could show me a fountain.
On my way to the airport the next day, we took a detour. The mist from the fountain was cold, but we were there. Oona was happy. But the fountain came to represent something for me. It is a story I have gone back to again and again, because the further away I moved from that summer the more I have come to see how my efforts to be everything, all at once, to try to have it all, to not have to choose — that was a choice in and of itself. By not choosing I was choosing, and I didn’t like the choice I had made.
The next few years I worked, but not the way I had before. I closed down the magazine I had co-founded. I learned how to stop working in the middle of the day to go pick my kids up from school, how important it is to just be there to sit and watch them play. I tried to learn how to be in a partnership rather than doing everything for myself, and those efforts require a whole essay (or ten) of their own. In many ways, my entire landscape shifted. After years of spending time with both men and women, one day I looked around and realized that I had entered a world of women.
I talk with other women after school at the playground or at home while our kids played around us and climbed over us or on the backend of work meetings or on the phone during the day while we are running between appointments— and all of my conversations with women my age, in this phase of life, take a similar shape. Everyone seems to be looking at their lives and trying to figure out what the fuck, exactly, they’re doing. When you’re younger, the messaging is clear: You’re supposed to want to get married, have kids and have a career. Then you get there, having done what you were supposed to do, and it’s like: What the fuck is this? Do I even want this? Or was this just what I was told to want it?
There is so much out there about motherhood and this phase of life that is aspirational, but there’s so little that feels true.
There’s little that talks about what it feels like to have arrived in a place in life where you’re supposed to have everything you want and find that you don’t even know why you wanted it anymore, or if you even wanted it to begin with, or what you even do want. The choices, and limitations, that we have as women can be equally overwhelming.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover the joy. Not the magazine-cover joy, the Instagram-ready joy, but the joy that can be found in the tiny moments — the small warmth of holding a child while you cut their nails, the victory of successfully juggling all the pieces for a few hours, or the satisfaction just not fucking up one small interaction the same way you may have when you were younger.
Historically, there has been negative value placed on creative projects that address the experiences of women and of mothering, in particular. There’s a stigma that exploring these subjects creatively renders the work “unserious.” But these are the subjects I am most interested in. I want to hear what other creative women have to say about them: how they are navigating this phase of their lives.
What I liked most about publishing a magazine was the opportunity to collaborate with other creative people. I’ve missed that, so I wanted to make a space for it, but I wanted to make a space that would allow me to dialogue about the subjects that I have the most to say about and what I most want to hear about right now: motherhood and womanhood, in an honest, unvarnished way.
The name Perfect Days comes from a Richard Brautigan poem:
We stopped at perfect days
and got out of the car.
The wind glanced at her hair.
It was as simple as that.
I turned to say something —
When I was in my 20s, I used the title Perfect Days for a show I had in Paris and its accompanying book. Both were filled with photographs of my friends. To me, then, “perfect days” meant these beautiful, ephemeral moments frozen in time. Look: We’re in Sicily on a boat. Look: I slept here. Look at this amazing tree I saw. Look at our beautiful, young naked bodies.
This project is also called Perfect Days, but my interpretation of those words has evolved. I didn’t know before how loaded the word “perfect” could be. But I also didn’t know how much perfection there was in the messiness, in the tiniest, most mundane and mad moments, if I could only pause long enough to try to see it.