Josie has a keyboard she totes around the house. Periodically she puts it down, bangs on it like Mozart on a bender, scowls a bit and announces, “I’m working, like mama!” (To be truly like Mama, she’d have to curse a lot more as she typed. But close enough.)
I know how fortunate I am to make a living doing something I love. My work is creative. I can often do it around Josie’s schedule. And unlike my brother, who announced in kindergarten that when he grew up he wanted to be either a garbageman or a Chinese boy, I always knew what I wanted to do. And here I am.
Not every mamele is so lucky. It can be hard to balance one’s artistic self with one’s parenting self. Many creative women end up shelving their careers when they have kids, or putting aside their passions to earn bigger bucks in less fulfilling jobs. So in honor of these ladies, put your hands together for “Mamapalooza: The Festival for Moms Who Rock.”
“Mamapalooza” consists of three music and arts events at three venues in New York City: a spoken word, jazz and poetry night at the Bowery Poetry Club on May 19 at 7 p.m.; a kid-friendly outdoor music and crafts festival at Riverside Park South on May 23 at noon, and a rock and comedy show at the Cutting Room on Wednesday May 26 at 7 p.m. (More info: mamapalooza.com.)
Rocker Joy Rose founded Mamapalooza three years ago. “I was finally having some success with my band, Housewives on Prozac, and wanted to do a mitzvah,” she said. “I wanted to celebrate other mother-artists.”
“Making art and parenting are both creative acts,” she added. “But our society isn’t sure of how to deal with women who serve their own needs as well as their families’. If a woman is a washed-out dishrag who just gives and gives and never takes time to nurture herself, how is she truly serving herself and her family?” As the flight attendant says, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.
On the Housewives on Prozac Web site, Rose poses in silver platform sandals, zebra-print legwarmers and a micro-mini, holding a pink electric guitar. She doesn’t look 47, an age she happily cops to. (“How can I wear a T-shirt that says ‘Women do not have an expiration date’ and lie about my age?” she asked.) In addition to playing with Housewives on Prozac, mothering her four kids (ages 9 to 15) and co-producing Mamapalooza, she’s the creator of “The Housewife’s Lament,” a rock opera she calls a “deliciously dark musical tale of seven women’s domestic desperation.” A sample song lyric: “I wipe my baby’s chin with my college diploma and wonder, ‘Did I walk all this way in my fuzzy slippers?’”
Mamapalooza applauds all moms, those who are happy staying home wiping chins as well as those who yearn to be out doing art. “Personally, I needed time to be pregnant and be with my babies, while [co-producer] Alyson [Palmer, a founder of BETTY, the alt-pop sassy chick-power group] packs her baby, Ruby, on her gigs. It’s a personal choice. But I do want to say that being a stay-at-home mom is doing magnificent holy work that should be honored.”
An overwhelming number of Mamapalooza participants are Jewish. All these mama punks, mama dancers and mama poets run counter to the stereotype of the Jewish mother, who’s supposed to be self-negating, homebound, lacking any true sense of self because of her over-identification with her children. (As the punchline goes, “Never mind, I’ll sit in the dark!”) But in reality, Jewish women have always been creative. Perhaps that’s because Jews have always felt like outsiders. We’ve always seen ourselves as misfits, and punk and rock and comedy have all been historically fueled by alienation. And Jewish women, who have often been told they have the wrong hair, the wrong lips, the wrong decibel levels, may have particularly been drawn to fields where otherness is a virtue. And if we’re already iconoclasts, why not recreate motherhood in our own image?
One of the Mamapalooza Jewesses is Alana Free (nee Ruben), 34, the editor of Mamapalooza’s literary zine, The MOM Egg (“hatching babes and art”). She grew up “in a shtetl called Fredericton,” in Canada, and has written poetry since the second grade. She found herself writing prayers while pregnant with her son Yacov, now 8. “I see my work as a mother and my work as a writer as emerging from the same core,” she said. “Both emerge from my emotional and spiritual life. My writing is something that all moms need—a place to retreat to as an adult.”
Another Mamapalooza mama is Lisa Ludwig, who performs her poppy, punky, happy rock with her band, Black Flamingo, at New York clubs such as CBGB and Irving Plaza. (She doesn’t tell her age, which she says is “immature, but old enough to know better.”) In 1993, she founded Music & Love Productions, which puts on benefit concerts (including a yearly Valentine’s Day show for God’s Love We Deliver, which delivers hot meals to homebound people with AIDS) in honor of her brother, Richard Kesten, a social worker with UJA-Federation who died of AIDS in 1989. As Ludwig’s older daughter Eva, 13, reports: “All my friends say my mom’s so cool. She’s not like other moms. She knows all about modern music. Sometimes I’m embarrassed. She had a lot of crazy hair colors but that was mostly before I was born.”
Mamapalooza moms span generations as well as disciplines. Golda Solomon is a Brooklyn-born, 60-something poet who performs her poetry with jazz accompaniment. She calls it “Po’Jazz.” She’s a speech professor, the coordinator of a monthly poetry and jazz series at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, and the cofounder of the Brooklyn Poetry Choir. Her collection of poetry, Flatbush Cowgirl, was published in 1999.
“I’ve been on the jazz scene since my early 20s, when a blind date took me to a jazz club,” she said. “My license plate says ‘JAZZ HAG.’” She added poetry to the mix after her 15-year marriage broke up. “I took my first poetry course at the age of 43 or 44 and haven’t looked back since,” she said. She began combining poetry and jazz at the suggestion of her teacher Regie Cabico, a performance poet and co-editor of the anthology “Poetry Nation” (Vehicule, 1998).
Solomon became a mother relatively late in life, adopting her son when she was 41 and her academic career was fairly established. “It was divorce that rocked me,” she reflected. “I changed my whole teaching schedule, working nights to be with my son during the day. A lot of my salary went to nannies.”
Yet Solomon juggled, as all moms do. “As a mother, you live in the moment,” she said. “You can’t plan for the vacation; you have to enjoy the ice cream cone.” (Note: To continue my ongoing yenta activities, Golda is looking for a boyfriend, who is “not too old!” and doesn’t mind her active travel schedule. Interested gentlemen can e-mail me.)
The upshot for all moms, as Rose said: “This is your life. Are you living your divinity? What special thing are you teaching your children, from singing to gardening to bringing people together?” All these activities are art. They’re all worth celebrating. And they all make us better moms and better people.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org