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Women's Week: U. event looks at diversity of motherhood

When she was pregnant with her first child, Alice Perrault dreamed he was suffocating. She dreamed it more than once. People tried to reassure her, saying, "Don't be nervous, women have been having babies for centuries."

But then, six years ago, as she was in labor with Julius, Perrault's nightmare came true. In the birth canal, Julius spent too much time with too little oxygen, which caused cerebral palsy, she says. Today the little boy is quadriplegic, doesn't talk and has life-threatening seizures. Julius also gives his parents great joy.

In 2005, Perrault and her husband, Matthew Steubing, had a second child. Baby Cyrus came too early and died at birth.

Perrault's paintings of her experiences as a mother will be on display March 5 through 16 in the College of Architecture, part of the observances surrounding Women's Week at the University of Utah. The theme of Women's Week this year is Motherhood, and the organizers further define their goal with this quote from Ursual Le Guin, ""When we women offer our experiences as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change.""

Leo Leckie, executive assistant in the U.'s Office of Diversity, promises the week's events will give voice to mothers within a wide context. He mentions race, ethnicity, class, employment, singleness, lesbian/bisexual/gay parents and mothers who do their job within a religious context. Women who have chosen not to have children will be featured, also. There are two keynote speakers, Susan Douglas and Julianne Malveaux, both of whom have written about motherhood. Kathy Brooks, former director of the Women's Resource Center, will get the Linda K. Amos award for distinguished service to women at the U. of U.

The organizers of "Women's Week" chose Perrault's "Ride" as their poster art, in part because of the less-than-lighthearted expression on the face of the mother who is giving her son a piggy-back ride. The U's Taunya Dressler says the organizers responded to the ambiguity of the work.

Perrault wrote this explanation of the piece: "'You can't carry him around forever.' That's what people tell me, but all I have is 'forever.' Anything less is paralyzing. Forever to love him. Forever to lift him. Forever to believe that he embodies the shift that will tilt this world's cruel imbalances. This is our ride."

Perrault told the Deseret Morning News she sometimes wonders if her concerns about Julius are the same concerns a regular mother would have. "I don't have a regular child to compare to."

Julius spent so much of his first year in the hospital, that it wasn't until he was in his second year that she started taking him places. People usually just commented on how angelic he looked. But Perrault remembers well the first time she could read in a stranger's face that the woman had realized Julius was disabled. "It hurt," she recalls.

Perrault grew up knowing about the prejudices against children with disabilities. She knows people stare. Her older sister, Renee, has Down syndrome, and Perrault now has custody of Renee, who lives with her. But Perrault is finding that being Julius' mom is different than being Rene's sister.

As his mother, she finds herself thinking, "Who is going to be there to defend Julius?" if he outlives his parents. She finds herself frightened that someone would be cruel to him and he would not have the words to say so.

Perrault sometimes wonders what his voice might sound like if he could use words, she says, although, of course she knows the meaning of every sound he makes. She used to spend time imagining how it would sound if he said, "I love you, Mommy." But then, she says, one day he looked at her and she knew that is exactly what his face was telling her. She found herself saying, as matter-of-factly as any mom might say, "I love you, too."

Before Julius, Perrault says her art dealt with psychological boundaries. Since Julius, she finds herself concentrating on the potential for breakthroughs. She's learned so much about the brain and the central nervous system that now dendrites stream like flower stems through her art.

The mice in her paintings come from visiting a laboratory in California where stem cell research is going on. The mice, "these sacrificial creatures," have some of the same neurological impairments that Julius has.

Having lost Cyrus has made her recognize more than ever the delicacy of life. So in one sense, her paintings are "a handprint in the cave," she says. They are proof that she and Julius still live. That Cyrus was hers.

They are also a way for her to capture the recurring images in her mind. For example, after Julius' birth Perrault thought often about how he felt at the moment of suffocation. He'd been in a safe place and suddenly he knew terror. As she drew the moments before his birth, she worked with colored pencils instead of oils, because at that point in their life together he was still so medically fragile that she had to use a medium she could put down and not return to until the next day, or the next week.

From the time she can remember, Perrault says, she has been able to put herself in someone else's place, and not just in the place of a human. She's been able to imagine what it would be like to be a frog, a cloud, a lamppost — to see the world from that perspective.

If she seems calm and kind and sunny these days, well, she says there is not a day that she is not sad for at least a bit. And painting doesn't really change that, she says. But turning her thoughts into something concrete does validate those thoughts, she adds.

As she begins each painting, she doesn't know where she is going with it. The images organize themselves as she goes along.

It is not that her art allows her to let go of what happened to Julius, or to Cyrus, she explains. But her art does allow her to make solid the images of her motherhood. And now she is not alone with those images anymore.

If you go ...

March 5-16: Art exhibit featuring the work of Alice Perrault; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at Bailey Exhibition Hall, College of Architecture, 375 S. 1530 East. Reception March 12, 4-6 p.m.

Friday, March 9: Film and discussion of "Mother Superior," a 22-minute documentary made by local students Alex Mack and Diana Montero about Utah mothers who are addicted to meth; 7 p.m.; Olpin Union Theatre, 200 S. Central Campus Drive.

March 9-15: Crisis Nursery community service project. A table will be set up at Women's Week events to provide information on and collect donations for the Family Support Center's Crisis Nursery, which offers free respite child care 24 hours a day to families in turmoil.

Monday, March 12: "Mommy Monologues." Women and men perform monologues about parenthood within the context of race, ethnicity, religion, being single, working, staying at home, being lesbian/bisexual/gay — or choosing not to have children at all; 7 p.m.; Utah Museum of Fine Arts auditorium, 410 Campus Center Drive.

Tuesday, March 13: "On the Clock," panelists from the community — Nilafur Cagatay, Elizabeth Clement, Karen Kwan and Paula Smith — talk about balancing life in the work force; noon; Olpin Union Ballroom.

Wednesday, March 14: Julianne Malveaux's keynote address, noon, Olpin Union Saltair Room.

Thursday, March 15: Susan Douglas' keynote address, 7 p.m., Olpin Union Saltair Room.