In last month’s column Cassie Premo Steele invited readers to submit writing on the theme of Desiring Natural Motherhood. This essay by Jessica Ellis Laine brings to light two essential aspects of “the natural” in mothering. First, that in opening ourselves to giving birth, we also open ourselves to the possibility of death. And second, that everything we take to be “natural” is also at least partially constructed by the culture and history into which we are born.
Dar a Luz/Bringing to Light: How I Came to Desire Motherhood in My Own Right
By Jessica Ellis Laine
Photos of our dead daughters, Eva and Camila, sit in a double frame on our dresser. Last year my husband and I lit a candle and scattered marigolds to honor their brief lives on the Day of the Dead. I can see the double frame from my perch on the bed. It is November in Minnesota, and I have been on bed rest for my pregnancy for the past 14 weeks.
My mother calls me, her tone of voice subdued and funereal. “I have some bad news from Peru,” she says.
My heart skips a beat. Despite having been born in Chicago and living in the United States ever since, half of my relatives live in Peru.
“Do you remember your first boyfriend?” she asks.
“Carlos? Oh my God, what? Is he dead?” My stomach roils. Carlos would be in his early 40s now. We haven’t kept in touch, but I’ve heard through the grapevine he is happily married with two small children.
“No, not that boyfriend. Your other first boyfriend, Pepe,” my mother says, sounding impatient.
I exhale loudly into the phone. “I didn’t have another first boyfriend.” I spit out my words like bullets out of a machine gun.
For the past 25 years, this subject has been a bone of contention between us. When I was 15 years old, I visited my Aunt Maria Teresa in Peru and she set me up with her husband’s nephew, Pepe. We went on a few dates, each one progressively worse than the last. On our last date, Pepe said he was going to give me a night I would never forget. That evening, he took me to a traditional Peruvian show called a peña. Pepe’s brother, sister, 35-year-old aunt, and her companion were all waiting at the door when we arrived at the club – so that I could pay their entrance fees. Pepe was right: it was a night I never forgot.
“Mom, Pepe was never my boyfriend. You know that. Please stop saying that.” Anxiety triggers small contractions in my belly. The doctor says the best thing I can do is relax. My mother knows I need to stay calm but continues to talk about Pepe.
“Well, that’s not what Pepe said when I saw him in Lima three years ago,” my mom sniffs. “He introduced me as the lady who almost became his mother-in-law.”
“He was joking.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What happened? Did Pepe die?” I ask.
“No, his father did.”
“Isn’t his father like 85 years old?”
“Yes, but it’s still a tragedy.”
“Did you know Pepe’s father?” I ask my mother.
“Well, I saw him at Maria Teresa’s reuniones, her family get-togethers.”
“So you didn’t really know him.” My mother enjoys experiencing the vicarious thrill of sweet sorrow.
“I knew him well enough. I called and spoke to Pepe and the rest of his family while they were holding the wake.”
“Okaaayy.” I’m wondering if Pepe’s family knew who my mother was when she called.
“And your aunts and I are going to hold a memorial service for Pepe’s father here in Australia.”
“For your brother-in-law’s brother who died in Peru?”
“Yes, and you should send a card to Pepe’s mother.”
“Why would I send a card to Pepe’s mother?” I ask. “I don’t know her.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
This is one of my mother’s favorite sayings, something she says when she wants my sister and me to do something that benefits others but is somehow detrimental to us. If my parents were having a party and she needed cleaners, servers, and/or bartenders, my sister and I were pressed into service because it was the right thing to do. When I was 13, I served a gin and tonic to a party guest who took one sip and told me the drink “wasn’t strong enough.” I remember thinking, What’s wrong with this picture?
Community can be a beautiful thing, but even as a child I thought my mother might be twisting it into something ugly. I was born to a mother who sacrificed her children’s needs for the needs of the family at large. Consequently I made choices that were very different than what my mother wanted me to make, and in doing so, I learned to mother myself. I refused to move from Chicago to Australia with my parents. Instead I went to college in the Midwestern United States so I could finally live my own life. I promised myself when I had children – if I had children – I would put them first.
Many things come naturally to my mother: event planning, traveling, color coordinating her wardrobe. Motherhood is not one of these things. I believe my mother is a frustrated CEO disguised in mother’s clothing.
For many years, I was afraid to have children. I was afraid I would be like my mother, a relatively good person who was a relatively poor mother, someone who put everyone else before her own children. I think my mother regarded her children as faulty appendages on her body: hands and feet that never fully cooperated with their owner.
Like my mother, I held off having children. Eventually, I realized that raising a menagerie of dogs, cats, and rabbits was just not cutting it for me. I wanted to have children. Like my mother, I thought I would enjoy carefree pregnancies well into my late 30s. I thought wrong.
Over the next three years, I experienced five miscarriages. I have nothing to show for them other than the double frame that sits on top of my dresser.
“Maybe you should stop trying,” my mother says on the phone one evening.
“Why would you say that?”
“You’re getting older and things will get harder, not easier, from here on out.”
My blood begins to boil. “What would you know about this, about how I feel?”
“Probably more than you think,” my mother says in a soft voice. She is silent for a moment. Then she says, “I lost a baby when I was 42. I think it was a boy, although we never found out for sure. I still miss him.”
“I know you are, querida. And whatever happens, you are a mother. You will always be the mother of Eva, Camila, and your other three babies. Always.”
Is it possible for a short phone conversation to end a lifetime of resentments? Perhaps not, but it’s a start.
A few months later, I fly to Australia to attend my mother’s 75th birthday party. I miss my period. I pee on a stick and find out I’m pregnant for the sixth time. I start to bleed and think, Oh God, not again, but then the bleeding stops. I return home to Minneapolis and am placed on bed rest.
I find out we are having a boy who will be born shortly before I turn 42. I wonder if he is the reincarnation of my lost brother. I wonder if he will be born screaming rather than silent as his sisters were. I wonder if he will bring my mother and me closer together or push us farther apart. I wonder many things.
But I don’t wonder if he is the answer to my prayers. I just know that he is.
Jessica Ellis Laine enjoys cooking Latin food, globe trotting, and observing people at the dog park. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, Harlan, and their hyperactive black lab, Sinjin. Jessica is also working on her first novel, The Copper Shark, while on bed rest expecting her first baby.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
I was thrilled when I received Jessica’s essay for the "Birthing the Mother Writer" column this month – for two reasons. First, I want the guest columns by readers to reflect the diversity of mothering that exists among Literary Mamas. And second, this essay illustrates beautifully how “natural” mothering is always constructed and influenced by historical, cultural, and familial patterns. While my Notes usually focus on the behind-the-scenes editing and revision process, this month I thought it would be interesting to share the dialogue Jessica and I had while working on the column.
CPS: Many people are waking up to the power and presence of Latinos in the United States. While there are those of us who have known that these demographic changes have been happening for decades, the recent election brought light (dar luz!) to this phenomenon. I'd love to be able to ask you some questions about being a Latina Literary Mama.
CPS: In your original submission email, you referred to your essay as unveiling "the dark side of Latina mothering." Can you explain to LM readers what you mean?
JEL: Latino culture encompasses so many wonderful things: faith, community, and multi-generational relationships to name a few. My essay is about the "dark side" that shadows the Latino sense of community and inclusion. I wanted to highlight the danger of erasing a person's (especially a child's) sense of self-identity in order to meet the needs of the family or group at large. This topic comes up regularly during chats with my Latina girlfriends, mainly first-generation or second-generation women like me who live in the U.S.
CPS: Can you talk a bit about the challenges of individuation as you navigate the collective values of Latin culture and the individualism of US culture? How does balance play a role in all this?
JEL: I have found it difficult to carve out a balanced life for myself and still maintain good relations with my extended family. For years, I felt reluctant to assert my individual rights. An unemployed cousin lived with me for some time and then became incensed when I finally kicked her out. I told an estranged aunt that she could not stay with me after my knee replacement, a very painful procedure requiring several weeks of recuperation. Her children were livid. In both instances, I felt extremely guilty.
It took years of counseling for me to realize that many Americans didn’t live the way I did. They put themselves first and didn’t feel bad about it. They weren’t afraid to say no to unreasonable demands from their family. I will always have to work hard to find a good balance between meeting my needs and the needs of my family.
CPS: I wonder how you think patriarchy and paternalism factors into this discussion. Is there a respect for mothering, for example, in Latin cultures that also goes along with increased machismo? How have you negotiated this as a Latina in the United States?
JEL: My father is American, but joined the Peace Corps and went to Chile in the early 60s where he became fluent in Spanish. He pretty much embraced the Latino lifestyle from day one. Most people think he is Chilean. As a result, I was raised in a typical Latino-style patriarchal home. My father was the main breadwinner. While my mother worked full time, all of the household tasks like cooking and cleaning fell upon her shoulders. My father’s mother lived with us but it was my mother -- and not my father -- who cared for her. Interestingly enough, my mother made most of the decisions regarding our upbringing. In this manner, my mother ruled the roost.
It doesn’t escape my attention that I decided to marry a non-Latino. Our marriage is more of a partnership than my parents’ marriage was. We make important decisions together. We split the chores. My husband even cooks, which is amazing to me since my father only ever knew how to make toast. And my husband plans to change our son’s diapers after he is born.
CPS: One more question: You write with such clarity and honesty about your experiences. What would you say to other Literary Mamas trying to find their voices in the midst of multicultural mothering?
JEL: There is a “keeping up appearances” mentality we can help to dismantle by writing honestly about our experiences. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in our writing, even though this goes against the grain of many cultures. I felt vulnerable writing this essay. I exposed my weaknesses and aired my family's dirty laundry in public. I actually considered not submitting this piece. In the end, I’m glad I did. I think it’s important to share these difficult experiences with others.