As I ride the last few blocks to the clinic, I start thinking about the time I was at the laundromat and my upstairs neighbor Ana’s two eldest, Dayana and Yenifer, were giggling and rolling around on top of a pile of dirty laundry, skinny legs propped up against the wall. I was sharing the long folding table with Ana and two other women, when my landlady Doña Teresa, who was sitting a few steps away, gestured in the girls’ direction.
“¡Éjele, eso si es vida!” she said from her chair.
We all laughed and agreed. Yes indeed. That is life.
“¡Me lo dice!” I said. “I wish I was eight again and rolling on top of these clothes, not having to fold them.”
At that, little Dayana piped up.
“And I wish I was grown like Beba,” she said, “so I can have my own apartment and live with my boyfriend and write all day and not have to take care of a bunch of kids like Mami. And then at night, I can go sing in a group like her.”
Her innocent comment knocked the wind out of me. Dayana, a smart fourth grader I weekly tutored in spelling and vocabulary, had just given me an innocent compliment. But I still felt horrible, like my example devalued the rest of my neighbors’ womanly lives.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like an adult. I was a grown-up kid with the luxury of passing time playing with words, sounds and movement. Sure, I had to do my crappy job at the translation agency but that was only part-time. These women around me worked nonstop. I was standing on their shoulders, on my mom’s.
“Beba works hard, mijita,” Ana corrected her, I think a little embarrassed. “Writing and going to school is hard work. And you know she has to work at an office too. That’s how she pays the rent.”
“Me and your mom just do two different types of jobs,” I added, my cheeks hot.
“Yours is better,” Dayana said, then turned back to her little sister and their giggly game.
Once I got back home with our clean laundry (mostly my stuff but peppered with plenty of Josue’s boxers and socks), I made the mistake of telling him the story.
“Man, this society is really going to hell when little girls are taught to look down on motherhood,” he said, shaking his head.
Huh? A little girl notices that her mother is overworked and Josue explains it all as her being brainwashed into devaluing motherhood? Isn’t the most obvious thing to shake his head at that Ana is full-time mommy to five kids plus full-time undocumented worker at the laundromat? Isn’t the main problem that Ana hasn’t gotten a good night’s rest since her firstborn popped out—and maybe even since way before? Isn’t it heartbreaking that she’s always leashed to one or more of her kids but her husband escapes on the regular long enough to get his buzz on with his friends? Isn’t it telling that Ana herself is constantly reminding her daughters how important it is they study so they can do more than just get by, like Ana wishes she could do herself?
I should have known his take on it would be that stupid. Why did I even bring it up? It was something to talk about with my own mother, with Yui, Angie, Titi Yaya… not the Barrio captain of the gender role police.
I had heard his it’s-all-feminists’-fault rant one too many times before, so I tuned him out while I asked myself: Was there any grain of truth to what he was saying? Are little girls being taught in any way to devalue motherhood? How can that be in a world where motherhood still sits high on a pedestal? How can that be in a world where (good) mothers are assumed to be righteous and selfless and damn near perfect?
Can both things possibly be happening at the same time? Is motherhood devalued and at the same time still sitting precious and shiny on top of its pedestal?
Actually, yes. That’s it. The pedestal is only symbolic, made up of lip-service and studded with the jagged bootleg diamonds of hypocrisy.
While mothers have to live up to unrealistic expectations of self-sacrifice and perfection, fathers don’t feel the same pressures. Men, after all, are dizqueflawed—bendiiito.
Exibit A: Josue’s favorite plena.
Duerme dulce corazón/Que hay un letrero en tu cuna/Que dice padre es cualquiera/Pero madre sólo hay una. Sleep tight, dear heart/’Cause there’s a sign above your crib/That says a father can be anyone/But a mother is only one.
No disrespect to whoever came up with that heart wrenching song, but… Sleep tight?! That’s prime material for nightmares! How can any of us sleep when we’re told daddies are just interchangeable and unreliable? How can we rest knowing our saintly mommies have to pick up their slack?
How can folks just sing that song without a touch of irony? I’ve even seen many cry when they hear it. They think it’s so sweet, so true, so sentimental. I cry too… not out of sadness but because I’m pissed. ¡Qué lindo! Long live motherly loyalty and irresponsible dads! Shouldn’t we try to make mother’s lives less jodías instead of celebrating the tragic fact?
Motherly sacrifice is just part of human nature, I heard Josue say as the background to my own thoughts. I promised myself someday I would do a whole bunch of research on theories of mothering to shut his mouth once and for all.
Ana’s life was SO hard. And the first thing that occurred to Josue when he heard about Dayana wanting to follow in my footsteps was how modern society devalues motherhood? Can’t he see it’s the way that motherhood is defined that sucks? And, by the way… Was it so hard to imagine that a little girl could admire non-mother me? As if my life wasn’t worthy of admiration. Does everyone have to want to be a mother to be healthy, balanced, normal? What the hell is normal?
Dayana isn’t interested in an all-consuming motherhood. What’s so strange about that?
For some women, mothering is their main passion in life. And that should be respected. For other women, it is not. And that should be respected too. Why the obsession with one-size-fits-all gender roles?
I thought to myself: And all of these eloquent thoughts on motherhood courtesy of a childless woman. But at least I have the abstract possibility of bearing a child—unlike the lovely manly specimen in front of me who was in the middle of another heated monologue.
“Feminists have it all wrong,” Josue said, index finger waving around. “That’s why so many women are so miserable. They’re going against their own nature. And you can’t fool Mother Nature.”
Mother Nature can kiss my ass, I wanted to tell him. I may be first cousin to monkeys but I’m not a prisoner of my own biology. Maybe monkeys are not prisoners of their own biology either. I had read enough feminist theory to know Josue was just spewing conservative dogma dressed up as scientific fact. But I didn’t feel confident enough in what I knew to call him out on it. I knew we—other apes and monkeys included—may be Mother Nature’s children, but not her puppets; that she left us all a bit of wiggle room to make a few decisions ourselves.
I noticed my throat getting tight and scratchy with that odd salty taste that I had learned to identify as a scream wanting to come out.
Pretending to run a casual hand through my hair, I sank four fingers in near my forehead and forced them to slowly travel to the ponytail at the back of my head. But at my neck, and out of Josue’s sight, my hand turned into a claw that knotted itself into the baby hairs there and pulled hard. It was either that or give in to that same hand itching to grab the telephone handset and throw it at him, aiming for his beautiful face, his already chipped tooth.
I turned around and reached for the door handle before I lost it. The saltiness had spread to the top of my nose and behind my eyes.
“Look, I can’t talk about this anymore,” I said, jumbling the words together in my hurry to get out. “I’ll be back in a while. I just need to clear my head.”
I was happy I had made it through the door without screaming, but disappointed that I had to make another quick get-away from my own home. At least I had made some progress. But as I was closing the door behind me, he asked:
“Chula, why you hate being a woman?”
Instead of screeching at the top of my lungs, like I really felt like doing, I slammed the door as hard as I could. Thunder echoed in the empty hallways, up and down the tenement stairs. A baby started crying, probably Ana's newborn. I rushed down the stairs.