My son’s little pink hand rose from the other side of the green surgical sheet that separated us, looking like a dahlia sprouting from my body that Monday after Mother’s Day in 1998.
I had lifted my head from the operating table to zoom in on my baby as he entered the world through the temporary aperture of my open torso, and watched as he thrust a tiny fist into the air, unfurled five perfect, papery petals, and waved his first hello to me from the womb. The saddle block had numbed my lower extremities, but all my senses were keen. I felt a strong tug and heard a loud pop as doctors pulled the rest of him from my body.
Just like that, after months of feeling him stretch, kick and grow inside of me, my son and I became two, and nothing would ever be the same.
Giving birth to a boy just wasn’t on my life itinerary. I had just spent nearly two decades raising a daughter, eight of them by myself. I had already steeped myself in girl language, girl attitudes and girl fights. Having a son just shy of my 40th birthday felt like crossing the equator into the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are flipped, and legend has it that water drains in the opposite direction. As I prepared to explore the unfamiliar terrain of boyhood, I wondered what natural wonders, sand traps and surprises lay ahead, and whether the rhythm of my heart would change in this strange new land.
I watched a nurse wipe down my newborn son, weigh and measure him, and take his apgar scores before she slipped a tiny knit cap over his head and handed the swaddled package to my husband like a birthday present.
My husband, a first-time dad, shuffled over in scrubs with a beaming face, and lowered our son to my side so I could see our baby for the first time. Blinking back at me tentatively were unfocused blue orbs set in a perfect little face.
“He looks like you!” I told my husband in the high-pitched siren call of new motherhood, my emotions choking in my throat.
I listened to my son’s ragged newborn sobs as they thrummed across a taut, invisible string attached to my heart and plucked tears from my eyes. Already he was playing my emotions. As my son and I stared at each other in wonder, doctors realigned my organs, and stitched a wry smile on my lower abdomen at the end of the vertical scar left by the birth of my daughter 17 years earlier in a clinic a few blocks from the edge of the warm Caribbean Sea.
Girls I knew. Oh how I knew girls. The woolly wonderland of girlhood was familiar to me from the inside out. As a teenage feminist in the 1970s, it had been easy to dismiss men as “the others.” The second wave of the women’s movement was in full force, and American girls were developing a healthy skepticism toward the male-dominated status quo.
We were consumed by the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett and other mid-century intellectuals who picked up where Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, the suffragists, Mother Jones, Virginia Woolf and others left off.
We shook off the Madmen era that had stifled our grandmothers and mothers—finding nothing fashionable or nostalgic about it—and burst through doors that had been blown open by the civil rights movement.
As a Hispanic woman, embracing Yankee-style feminism also meant excoriating the vestiges of Spanish and Indian machismo and swagger, and centuries of Catholic paternalism and European colonialism. It meant defying the orders of fathers and little brothers, despite all that our traditional mothers had taught us about men as authority figures. It meant repudiating generations of oppression wrought by los gabachos, a loose collection of European types accused of stealing our land, raping our grandmothers, and erasing our history.
From my limited teenage view, men seemed insurmountably different and in charge of everything. They owned appendages that spawned deadly pissing matches around the globe, and entitled them to certain privileges. They were incomprehensible, and seemed prone to testosterone-fueled athleticism that inevitably ended in bar brawls, metal-induced head banging, or angry fists thrust through drywall. No matter what culture or place they came from, they inherited a sense of entitlement that seeped from their pores.
If born under the right circumstances (the right family, the right college, and the right name), men could inherit the Earth, too. Without much effort, they could opt out of conversations about equality, poverty, discrimination, equal pay for equal work, the glass ceiling, and female self determination.
I had steeped myself in girl language, girl attitudes and girl fights.
When my daughter arrived, a tiny, half Caribeña with huge eyes and a rosebud mouth, I prepared to induct her into womanhood, to teach her what she needed to know about life, love and men, but things didn’t turn out quite as expected. As she evolved from a pig-tailed charmer to an edgy teenager, my daughter fought like hell to carve out her own identity, to separate from me psychologically and strike out on her own. She was doing what I had done with my mother, and my mother had done with her mother.
A stubborn streak ran though the women in my family. It was a multigenerational curse, and there was nothing I could do except ride it out and hope for the best. Along the way, my daughter and I weathered epic, estrogen-fueled clashes from every possible angle, and over every possible issue. We fought over school, friends, food, clothing, piercings, Mary Janes (shoes and weed), booze, raves, Ecstasy, bad boys and bad men. We survived separations and reunited tearfully in airport terminals. I was her Demeter, and welcomed home her repentant Persephone after long winters in the underworld.
Hot on the genetic trail of my own daughterhood, and as part of my ongoing efforts to understand the primordial mother-daughter rift, I immersed myself in “Reviving Ophelia,” “My Mother, Myself” and other self-help books. Deeply frustrated, I commiserated with other women, including my now-smug mother, over the vexing mother-daughter dichotomy.
My conclusion: Girls are hard work. Yes, we are, dear goddesses.
“Mothers see daughters as extensions of themselves,” a friend, a college professor, argued convincingly. “Their failures are our failures, their foibles are our foibles, their disappointments are our disappointments, and that’s why we don’t put up with any of their bullshit. We are as hard on them as we are on ourselves.” ... Or is it the other way around?
Then, my son, my little man arrived and upset the delicate balance of my girl-centered life. Without warning, life hurled a screaming curveball at me, and tucked neatly and surreptitiously in the seams of that bewildering bender was a Y chromosome, a sucker punch I never saw coming. I had brought a man into the world, and his foray into my life seized up my psycho-political engine, forcing me to overhaul my views on men in unexpected ways. At a visceral level, I began to see men as more than just “the opposite sex.” For the first time in my life, I began to see males as multidimensional human beings.
Life hurled a screaming curveball at me, and tucked neatly and surreptitiously in the seams of that bewildering bender was a Y chromosome, a sucker punch I never saw coming.
Once I became the mother of a son, it became impossible for me to dismiss the male point of view imperviously. It became impossible for me to lump all men together in an amorphous mass of masculinity. It became impossible for me to see men as the enemy (if they ever were to begin with). Having a son made me want to be a better woman (nod to Jack Nicholson).
Having a son hasn’t always been easy. Like my daughter’s girlhood, his boyhood has offered up alternately touching, surprising and exasperating experiences. Durning my son’s infancy, my daughter was going through her most rebellious teenage years. To this day I don’t know how my husband survived the riotous, tumultuous hormonal surges of a postpartum wife and her teenage daughter. Some days, I changed diapers all day, and watched my angry daughter bang her way out the door at night on her way to a rave.
Despite the challenges, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, only this time I’d have the wisdom and patience that comes with experience.
In the end, it is the memory of both of my children’s births, their futures unwritten (nod to Joe Strummer), that still remind me that we all start out the same, and that gender, skin color, birthplace, sexual orientation, and physical features are accidents of nature that don’t have to define us.
As parents, we don’t have to project our limitations, disappointments and preconceived notions onto boys and girls who arrive as blank slates with so much potential. We don’t have to brand them with long-held biases, cultural assumptions, religious bigotry, social ignorance, and political limitations.
I’m not alone in these realizations. Just watch a father playing soccer with his daughter, or a mother riding a bike with her son. Watch older parents waving a rainbow flag in a march, or young parents marveling at their newborns. Whether we have boys or girls, we silently chant the same invocation for their well-being.
Mothers and fathers are living family vaults, organic external hard drives that store their children’s earliest life experiences like secret treasures.
In my mind and in my heart I store images of my children they can’t possibly see. These are among the memories I will always cherish:
Lauren, a year old, sitting in a highchair refusing to hold her spoon in her right hand, already showing her south-paw independence. Lauren, running before she could walk, hurling herself across the room with a proud, defiant look on her face that said, “Look mom, no hands!” Lauren, dressed in red ruffles, blind folded and bashing a Strawberry Shortcake piñata with glee. Lauren, whimpering in pain as she rode out the waves of labor in a Denver maternity ward.
Daniel, his hand rising from the open cavity of my body on his first day of life. Daniel, pushing a toy lawnmower across our lawn, his chubby legs in sandals. Daniel, striking a power stance with his first guitar. Daniel, chasing my husband around the house in a Darth Vadar costume and armed with a lightsaber.
Now, I get to watch my daughter’s beautiful face light up as she remembers the birth of her own son four years ago. Having him was an act of faith in motherhood, in life and in the future. She has embarked on her own journey, and already has crossed the equator into the wondrous land of boyhood. It is my greatest hope that she has learned something from her old mom.
“Wasn’t he cute, Mom?” she asks me occasionally, remembering her son’s face at birth. “The way his little face just looked back at me.”
My daughter, Lauren, and her son, Gavin, 2008
May 8, 1994
Today I would like to tell you Happy Mother’s Day in my own way.
Over the years, since the day I was born, you have loved me and taken care of me. Since the day I was one day old on January 24th, 1980, you embraced me in your arms and welcomed me to the new world. I must be one of the luckiest kids in the whole universe.
You never gave up on me as the years went by, that must mean true love. As I aged to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 ... you still had love for me!
Since that day, you still embrace me in your arms, welcoming me into the new world. I think mothers should learn from your mothering.
Now I’m 14 going on to older numbers.
I think that’s what people need in order to be truly happy, mothering. Sometimes when I’m down, or just had a bad day at school, it makes me feel so much better when you comfort me. Then it feels like I’m starting from scratch again, and nothing bad ever happened.
I think I’m going to have secure mothering and love until my last days on earth, until I’m an old woman.
Since it’s Mother’s Day, I would like to show my thanks, love and appreciation by saying ... thank you, I love you.
I love you very much!!!!!!!!
My daughter, Lauren, and her cat, Tom Kitten, c. 1994.The Return of Persephone, by English artist Frederic Leighton, c. 1891.
My son, Daniel, as an infant, and me, c. 1998.
My son, Daniel, age 4, and me, c. 2001.
Four generations of stubborn women: From top, my grandmother, Josephine; my mother, Margaret; me as an infant; and my great-grandmother, Sophia.
© Deborah Méndez Wilson.