25 May 2013

Araña Mama – A Mommy-festo (Part 1)

(Photo by Kevin Miller)
This is how we begin: mother as mundus. I nestled my firstborn against my chest—everything she was and everything she needed. Body, place, and belonging.

We can say that babies are perfect because they are the closest we come to pure being. A Senegalese friend once wrote to me that he and his wife had nicknamed their baby “Lekk Puup Nelaw”: Eat Poop Sleep. The barest essence of who we are. (The novel human’s novel.) The layers of identity, the ways that we know ourselves and our places in the world, lie in the future.

And yet: before I became a parent, I believed that environment and education, family and culture, fully shaped the individuals we grew into. Then I had a kid. I was astonished to see how early in her development my daughter expressed her character. My husband and I joke that we thought we had an easy baby for the first four months of our daughter’s life. When she woke up from the “fourth trimester,” we grasped the scale of our mistake.

Part of parenting is trying to figure out those lines between “Nature versus Nurture,” genetics versus environment, personality versus upbringing. In mothering, this question often boils down to, “Is this my fault?” Plenty of sources say “yes.” At any given moment, a mother can be insufficiently nurturing, independent, authoritarian, laid-back, present, absent, involved, hands-off, intuitive, communicative, Swedish, Chinese, African, or French. I’m pretty sure whoever coined “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” was a mom. (Sure, the official record says it was a male preacher, but how often does history record what some mother mutters under her breath?)

On the one hand, each mother struggles with her own mode of parenting. On the other hand, the cultural currents that often single out mothers over fathers for the problems of “children today” are tied into larger structures of prejudice and power. Sexism is an obvious first response, but “welfare mom” speaks to race and class in opposite ways from “soccer mom.” Hysteria over “anchor babies” brings in immigration, but only in reference to immigrants from the Global South. The question of gay marriage has come to focus on its effects on children and the redefinition of “parent.”

As I watch my children grow, these questions come up for me urgently as they discover and define for themselves the notions of gender, race, relationships (it’s too early yet for sexuality), and belonging/citizenship. Like any parent, how I guide them and converse with them on these topics has much to do with my own experience as a biracial, bisexual mother with immigrant grandparents.

This blog is where I explore these and other political and cultural issues that I grapple with in my role as parent and mother. But I feel a need to describe my background and trace the threads of my identity that inform my writing. Caught in the interstices between categories—Caucasian and Asian, straight and gay, immigrant and citizen, American and global cosmopolitan—I have few preexisting narratives to draw from. So I start with a history of my body—my origins, my travels, my experiences.

(To be continued in Part 2 and Part 3...)

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