My mother and I were walking down Agua Marina Street in Dominican Republic. The sun blazing and my father dying. She had left him when I was six years old but now she treated him like a parent because he was old enough to be her father. He spent most of his life working multiple jobs, stingy as fuck so he could pile enough cash in the bank so he could eventually retire back home like una persona decente. But then we find him lying on a lumpy mattress, legally blind because of diabetes, missing toes, barely able to get up, living his last days inside a dank, small apartment, water infiltrating from the side walls and ceiling, the walls bubbling up, threatening to burst. Drip. Drip. Drip. Buckets everywhere, the drips just barely missing his bed that he had inched with time to the farthest corner. My mother and I were both unhinged by the sight of him living in a home in desperate need of repair. Even so, he laughed constantly, telling bad jokes as if death were not a worry, getting inappropriate hard-ons when one of the many women in his life changed his diaper. So many women. His daughters, his ex-wives, his sisters, his sister-in-law. All of them taking on the care of this man. But the person who volunteered to stay with him 24/7 was his sixteen-year-old daughter, my half-sister. I asked her why—he was such a dick to her, to me, to everyone—and she said, because he’s my father.
That’s what children are for, my mother said, sweat beads all over my chest, the humidity suffocating.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have children, I said.
It doesn’t surprise me. You’re like your grandmother, not maternal at all, she said.
I was 31 at the time, in love with a man who already had his children and said he didn’t want any more. I also was invested in having the freedom to travel and not be responsible for anyone. But when she said this to me, it hurt. A lot.
In our apartment we had many reproductions of famous paintings from the time I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would buy them as gifts with my 20 percent discount. My mother would frame and install them in a way that made our prewar apartment look “fancy.” They complemented the chandelier in the foyer and baroque-style dining table. For years I studied one by Raphael placed near the kitchen, where we spent most of our time at home. It was one of the Madonna and child, both of them with faraway eyes looking down and away in two different directions. A chubby naked Jesus clutching his mother’s chest. He seems very light in her arms, like she’s barely holding him, and maybe that’s the point. Then there was this other one I hung in my room by Gustav Klimt: also a mother and child, it was poster-sized and taped on the wall, the edges all ratty because it kept peeling off. I loved that one because unlike the Raphael painting where Mary seemed so solemn, maybe because she didn’t choose to have a baby, the Klimt depiction of motherhood was sensual and intimate. The child and mother both have their eyes closed and they are clinging to each other in the most tender way. The child’s hand stretches over her bare chest. These artists could not be more different. Raphael was orphaned at eleven and spent many years painting on the walls of the Vatican. He was commissioned to paint the Virgin. And Klimt fathered fourteen children, had numerous affairs and claimed an aesthetic interest in nuda veritas. The way his subjects grasp, cling, hold onto the other, reveal something about his erotic interior, and motherhood was no exception.
I was taught to look at the hands and the eyes in art, because that’s when you know an artist knows what they’re doing. In great works the eyes and hands reveal a tension in meaning, like a good story requires polarity in the sentence. Think of a charged battery, a positive and a negative at each end. Zap.
I grew up being mothered by many, in an apartment filled with depictions of mothers. So when I started to make figurative art in high school, my canvases, unsurprisingly, were cluttered with communities of women: faceless brown women, like the typical souvenir ceramic dolls you can buy at the Dominican airport. The themes in my paintings were the antithesis of those I saw in museums, where mothers were usually depicted alone with child. Where were the comadres to carry the burden and joy of mothering? Where were the other women to care for the child when, for example, I wanted to go off and write?
When my mother said I was not maternal, what I believe she sensed in me from very early on was that I could never be a mother like she was to me, full of sacrifice and commitment. I was not Raphael’s saint or even Klimt’s sexy mother who would dedicate her life to reproducing. I didn’t have the vast network of women, tías and friends that she did, who believed that raising a child was a communal act. And maybe in the end this is why I painted and then became a writer. It was through art that I imagined new possibilities for myself and my characters, of being in this world that often had not reflected back the kind of life I wanted or was even experiencing. Through drawing, painting and eventually writing I hoped to reveal something that we as women have not dared to admit to ourselves or each other: our own wild complexity.
Even if we don’t tell our stories, we carry them from pasts we have never lived. There are many things I intuited about my mother’s lived experience, but when I asked her about her past she was tight-lipped. And so I wrote a novel, Dominicana, finding my way to its story through research, poring over photo albums, conducting countless interviews, reading history books, trying to piece a truth together when I knew so little about the facts. In retrospect this obsessive desire to understand and know what had happened to her makes me think of what Jung said: “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” The word “burden” sounds so negative, but if I think about the calculated systemic oppression against women, the erasure and subjugation of women in my community, what the women have had to sacrifice to stay alive, I wonder if sometimes a parent’s unlived life could also be part of our responsibility. The trade of one generation’s sacrifice to another. Could it be that part of our work as children is to inherit the stories of our parents, our ancestors? To take on the burden of remembering? Or to help lift the burden of experience?
When I first got my period I was told “don’t get pregnant” as if pregnancy could be caught. And then in my twenties another kind of worry brewed among the women in my family. What are you waiting for? You must have a child or you’ll forever have un vacio, my mother said.
Until I became a mother I was treated like a child by the other women in my family. Once pregnant I was respected. Pregnancy was a bigger accomplishment than publishing a novel or getting a tenure-track position at a university. But my mother’s words—you’re not maternal—loomed like a dark cloud during those nine months. I wanted to be a super-mother, and so I read every parenting book I could get my hands on. My need to research motherhood made me feel very American. What Dominicana needed a book to know how to care for a baby? Babies are everywhere. I changed so many diapers when I was in middle school when my cousins stayed over while their mothers worked night shifts or went out dancing. But I had been away from my family enough that I had forgotten all my tween mothering training. I not only didn’t feel equipped to care for a baby, I was full of anxiety that I would really fuck this kid up.
I was 34 years old. Young enough to still have a child and not look like the baby’s grandmother. I say this because I was raised by teenage mothers. My girls from the neighborhood were almost “done” with their kids. Their kids were looking into college. For them midlife was about taking their time back and starting over, free from childcare. When I went in for my OB/GYN appointment, the doctor said, being that you are at advanced maternal age your insurance will cover all the screening tests. In some circles I was still young enough to take on motherhood, in others I was close to my grave.
But I was worried not only about how I could fuck up this kid’s life, but how it might ruin mine. When I finally had my son I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my artistic lifestyle to accommodate him and I felt selfish. I had internalized my mother’s judgment. So to grow into motherhood, to maximize mutual empathy and closeness with my son, I carried him around everywhere on my chest, and later in a kind of backpack. Often skin to skin. I would allow him to sleep with me and breastfeed him in bed. I even have photographs of us that mirror Klimt’s depiction of motherhood, that intensity and sensuality, with both our eyes closed, our hands grasping the other. I took him to academic conferences, not canceling my “work” to mother. I wanted to fold him into my life, not fold my life into his.
You’re doing what? my mother said, thinking that I was making mothering even harder for myself. You don’t have to try and do everything at the same time! Let him cry it out. Put that child on the floor. All that breastfeeding will ruin your tits. My grandmother was rumored to press camphor on her nipples soon after her children were born just for this reason, so the babies wouldn’t cry for her milk. Her breasts dried up instantly. One thing about motherhood is that everybody has an opinion on parenting and it’s almost impossible not to feel bad all the time. So even if it was difficult to be far away from New York because I had no family support for the first five years of mothering, it was also freeing to be away from those loving, self-sacrificing—and yes, judgmental—Dominican mothers. I needed to figure out how to do motherhood in a way that worked for me.
We lived on a ranch in rural Texas, where I held an academic position. We had two acres, a good part of it fenced in so my son could run wild. From the moment my son could walk, he took off in his mini John Deere truck to collect rocks and branches. This he did for most of the day, rolling in dirt even after he got bit by scorpions, wasps, fire ants. My friend Cristina calls it benign negligence—the secret to being a mother who’s also a writer.
It was the opposite of my childhood, where I grew up in Washington Heights in an apartment full of overprotective family and neighbors. Where going outside was only asking for trouble. Where I was trained to stay clean and presentable. We didn’t have the luxury to not be fully presentable. We understood early on that children reflect their parents. Dominicans were so stigmatized. We were part of the wave of immigrants that took over Washington Heights when it housed one of largest drug markets. Only later when I was a teenager did I know that my home, my neighborhood, was known to outsiders as “little Nam.” No wonder my mother was so worried about us. No wonder she cared so much about looking presentable. This is why she worked overtime to raise well-behaved children, to prove we were not “delinquents.” Good children didn’t talk too much. We weren’t allowed to have ideas, or look any adult straight in the eye, or butt into conversations between adults. We weren’t allowed to say we were bored or else we would be given more chores. We weren’t allowed to jump, run, play loudly in the apartment to not disturb those living below us. We had to eat what was served to us. We had to do well in school. We were taught to sit still. Stay out of the way.
My son never learned to sit still.
He also never fulfilled in me what my mother called “un vacio.” As if motherhood could make anyone feel complete or content. For me fulfillment has only ever come fleetingly, and this feeling most often happens when I’m writing. My son, like any other person in my life, is here to accompany me in our shared life story. Not my possession or trophy. Not an answer to a problem. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos writes: “The work of love is in building a shared story, and in letting the differences in perception rest easily beside one another.” I try to practice this with my mother—with everyone that I love, in fact. We may never see what we experience the same but we can let what we see rest together. Maybe even learn. My mother and I are like the many video installations I have seen in museums where two projections are streaming side by side. You can’t really look at them at the same time, but they inform each other.
I’m thinking again of that Raphael painting of the Madonna and child. My son was unplanned, an accident; like the Madonna, I didn’t plan for his arrival. I married a struggling artist. We were so broke, we barely knew each other, and we wanted to be free to pursue whatever paths art provided for us. I painted a portrait of us inside my head: my son in his baby carrier, his sweaty cheeks and lips against my engorged chest. It was hot in Texas. Lots of sweat. His eyes and mine looking away from each other and off to some faraway place. I wanted him to know: we are tethered, but not forever, unless we wanted that. The important thing is the choice. He is not bound to cultural familial duty like my sister who rose up to care for my abusive father. His hands not holding on to me but to his earlobe. That’s right—self-soothe, baby. And maybe the other hand is holding a rattle. One of those beautifully painted wooden ones that he was gifted from Mexico. Everybody needs an instrument of expression.
I returned to Dominican Republic a year after my father passed away. That dank apartment was one of the eight he left his four children as an inheritance. My sister had turned seventeen and taken over his place and fixed the broken pipe that caused the leak. She scraped the walls and painted them bright yellow. Until then I didn’t really know her. We had been estranged because she was fifteen years younger but also because my father kept saying I was his favorite and this inevitably made her jealous. In fact, he named the building after me—Angie’s Apartments, my name painted large on the side in faded blue against the bright white paint.
My sister was a teenager but grown. She was already finishing her first year of college, where she studied design and marketing. She put on the coffee when I arrived and asked me to sit in her living room on the cute but rickety chairs she had reupholstered in bright flowery fabric. She served the coffee with slices of dulce de leche and when she realized she didn’t have milk she said, Wait here, I’ll be right back.
Curious, I went to peek inside the other rooms. She had taken over my father’s bedroom and made it look like an ad for Urban Outfitters—and her old room, half the size, was now her studio. Later I found out she wanted to become an artist. She was better at it than I had ever been. I opened the pile of newsprint pads filled with sketches of my father—there were hundreds of them. Some pinned to the wall. Some in pastels. A half-done oil painting on a makeshift easel. When she returned, I felt caught.
It’s okay, she said. She seemed embarrassed by them, or maybe just by how many there were.
He liked to be the critic. So I drew him constantly. Practice is the only way to get better anyway. He would say, I’m not that fat, am I?
But wasn’t he blind?
He could see enough. Besides, it didn’t matter. It was just a game we played.
She admitted that she loved drawing him in secret. She would rush to finish the sketch before he woke up. For that half hour she had the entire apartment to herself. It was time she could really feel herself, feel her hand on the page. See him for a human that wasn’t her father. He was just the wrinkles on his forehead, the droopy skin around his eyes, the lines around his mouth. The thinning gray hair. His bony legs under the thin fabric of his pajamas.
She said, He was so frail in the end. He couldn’t hurt a fly.
I looked for the hands in her drawings but there were none.
You should practice drawing hands, I said.
Would you let me draw yours?
One day while having lunch with a friend who was thinking about having children, I mentioned my son. She said, I always forget you’re a mother. You don’t carry motherhood like other people do. I was taken aback—does she also think I’m not maternal? Is this attribute that designates good mothers something I am truly lacking? Will I ruin my son’s emotional life, his relationships with other humans because of it?
I’m serious, she continued. How do you do it? I don’t want to be like those other mothers. They are so annoying. I don’t want to lose myself. Should I even bother having children? she asked, laughing.
In his book Happy Ever After, the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan says that studies show women fare far better in life childfree and single. They are happier.
It’s difficult to reconcile this possibility with society’s dominant narrative—that to marry and have children are markers of success. In my case, my choice to marry and have a child definitely relaxed my mother’s worries for me and my future. I can’t say I have any regrets. The journey with my son has been revelatory and mostly joyous. Through him I have had to learn Italian (his first language along with Spanish), I have read all the children’s books I didn’t read when I was a kid, I have forced myself to camp in the wild, watched endless action movies and loved it, and learned to appreciate classical music through his study of the violin. I wouldn’t have done any of this if it weren’t for him. And my life feels richer for it. But isn’t this true about any path one can take? Again I think of two videos streaming side by side. One is the life we live. One is the life we imagine we could have lived. The two coexist no matter what you choose.
My mother has always been reluctant to share her personal stories with me, perhaps because she has been trying to save me from the darkness, shame and violence of her story. But can we ever be saved when we both inherit and share a life story with our parents? Febos writes, “I have always been afraid to have children. I didn’t want to give them the parts of me—the hurtling hunger, the shame—but now I know there is no avoiding it. The best I can do is teach them not to fear the dark.”
I don’t want what my mother says or doesn’t say to weigh on my life as heavily as it sometimes does. However, the psychic jolt I feel when she says something about me that clashes with my self-perception has been one of the engines of my creative work, including this essay. It is through my reflection of what she perceives and my resistance to her words that I have learned not to fear the dark.
To be motherly. To mother: to give birth to. To give rise to. To care for or protect like a mother.
It took years of mothering for me to shelve people’s vision of what mothering should look like. It also took years for me to rise to the kind of mothering outside of convention or performance, the expected foreclosed existence, and to instead take it on as a journey into the unknown.
A few weeks ago my mother started reading Dominicana. I asked her to do it before it was published because I worried it might upset her. In its final form it is so wildly different from anything that actually happened in her life. Even so, because the initial seed of it was inspired by her, I wanted to make sure she would be okay with what I wrote. After reading the first fifty pages she said, How could you know my thoughts, my memories? This book is filled with things I had completely forgotten. It’s as if you lived it.
I watched my mother sit by the window. The northern light casts a shadow on one side of her face. Most of the furniture in the apartment is the same as it has been for decades. Although now the walls are filled with different works of art, reproductions she has purchased herself. Venus standing on a seashell, nude, with her long voluptuous hair barely covering her private parts. A pack of muscular horses racing across an open green field.
My mother’s long fingers flick the corners of the book I wrote. She’s not one to smile often, but she looks at me as if I’ve done something right.
Art credit: Gina Goico