By hand, by ambition, and by letting go: creativity from my parents helped me learn to become a mother | Leslie Contreras Schwartz
As a child, it was a common sight to see my mother hunched over a long bolt of white silk, taffeta, or tulle that bundled in her lap and onto the floor, while in the glow of the television which played General Hospital or a telenovela, she hand-sewed beads, trim or some sort of notion onto an elaborate dress. This effort was done with intensity, despite her complete engrossment in the story she watched, and while she shouted to the characters with warnings, imitated peculiar voices with uncanny accuracy, or let out a curse or death-wish to a villain who kept killing off her favorite characters. I was named after one of those characters on General Hospital who died an untimely death, Dr. Lesley Webber, a character who finds a long-lost adopted daughter and died in a car wreck in 1984 (only later to reemerge from a long catatonic state in 1996).
My mother had never received any formal training in pattern making, couture technique, or how to sew and alter ball gowns, wedding dresses or customized clothing. What she had learned was an accumulation of years at her mother’s side in the cramped sewing room at the back of their 1940’s bungalow in North Houston. Her adopted mother, Guadalupe Ramos, lived on disability checks after her husband, who’d wanted my mother as his child and chose her, died unexpectantly when my mother turned one, a few months after she’d been adopted. Lita, as we called her, made income from sewing quincenera and wedding gowns, and was known for her elaborate work, giant gowns full of tulle, a skirt hoop, lace, and all the show stoppers. My mom learned to make her own clothes, and began helping her mother finish jobs to make income, in addition to learning how to speak English like a native and working odd jobs at the Catholic schools she attended on scholarship. Lita’s big plans for my mother included being ordained into the church as a nun, and a full-time caregiver to her in old age.
My mother, however, fell in love with a musician, my father, and took what she learned to try to create a family out of very little cultural and social knowledge of how middle-income families lived, behaved, or raised their kids. In other words, she winged it. She would make it up along the way, observing, mimicking and teaching us how to fit in. Not only that, she would learn to be an accepted member of that community, more or less, when we were a young family and my parents were raising us in many ways foreign to the way they were raised. We would find their ability to scrape and make-do useful later, when our circumstances changed our financial stability; but when I was young, it seemed to me, like most children, that my parents had it all together.
I did not understand until now that my parents, like most parents, were winging it; and part of what drove them to raise us or steer us into certain directions was their instinct to protect combined with their ingenuity to make up what they didn’t know how to do. In many ways, my four siblings and I grew up together with our parents.
And I learned early the importance of resourcefulness: if there is something you want to do, to learn how to do, or figure out, you spend time studying, observing, and gathering information and then try it. If you don’t have enough information, you try it anyway and aim to improve. I am certain I learned this from my parents, this earnest creativity that, underneath, relied on my ability to learn and become more intelligent, savvy, aware of the world’s ways. My mother taught herself English by watching television, because in 1950s Houston there was no such thing as ESL or guided language learning. And my dad? He did not have the opportunity to finish his college degree; he was a young father as he tried to complete his coursework, but the hurricane of responsibilities piled on top of him and he was not able to finish. Instead, he was an eager clerk in the mailroom of a corporate bank. Within a few years, he’d worked his way up through the bank and became a vice president by the time he was only 30 years old.
As a college student, I only had a nebulous idea of what becoming a writer would look like, and no desire to become a mother or wife. I only had the desire to try without fail to become a writer and for ten years this is what I did. I enrolled in a Ph.d. program in English, only to realize I did not have time to write and had no interest in a career as a literature professor, and so I dropped out. I took jobs as a technical writer and journalist and eventually enrolled in a creative writing program, but all the time I kept writing, studying, reading, learning and trying desperately to find like-minded writers to form a community. It was during the last two years of this period when my husband and I decided to have a baby, a momentous change in my life plan. It was a terrifying prospect, but less terrifying to me since I had been able to devote so much time to writing, and I felt that I could continue to cultivate this practice with partner who was willing to allow me the freedom to pursue my goals.
But it would be an understatement to say that having my daughter undid me, shook me up, reshaped me—physically, mentally and spiritually. I imagine most parents would say this about their first child’s birth, but I felt down to my core a sense of being broken up and mixed all together, a disorienting stupor. For many reasons, I distrusted reading books about parenting. It seemed like a thing born of privilege, and an affront to millennia of mothers who raised children and families without textbooks and only each other. But where was my community? It was only me, with visits from my mother and other family members in short periods, and hours and hours of alone time with my daughter feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of being her mother.
I was arrogant enough to believe I could figure it out; that when I held her tiny body against mine, some secret maternal mode would click into place. But instead, the first time I held her, saw her round face staring back beneath a wild fuzz of black hair, her flat face and dark eyes, I felt unmoored. The labor itself set off an immune response in my body that laid me in a long exhaustion, which would later be diagnosed as an autoimmune disease triggered by her traumatic birth, and on top of that, my mind fell into the cave of postpartum depression, something I’d been warned about—and consulted specialists about, beforehand—as I’d struggled with depression since my late teens.
The desire to be a good mother was there, the desire to be tender and nurturing. I just didn’t know how to do it, or how to set upon a new way of living that made sense to me. Those were years mixed with the dark cloud of grief—for the things I could not feel but wanted to—coupled with the joy of my daughter’s sweet first years as she learned to walk, talk, sing and dance.
I can’t say I ever figured out the kind of mother I needed to be. Overtime, I have just stopped measuring and engaged with the doing. And tenderness and sweetness from parenting rises up in unexpected ways, out of the natural course of observing my children in their activities: watching my daughter ride a bike for the first time along the bayou without my interference, seeing my first-grader play with her brother for hours with a gentle manner I hope lasts their whole lives.
In many ways, I am a try-it-all kind of mother, one who is not willing to commit to few ideas of child-rearing wholeheartedly because I’ve learned that there are no formulas or easy answers. I learn by doing, and seeing what works for each of my three children, which can be different. But it is my sense of creativity and drive that I’ve discovered helps me solve problems as a parent, and one that, ultimately, helps me find joy in it too.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a multi-genre writer from Houston. She is the author of the collection of poems, Nightbloom & Cenote (St. Julian Press, May 2018). For more work, visit lesliecschwartz.com.