Becoming Mami | Raina León

When I first held my son, I wondered if I could love him in the way that so many mothers tell it, that neverending immensity that sweetens and, at times, pains one’s life, a love that summons a strength mightier than that of Atlas and sometimes feels as weighted as the world he bore.

The first word my son must have heard was me saying his name; I was purposeful in that choice, that he should hear the name he gave me in a dream.  He will always have his name.

When he came, I felt mostly numb, not the love that I expected to flood me, riding the wave of oxytocin, during labor and into that period after birth.  I imagined there would be this rose-colored energetic swath I would feel after the triumph of giving birth, facing what is always the possibility of one’s own death and coming through with one life leading to two.  Instead, I became caught up in the details:  the midwives signal to push once more to expel the placenta, how they guided my husband’s hands to cut the cord, the checks on me and on baby and back and forth again and again, the order to pee before I could go home.

Soon after he was born, after that first seeking to suck at my breast, I remember I gave Raffaele away to his father to snuggle.  His whole life I have found myself at tension with holding him fast against me and giving him away to grow, this knowing of myself in relation to him and treasuring the self that is me alone.  This is how I am becoming Mami, a new name.

Recently, I had an interview in the States that required my physical presence, so I left my son and partner in Italy with my partner’s family.  Up until that point, I had never been away from my child for more than a work day, and as I had had the joy of a semester of maternity leave, in over seven months, I could count on one hand and still have fingers left how many full work days we had been apart.  When I arrived, I found friends offering the full gamut of advice and questions, from in two days, you’ll feel like you are on vacation to how can you even function right now.  A mother apart from her infant for days at a time seemed to be unheard of to many.  I was not on vacation; I was functioning just fine.  Am I less of a mother for not having the right dispositions? I thought.

In Italy, I knew my child would be favored, doted upon, and grow to be able to do and understand a bevy of new things.  He would be fine, and I knew, so would I.

It was the last night away that I broke down, seeing his happy face through a screen while he tried to bang the phone on his end.  Mami was in a box and with just the right finger poking or hit on the table, Mami would be here, he seemed to say through his actions.  After our call, I said to my own mother with whom I was visiting, I miss him as I began to cry, to which she replied that I would see him soon.  No need to cry when holding him was imminent.

When I returned to Italy, all I wanted was my baby and soon enough, I was talking with my partner about another upcoming separation.  He and baby are staying in Italy for another three weeks while I return to the States for two conferences and setting up house for the child who will return, the crawler; we know that our house is in need of severe remediation as it is a deathtrap of books.  We live near a fault line, and we are book people with lots of shelves.

The separation is purposeful.  I am an academic, and my partner’s mother is celebrating 70 years young.  It will be the first time her son has been in Italy for her birthday for over 10 years and the first time for her grandson.  In love for her, I give up my own birthday celebration with my son and three weeks of time; it is also a gesture of love for myself as artist and scholar.

Still, I was unsure of the separation as I did have the option of an extra week or two in Ireland with baby and partner instead of participating in my first conference.  The costs would be many, professional and financial.  There would also be personal and professional rewards.  I did what many do in consternation:  did an informal Facebook poll.

Stay with baby.

Go to Ireland.

Stay in Ireland.

Stay with baby.

Go to the conference.  Your partner will have time to miss you.

I vote for baby… Baby will be an entirely different human next year.

Ireland. Ireland.  Ireland.  Baby.  Baby.  Baby. Stay in Ireland and take care of you. 

I knew what most of the responses would be.  As well-meaning as my network of friends and family intended, I knew they would center on my child and not on me in relation to my child.  They would not say what I believe, that in centering me I become a better mother to him.

Only two said anything different:  one focused on the professional and how participation at one of the conferences was competitive, how many are not accepted to participate on panels, and how he wouldn’t “blow it off” if he was scheduled.  There was an acknowledgement, in his call, of community accountability and responsibility.  I was not myself, though, I was only in relation to others, and isn’t this what others were also pointing to:  my relation to another growing human?

The second person offered “unselfish advice:  don’t make [a] decision out of guilt or obligation, only you know what you need in this moment.  If it is reinvesting in yourself as an individual, then go guilt-free, the baby will bond extra with his daddy.  If you aren’t feeling the conferencing, and want to stay, then stay guilt-free – you are on sabbatical and parental leave!”  Only one person centered me and my decision-making, that whatever my decision, it should be made without guilt.  This was the only advice that centered my individual choice while acknowledging my child had a community beyond me, that ours was not the only important bond, and that whatever my decision, I could unburden myself of guilt.

She was having the same effect as I have wanted to have with my son from the moment he was born; she, in effect, called my name.  We should all have those who can call our names in all their truths.

And my name is Mami and it is also Raina.  As both, I get to make choices and celebrate the making of them, suffer in them, and still learn, which will inform new choices.

It is always when Raffaele is sleeping that I see myself anew.  His hair shines from argan oil, brushed to the side and carefully mussed with my fingers as he struggled to sleep.  Long eyelashes flutter.  His lips are ever plumped in a muted punch pink. At his cheeks, there is a sprinkle of mica sheen over a dusty rose.  He sleeps and his eyes are just about to open, slits between the real and the dream.  He snuggles in a blue sleep sack, which says only to those who witness him, Hello, World.

I know each moment of his life, its delicacy and power, its momentous fleeting essence.  I treasure his gurgles, his discovery of in and out, his floundering as he attempts to crawl, his realization that his own two fingers can pacify him far better than any pacifier anyone else could give him.  I see him, and I see myself and how I wish to mother is through modeling, holding a connection with those we love with an eye to their world.  How it aches and sweetens and aches!  This rose swath within me.  To hold and give away and hold again, to hold a human and the world in the mind, heart, and arms.

Hello, World, my name is here.  My name twines two identities, distinct and yet bonded together, and this is the swell, I had the spark of in our first moments, from joined to separate and bonded.  It grew from the first, and this is my revolution!  Yes, Hello, World.


Raina J. León, PhD, is from Philly and loves to travel.  She is a CantoMundo fellow, Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006) and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, and has been published in numerous journals as a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and scholarly work.  She is the author of three collections of poetry, Canticle of Idols, Boogeyman Dawn, sombra: (dis)locate, and the chapbook, profeta without refuge.  She has received fellowships and residencies with Macondo, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, Montana Artists Refuge, the Macdowell Colony, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, among others.  She is a founding editor of The Acentos Review, an online quarterly, international journal devoted to the promotion and publication of Latinx arts.  She is an associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College of California.  She teaches workshops with The Speakeasy Project and is currently curating for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Museum Archive and the Museum of the African Diaspora (in San Francisco)

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