My mother is very much alive. In fact, she just texted me today. I didn’t answer.
The last time I saw her was in March when I hosted a brunch at my home for my family. My aunt started the tradition last year, and it was my turn to host. I spent the week doña cleaning my home. I mopped several times. I scrubbed, wiped, moved furniture.
I’ve lived here with my butch fiancé and daughter for over two years, but this was the first time my mother visited. She’s been in and out of my life for so long, and I so wanted her to love my home like I do. She made it clear she didn’t as soon as she walked in. She didn’t like that I live on a hill; that we have to walk to a door at the side of the house to enter; she didn’t like the narrow staircase we have to climb to get to our third-floor apartment. She said my plants were dying and I needed to take better care of them. She asked me to close the door to my writing room, the one I was especially excited to show her because it’s the first time I’ve ever had a home office in my forty-three years. She said she didn’t like the pictures I had up. She never did enter that room, and not two hours after arriving, she stormed out.
I was talking about my upcoming wedding when she erupted, telling me it was disrespectful that I talk about it in front of her. That she doesn’t approve of me marrying a woman and I know it. She called me malcriada. She started gathering her things. I felt all the dedicated healing work I’ve been doing in therapy and in my spirituality kick in. I saw my triggers, acknowledged them but didn’t let them take over. I didn’t flip out. I didn’t yell. I told her she was not going to steal my joy. That she didn’t have to approve. That I am going to get married anyway.
I haven’t seen her since though she’s texted several times. I haven’t answered. I choose me.
I didn’t know there was a term for me until after my brother died in June of 2013; when I was dealing with my grief and all the griefs that grief brought up, including the grief over my antagonistic relationship with my mother.
They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary the Definition of UNMOTHERED: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes>
Dictionary.com takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist…an unmothered woman.
I’ve written versions of this essay over the years.
In one version that I wrote in 2015, I told of how I ran to the park when I woke up in Mother’s Day. I sat on a bench by the water and watched as little kids skipped by innocently as children do. One kicked a soccer ball, his cleats tapping on the pavement rhythmically. A woman sat on the other side of the bench with her son, who must have been three. They blew bubbles and I watched as the child ran after them. He laughed when he poked them and they burst. One splashed in his eye, he shrieked and mom came running. She pulled him close and soothed him. I saw that child lean into his mama, his safe space, sure that she would make the ache go away. My chest tightened.
A pigeon pecked at the floor. White with splotches of gray on its small body, his heart hung out of its chest. A soft mound that throbbed on the pigeon’s undercarriage. I marveled at this bird who still fed, still flew, with its heart softly pounding outside of its chest. I marveled at that heart that still sustained and kept that bird alive, pulsing just beneath where it’s supposed to be housed. I wondered about that heart. How it kept going, unaware that it was exposed and raw. It did what hearts do—it beat, it lived, it thrived.
I go back to my mother’s garden often in my writing and my memory. Our backyard was an oasis in what was otherwise a devastated neighborhood. 1980s Bushwick was rubble-strewn lots for blocks, dilapidated buildings, and black and brown families somehow surviving in this poverty. I remember seeing images of war-torn Beirut flash across our TV and thinking: “that looks like my neighborhood.”
My mom’s garden was her safe space, and the plum tree in that backyard was mine. I would often climb that tree and stare down at her as she treated her plants with a patience and tenderness she rarely showed me. That little girl still lives in me, the little girl who just wanted her momma to love her and be what she wasn’t and couldn’t be.
Mom was hard slaps and gritted teeth. She still is.
I know she did the best she could with what she had, but the little girl I was still didn’t get what she needed. It took me years to write this sentence and know it to be true.
This August marks thirty years since I left my mother’s house and never moved back. I did it the “right way” by going away to school, but it’s only as an adult that I realize I was trying to save my own life. I still marvel at the thirteen-year-old girl. Her audacity. Her bravery.
Since then my mother has punished me repeatedly by denying me her love. When I don’t live my life as she wants me to. When I don’t let her abuse me. When I dare to stand up to her. When I make decisions she doesn’t approve of.
Once, years ago, I ran into her at my aunt’s house. When she walked by me to leave she pulled her arm in as she walked past so she wouldn’t touch me. I still feel that ice. I resist it every day in the ways I mother my daughter and my students. I break that ice every time I tell my daughter a few times a day, probably too often, that I love her. That she’s special. That she’s smart and compassionate and she’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
The best thing that has come out of this work is this: my daughter is not unmothered. I have broken the cycle.
I have made it my life’s work to help writers pen their stories.
It was in literature that I found stories similar to mine. I found it in poems by Patricia Smith, essays by Jaquira Díaz, plays by Cherrie Moraga, novels by Toni Morrison. Their words helped me through my sadness, rage and disappointment. I felt less alone. I felt seen. I wanted to share that with writers to help them write their mother wounds.
I’ve written at length about being unmothered and what it’s like being unmothered in a world that demands that we sacrifice ourselves at the altar of la madre. A world that punishes and shames us when we refuse to.
I’ve posted about it on social media. Sometimes people show solidarity and share loving words. Sometimes they tell me not to go there. To focus on all the beauty I am surrounded by.
Once, a sister-friend responded that she couldn’t let me go there. Go where? I imagined a hole like Buffalo Bill’s torture pit in Silence of the Lambs. I saw the scratch marks on the wall, a nail still clinging, ripped from the root of a now dead girl who was trying desperately to crawl out, to save her own life.
You’re fierce,” my friend wrote. She told me that I was an inspiration. She posted on my wall, telling me how proud she is of me. How relentless I am. She said she knew I’d rationalize what I was feeling, but she just had to tell me.
I thought of something a former lover said a few years ago: “I know why you take care of me…because no one took care of you.”
Others have commented, reminding me of what a great mother I am to my daughter and how fortunate my students are to have me dedicate my heart to them. They were all trying to hold up a mirror. Telling me, “I see you.” I know they had the best intentions. I know they come from a place of love when they remind me of all the love I have and give, the students I’ve inspired, the tenderness with which I mother my daughter. I know all this to be true, but I felt silenced. They wanted me to get past it. I know most people don’t know what it is to be unmothered and they can’t fathom the pain of it, so they try to be comforting. They want me not to feel this grief.
I’ve learned that much of the world does not know how to hold and be present for a grieving person.
…don’t you know that the way you touch a woman can remind her of all the ways that she’s ever been hurt? ―Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
On May 10th, I am marrying my love. It is the first relationship where I am not reliving or repeating the “love me; please love me” cycle I learned from my relationship with my mother.
I am marrying my love two days before Mother’s Day.
I did not know this when we finalized the date months ago. Perhaps this was my subconscious taking back my power and giving me agency. Remind me of hope and love and all the tenderness and support I now know I deserve. Perhaps spirit was showing me that I can make joy out of what has brought me such tremendous pain.
Isn’t that what I’ve been doing all along?
What I know is that I am still healing. I am still unmothered. I have made beauty out of my mother wound and have dedicated my life to continue doing so. This is incredibly hard work. But as my friend Peggy Robles says: magic making ain’t for pendejas.
On this Mother’s Day, I want the unmothered among us to know: I see you. I feel you. You are not alone. Write those stories. Dig into those wounds. That’s where the healing lies. The only way out is in. And if you need help in the journey, I gotchu. Because you are me and I am you, and we are all we got.
As Leslie Feinberg said in Stone Butch Blues: “surrenderin is unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival!” But we ain’t surviving anymore. We’re learning how to live. Poco a poco, día a día. Word.
Vanessa Mártir is a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey at vanessamartir.blog. A five-time VONA/Voices and two-time Tin House fellow, Vanessa’s work has been published widely including on The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Bitch Magazine, the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, and the NYTimes Bestselling anthology Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay. Vanessa is the founder of the Writing Our Lives Workshop and the Writing the Mother Wound Class, which she teaches in NYC and online. When she’s not writing or teaching, you can find Vanessa either on a dance floor, in a gym punching a bag and doing squats, or in the woods hiking and talking to trees. Find out more about her at vanessamartir.com.
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