Maya, motherhood and fatherhood
Tributes have been pouring down on the memory and life of Maya Angelou, poet/novelist/performance artist, friend to the powerful and the influential, and early leading figure in the United States’ civil rights movement.
Her words, and her affirmation of the beauty of black women, said US First Lady Michelle Obama at Angelou’s last rites, “led a young woman from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House,” referring, of course, to herself. But Michelle Obama also made reference to “a white woman in Kansas” who so loved Angelou that she named her daughter Maya, and whose son became “the first black president of the United States.” Her husband Barack, of course.
But the tributes have been pouring down not just from those who shared Angelou’s citizenship and skin color. Even here in the Philippines, in Facebook, tweets, newspaper columns and conversations, her passing did not go unnoticed.
My first encounter with Angelou was when I read her first novel, “Now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Recounting her childhood in America’s rural (and segregated) South, the novel was amusing and harrowing (recalling a childhood rape). I was a young adult then, full of apprehensions and doubts. But when I read, toward the close of the book, of Angelou’s first night at home with her baby boy, I felt a wave of reassurance about motherhood.
She had been afraid of keeping the baby on the same bed with her, fearful she would somehow smother him, she wrote, but her mother assured her that her body would know what to do. And true enough, when she awoke, she found that her arm had formed a tent above the baby, protecting him and keeping him safe.
And I thought, “So that is what motherhood is.” Through the years, I’ve realized that mothers don’t always know how best to raise their babies (as the cliché goes, babies don’t come with instructions); they will make mistakes but they will also learn. But as long as we trust our instincts and try always to do what’s best for them and for us, we’ll weather the challenges of motherhood.
And that is the best lesson Maya Angelou taught me.
* * *
But why am I writing about mothers on this day observed—and supposedly reserved—for fathers?
Because without mothers there would not be fathers?
Because without women willing to carry an infant to term, men would not evolve into their calling of fatherhood?
Because every man has a mother—while for many, having a father is simply an option?
Someone once said that our relationship with our fathers is the first one we choose to have in our lives. We all need our mothers—to birth us, to nurture us—but we have a choice, yes, even as babies, to establish a relationship with the man hovering over our mother’s shoulder. The same is true for that man, too. My sisters and girlfriends and I all share the same experience—when we have our babies (or first know we are pregnant), motherhood kicks in. One look at the red-faced, puckered-up creature in our arms, and the maternal instinct is born.
But my husband and men friends tell me that it takes them a bit longer to establish the connection. For some, fatherhood descends on them the second the infant clutches at a finger, or meets their eye. But others need to let the awareness soak in first, to creep in unaware, to catch them at a vulnerable moment.
Or as an old mentor quipped: “For women, motherhood is a given. For men, fatherhood is a matter of trust.”
* * *
Friends who are parents of young children often wonder why, when time comes for them to leave for work, the children let their fathers leave for the office without much fuss, but raise a stink when they see their mothers about to leave.
One feminist sociologist found that this is because even very young children understand that when it comes to fathers and work “the issue is nonnegotiable.” Whereas when it comes to their mothers trooping to the workplace, “they know they have more room for negotiation.”
Of course “negotiation” is putting it mildly. There is no or little negotiating with a screaming child grabbing and hanging onto her mother’s skirt and even, in the case of one nephew, holding his breath until he turns beet-red and seems about to collapse. Some parents I know resorted to subterfuge: having the yaya hide the child until they put some distance between them and the tyke. I was shocked at such tactics, imagining the fear engendered in the child who may think his/her parents have simply abandoned him/her, never to return.
Perhaps the children only sense the mother’s own ambivalence, her own doubts about the wisdom of her employment outside the home, her own insecurities, her massive guilt. Children’s antennae, for guilt especially, is keenly sensitive, and the little imps have little trouble exploiting this guilt and building on it.
I can only imagine how children of migrant parents—migrant working mothers, especially—react to and exploit this painful parting.
* * *
In an ideal world, we would all be staying home together. The traditional setup of father at work, mother at home keeping the home fires burning, welcoming the children home from school with a ready snack and warm hugs fills us with nostalgia.
It would all be so wonderful if only we didn’t have to eat, pay for a home and for school, get medical treatment, earn a little extra for clothes and entertainment. And these days, as it has always been, a single paycheck just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Times are changing, and the “nonnegotiables” of parenthood are evolving, along with the gender-based expectations of family roles. But as Maya Angelou assured us: A mother (read: parent) knows what to do, if only she would trust her instincts and her own feelings.
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