When you’re comfortable in a place, it’s the little things that can remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore – like the volcanic ash that coated cars and roofs this month with a fuzzy layer of grey and forced guards and motorcycle messengers to wear paper masks to protect their lungs, making the streets of San José look a little like Beijing. Usually, though, when a volcano isn’t erupting, it’s language that reminds me that, yes, I’m still a foreigner: the words or phrases I still don’t understand, or others that I do understand but that may never feel natural to use.
One that falls into the latter category for me is the common use of “mami” and “papi” as a way to address a very young child. “Come here, papi, let me tie your shoes.” “No, no, mamita, don’t touch that.” I find it charming, but it sounds strange on my English-speaking tongue, too strange for me to use – it just sounds like you’re addressing your child as mommy or daddy, even though that’s not the way it comes across in Spanish at all. Anyway, that is how I felt about it until yesterday, when I came around very suddenly.
Small person: I have to explain, first, that this month I added another job to the mix. I have been working in one way or another ever since you were six weeks old or so, with plenty of late-night slogs, full days and even international trips, so I thought that this new endeavor wouldn’t change things too much – but I underestimated how different it would feel to have, for the first time in two years, a daily schedule, albeit part-time.
As soon as I sat down in my new office, I felt a sinking sensation totally at odds with the pleasant space around me or the kind people just outside my door. It was a knot in the gut that I instantly recognized from the day my parents dropped me off at sleepaway camp when I was eleven years old. It was homesickness. I thought about you back at our house and wondered what you are doing, just as I once lay in a bunk in Maine as darkness gathered above the lake outside and wondered what my parents were doing at home in Michigan, yearned with my whole body to be back where I belonged.
I’ve been a little heartbroken, dealing with this transition, but I know it’s part of the deal. There’s a dicho for it, of course: “Al que le quiere celeste, que le cueste,” which literally means “if you want it blue, you’ll have to work for it,” but actually translates to “no pain, no gain.” I believe that women and men are equal. I believe that women deserve equal access to education and an equal chance for professional success and, of course, equal pay for equal work. I believe that women should be able to marry in order to be loved, not in order to be supported financially. I believe all that, and I have had the great good fortune to be able to live like that. That’s my gain. Now, here’s the pain. Walking away from you as you stand at our garden gate is the pain. Missing a new gesture, a new word, a new discovery is the pain.
Just to be clear, when I say “no pain, no gain,” I’m not referring to women who aren’t given an adequate maternity leave (hats off, USA), or aren’t given the legal benefits they deserve. That’s not equality; that’s injustice. That’s harmful to women, and men, and children, and is something we must address. No, I’m just talking here about the inevitable pain that comes with the equally inevitable separation from the person we once carried within us, even when we’ve had time and space to adapt to motherhood, as I certainly have and as every woman should. I’m simply stating the obvious fact that even when our rights and needs as parents have been respected, even when we’re being separated from our kids at a reasonable age, for short periods and by the standard economic realities that affect most of us – it still sucks.
Yesterday, as I got ready to leave, I was suddenly overcome and sat down for a quick, efficient cry. You marched over, wearing the ruffled skirt and rubber rain boots you had picked out and put on yourself, and pulled yourself up onto my lap. What got me was the look on your face: you looked concerned, but not in a wobbly-chinned, scared baby way. You looked concerned in the slightly amused but kindly way of a kindergarten teacher who knows the world isn’t ending, but wants to find out why her young charge thinks that it is.
Wearing that wise, benevolent expression, you took my face in your hands like a too-good-to-be-true child in a bad movie, one of those dimpled, cutesy kid who say unrealistic things like, “But mommy, all I want for Christmas is you.” Only it was breathtaking instead of annoying, because you’re not too good to be true. You poop all over the house and lick your Play Doh as if it were ice cream and do all the other things real toddlers do, and still, suddenly here you were, a little good fairy.
“What’s wrong, mamá?” you asked. “Are you sad?”
“I’m a little sad,” I said, “but I’m ok.”
You considered this. “Is the baby sad?”
“No, you’re happy! Everything is ok.”
“Is Daddy sad?”
“No, he’s happy, too! And I’m ok. I just love you, and I miss you when I go.”
You tilted your head to one side and patted my head as if I were a friendly dog. “Don’t worry, mamá,” you said. “Don’t worry.”
I couldn’t think what to say. I was wordless, astonished, and I gave you a hug, pulled myself together and headed out, down the hill on the first leg of my walk to work. As my feet carried my reluctant body away from you, I saw your life flash before my eyes, your many faces: serene and big-cheeked in the ultrasound photo, scared and wide-eyed in a dark car seat during your first nighttime taxi ride, squishy and sleepy in your baby carrier. And now, pert and winsome and commanding and ringed by shaggy hair, as it is when you come to our room in the morning holding our slippers, your dad’s and mine. You hold them out to us and say, “Put on SHOES! Let’s GO! One, two ,three four…” and you’re out the door, waiting for us to follow.
I thought of all this, and realized what I should have said back to you. I sent the words back up the hill behind me, back to the garden where maybe, just maybe, you were still looking after me (although it was much more likely you had disappeared into the house like a shot looking for Play Doh or Apple products). I sent a title you’ve earned already, one I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll earn again and again in the years to come.
OK, mami. I said. I won’t worry, mamita. We’re ok, mami, we’re ok.