MAY I HAVE A WORD? A ndrea C u m b o
We Are All Mothers “You really can’t do that,” the baby’s mother scolded me as I lifted her child by the arms. “You can dislocate something—it’s called nursemaid’s elbow.” Of course I had no desire to hurt this baby, and I was glad to know about nursemaid’s elbow. So why did I feel so irked; why did I feel like crying? For weeks I wondered, then one day I heard a radio interview with Uwem Akpam. Each story in his new collection, Say You Are One of Them, is told from the perspective of a child who has suffered tragedy: a boy whose family is murdered, a girl forced to prostitute herself to feed a younger brother. I was engrossed in Akpam’s words, fascinated by the stories, devastated by the children’s voices. And then the female interviewer said, “As a mother, I find these stories very hard to read.” That’s when it all came clear to me. I took a deep breath. And then I got really angry. How dare she claim that because she has children she can understand the pain of these children better than people who do not, better than I? I feel great sorrow for these kids, and, as much as anyone who has not personally lived these experiences, I can enter into their pain. For a woman to claim that she understands this pain more than others simply because she is raising children makes me furious. Now, I am not a mother. I have never had to care for children for more than a week at a time, and I do not know, personally, the struggles that the life of a mother brings. I grant that. What I do know, however, is what it is to struggle—and what it is to love children. Yet for some reason, most women with children act as if motherhood is
the fundamental experience of womanhood, as if you can’t truly understand life if you haven’t raised a child. I see this sentiment in my colleagues when they talk about their children and I— the only childless woman in my department—speak into the conversations with stories about my friends’ children, only to glimpse the patronizing look that passes among them, a look that says, if not “She hasn’t really lived yet,” at the very least, “She has no idea.” I understand why women in biblical times, like Sarah and Elizabeth, cried out to the Lord for children, why the word “barren” is so appropriate. In a culture that was so defined by family lineage and descendants, these women, unable to fill their assigned “role,” were lesser. God chose to give both these women children eventually, but I imagine there were many other women whose prayers for children went ungranted. How sad that our culture today continues to perpetuate the idea that women without children are incomplete. Sadder still is how women themselves perpetuate this belief. Is it not enough that we evaluate one another’s appearance so critically? Must we also judge each other by our ability, choice, or chance to procreate or adopt? I have struggled with the aftermath of a husband who felt the need to leave our marriage and with my inability, for financial reasons, to adopt a little boy from Guatemala. It’s been difficult, but I have hope that one day I will adopt a child. In the meantime, I feel excluded and demeaned because I do not have one. One night, when I was bemoaning my potential fate of being alone without husband or child, succumbing to the shame that childless women can be so vulnerable to, my friend pointed me to Isaiah 54:1—“‘Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who never were in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who PRISM 2008
has a husband,’ says the Lord.” God tells us to celebrate, to broaden our tents (v.2), for our descendants will be vast. That is the message that we women need to carry to and for one another— that we all have descendants, be they biological, adopted, or metaphorical. We all carry life forward. We are all mothers. I try to live out this idea by being an “auntie” to my friends’ children, buying them books and sharing who I am, listening to their lives so that (if I’m lucky) they’ll know to come to me as teenagers when they’re too mortified to speak to their parents. I live this out by taking joy in the jokes they tell, the way they throw robes over their heads and walk into rooms laughing, the limpness of their tiny arms as they sleep. I live this out by trusting that these are my children, too— mine to watch and raise, not in the same way as their parents, but in a very important way. And not in a way that is lesser, just different. In my view, every child is mine. They are my responsibility to keep out of the street when they’re riding their bikes, to pick up when they trip on the sidewalk, to hold their hands when they’re lost in the store. They are mine to love—and mine to grieve for when they are abused or neglected. These are my children, not because I am a mother, but because I am human. Maybe one day I will adopt a child, but for now I will just love the children I do have in my life—“more are my children.” So when I’m scolded about picking up a baby by her arms, or when someone shoots a look to another mom because I have no idea what it is to love a child so much that you’ll stay up all night rubbing Vicks VapoRub on her chest, I will try not to give in to either anger or shame. I will rejoice in God’s provision; I will scoop up the nearest child and smile, a baby on my hip, laughter on our lips. n Andrea Cumbo teaches writing at Cecil College in Maryland and is auntie to 17 children.