If Neighbors Were "Other Mothers"

My mother sits across my kitchen table, answering my questions, at first perfunctorily, then gradually giving in to reminiscences. I ask her, “How do you say "neighbor" in Taiwanese?” Tsu bihn, which translates as "next-to-house."  
“And what kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? Do you remember any special places from your childhood neighborhood?” No special places. 

What I want to ask her, but can’t bring myself to say is, how did you become a mother? I can’t ask because I don’t expect that she will hear the question I’m asking. She will say, “the matchmaker--she put me with your father...” I am curious as ever about that story, but even more curious about how we, my mother and I, who grew up with career-minded mothers, ourselves became mothers. We two have so little in common, but this lack of “maternal instinct” we share. Neither of us, as young women, felt any urge to have children; both of us ranked motherhood low on the scale of life aspirations. Yet life circumstances put us both on a path of becoming mothers, and this became a point of connection for us. It helped us heal from past misunderstandings and hostilities. 

The question I want to ask is more along the lines of the one Sarah Blaffer Hrdy asks in the preface of Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (1999.)  
“What does it mean to be born a mammal, with the emotional legacy that makes me capable of caring for others, breeding with the ovaries of an ape, possessing the mind of a human being . . . to be a semicontinuously sexually receptive, hairless biped, with conflicting aspirations and struggling to maintain her balance in a rapidly changing world? (xi)

Hrdy’s question makes me chuckle. Two years ago, though, as I struggled to keep my marriage intact, I would have been too deeply mired in the pain of “conflicting aspirations” to see the humor.  Conflicting aspirations and conflicting expectations of my role as mother would be the main reasons I attribute to the demise of my marriage-- not among the most commonly cited reasons for divorce.

So here we sit at the kitchen table, as we did soon after my first son was born and my mother came to care for me and to feed me chinese herbs. I discovered years ago that the interview as a form of communication opened up a kind of conversation with my mother that we never could access in any other form of talk. In this role I am forced to listen without reacting, defending, justifying; and her tendency to ramble onto seemingly off-topic tangents gets focused by my questions. For most of my adult life I have been asking questions about place. Closely following the question, who am I? are questions like, “who am I in relation to this place? Am I insider or outsider?” Localism, sense of place, place-based education, placemaking, the link between neighborhood and community--all of these hold interest for me. Close behind these questions lurk those vexing questions about motherhood.

"No such thing as neighborhood," she says. Her father was a policeman, I knew. She now tells me he worked for the Japanese military. She grew up in the Japanese compound, the only Taiwanese family inside the walled "community" of the invading nation’s military station. She ventured outside those walls only to go to school, facing the hostility of other Taiwanese children who saw her family as friends of the enemy. Inside those walls, she was an outsider, too--one of the colonized who had sold out to help “keep the peace.” As the layers of thick skins that have protected her story begin to peel away, I see another parallel. My mother must have felt the same isolation I felt as a child. She, too, must have felt isolated growing up within a community of people who didn’t speak our language. 

My mother describes her walk home from school. Her most vivid memory is the smell of a kind of peanut soup flavored with lily buds, simmered over small, roadside fires from which the aroma wafted through the air for miles. "These lilies grow wild by the roadside, you know. So you can find lots. You can take whole bunch and dry them, then tie each bud in a knot, like I show you, you know? And then put with peanuts. Ooooh, smells soooo delicious.” Her voice rises musically as she draws out the word “so.” My mouth waters, remembering the same, tangy lily buds she puts in one of my favourite soups.  

My mother continues. "I would slow my steps and stand nearby their fires, and just stare, my mouth like this (hanging open). I hope and hope they would invite me to have some. Oh, I dreamed about having this soup all my childhood. But they never invited me. And my own mother would never make this thing for me, because she say, that just for low class people, poor food, peasant food only the poor farmers would eat." 

The key ingredient of this soup is the tangy, Asiatic Lily, Lilium asiatica. Its root strucutrue is rhizomatic--an apt metaphor for migratory people like us who have creeped across continents, setting down roots in new terrain, but always connected in some way to the rootstalk.

My father sits listening silently as her reverie unfolds. His own story could make him a poster child of the “American Dream.” Rising from his roots as a poor farmer’s son through a 30-year career as a senior chemist at an oil company, he provided his family the middle-class life idealized by the villagers back home. My mother has always complained about how impractical he was, how distracted by daydreams. In this moment, though, he catches her dreaming. “The smell of soup made you think it was so delicious, but it was really just simple food. Better in your dreams.” 

My own entry into motherhood was pretty rocky. At a crossroads between heading off to New York City onto an imagined filmmaking career or setting down roots in the small midwestern town where I discovered my feminist-anti-racist-artist self, I stumbled into pregnancy. No, motherhood was not a considered, intentional or pre-meditated choice.

The day that I realized I was pregnant, time slowed to a crawl; I sobbed for two hours before I accepted this new identity. Though I was 30, I wasn't ready to be a mother--what person is ever ready, really? But me? I was not supposed to be a mother. I was supposed to have a career, write books, make films. My mother raised me to pursue a career, pestered me to become a scientist, or better yet a doctor. Most of my young adulthood was spent rejecting the career paths that would have made my mother happy. I wanted to be a writer, like Virginia Woolf, whose books I would sneak into bed and read until the sky began to lighten.

My mother’s mother was widowed at a fairly young age and, against all odds for a woman of her time period in her culture, became a business-owner.  My mother was raised with a non-traditional model of mothering. I, in turn, was raised by a mother with deep ambivalence towards the duties of mothering. Mom made no bones about it; she never wanted to be a mother. She wanted a career and aspired to self sufficiency. I believe she experienced the birth of her children as a massively inconvenient interruption to her aspirations. My mother fully admitted her deep distaste for housework; she needn’t have put it into words. Her distaste for it showed up all over the house. 

Soon after I was born, my grandmother hired a nanny for my mother to help care for me while she taught school fulltime. Thinking back on my childhood in Taiwan, I remember feeling that my well-being was in the care of many elders. In the Taiwanese language, every relation has a unique title that describes their familial relationship; something like, “Third-Aunt-On-Father’s Side.”  I’ve been told that I could rattle off all two dozen of my relations’ titles.

Then we emigrated, first to Canada and then the United States, where my father was hired as an organic chemist by Standard Oil. Within a few years of my childhood, I went from spending summers on my grandparents farm in rural Taiwan, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, pigs and chickens, to living in a suburb of Chicago in which we were one of just three Taiwanese families, and the cookie cutter houses sat in the middle of perfectly manicured lawns. Every house had its own driveway, garage, lawnmower, etc. For many years of my childhood, we didn't venture far beyond the borders of the "neighborhood." The yard became how I knew “nature”--the yard  that my father was fortunately too busy to mow every week. The tall grass made a perfect playground for our games of Little House on the Prairie. In these games, I played the dad--or sometimes the horse. I would drag the red wagon behind me with my sisters sitting one behind the other, legs hanging over the edge. The willow tree was our home base. Dreaming up a shelter under the willow branches was my first and only expression of homemaking.

Well into middle-age, I feel like I am still dragging the wagon around, my sisters replaced by my two boys; I’m still looking for a place that feels like home. I have moved my children from house to house and across the country to put them closer to their father’s family. I’ve relocated in one neighborhood after another, seeking the illusive community of people that will help me raise my children. I love being a mother; I really cherish all the challenging experiences, the tender moments. At the same time, I have countless times railed at the sidewalk, on my way home from taking one of my sons to school, at the impossibility of mothering and sustaining a career. Mothering in this fragmented, nuclear culture feels impossible sometimes. Something about the way our communities are set up and the expectations/stereotypes of self-sacrifice add up to make mothering an impossible challenge. 

Soon after the birth of my first son, I read Of Woman Born, by Adrienne Rich and found solace in her courage to express her feelings of resentment about the societal expectation that mothers should sacrifice their own needs to the needs of their infants. Decades later, I now look to Sarah Hrdy with appreciation for her willingness to put similar feelings of resentment and ambivalence about mothering under scrutiny, and to allow her experiences to inform her study of the evolutionary origins of “other-regarding” behavior. In her theory of allomothering, or the care of infants by non-maternal family members, I see a link between my interest in neighborhood organizing and a desire to reexamine the social construction of mothering. Could the concept of allomothering inform design principles for transforming neighborhoods into resilient communities of mutual aid? What if children could count on others and mothers, and mothers could count on neighbors to help raise the children? These kinds of questions act like a salve on my broken heart; they give shape to a vision of community and place in which I can imagine my children and my children’s children will thrive.