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In my real life

Hanging on to Salsa

By Kathleen Furin

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Being a mother is definitely the most important thing in my life. It’s just not the only thing in my life

I kiss my sleeping daughters lightly, careful not to mark their cheeks with lipstick, which I almost never wear, careful not to wake them. I kiss my husband, who grunts, sort of, and slip down the stairs. I wait until I am outside to put on my heels. I don’t want the loud clack clack down hardwood floors to wake the girls. Too many times I have been on my way out only to be called back in, to nurse, to smooth a forehead wrinkled from a nightmare. Sometimes I think my children don’t want me to have fun unless they’re involved. They have a built-in radar system; “Mommy’s having fun without us!” And they are fun, my children, and most of the time I love our days together. But when I’m through, I’m through. I give a lot, and unlike some moms from some places or times, I believe I deserve a little something just for me. So I sneak out, stand on my porch barefoot, feeling cool air and warm moon on my skin. I smile, skip down the steps, wait until I’m away from our block to turn my music up as loud as I like.

It’s Wednesday night; salsa night, my night… sometimes. I went from being a true salsa junkie to being a mother… meaning that I went from coming in at 3 am to nursing at 3, 4, 5, and/or 6 am. Meaning that I went weeks, months, without my salsa dancing “fix.” Meaning that I went from high heels to practical shoes, at least most of the time. Meaning that there are certain outfits I will never wear again. Meaning that all my fun gets put on hold if my children need me. But the girls are older now, and usually sleep through the night, and so I go out when I can. What stops me most often now is my own exhaustion, not their need.

People don’t like this; some people, and even though loving to salsa dance is just a small part of my identity, it is an important one. Mothers aren’t supposed to be having fun, especially if some of that fun involves wearing sexy clothes, heels with spikes that could kill, laughing and twirling with strange men. Mothers are supposed to be self-sacrificing, plump, maternal. There are men who I used to dance with pre-kid who won’t even talk to me now, who judge me, think me a whore, or worse, a bad parent. I should be home with my children, a paragon of virtue.

But I don’t care. I love salsa. It is something I do because it makes me feel happy. It makes me feel free. The feeling of freedom is an illusion, of course, because once you become a mother you are never truly free, especially in your heart. But the yearning for freedom is all the more precious because it is grounded in family; obligation, love, commitment. I would be miserable if I had one and not the other. And salsa gives me those moments of illusion. It offers a way of being with other people in a friendly, social, yes, at-times sensual way, without having to talk. Being with grown-ups and not having to talk is a relief, especially when the conversation for most of the day has been about Brother Bear and Madeline and Pepito, all wonderful characters, for the most part, until the day they moved in. In my daughter’s four-year-old head, Madeline and Pepito are her cousins. Brother Bear is her punching bag, the scapegoat for all her frustrations. She doesn’t have an imaginary friend; she has an imaginary enemy. Instead of being mean to the baby, she is mean to Brother Bear, which is infinitely better until the millionth time you’ve had to be Brother Bear, screaming, “No! Stop it! I don’t like you!” over and over and over, so that in my head I am putting on my dancing shoes, doing copas and triple turns effortlessly, even as I am nodding and smiling and agreeing to play “Brother Bear jealousy about my ice cream cone.”

Salsa is a part of my children’s lives, too, part of their cultural heritage, really, as half-Latinas, and some of our best times are when we put the music on and just dance. They are too little to really learn how so we do our own thing, all holding hands and running like in ring-around-the-rosy, the baby just wiggling and shaking her butt. Many a day has salsa stopped the tears, totally transformed whiny, bored energy. Many a day has it stopped my own bitching, bored self. I always knew I would share my salsa love with my daughters, somehow. Their Latina side is their father’s side and there has always been a piece of me that has been sensitive to the fact that I truly love something that is not a part of my cultural heritage. I have some level of sensitivity, probably instilled in me by my husband, to be aware of issues of appropriation, things that are special and culturally unique being taken over, transformed, exploited by the dominant culture. So what can I do? I would like to say that I respect some other cultural norms and truths in the “salsa world” but the reality is, it just isn’t so. I hate the machismo bullshit and have no qualms about asking a guy to dance if I feel like it. I do speak Spanish (poor but intelligible). I donate money to an organization that supports Latino youth, I buy salsa CDs whenever I can. I try to take salsa classes from Latino instructors. I dream about dancing, having more time and energy. I fantasize about being a professional dancer one day, even though I know it’s too late (all the calls for auditions want people younger than 28!) And I dance.

Pregnancy changed my dancing just as it changed everything else. I swore I would dance no problem throughout my first pregnancy, but threw up too much during the first trimester, was too tired and sick of smoke thereafter. I went in for one last fling a couple of weeks before my daughter was born. The club owner shook his head at me, told me I’d better be careful. I couldn’t really dance, of course, but it was enough at that time to just be there, absorb the energy of everyone else, let people smile at me and pat my belly, listen to the hundredth person say “your baby is going to come out dancing if you keep this up!” I swore I would be back out there in weeks, didn’t realize how exhausted I would be from nursing and going back to work and just trying to adjust… with my second daughter I harbored no such illusions. I was out of the “scene” for almost four years. I didn’t realize that by the time I got back to dancing I wouldn’t hardly know anybody, would have to start over, make new salsa friends.

My salsa friends are totally different and separate from my real friends, for the most part, and I like it that way. In my real life I am an ardent feminist, an activist on all sorts of issues, loud and sort of bitchy. In my real life I am a breastfeeding mom who nurses anytime anywhere even though the baby is now 20 months, who plays silly games and wears the same pair of jeans and a dirty t-shirt and a raggedy-ass ponytail almost every day. In my real life I hold crying children, clean up spilled milk and paint and scrape play-doh off the dining room table that used to be my grandmom’s with barely a complaint. I read books constantly. I play “Brother Bear.” I am a master negotiator who only resorts to “Stop it or you’re not getting chocolate” about forty-four times a day. My arms are buff from pushing two girls in two swings at the same time, sometimes for what feels like hours. I can walk straight to the river otter exhibit in the zoo. I know the best place to park for the Please Touch Museum. No one makes better pb and honey sandwiches, although of course this is accomplished only through daily feedback from my daughter: “too much honey today, Mom. Not enough peanut butter.”

In my real life, in fact, I may be unrecognizable. A neighbor caught me going out one night and didn’t recognize me. She called me over a few days later. “Damn, girl, where we you going the other night?” she says. “You were stepping out. I said to myself, now damn, look at her. That’s how she got herself such a fine man, looking like that. Gino looked at her and then looked again.” We laugh. “Yeah, well,” I say. “Most of my days are spent in sand or dirt or water.” She smiles. “You’re a good mom, though,” she says.

Am I? I try hard to be. I take it very seriously. Being a mother is definitely the most important thing in my life. It’s just not the only thing in my life, and this is where I think I differ from my own mother, at least. I don’t remember her doing things that were selfish, just for her, like I do with my dancing. Maybe she did, and I just never knew it, being self-absorbed as kids are. But my girls know, even though I sneak out at night. They see my heels thrown aside the next day and slip their little brown feet into them. They try on my blue sequin halter top. “Are you going dancing tonight, Mommy?” they ask, and if it’s a Wednesday and things aren’t too crazy work-wise I smile and say “Yes.” “We want to come!” they cry, and the baby runs over to the stereo, points and says “dalsa.” “Dalsa.” (She likes it better than kid’s music, thank God).

I hear a lot of women who talk about the struggles of motherhood, the ways in which they feel diminished by the constant daily grind, the never-ending responsibility. Some say that they are less creative after they become mothers. While I can totally relate on one level, on another the opposite is true for me. Becoming a mother opened up possibilities within me even as it closed things down logistically. I always wanted to be a writer but never thought it was a true possibility. After my daughter was born I began to take a writing class. It wasn’t conscious at first, but as I began to have some small successes I realized that I didn’t want to be a mother who had never pursued her own dreams.

Somehow I understood that our children learn how to be from how we are, not from how we act, and I wanted to be authentic. I wanted my daughters to believe in their dreams because I believed in my own, not because I told them to. I wanted my daughters to have first-hand experience of a mother who loved herself. How could they love themselves if I didn’t teach them how? This change was very profound for me; I wasn’t willing to love myself for myself, but I was willing to learn how to do it for my daughters. Of course we all benefited. They have a mother who has things she loves outside of them; those things refresh me, energize me, help me be more present when I am with them. They have a momma who knows how to have a damn good time. Hopefully, they see a model for how their lives can be. Hopefully they will always allow themselves to have fun, do things they love.

the picture of my most essential self

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