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
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,
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