I am a cis-gender white woman who spent fourteen years in the foster care system. There are many whom I have called “mom,” some bound by law, some by love, some by blood, and some by necessity. At twenty-two years old, I became/stepped into mothering/motherhood/a mother. When beginning Momologues, I already completed what I thought was my finished degree project, ILL, an auto-biographical solo show that traced poverty, physical abuse, incest, and mental illness throughout my motherline. It felt out of sync to present ILL by itself. What other stories of mothering, motherhood, and mothers existed? Were there any other plays like mine? Were there other people like me? After being met with silence every time I asked these questions, I decided to generate some answers.
Armed with a simple voice recorder and three questions, I informally set out to document the oral histories of eight women inflected through the lens of their relationships to the patriarchal institution of motherhood (Rich 1976). I interviewed eight women who attended my graduate institution for an hour each during a three week period. Participants identified as cis-gender women and racially identified as Black, Latina, white and Native American (Navajo). They were nationals of Canada, the USA, and Mexico. The women ranged in age from 22-48 and seven of the eight came from working class backgrounds. Those who participated in the project were mainly Ethnic, Gender, and Labor Studies majors along with students from Arts, Media and Culture, and Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. These women gave me permission to exercise creative license in animating the material from their lives. Our exchanges became Momologues, a monologic performance piece consisting of eight separate but thematically related stories.
This project enabled participants to speak of their desires to never have children; their step mothers’ inability to mother; their experience as mothers who lost children; and their experiences with disease and single mothering. Within these larger parameters, together, we conversed about incest, cancer, racism, abortion, poverty, heartbreak, incarceration, entrepreneurship, drugs, veganism, love, and definitions of care. The process culminated in a final performance piece, Momologues, at the University of Washington Tacoma in May 2014. Over 80 people attended the show, including the women whose stories laid the foundations for Momologues.
What follows are excerpts from the show. These are more than blocks of text imagined from nothing – these are stories that characterize, animate, awaken, and activate the lives of eight real life women. These monologues are the chronicles of experience, trust, friendship, camaraderie, and the impacts of mothering in the ripples of generations of humans. I am Proud to be My Mother highlights the selflessness that some mothers exhibit and how this selflessness is bound up in expectation, contention, labor, and support. Protector describes a mother who stops at nothing to make sure her family is mentally, emotionally, physically, and materially provided for. She puts herself in situations of violence and exploitation for the betterment of her family, a family she single-handedly keeps together through her love, labor, and care. Confession chronicles the pain of a daughter-in-law as she tells her mother-in-law what happened the night J went to jail. The mother-in-law’s response is recounted in italics. Grounded and Centered is about mindfulness, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. This mother’s selflessness does not mean losing one’s self, it is an act of self-declaration and perpetual becoming. Twinning is told from the perspective of the daughter of a self-absorbed mother. This mother’s resentment and ambivalence is countered by the love and bond that her twin daughters share. The regular typeface represents questions posed to the reader from the perspective of the authorial voice. The italicized font represents the verbatim transcriptions from the woman whose experience Twinning is based upon. Storied Existence is a descriptive piece capturing the legacy of an elder who carried with her generations of healing knowledge, knowledge that has since been erased and forgotten. And finally, Destiny reminds us of a history that is not so distant, not so far removed from where we are now, and how through loss and pain, we can garner the strength to become the healers of others’ pain and loss. The varying fonts throughout the stories are the voices from which one speaks and thinks. They represent inner monologues, mothers and daughters, twin sisters, grandchildren, a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, and daughters of many makes. As you read these, I encourage you to vocalize them, move your body to them, and lend them your breath.
I Am Proud to Be My Mother
I’m a part of the privileged middle class. My story is probably boring and rife with, you know, “stereotypical problems” but I would say that my relationship with my mom is very interesting and rather contentious.
She is an absolute perfectionist, very rigid, but sensitive. My mom had lots of expectations for us kids; she was the enforcer and disciplinarian.
She was the type of woman who would assume things and take things very personally—often the wrong way. With others, she would often go out of her way to be helpful. She was patient and took the time to try and understand where the person was coming from.
She worked full time as an educator focused on special-ed. I never really saw her patience and compassion but it was most certainly there.
We always and I mean always, were butting heads when I was a teen. From twelve to eighteen, it was incredibly difficult for us to get along with one another. It was really hard then because I always felt as though I couldn’t do anything right.
After high school, I won a one-year solo rotary trip to France. During this time, I was finally alone and realized how lucky I was to have such an excellent mom.
I was able to begin empathizing with my mom and I could see how overwhelmed she must have felt all that time as I was growing up. She was always there for my sister and I in every single way. My mom was always supportive of our decisions, even if they were the wrong ones. She never forgot any of our events, appointments or engagements. She was active in the community, and she even made us lunch every single day.
I hear all the time how I am so much like my mother. At sixteen I would have actively resisted the label of being like my mom, but now I wear being like my mom as a badge of honor. I can now fully see my mother for who she is—damn near a martyr—she really gives people everything.
I am proud to be my mother.
My mom has a good heart. She makes people feel comfortable and welcome. She’s really loveable and loyal. So loyal that my mom and dad have been together since they were fourteen years old, but that’s the type of woman she is.
But the story, the real story, the real story is my mom herself and how much she provides for us. My mom, she keeps everyone together, she’s strong, kind, tender and protective.
She’s always there for my brothers and I—she has a good heart and makes people feel comfortable and welcome.
I love her because she struggled for a long time but she made it look so effortless. She always cares for other people and still puts us first.
When she first came to the United States in the 1990s she worked factory jobs and had to put her three kids in daycare. I remember my younger brother would cry and scream because he hated it there. My mom decided to open her own daycare so she could take care of us, and she opened our home to all the neighbor’s kids too. She ran that place from ‘92 or ’93 up until 2011. Now she’s opened a new daycare center and continues to care for people and their children.
My mom plays an important role as a mediator between my dad and I. You know, in my culture they’re big on purity and saving yourself for marriage, but that didn’t happen. When my dad found out about my sexual activity, he got angry and called me names and he threw things at me because he was disappointed in me. My mom took all the blows and put herself in between my father and I. She shielded me and I grew really close to her in that moment.
My mom is a protector through and through. I learned what motherhood is from her. It’s about protecting your kids by all means; when your kids are in trouble, you support them, you’re always there for them and you don’t kick them out at age eighteen. You have to be able to give your kids love, show them responsibility, hug them, but be able to discipline them.
My brother was into meth and pills and my mom fought for him every step of the way. Three times she paid to send him to rehab, but she never kicked him out of the house. My mom was very supportive in trying to help him. She was there so he would never hit rock bottom by himself.
My mom takes care of my other brother’s kids because two are autistic and my brother’s girlfriend can’t handle dealing with three kids. My mom doesn’t want him to end up being alone so she does what she can to make the relationship easier for my brother and his girlfriend.
She’s always doing whatever’s necessary for us.
My mom even supported my father and his other daughter by not letting the community talk bad about my father for not being there for his other daughter. He didn’t even know he had another daughter. The lies people would tell about my father and our family left my mom heartbroken, but she still supported each and every one of us.
She’s a good woman with a good head on her shoulders. Our protector.
Look, I know that your primary urge in this situation is to be a parent first and worry about the future of your child and what this situation implies, but I’m asking you to just consider where I am coming from for a second. I don’t think you understand what happened between your son and I. You heard his side of the story and I’m sure that version does me no justice, but he had to learn that there are consequences for his actions. I knew no better way than to try and teach him the hard way because I have been through this too many times to just sit back and let it happen again. He needs help. You need to understand that there was a great deal more that happened between us before you walked in. Please understand where I am coming from. I respect you, and your family and this household. It is not my intention to cause more pain than necessary or to cause your family hardships, but I HAD to call the police. I had to show him that there are consequences for his actions.
Before you walked down the stairs he wasn’t just yelling at me, but he had a pistol, and he loaded it and was threating me and waving it in my face and saying he was going to kill my whole family and my sister, and we don’t know shit about bein’ hard cause he is in a gang, and he was saying all these demeaning, threatening, evil, hateful things. That was the first time I have ever been confronted by your son in this manner. He has done crazy things, I have seen him get in fights and we’ve had our battles, but he has never disrespected me like that and threatened not only me but my family, too. By the time you were coming downstairs he heard you and threw the pistol in his drawer. So when you walked in, you just heard us yelling about my sister and the things he said about my family. I wanted to just get in the car and leave with you so badly. I wanted to run away.
I have no idea what could have possessed your son to think that it was okay to say those things and, well, and to wave a loaded pistol in my face and tell me how much he fuckin’ hates me. I was scared. I hope you understand that. Now you know, now you know that I faced the possibility he could have pulled the trigger; I just sat there as he got louder and louder and more reckless. I can’t just let that go. I love you. It’s so hard for me to even be here because I feel like everyone hates me! I can’t imagine what you really want to say to me for putting your son in jail and for causing you this stress, but please don’t hate me, please don’t, I just want him to get help. He is so depressed. I just can’t live my life around him anymore. He was my best friend, and I love him as a person, I love that side of him that is sweet, and funny, and caring but then he goes completely 180 at the drop of a hat and becomes the best and worst person I have ever known.
So please give my regards to your family and understand that I do love you guys. I do care about J, but he had a gun, and he has never, and I mean NEVER, done some shit like that around me. I couldn’t let that go.
When my husband had pushed me to the ground, my sister had called the police. She thought she was doing the right thing. He went to jail. I had to refinance my house so I could pay his bail, and I am still working to put that money back in our pockets. You can tell me all of this, and you can tell me you were scared, but I still don’t understand. You don’t do that to someone you love who you have grown up with, you don’t do this to us when you know we have so many problems. Please just leave us alone.
Grounded and Centered
One can never know what self-sacrifice is going to feel like. My experience of motherhood has been exciting and scary. I never thought I could love someone as much as I love my daughter. Just watching her sleep or every time she says something I just stare at her. I’m amazed by her every single day.
My experience of motherhood has been—not what I expected it to be. I didn’t expect it to be so hard at times. I guess I expected it to be like, you know, you have your kid, and you love your little baby so much. You know that you are supposed to love your baby so much and they are supposed to come before you, but you don’t know what it feels like until you have your kid.
The hardest parts are when I see my daughter become sad because her father is not there. The other hard stuff is when she doesn’t listen. But what parent doesn’t become frustrated when their child doesn’t listen?
When it comes to her, I have to think outside myself. She’s relying on me and I have to make sure I nurture a good little girl. I have to be mindful. Things as simple as being vegetarian and providing her a healthy and nutritious diet is about me being selfless and mindful. It is easy to just give her Cheetos or corndogs and send her to bed, but if I want to be a mindful parent, I don’t want to do what’s easy. Her mind is like a sponge, and she’s learning all the time.
In becoming a mother I was really able to actualize more of myself and think of myself in new ways. I think that in becoming a mother you have to be selfless, but you don’t have to lose yourself. It is helping me find myself, because I have a kid now, and I can’t be lost forever. I have to know who I am so my daughter can know who I am and who she is. It has been helping me to find my grounding not only as a financially stable and independent adult, but as a person. I don’t want her to see someone who is confused and all over the place. I want her to see someone that’s put together and is coming to the place of knowing who she is.
I want to be the best I can be now, for her.
It is through her I stay grounded and centered.
What if you were a single mom expecting your third child?
Not only does it scare me to be a parent, but I feel like kids get ruined so easy. What if I have a kid, and they are the kind of people that feel like they are entitled to something? I don’t want that. I don’t want kids that are broken. And I feel like I could break them very easily. The hurtful things my mother used to say like, she used to call my twin fat all the time. Those types of things ruin kids and I am scared that I could ruin them.
My mom told me that she tried to abort me as a child. I think that kind of damages people. It was like part of her story, like when you’re a kid and you ask “how did you meet my father?” You know that kind of thing, it’s like “Oh yeah, I tried to abort you.” That’s really fucked up to say to somebody.
What if someone told you every day that they wanted to abort you? How would you feel?
Really though, she was pregnant with twins. It was my sister and I in there that she wanted to kill.
Being a twin you develop that bond with someone that you don’t have with anyone else. You don’t ever have a best friend growing up because the person that you are closest with or the person who knows the most about you is your twin. I fought that and so did she when we were growing up until we were about sixteen…seventeen…and we spent most of our time together and we developed a bond that is unfathomably deep. You sit down with both of us, and we have the same mannerisms. We get the same jokes, and it is just like having somebody who gets you completely.
My mom let us be who we were individually. She never dressed us alike or encouraged us to do the same things. But, you know, when she called us it was always “Hey, twins!” She still mixes up our names when she talks to us on the phone because it was always “twins” or “girls.” My older sister, who is three years older than us, always felt left out, and because of that my mom sort of babied her. You could tell she played favorites on my older sister. She still does.
What if the person who is supposed to devote themselves to you and your betterment can’t move past themselves?
My mom has a way of recentering herself and her experiences in every single conversation.
I was getting a scholarship from this hospital out in Forks because I was going to school for physical therapy at that time, and my mom was like “oh yeah, you’re getting a scholarship, let’s go out there and spend the day and talk to the people. It’ll be awesome.” So I get out there and we start talking about the scholarship and what my plans are, and then they get into this conversation about my mom being a nurse and chemical dependency counselor, and then she just brings it all back to herself. We sit there and talk about her for an hour after only talking about me for fifteen minutes. She does that sort of thing all the time.
My last birthday she came into my work. My husband was in Afghanistan, and my sister had booked a trip to Israel because my father is Jewish, and we get a birthright trip. She booked it the same week as our birthday. We had never spent a birthday apart in twenty-six years, and I was upset so I decided I would go to work, and my mom shows up. She was there to make me feel better about being at work on my birthday and having no one to celebrate it with. So she goes in, and I’m bartending and a girl from work comes up to her and goes “Oh, you’re Serena’s mom! You’re here to celebrate her birthday?” And my mom goes, “Oh, no. It’s my birthday.” I said, “No, mom your birthday is in August, how do you forget that?!” and she replied “Well, it’s like my birthday because I gave birth on this day.”
And that’s what I mean about she’s selfish. She makes absolutely everything about her. It is as if she’s the only person in the room. I really think she has to live her life through her kids and through other people because she didn’t get to do the same things I did growing up. She didn’t go to college, and she didn’t get married.
What if the woman who birthed you never felt like your mom growing up?
From the time I was twelve to about seventeen and a half she was in a long term relationship with this guy, and she was at his house about 99% of the time and would only come home one weekend every month. She was just there to stock the fridge and then leave. My mom tried to come back into my life and boss me around and do things like “Oh, I’m your mother you’re going to listen to me,” and I said, “well no bitch, you haven’t been in my life….so no!”
I’m thankful though, to have my twin, my sister, to go through everything with me and support me like nobody else ever could. We’re forever in this together.
She died in the fall, when oak leaves were burgundy and gold and the forest around her house smelled of wet bark and Maiden’s Wreath and of the smoky scent of wild grapevines, after a night of slow, soft rain. She was over ninety; weak, bedridden, and profoundly deaf. It was a blessing, they said, for her to be taken so gently to her reward with her family gathered around her.
Her loss should be mourned by more than the few people who knew her. Miss Maggie MacDonald was a healer. She was one of those gifted people who could strengthen the weak and cure the sick.
She was a strong, plain-spoken woman with dark hair. Her hands were large-knuckled and gentle, worn and knotted with work. Whenever someone in our remote community had a fever, she came with her teas of herbs and roots. She would sit by the bedside all night, wetting clean cloths in cold water and laying them on the sick one’s chest until the fever broke.
If someone was bitten by a snake, she was there to cut across the fang marks and to suck out the venom—to pack her poultices of roots and bark across the injury and to draw a circle above the swelling with one spittle-wet finger. “There,” she would say, “go no farther.” And the taut, blackened swelling stopped there. Later, she told us that in return for this power, she had promised never to kill a snake.
Miss Maggie used all the healing knowledge of her Scottish heritage and all the herbal lore of her Native American grandmother. This blending of two diverse cultures meant that she was heiress to an immense treasury of knowledge—fostering the mystic healing arts of her Celtic ancestry and understanding which healing roots were useful to the Native Americans.
But now that knowledge is lost, for she didn’t feel that it was important. “What does it matter,” she would say, “we don’t need those old things now.” But we do, Miss Maggie. We need to know how you could stop the blood from soaking the bed of a man who had nearly severed his foot with an axe. You did so by murmuring a bible verse, a certain, special bible verse, in your soft southern voice.
We need to know, Miss Maggie, why you and others would travel thirty miles by buggy or horseback to visit a hydrophobic victim with your madstones, and why the women would milk the cows of neighbors. They would frantically soak the madstones in warm, fresh milk. And why you and others would hold those milky madstones above the infected injury and the stone would jump to the injury and cling there until falling away depleted—only to be renewed with warm, fresh milk. The madstones, oval bones found only in the foreheads of albino deer, were passed down from mother to daughter.
What happened to your madstone, Miss Maggie? What happened to twenty generations of healing knowledge?
Being a mom is the hardest thing I have ever done, especially without a role model. You have an idea of how to mother but you don’t quite know the right path. It was my destiny to be my children’s mother.
My mother was born April 6, 1950. My mother is one of thirteen children. Her family moved around from Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma because they were sharecroppers. They lived in a sharecropper’s shack while they picked cotton in the fields. The kids received a very sporadic education, and my mother never made it past the eighth grade. They were all part of the second great migration and worked as migrant workers in the orchards of Arizona.
My grandfather locked three of his granddaughters, including my mother, in a room and sold them as prostitutes. At fifteen she was a stripper, and at seventeen she met my father who had just gotten out of prison. My dad was a drug runner, and it became a family business. They used fruit stands as a front for their operation.
My mother and father had the ideology of conspiracy. The whole family was always running. We all lived in complete and utter destitution. They taught us that doctors were vampires and killers, they practiced some twisted religion, and they tried to get all of us kids to do meth.
My relationship with my mother is tumultuous. Our family is rife with criminals, drug addicts, and sexual abusers. I love my mom, and I don’t blame her for all of this because she never had a chance for survival. I feel bad for her. She never physically abused us kids, and did not speak to us in a derogatory fashion. She was very sweet, but she didn’t protect us kids. It is not enough to love your children; you have to protect your kids.
Foster care gave me a chance. I never lived in a house before. I never ate a restaurant. I never had a phone. I stopped talking for a year after I was placed in foster care because I thought people would think I was a freak.
I had my daughter at nineteen almost twenty. I was terrified of making mistakes. I was scared. I asked my mom for advice, and she told me that I was supposed to be a mom and that if I loved my baby I would do what was right.
My second baby came at twenty-four. At that time, I wanted ten kids. I wasn’t scared at all, but I was tired.
The third child came at twenty-eight. After two, my only thought was “I got this.”
My youngest son has cancer. At four we were told he only had eighteen months to live. My thought was, “how do I get all three kids through this?” I didn’t want them to place the grief and blame on themselves. We had to get through this together.
At thirteen my daughter turned to drugs to soothe herself. What resources do I use to get through to someone at thirteen? What about people who don’t want to be reached? But, I do believe it was my destiny to be my children’s mother. Because of what I have been through, I am strong enough to support my children and give them the love and protection that they deserve.
The ties that bind are ephemeral, long lasting, concrete, pliable, fictive, real, discursive, consanguine, embodied, spiritual, partial, and whole. Being a mother is hardly different. It’s consuming, solidified, fleeting, peripheral, obligatory, and unnecessary in its incomplete totality. These momologues are bound together by their uneasy and messy explorations of mothering.
Momologues demonstrates that mothering is not easy, it is not a given, and it is not innate or something particular to women. As Loretta Ross writes, mothering is “creating, nurturing, affirming, and supporting life” (xv). This project focused on cis-women’s relationship to the institution of motherhood. This view of motherhood is a particularly white, ableist, and heteronormative. Disabled women, immigrant women, indigenous women, Black women, trans* people, and queer women are not seen as whole people in hegemonic USA society, thus, motherhood as a rite of passage into womanhood does not exist as viable pathway to “ultimate realization” in the same ways it does for white women. Motherhood can (and often does) function as one of the few powerful and affirming institutions for non-normative peoples. “In African American communities, the status of mother is especially revered, and for much of U.S. history motherhood was the primary means by which Black women could achieve any status at all” (Moore 116). Momologues reflects my thinking and mentorship at the time, thus the normative and principally artistic approach to this work.
What these stories tell us is that motherhood should not be taken for granted, nor should our understandings of mothering, mothers, and motherwork. Caretakers do not have to exert their labor in service of our needs. The guardians of this earth do not have to maintain our environment and health. Mother Earth does not have a responsibility to provide for us. We make choices, however constrained or liberated, to be accountable to ancestors, family, knowledge, money, Earth, ourselves, community, and our descendants. The identity of mother is not totalizing, assimilationist, transformative, or individual, and yet, it can be all those things and more. Motherwork, as defined by Hill-Collins refers to the racialized and gendered ““work for the day to come,” whether it is on behalf of one’s own biological children, or for the children of one’s own racial ethnic community, or to preserve the earth for those children who are yet unborn” (313). Motherwork is care, accountability, connection, and resistance to ideological and state forces. In these ways, Momologues is an artistic manifestation of the motherwork of nine women committed to the care and success and this project, mothering, and the strengthening of the ties that bind.
Hill-Collins, Patricia. “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings. Ed: Andrea O’Reilly. Toronto: Demeter Press. 2007. 311-328. Print.
Moore, Mignon R. Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood Among Black Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.
Ross, Loretta. “Preface.” Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Eds: Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. Oakland: PM Press, 2016. Xii-xviii. Print.