By Aimee Thorne-Thomsen
“Don’t you like children?”
I can remember the question like it was yesterday, instead of almost 15 years ago. I had met my friend’s boyfriend for the first time, and we were just etting to know each other. He didn’t understand how I, a young happily married Latina, didn’t have children. I guess he couldn’t fathom any plausible reasons why I might not have children at the age of 25 except that I must hold them in contempt.
“Yes, I do like children. I especially like them in the morning with a little salt and pepper.”
I tried to respond by poking fun at the ridiculousness of the question, but I was offended. Deeply offended. Who was this guy to make assumptions about me, my thoughts about children, and the responsibilities of mamihood*, as if my only value, my only contribution to society and my Latin@ community was to bear and raise children? I was confident enough in myself to know that I had value beyond my reproducing abilities. Yet I was stung not only by the lessening of my value because I was not a mami, but also by the invisibilization of all the other ways I helped to parent.
I don’t pretend that the role I’ve played in the lives of my nieces and nephew, godchildren, and much younger siblings, equals that of their parents. But I know I have been able to provide them with support, guidance, love, and a confidante, much like my tias and tios (aunts and uncles) and prim@s (cousins), not to mention abuel@s (grandparents) did for me. The additional parents in my life supported my mother, helped shape my character, and gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise .
I can’t imagine what my life would look like if I didn’t have Titi Nery’s house to go to on weekends. Not only did it mean I got to spend time with my cousins, but it also gave me a chance to learn about my family, and not think of my mother as the only person I could depend on. Without my Titi Myrna and Tio Louie, I might never have gone away to boarding school. They not only went with me and my Mom to visit the school I would eventually call home, they also brought her up regularly to visit, cheered me on when I tried my hand at running a race, and never let me forget who I was. I’m sure they also helped with some tuition payments and book bills in there somewhere. There’s my Tio Pete, my mother’s youngest sibling and only brother. He showed me that being smart and working hard at school were good things, things to be proud of. Then there was my Titi Nin. My father’s only sister, Nin’s real name was Rosario. She was a prankster and an amazing cook. She was hot-headed, fierce, and unafraid, and she stood up to my father, who could be a little too intense for the younger me.
I could tell you stories about each of my grandparents, my cousins, etc., and the role they played in making me who I am. How they gave my mother the support she needed to raise me and the space she deserved to have a life and identity outside of mamihood. How they stood up for me when I needed it and knocked me down a peg or two when I needed that, too. Those family members didn’t replace my mother, but they did parent me. They took the time to guide me into adolescence and then into adulthood, all the while holding tight to our values and our culture. And they are my role models for the all the different ways we can be parents.
It’s taken me a long time to understand that while I may never be a Mami, I do parent. My life is rich with children and young people. I take seriously my role as Titi to my brother’s kids, Tita to my godson in Oakland, Madrina to my godchildren in New York, and big sister to my 7-year-old sister in New Jersey. I feel a keen responsibility to do for them what my family did for me–provide them with love, direction, fun, and a sense of myself. I feel just as responsible to their parents to support them during the trying moments, give them some relief, and remind them that they are doing a good job. The same applies to my professional life, where for the last ten years my work has focused on making space for young people, lifting up their voices and providing them every chance to thrive. So for the record, yes, I DO like children – other people’s children.
*Mamihood: an idea of Latin@ motherhood I first encountered in the work of Maegen La Mala Ortiz’s at VivirLatino.