One afternoon Berenice told me that we were going to visit a new mother. It seemed a little strange to take the gringa who speaks awkward Spanish on this errand, but I know that’s what Mormons do: we show up. So I agreed to go, thinking, well, I’m also the mom of a baby, so maybe we’ll have something to talk about. I reviewed a few key vocabulary terms–pañal, dar pecho, dormido.
After a 30 minute group taxi ride and a fifteen minute walk, we stepped through the rusty gate into the small, dusty compound. The three little shacks were faded and sun-baked. A few children stared at us from the open doorways as the wind kicked up some dust. One house was more open than the rest and I could see an open fire pit, refrigerator, and a bucket with some water, the “kitchen”. An older woman beckoned us further in and we passed some chickens, which scattered indignantly and ducked into the small patches of peripheral shade made by the tall trees surrounding the compound.
She led us into one of the other buildings which, as it turned out, was a bedroom. I mean, it was one, tiny room with a bed stuffed into it. The ceiling was surprisingly high, and around the bed and above the door were shelves stacked with neatly folded blankets, towels, and clothes. The tiny window high above the bed was obscured by dust, or cobwebs, or maybe just time. Some of the spots of available wall space were covered with a few wrinkled, unframed paper picture–one of the Pope, another of an idyllic mountain scene, still another of a singer I didn’t recognize. To one side, there was an old upright dresser covered with girlish knickknacks and to the other side were a vertical stack of old folding chairs.
Berenice and I sat in chairs, facing each other. A girl, who I soon realized was the new mom, sat on her bed. My knees almost touched hers. She had her baby bundled up in several thick blankets and held him with a confidence earned through many, many hours of watching younger siblings. Yet even though she held her chin firm and “shushed” confidently, she didn’t look like a mom. She looked like a child. Her dark hair was slung into a low ponytail that hung down to her waist. She was dressed in sweatpants with grey-stained knees and a sweatshirt with sleeves that weren’t quite long enough. They were pastel colored and matched the swaddle of blankets in her arms.
I didn’t speak much, but I could follow the conversation. It went something like this:
How’s nursing going?
Oh, I’m not doing that. The doctor says that formula is better for him because of his colic.
How was the birth?
I was programmed (the Spanish way of referring to c-sections) because the doctor said that was better for the baby and everything is healing fine.
Is he sleeping ok?
Of course. He is so precious. He has a little cold, but the doctor is so far away. I’m giving him some tea to help with that.
I felt my “first world self” bristle a little. No choice in birthing options? Getting the wrong information from doctors? Not even trying to nurse? But I tried to remember that I really wasn’t in the first world. I was in Mexico, rural Mexico, which is somewhere between the developed and the developing world. This baby had bigger problems than the fact that he was drinking chamomile tea at three weeks old.
I looked over at the dresser and saw a little plaque that read “Mi casa es su casa.” That’s the Mexican way of saying “make yourself at home” or literally translated as, My house is your house. It’s sweet and welcoming and one of my favorite sayings.
In that moment I read it more literally—like this is your house. And the irony and dishonesty of it struck me. Of course, this wasn’t really my house. I’d be leaving soon, and I’d go back to my house, which has multiple beds and medicine and running water and corners that meet and a heater to cut the night chill.
I was hoping to connect as equals—both new moms trading war stories. But we weren’t equals. Our houses, our lives, weren’t the same at all. As I looked around I knew, deeply, profoundly that our babies were not given an equal start in life. And smiling and pretending that really, it’s all the same, we’re all the same, was making my stomach drop and turn over in a way that made me think I might be sick.
I heard Berenice start to signal our exit.
Can we do anything for you before we go?
No, no we’re fine.
I thought, Where would I start? What can I do? I mentioned, in halting Spanish, that we were moving soon and that I had some extra cloth diapers that my son had grown out of. A whole bag full. Maybe she would be able to use them?
She graciously said, yes, yes, of course, she would like them if I was sure my son didn’t need them anymore. I felt a little foolish like maybe I was pushing them on her. Back home, cloth diapers were the domain of natural, hippie moms–moms who read too much about the chemicals in bleached Pampers. Heck, I was doing it because I liked it. But they are, objectively, a pain the butt.
But then, I realized, to this fifteen-year-old living far from town in a dirt floor cabin and a water spigot out back, cloth diapers were a gift. Look around, how and where is she getting disposable diapers?
I inherited many of my cloth diapers from my cousin, who inherited them from a friend. Who knows where she got them? I imagined us there, a long line of new moms with babies who pooped, linking arms with this new mom. Connected. Connected by the fact that all babies poop and all moms do the best we can with the babies and the lives we have. Connected by the same down-in-the-bones love we have for babies–hers and mine and yours. Connected by the subtle and small ways we find to support one another because every mom, everywhere, needs a hand. Undoubtedly, life is crueler to some more than others, but mothers show up and help each other raise these babies.
We began to leave, and the 15-year-old stood up to give us a peek at the sleeping baby. He was tiny, with a shock of dark hair and the features of a newborn–a baby who hasn’t quite filled into his little face.
He’s beautiful, I told her. I felt a welling of emotion as I bent over to give her hug. She was 15 and I was 32, but we were both moms.
Before we left, the old woman thanked us for coming and told us to come again. Mi casa es su casa, she said and I felt something like guilt and confusion and relief, but also a hope that comes from taking tentative steps onto common ground.