A brown-skinned woman with close-cut hair is standing in a metal room, facing a metal door. Millions of miles away from Earth, this door is all that separates her from lightless, airless space. Her teenage son watches her through a glass pane from the adjoining hallway. The woman’s mind is made up. She injects blood oxygenator into her thigh and pushes a button; the door slides open. Barefaced and suitless, she shoots out of the ship like an arrow through the vacuum between stars.
The best of science fiction creates enough distance between a speculative reality and our own to allow for escapism. Yet, speculation only works when it holds enough recognizable elements for us to see ourselves, to feel invested in the decisions and outcomes of imaginary characters. Naomi Nagata, the soaring woman, is one of the main protagonists in the critically acclaimed science fiction series The Expanse, which completed its six-season run as an Amazon Original in early 2022. Naomi is “a bad mother.” Even by the feminist-friendly metrics of the 21stcentury. We have, in fact, changed very little, if any, of what is demanded of mothers: to function as (unpaid) primary caregivers for our children, to sacrifice our own needs for our families while expecting little to no reciprocity. We have added to this baseline the expectation that mothers also “self-realize” through our careers. What troubles me about Naomi’s choice to leave her son and deploy through space on a mission of her own is that I know I would have likely done the opposite; I would have betrayed myself, anyone, any value that got in the way of me being “a good mom.”
My son was born two weeks after I graduated high school, nine days before I turned 18, six months after my father passed away, and seven years after my family migrated from Indonesia. Both my parents were low-waged factory workers—my mother in electronics, my father in textiles. Not long after my son’s first birthday, his biological father vanished from our lives. We have never received a single birthday card, phone call, or cent of child support. For many years, we were on our own, until I fell in love and married my son’s chosen father.
That second marriage, that surrogate parent, gave me no reprieve from the sense of crushing responsibility, and real economic precarity, that drove me to constantly work multiple jobs at a time. “Maman and her poverty,” laments philosopher Roland Barthes in Mourning Diary, “her struggle, her misfortunes, her courage. A kind of epic without the heroic attitude.” Insert eye roll. The idea that it is admirable for mothers to perform heroic tasks without the slightest entitlement to glory, or even gratitude, benefits literally everyone but mothers. Against the grind, I tried to preserve a couple of hours every day to write, usually before dawn. “[T]o give myself reasons to live,” as Nigerian novelist Ben Okri put it. I never thought about it as a career, until I was awarded the Amy Clampitt residency, which paid me to live and write in a house in the Berkshires for a year.
I began my residency two days after dropping my son off at college, resolved to be free. I had waited such a long time to focus on work for my own gratification, rather than from obligation. I put each item on my long list of projects to accomplish on a Post-it. I covered the walls with my intentions and filled up my Google calendar: Each hour had to be accounted for. I wasn’t really leaving behind by my son. He was inevitably and rightfully entering adulthood. We communicated often by text and phone, and I continued to freelance heavily through the residency to cover his tuition. Yet, the desolation of Naomi’s leap into space, her lack of protection as she strove to close the gap between two ships moving farther and farther apart—I recognized this trial as my own.
As it turns out, space is terrifying. My own adulthood had always had a short horizon: the first of the month, when rent is due. My whole life had been organized around hours set by employers, deadlines set by institutions, schedules set by my son’s extracurricular activities, chores and duties set by my family’s needs, minimum payments set by creditors, and so on. As the months in residency progressed, these familiar limits grew distorted, like the lines of a net sinking below the surface of water. It wasn’t that I felt less pressure to produce; it was that I suddenly had to exercise a muscle that had atrophied from underuse—that of making choices for myself. Surrounded by space, I realized that I did not know who I was at all, much less what I wanted, apart from others’ expectations of me.
As the eldest daughter of a devoutly Christian, Indonesian family, I had been raised to be the object of my parents’ pride. I had to be smart but not have independent thoughts; artistic but never original; beautiful but never inciting lust; articulate, but not around men. “No” was not permitted to be part of my vocabulary. My parents expected me to become fluent in English, achieve straight A’s, and help them find work within months of arriving in Canada, though I had no access to an ESL program, and speaking English at home was considered a sign of disrespect. I managed to pull it off by reading entire sections of the school library with the help of a dictionary, then writing short stories to figure out, by trial and error, the rules of English grammar. Then I taught myself from templates to write résumés for my parents and help them role-play for interviews.
My father, specifically, had trouble finding employment for years. While my mother was at work, he took care of my little sister and me. He packed our lunches, cooked our dinners, did the laundry. He also, however, constantly criticized and berated us for everything from a grass stain on our jeans to needing corrective eyeglasses. His rage was larger than life. Unable to reconcile his faith in God with his sense of failure, he reasoned that the only possible explanation for our prolonged economic misery was my hidden sins. He took to searching my room, reading my diary, listening in on my phone calls with friends, and stalking me while I made my way to the town library after school. I became hypervigilant, depressed, and reckless with my life. By the time I was 16, I was flunking my classes, getting in fights, consuming any alcohol and drugs I could get my hands on, and sneaking out every night into my boyfriend’s car, the only place where I could, sometimes, fall asleep.
I did not plan it, but having my own child became the only way I could imagine experiencing love in my life. I felt abandoned by my mother because I never saw her try to protect me from my father’s abuse. I was determined to raise my son on my own after his biological father left us, despite the grim statistics; relentless judgment doled out by friends, relatives, colleagues, and even strangers; “teen mom” stigma perpetuated by popular culture; and indescribable pain at becoming the object of not pride but shame for my family. I sacrificed my personhood to end what I saw as a cycle of abandonment.
From the outside, mothers can seem “dignified, ‘in her place,’…with an absolute kindness, for everyone” to quote Barthes again. I, too, have been guilty of idealizing my mother in such a way that she is simultaneously diminished; of mistaking who she has had to be for who she is. It will take collective effort to shift our view of mothering from “a woman’s destiny” to skilled and highly specialized labor that requires lifetime commitment and, therefore, systemic support. That includes the right to reproductive healthcare that allows us to decide for ourselves, with our own best interest in mind, whether we want to mother.
One by one, I took down the Post-its all over the residency house that told me what I should be doing to “self-realize” as a writer. I focused on completing two projects that were already underway and taught myself instead the things I never had a chance to learn during 19 years of mothering: how to buy groceries for one; which type of exercise helped me best manage chronic pain caused by chronic overwork; what it means to let myself experience fear, doubt, loneliness, and grief, feelings I have had to mute to keep “functioning.”
It is a grueling, repetitive process. I have to work a part of myself each time that has not been allowed to breathe, risking despair each time I go in to access the wounds that have become my own looped distress call: You are a mistake that cannot be fixed; you are worthless; you will never be loved. Some part of me may always be in thrall to these words. They give me permission to be an extra in my own life. To avoid reaching for a reality that I do not just survive but choose and desire.
Someday, maybe, while watching the night descend, I will think of the mother who flew alone through the unforgiving silence between stars and hear me say to myself, in my own voice, You are loved.
Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of four books of poetry, including Fire Is Not a Country (Northwestern University Press, 2021) and A Tinderbox in Three Acts (forthcoming fall 2022, BOA Editions). Her essays have appeared in publications such as The Atlantic and ESPNW. She has worked as an organizer, a trainer, and a fundraiser in social movements for gender, racial, economic, and migrant justice. Originally from Bali, Indonesia, she is currently based in Los Angeles.
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