A dark-skinned woman with cropped hair stands in a metal room, facing a metal door. Millions of miles from Earth, this gate is all that separates it from lightless, airless space. Her teenage son watches her through glass from the adjoining hallway. The woman’s decision is made. She injects a blood oxygenator into her thigh and presses a button; the door slides open. Bare-faced and costumeless, she shoots out of the ship like an arrow into the void between the stars.
The best of science fiction creates enough distance between a speculative reality and our own to allow escape. Yet speculation only works when it contains enough recognizable elements for us to see ourselves, to feel invested in the decisions and outcomes of imaginary characters. Naomi Nagata, the rising woman, is one of the main protagonists of the critically acclaimed science fiction series, The extent, which wrapped up its six seasons as an Amazon Original in early 2022. Naomi is “a bad mother.” Even according to the measures favorable to the feminists of the 21stcentury. In fact, we have changed very little, if at all, in what is required of mothers: to function as the primary (unpaid) caregivers of our children, to sacrifice our own needs for our families while expecting little or no reciprocity. We have added to this baseline the expectation that mothers will also “self-actualize” through our careers. What troubles me about Naomi’s choice to leave her son and deploy into space on her own mission is that I know I probably would have done the opposite; I would have betrayed myself, anyone, any value that would prevent me from being “a good mother”.
My son was born two weeks after I graduated from high school, nine days before I turned eighteen, six months after my father passed away, and seven years after my family left Indonesia. Both of my parents were low-wage factory workers – my mother in electronics, my father in textiles. Shortly after my son’s first birthday, his biological father disappeared from our lives. We never received a single birthday card, a single phone call, or a penny in alimony. For many years we were alone, until I fell in love and married my son’s chosen father.
I would have betrayed myself, anyone, any value that would prevent me from being “a good mother”.
This second marriage, this surrogate parent, did not relieve me of a feeling of overwhelming responsibility and a real economic precariousness that pushed me to constantly hold several jobs at the same time. “Mom and its poverty”, deplores the philosopher Roland Barthes in Mourning diary, “his fight, his misfortunes, his courage. A kind of epic without the heroic attitude. Insert the eye roller. The idea that it is admirable for mothers to perform heroic tasks without any claim to fame, or even gratitude, benefits literally everyone but mothers. Against routine, I tried to set aside a few hours a day to write, usually before dawn. “[T]o give me reasons to live”, as the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri said. I never thought of it as a career, until I got the Amy Clampitt residency, which paid me to live and write in a house in the Berkshires for a year.
I started my residency two days after dropping my son off at college, determined to be free. I had waited so long to focus on the work for my own satisfaction, rather than out of obligation. I put each item on my long to-do list on a post-it note. I covered the walls with my intentions and filled my Google calendar: every hour had to be counted. I wasn’t really left by my son. He was inevitably and rightly entering adulthood. We often communicated by text and phone, and I continued to work freelance throughout the residency to cover her tuition. Yet the desolation of Naomi’s leap into space, her lack of protection as she struggled to bridge the gap between two ships moving ever further apart – I recognized this ordeal as mine.
Turns out, space is terrifying. My own adult life had always had a short horizon: the first of the month, when the 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 homework set by my family’s needs, minimum payments set by creditors, etc. Over the months of residence, these familiar boundaries have become distorted, like the lines of a net sinking below the surface of the 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 had no idea who I was, let alone what I wanted, other than other people’s expectations of me.
As the eldest daughter of a deeply Christian Indonesian family, I had been brought up to be the object of my parents’ pride. I had to be intelligent, but not have independent thoughts; artistic, but never original; handsome, but never inciting lust; articulate, but not around men. “No”, was not allowed to be part of my vocabulary. My parents expected me to be fluent in English, get A’s, and help them find work within months of arriving in Canada, even though I didn’t have access to an education program. as a second language and that speaking English at home was considered disrespectful. I managed to do this by reading entire sections of the school library using a dictionary and then writing short stories to figure out, by trial and error, the rules of English grammar. Then I taught myself from models to write resumes for my parents and help them role-play for interviews.
My father, in particular, struggled to find a job for years. While my mother was at work, he took care of my little sister and me. He prepared our lunches, cooked our dinners, did the laundry. However, he also constantly criticized and berated us for everything from a grass stain on our jeans to the need for prescription glasses. His rage was larger than life. Unable to reconcile his faith in God with his sense of failure, he felt that the only possible explanation for our prolonged economic misery was my hidden sins. He proceeded to search my room, read my newspaper, listen in on my phone calls with friends, and stalk me as I walked to the public library after school. I became hypervigilant, depressed and reckless in my life. When I was sixteen, I was missing school, arguing, using alcohol and drugs I could get my hands on, and sneaking into my boyfriend’s car every night, the only place where I could sometimes fall asleep. .
I hadn’t expected 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, despite the grim statistics; a relentless judgment dispensed by friends, relatives, colleagues and even strangers; the stigma of the “teenage mother” perpetuated by popular culture; and an indescribable pain of becoming an object not of pride, but of shame, for my family. I sacrificed my personality to end what I saw as a cycle of abandonment.
I sacrificed my personality to end what I saw as a cycle of abandonment.
From the outside, mothers can seem “worthy, ‘in his place’… of absolute benevolence, for everyone…” to quote Barthes. I, too, have been guilty of idealizing my mother in such a way that she is simultaneously diminished; to confuse who she must have been for who she is. It will take a collective effort to shift our view of mothering from a “woman’s destiny” to skilled, highly specialized work that requires lifelong commitment and, therefore, systemic support. This includes the right to reproductive health care which allows us to decide for ourselves, in our best interests, whether we want to mother.
One by one, I picked up the post-its all over the residence telling me what I had to do to “realize myself” as a writer. I focused on completing two projects already in progress and instead taught myself the things I never had the chance to learn during nineteen years of mothering: how to shop for groceries for one person ; what type of exercise has helped me better manage chronic pain caused by chronic overuse; what it means to let me feel the fear, the doubt, the loneliness and the grief, feelings that I had to suppress in order to continue to “function”.
It is an exhausting and repetitive process. I have to work on a part of me each time that hasn’t been allowed to breathe, risking despair every time I step in to access the wounds that have become my own looping distress call: you are a mistake that cannot be repaired, you are worthless, you will never be loved. A part of me can still be in the grip of those words. They give me permission to be an extra in my own life. To avoid reaching a reality that I don’t just survive, but choose and desire.
Someday, perhaps, as I watch the night descend, I’ll think of the mother who flew alone through the unforgiving silence between the stars and hear myself say, in my own voice, You are loved.
Cynthia DewiOka is the author of four collections of poetry including Fire is not a country (Northwestern University Press, 2021) and A Tinderbox in three acts (to be published autumn 2022, BOA Editions). His essays have appeared in publications such as Atlantic and ESPNW. Cynthia has worked as an organizer, trainer and fundraiser in social movements for gender, race, economic and migrant justice. Originally from Bali, Indonesia, she is currently based in Los Angeles.
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