One of my earliest childhood memories is one of feeling unaccounted for and misplaced.
I’m standing in a toy store, eyeing the dolls on the shelves – each of them packaged so neatly with their shiny hair, plastic shoes, and dainty dresses.
Their painted lips smile back almost begging to be selected, taken home, and lovingly played with by the little girl before them. Some of them resemble my mother with her ivory skin and hazel eyes. Others boast a deep chocolate tone, like that of my father. But I don’t see myself in any of their faces. Selecting either of the two varieties will inevitably result in whispers between my parents about my sense of identity after bed time.
I’ll choose a toy horse today instead.
This feeling continued as the norm for me. I existed in the between. I navigated the awkward phases of my teenage years as if I had been walking the tightrope. Never able to find a foundation to match my skin tone. Unable to style my hair in this or that way – always too fine or too kinky. Instead of enjoying the duality of my heritage to fit in everywhere, I learned that I fit in nowhere.
I entered early adulthood carefully.
My words were too white.
My views were too ethnic.
Say it like this, present it like that.
Be sure to lower your voice.
Smile when you speak.
My seat at the proverbial tables surrounding me were always just a bit too removed, a bit too uncomfortable, a bit too cold.
Over the years, I found homes for myself in other communities. I became comfortable with living in the middle. My capacity to adjust, my resilience in the face of marginalization, my ability to find a place in the patterns of humanity – no matter how ambiguous – all became a part of who I am. I grew into these hand me down bits of reality. I built an identity around them. I became a chameleon. When it doesn’t fit right, just reach into that closet and grab something new. Try it on. Repeat.
I’m not one to complain – I just do what needs to be done, and keep it moving.
Living life in the middle, as frustrating as it was over the years, was something that I became very good at doing.
I developed an affinity for maintaining what I like to call general fluency. This served me well when I chose to convert to Islam in my early twenties – a decision that shocked many of my friends, polarized a number of my close relationships, and pushed me to stand independently in more ways than I’d expected.
I persevered. I quickly found my feet, and felt proud of my ability to remain firm alone. Within a few years, I married a wonderful Sudanese-American man, and over the years to come my husband and I would build a family of our own. We moved to the Baltimore, Maryland area to share proximity to my in-laws, and soon realized that we were expecting our third child.
Pregnancy suited me well. Physically , I felt great! I was That Mom – you know the one. I sported the pregnancy glow, I kept busy, I spent my pregnancy working and nurturing my two older children. Things were going wonderfully, until one day in the early weeks of my third trimester when my midwife asked me to consider my preferences for my homebirth.
It took a single conversation after dinner with my husband for everything to change.
In my husband’s tribe, birth is a community experience. The expectant mother will labor and birth in the company of her mother, her mother-in-law, her friends, and other close women in the community. These women will support her through the process. After she births her baby, she’ll be taken away to her mother’s home where she’ll remain in confinement with her baby for the next forty days. During this time, members of the village and surrounding areas will come to visit her. They will slide monetary gifts under the pillow of her bed, and they will bring her hearty, warm soups to encourage postpartum healing. Her mother will offer juices and special cookies to these guests – a symbol of celebration and gratitude.
Once she’s completed these forty days of rest, she’s pampered with a smoke bath over acacia wood. Her body is waxed, perfumed, and adorned with henna before she is returned to her husband at home presented as a new bride, baby in tow.
My eyes were opened to the richness that surrounded birth in my husband’s culture. I was told to expect guests in my home daily. I was told to expect to eat foods I found unfamiliar. I was told to expect to have additional hands at work in my home – people who I was not comfortable being around in the delicate postpartum time. I was told that my failure to extend an invitation would be perceived as an act of ill will. I was told that if these guests didn’t arrive to welcome my baby, then the unity of the community
… would be placed into question.
Suddenly, general fluency wasn’t enough. There I was carrying this child who belongs to this tapestry of tradition that I don’t share.
The only traditions I’d held for myself were ones that I’d created. It was tradition for me that my mother be my companion in labor. It was tradition for me that, as per my faith, my husband offer a bit of date paste to my baby after birth and say a brief prayer. It was tradition for me that after birth I indulge in a soup that a Bolivian friend tenderly taught me to prepare when I was expecting my first child. It was tradition for me that I be allowed extreme privacy in my early postpartum weeks. And yet, like a bucket of cold water to the face, the expectations of others were poured over me. This child in my womb no longer felt like mine – she felt like common property, an addition or extension of something that I couldn’t relate to anymore. To add insult to injury, I felt unqualified to take her back.
How could I say no to these practices when I have nothing of equal weight to offer in exchange? How could I deny these colorful traditions in favor of my beige ones? How could I honor these foreign customs while staying true to who I am as an individual?
An overwhelming sense of inadequacy came over me, and it spiraled out of control. I was deeply affected by these expectations. I felt my mental health unravel until a bare spool of depression was revealed below it.
I felt less than.
I felt incredibly insufficient and unprepared.
I no longer wished to meet my baby.
If I could only keep her inside for a little bit longer, perhaps I could avoid upsetting those around me.
If only I could remove myself from the equation – perhaps things would be easier for everyone involved.
Perhaps I was doing my children a disservice for failing to offer them such an abounding culture of my own. Perhaps.
I imagined my baby on her wedding day. Would I have shortchanged her? I imagined her parenting her own children. Would she feel unfulfilled? I imagined her looking at herself in the mirror as a twelve-year old girl. Would she feel proud of her culture? Would she even be able to identify it? I felt sadness. I felt guilt. And without warning, I felt rage. It was as if my existence in between accounted for nothing, yet there I was bringing forth life.
It wasn’t until a few weeks prior to the birth of my baby that I came to a profound realization: my children will also experience the middle. I am indeed qualified to prepare them for the double-edged sword that this middle wields.
Who better than their mother to teach them to find independence and self-worth when the people surrounding their lives might see them as watered down versions of something greater?
Who better to guide them to finding their very own truths about identity as multiracial children in a multicultural home than the woman who grew up in the same?
My patchwork quilt of identity – crafted carefully with my own hands and heart using bits and pieces of my heritage, my surroundings, my experiences, my faith, my successes and my failures – is just as valuable as the beautifully decorated coats that others don, passed down from generations past.
I believe in autonomy.
That does not negate my belief in community.
I believe in diversity.
That does not negate my belief in pride for one’s culture.
I believe that my positioning as a mother here – in this space in the between – is best for my children. I believe that motherhood in the middle is the best gift that I can provide my babies, and that I have been prepared for this job with divine will.
A job that I can complete with ihsaan – a word that means even more than excellence.
When the pains of labor came on, I stood firmly.
When my body began to open and bend, I felt assured.
There, in the sacred and phenomenal birth space, I was affirmed.
I birthed my baby with my husband, my parents, my mother-in-law, and my children present with me. I birthed a baby whose skin looks like mine, whose hair feels like mine. A baby whose face is nothing short of a reminder of the Glory of Allah.
I birthed a baby into the schism of separate worlds – somewhere between the Nile and the Mississippi.
I birthed this baby here, without excess or extremes. I birthed this baby into a space where she can remain next to me, and where I am enough for her. I birthed my baby in the middle. And she is undeniably mine.
Chelsea Stevenson owner of Birth Under Wraps
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