One mama, many mamahoods

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

By Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes

I brag about my mama. A lot. I brag about my mama because she won’t do it herself. I brag about my mama because she is one of those mamas whose real life experiences are all too often bundled into one-dimensional statistics, and whose identity as a parent is all too often understood as a result of social determinants rather than strength and resilience.

I also say this because of my mama’s unique relationship to the spectrum of motherhood. She started her parenting career as a teen mom and then later graduated to becoming an older mother. At age 19, she had me and then later in life, at nearly 40 years old, she had my younger brother. This puts me roughly 20 years between my mama on one side and my brother on the other side. Essentially, my mama has raised two “only children.” Her story covers two distinct social narratives, one about teen moms and a second about older mothers, narratives that are not normally so closely shared. But in my family’s case, they’re one in the same.

Immigrant + Teen Pregnancy + College Dropout + Single Mom

These descriptors carry a whole lot of weight in this country, weight that is mired in a social narrative that sets one up for failure more than success. A young immigrant mother without a college education isn’t exactly the face of Mother’s Day in the world of Hallmark and Sunday brunches. But it is the face of my Mama’s Day, and similar to thousands of families across this country.

My mama came to the United States when she was not yet ten years old from a country steeped in war (known as either the Vietnam War or the American War, depending where your perspective lies). She then learned to speak English from a French tutor, while growing up in Texas (hence an adorable Viet-French-Texan accent—trust me, it’s awful cute). To make a long story short, she graduated high school at 17, got married at 18, started college at 19, and had a baby before she turned 20. No more than a year after I was born, she came to the realization that she simply couldn’t be the traditional wife her family wanted her to be. So she was forced to make the hardest decision one can make, a decision to choose her family OR her newly-forming family. She chose the latter. She chose US. Me and her.

At this point in life, she had two friends who had moved from Texas. One lived in Alaska and the other in Las Vegas. Alaska seemed too cold, so she bought a ticket to start a new life in Vegas, a new life for me, a new life for her, and a new life for our family. And that’s just what we did—we started new, amidst the neon lights of Sin City. It was a decision that forever changed the course of our family.

Starting her career dealing cards, my mama learned her way around the casino floor, and eventually, the industry. Over 20 years later, she is married to a wonderful man (my adopted father) and manages an entire casino. I am proud to say that she is one of the only women—in addition to being one of the only people of color—to have the position she has at a major resort on the Las Vegas Strip.

But, of course, this isn’t the end to her mamahood story. Never one to do it the easy way, my mama later became a mama again—this time at almost 40 years old.

Career-driven + Work/Family Balance + Older Mother

The social narrative about women having children later in life and their conflicting relationships with careers and work/family balance has been the topic of romantic comedies and social critique for a few decades now. So as my mama was nearing her 40th birthday, in the midst of a demanding and successful career path, with an adult daughter about to leave the so-called “nest,” my mama shifted gears once more and challenged our tiny family’s concept of “family” once again.

Again, the professional, older mother who is consistently negotiating conflicts between their career expectations and having a young child at home is not a face you see all that often in Hallmark cards or Mother’s Day commercials either, especially if that face is an immigrant and a former teen mom.

This is why I celebrate my mama this Mama’s Day—because as she approaches her 50s, she proudly can speak to being a young mom (and, at times, a single mom) working hard to make ends meet, and also to being a mature, career-driven mother who celebrated her 40th birthday with a brand new baby.

And as I sit here, at that perfect intersection of adult daughter and “hip” older sister, I’m quite grateful for the multiple “families” my family represents.

So, yes. I brag about my mama. A lot. I brag about my mama because others don’t. I brag about my mama because she won’t do it herself. I brag about my mama because faces like hers and mamahoods like hers don’t always land in Hallmark cards or in Mother’s Day commercials.

But faces like hers are the ones we celebrate during Mama’s Day.

Mama’s Day is about celebrating the mamas in our lives whose stories need support, whose experiences need uplifting, and whose lives are more than social determinants and false narratives. Mama’s Day is about celebrating ALL families and mamas who have done things in an unconventional way, more than once. Mama’s Day is about empowering the complex lives of women and the strength and resilience they carry through to create strong families.

Mamahood is about continuously making hard decisions for ourselves and those we love most. So to those young, immigrant moms who are trying to figure the world out . . . and to those older mothers trying to re-figure the world out . . . I salute you.

Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes works as State Strategies Manager at Advocates for Youth, managing state policy and youth mobilization around issues of reproductive and sexual health/rights. As a proud Las Vegas native and current DC-transplant, her passions lie in facilitating and creating intentional spaces for not only social justice movement-building, but for creativity and radical self-expression.

This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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