No More ‘Mother’s Helper’ – I want my daughter to have the childhood I couldn’t enjoy.

No more mother's helper illustration

art by Freddy Bruce

Translated from Spanish.

All my life I watched my mother try to take care of her children emotionally and economically. It was not easy. My mother had 10 children (eight survived), and she and my father worked hard but were very poor.

I admired my mother because she was strong, but I was also very angry at her. I had to live apart from my parents most of my life and become a second mother to my siblings when I was still a child.

Hours Apart

When I was little, I lived with my parents in Mexico City. Then, when I was 4 or 5 years old, they brought my siblings and me to live with my grandparents because they were always working.

Until I was 14, my mother or father would come to see us every two weeks. I missed them at first, and I would eagerly await their arrival. But they weren’t very loving toward me because each visit they only stayed one night.

It makes me sad that my mother had to leave us for many years so that she could work, although I understand why she had to move away from home to survive economically. I moved to the United States, far from my family, for the same reason.

My mother has told me that she wanted her children to have a better life than she had. Living with my grandparents, I saw what her life as a child in the country had been like. At 6 years old, I had to take on many responsibilities in the household, like bringing water to the house, taking care of the animals and helping my grandmother make tortillas. My grandfather was very strict.

A Painful Reconnection

At 12 years old, I went with my 6-year-old brother to live in a larger town with electricity and stores so that I could go to secondary school. I was in charge of my brother—cooking for him, bathing him, making him do his homework and sending him to school.

I was afraid of living alone. Finally, after two years, my mother came to stay for good, along with my five younger siblings.

I hoped that, in time, I would be able to ask her my questions about life and she would give me advice. In reality, it was very difficult to live with her.

My mother worked cleaning houses or cooking for people every day. She arrived home tired. She would say that her feet and her back hurt.

She put me in charge of taking care of all my siblings. My mother did not have the personality to take care of children. Everything made her angry. If she saw a shoe out of place, she would get mad, and if we were noisy she’d get upset. At those times, she’d say things that hurt my feelings, and sometimes she’d hit me.

Once I asked my mom, “Why do you have so many children if you can’t take care of them?” She said to me, “You’ll understand when you have your own.”

Alone in New York

I promised myself that I would have only one child, and that as a mother I would have patience and understanding.

At 18, I moved to New York City to work and study. Four years later, I married and soon we had our daughter, Brenda. In the first few months, I felt so helpless and unsure of how to feed my newborn and bathe her. My husband and I were all alone in New York. I felt I needed my mother more than ever, but the only phone in her village was at a store where families could wait to receive a call. It was very difficult to communicate that way.

My husband also grew up separated from his parents and he thought I should stay home with Brenda. But like my mother, I felt it was important that I work. I wanted to help support my parents and my younger siblings in Mexico.

So when Brenda was 3 months old, I returned to working in a factory folding and packing shower curtains. After three years, though, the woman who cared for Brenda couldn’t babysit anymore, and we moved houses. I thought it was too many changes for her, so I left my job to stay home.

I enjoyed being home with my daughter, even though she was sometimes naughty, like any child, and I was not always as patient as I’d hoped.

Feeling Like My Mother

When Brenda was 8 years old, we decided to have a son as well. Diego arrived, and two years later, Francisco was born. He was a surprise. When I found out I was pregnant again, my fear was, “What am I going to tell my mother?” I felt embarrassed and unprepared. I kept thinking, “What am I going to do for my children?”

Just as I feared, after Francisco was born, my daughter began to get angry at me because I didn’t attend to her like before. If I was on the bed holding Francisco, Diego would climb on top of me. That would make Brenda angry, and she would go to her bed.

I would say to her, “How are you? What are you doing?” and invite her to play, but because she was upset she’d say, “I don’t want to play.” It made me sad to feel that I might be hurting my daughter as my mother hurt me.

At times I feel like my mother. Now that I have three, it’s a little difficult to be patient. When my daughter makes me angry, especially, I’m shocked to find that I feel like I could hit her. But I don’t. I tell myself, “I have to control myself. Hitting doesn’t fix anything. By talking, I can make her understand me. If I hurt her, I will leave her feeling so small.”

A Sister, Not a Mother

My worst fear didn’t come true: I don’t make Brenda take care of her brothers. What I do is tell her that she’s responsible for herself. She has to do her homework, bathe, brush her teeth, and clean up her things.

I feel lucky that I can stay home with my children. I enjoy their smiles and their tantrums. I am learning patience. My mother was not able to enjoy and share her children’s childhood.

My mother and I have a better communication now. She has a phone in her house, and I talk with her about how she is. I feel sympathetic to my mother. I know that, to her, it must have seemed like the right thing to make me mother my siblings. She did not know much about family planning, and her economic choices were limited.

But I am glad I don’t face the same economic choices my mother had in Mexico, and that I can give a different childhood to my daughter. Brenda plays with her brothers, but she’s not responsible for them.

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