AYA DE LEON's Hero's Journey Into Motherhood - Mutha Magazine

On Writing

Published on August 20th, 2013 | by Aya de Leon


AYA DE LEON’s Hero’s Journey Into Motherhood


My journey to motherhood begins, like any other heroic journey, with the refusal of the call to adventure.  As an aspiring novelist I’ve been studying story structure, including Joseph Campbell’s notion of the Hero’s Journey. In his model, great adventure stories from around the world begin with the call to adventure, and the hero first declines.

At the age of 23, I refused the call of parenting.  I accidentally got pregnant and it didn’t occur to me for even a moment to keep the baby.  The baby’s father was immature and irresponsible, but I wasn’t.  I had a college degree; I could have easily moved in with my mom and gotten a job.  I wanted to have kids; I loved kids; I’d joyfully worked with kids since I was a kid.  But I was clear that this unplanned pregnancy did not offer acceptable conditions for motherhood in my life.

As a teen, I had been mentored by a number of second wave white feminists, queer and straight, who offered the perspective that motherhood in a male dominated society was a bum deal.  My own parents were divorced.  I had been raised by a single mom, and that road looked tough. My dad had gone on to have a few baby mamas, and that looked even tougher.  Although I had suspicion and hostility toward the institution of marriage, the commitment and recognition part looked like a better context in which to raise a kid.

Also, when I got pregnant I had just begun the process of healing from my own childhood issues. I could see that I was an emotional mess.  I was coming to terms with the generations of addiction, abuse, neglect and tragedy in my family. I wanted a chance to heal from those legacies and not pass them on to my kids.   Finally, I was just starting out as a writer. I knew that having a baby would mean putting my artistic dreams on hold.

I have never regretted that decision, although I’ve come to believe that there was no wrong choice. If I’d had that baby, I’d be totally in love with her/him and would have made it work. It wouldn’t have been the end of my life, just a very different life.

Throughout my 30s, I hustled hard as an artist. I pursued every creative passion that I knew would be insurmountable with a child.  I toured as a spoken word performer. I was a hip hop and hip hop theater artist, spending many a late night in clubs and theaters.  I had the ultimate goal of becoming a novelist, which is much more compatible with parenting. So I went full out with all the parts of my artist life that were less compatible.  Then I began preparing for motherhood.  I got a teaching job and finished my MFA. I was 40 when I started trying to get pregnant. I knew it was a risk that I had waited too long, but I was adamant. If it meant that I had missed my fertility window, I could live with that. I couldn’t live with the regret of not pursuing those performing arts passions.

Ironically, when trying to get pregnant as an older mom, the fact that I’d had an abortion was a hopeful sign.  What was supposed to have been a shameful badge of sexual irresponsibility in my 20s became a good omen in my 40s.

In 2009, I had my daughter at home. I’m madly in love with her, but the second wave white feminists were right:  motherhood in a male dominated society is a bum deal.  In particular, it’s been rough to see how the sexism in my relationship has intensified (I’m married to a bio guy).  But by delaying motherhood, I have had time to plan and set up my life so that I’ve built infrastructures, relationships and community to insulate me and my daughter from the sexism.

My mother’s response to sexism in marriage was divorce. Her mother’s old school Catholic response had been to stay and suffer. Mine is to stay in the marriage and fight to transform it, using tools like compassion, confrontation, gender guerilla warfare, and couples counseling.

Overall, it’s working and things are going reasonably well for all of us.  In particular, my artist life has developed enough momentum that it hasn’t been derailed. However, it has slowed down considerably.  And I had time to heal, so I’m passing on only a small portion of my family trauma.

One of the biggest challenges of my early time as a mother has been that I underestimated how hard it would be to sell a novel.  While I was gallivanting about being a performing artist, the literary industry was falling apart.  This puts debut novelists at a bigger disadvantage than ever before.  It used to be that editors and later literary agents would take on new authors with promise.  Today, they generally only take work that needs little more than a final polish.  This means that the onus is on authors to do all the heavy lifting to prepare the work before we can even get in the door.  When I realized this, I had a serious period of identity crisis and despair.  It seemed that, as the mom of a small child, I wouldn’t have the time or mental space to move my projects forward.  I was afraid that parenting had put me out of the fiction game as well as the performing game.  Slowly, I’ve learned to work intensely in the moments of time I have, and to accept that the pace of my artist’s career can’t continue at the high speed of accomplishment that I enjoyed as a childless writer.  Slowly, I’m inching toward the goal of publication, and learning to enjoy myself and my family along the way.  Also, prior to having a kid, I didn’t invest as much in my relationships and community.  As a mom, the isolation can be crippling.  So I’m building more community with whom to commiserate and celebrate.  In particular, the HackerMoms have made a huge difference.

I don’t know why the hero’s journey begins with the refusal of the call but my heroic journey into parenting did. And all moms are heroes. Some days I’d like a cape, the ability to fly, and an immediate response from the mayor’s office. But many days it’s just achingly lovely to have this feral little girl who knows my every fault, and still sees me as her biggest hero.


About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist series, which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In May 2020, Aya published her first children’s chapter book, EQUALITY GIRLS AND THE PURPLE REFLECTO-RAY, about an Afro-Latina girl who uses her superpowers to confront the president’s sexism. In December 2020 Kensington published her first standalone novel, A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about FBI infiltration of an African American organization fighting for climate justice and Black lives. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Mutha Magazine, VICE, The Root, Ploughshares, and on Def Poetry. In 2020, Candlewick will publish her first YA novel, a Black/Latina spy girl book called UNDERCOVER LATINA. She is an alumna of Cave Canem and VONA. Visit her online at ayadeleon.com, on Twitter at @ayadeleon, Facebook or Instagram at @ayadeleonwrites, where she writes about race, class, gender, sexuality, culture and climate.

4 Responses to AYA DE LEON’s Hero’s Journey Into Motherhood

  1. Corey says:

    Love! Good luck with your novel; your writing is lovely.

  2. Botanigal says:


    I really identify with this post. I am also an artist and writer who will turn 40 this March after my first child is born. I grew up with a single mother whose life has been incredibly challenging and a distant father who still shirks the idea of being a parent in dialogue with me. I was wary of marriage and motherhood for most of my life, and then something shifted and I am embracing this new abundance of love in partnership and motherhood. But I have my worries and feminist principles. I am worried about the experience of trying to continue my creative practice, and see writing as a solution. I hope to publish some day – life stories about the legacy of family trauma. So, much resonates with me. And I just wrote to say thank you for speaking to your experience – the slowness and acceptance to which you’ve learned approached writing as a new mom – it is both hopeful and makes me feel less alone. Rock on, grrl.

  3. Sharline Chiang says:

    Aya, thank you for your honesty. So much of this resonated with me, as I struggled with and continue to struggle with these issues: the reluctance to engage in and accept the very hard work and sacrifice it takes to be a mother in our society (in my case, add to everything, no family support around, that is, no other female relatives to help out with child care), and gender privilege at home. You wrote: “motherhood in a male dominated society is a bum deal. In particular, it’s been rough to see how the sexism in my relationship has intensified (I’m married to a bio guy).” — I hear you! Thank you also for your honesty in talking about how hard it hits the sense of self, the ego, and how depressing it can be to realize that this choice to have and raise a child means having to accept a huge blow to the pace at which we can ramp up our artistic trajectories, a blow to the possibility of staying relevant. Would love to talk to you some time more about all of this. – peace, Sharline

  4. Egypt says:

    I am obsessed with the Hero’s Journey, and am surprised that I hadn’t thought about my own birth/parenting experience in this way. Your post was beautiful and has made me think!

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