Published on October 28th, 2013 | by Meilan Carter-Gilkey10
Meilan Carter-Gilkey Remembers Being The Other Mommy
“I want you to be that mommy!”
In seven words my three year old split my life in two. We were watching old home videos of Kamau, my first born, age three to five, with my twenty-three year old self on the screen. My youngest, Mateo, is still grappling with the concept of time and is obsessed with the child version of his now nineteen-year old brother. Watching Christmas morning, birthdays and Kamau’s kindergarten graduation was surreal and at times a little eerie. Watching Mateo meet my father and grandmother on the screen and the pain of their empty spaces in our lives felt tangible. These familiar moments, filled with emotions and memories, are now seen by both Mateo’s eyes and my forty-year-old, bifocal-ed ones. Looking at my heavy, virgin eyebrows and my vintage thrift store finds was an awkward mirror: it reminded me how much I had changed, all the details of my former life. I studied the ways I spoke on camera, when I encouraged and when I scolded Kamau. It became a bit voyeuristic. So many of these details had faded into haze until I was forced to stare at them – old relationships, extinguished passions, an underdog spirit and of course, my first born son.
Watching Kamau as a toddler with a robust laugh and a love for center stage, and watching my sweet young adult son, working on confidence, creativity and discipline, it is hard to believe he is the same person. It feels unreal that so much time has passed but looking at these movies of my younger self, fiercely motivated to raise both my son and myself, reminds me that it has. Witnessing those milestones again takes me back to my survival mode and the simmered anger that still bubbles to the surface on occasion. These harmless home movies trigger a complex blend of distance and intimacy, and I felt the dull wound, the absence of Kamau’s father. I can’t help but compare the differences in my sons’ lives: Kamau and myself like partners navigating life together; Mateo born to a family with security, never to know the challenges Kamau and I overcame.. Watching Mateo be adored by his father while knowing that Kamau’s wound is yet to be healed is difficult.
I respond to Mateo’s request: “I am that mommy!” But it is not true. I have grown out my hair and plucked my eyebrows. I have gotten married, finished school, had a career, experienced loss and become a grown up. I am not that mommy, though in some ways I still am. I smile when I hear my frustrated voice on video, fussing at Kamau for not eating or listening, because Mateo hears the same. I hold the same anxiety for Kamau as he goes on job interviews as I did when he performed in the school play. But though that twenty-something me “who raised her son alone with love, strength, and a hip-hop soundtrack” was my life, that existence sometimes feels like a myth. These movies don’t fully capture the struggle, the victories and the many, many lessons that I carry with me twenty years after Kamau’s birth.
It is impossible to be the me I am now and to be that other mommy, and it is impossible to not be both. A married, educated mother of two, who looks forward to date nights and new parenting magazines. I have become the antithesis of my former self and so each of my sons have had different mothers; Kamau has had two. I am now the me I wanted to be, a married, secure, happy grown-up, though I have lost a little of my edge. There are days that I feel part of the conformist machine, with play dates and birthday themes, and sometimes I miss my unorthodox ways. I don’t feel totally erased, and yes, both my boys listened to A Tribe Called Quest by age three, but there is a part of me that feels like I have it easy now. It is sad that I feel guilty for being happily married to a wonderful father. But I do.
I think what I am most surprised about in all this is how fluid identity is, and how our circumstances shape so much. It may seem an obvious concept, but the subliminal ways our philosophies are shaped and how our motivations are directed can inform who you become. There is often the weight of our experience lying quietly under our skin. This has also been a good reminder of what parts of myself I choose to promote, hold on to or ignore. I miss parts of the twenty-three year old me, and I know that twenty-three year old me wished she could be the forty year old me, and how both of us want to be “that other mommy”.