Motherhood: An Exercise in Fear Management
Aimee Santos-Lyons tells her motherhood story to launch the 2012 Mama's Day story series.
Twelve years later, mamahood continues to be my most challenging struggle. Three kids and there’s a consistent sensation of always trying to catch up—with them and their daily needs, and with the ever-changing world they’re growing up in.
Let me be clear, I have often felt the most powerful being a mama to my three kids. But let me also be abundantly clear, I have also been at my weakest and most helpless being a mama to my kids. There are certainly times when I feel that being a mother is an exercise in fear management, working through varying levels of concern, anxiety, and sheer panic.
Some terrors are simple and easily dispelled: fevers, school grades, fights in the playground.
Some terrors are paralyzing: having your children threatened with expulsion; being unable to feed them; or losing your children to strange agencies, separated and unable to find them.
When I was a young mother, the father of my eldest child threatened to take my son away from me. At the time, I had only been in the United States for a year. My son’s father, a U.S. citizen, was unhappy that I was talking of leaving him because of his abuse. I was not a citizen, he said, so he could easily have our son taken away from me. I begged him to let us go back home to the Philippines. He threatened me with a knife. I didn’t think I would survive that night. I sat all evening long wide awake with my back to the wall and a screwdriver in my hand.
When I’m asked how you go through a traumatic experience like that, the answer that quickly comes to mind is that my son pulled me through it. And even though it wasn’t much of a thinking process, the adrenaline coursing through me at the time was also fueled by the thought of my mother. Somehow her faith came to me in my moment of need. I also seized on thoughts of my grandmother’s mother, who, as a single parent in the 1920s, had journeyed through the central plains of Northern Philippines to the mountains and rivers of the south with four young girls in tow, so she could clear and claim homestead land for her family and secure their future. She had to steel herself against snakes, thieves, and would-be assaults. I had a desperate aspiration to mimic her strength. Kinship, faith, and breaking my sense of isolation by calling on the stories of the mothers before me helped me summon courage.
My most prized mommy talent is making my kids feel brave. I explain it to my children by saying courage is another word for “standing up.” Being able to cultivate courage also happens to be an incredibly useful skill in community organizing. The easiest way I know to make people believe in the power of their resistance is to break their sense of isolation. I find that loneliness and fear are twin emotions. When I’m able to foster connection, I find people are more able to speak up, call things out, and make demands for just change.
Western States Center, in partnership with Forward Together and seven other groups, is bringing this radical idea into movement-building. We call it Strong Families. What if all the grassroots groups who work with the families who are consistently pushed to the margins and thrown under the bus talked about their causes as if they were all connected? What if we worked as if we were facing the same stigma and hate? What if I, in my parenting, felt connected to immigrant mamas at the northern border fighting to reclaim their community? What if I, in my resistance, understood deeply my relationship to mothers who lose their children to juvenile justice, foster care systems, and/or incarceration?
I would feel less alone. And hopefully, we would all feel braver.
This week Western States Center is embarking on an experiment. We’re betting that there’s an appetite for the stories of mamas who often don’t get the star treatment. We’re betting that you will recognize the magnificent humanity in their lives, in their work, and in their families.
This Mama’s Day week, we’ll be featuring the stories of three grassroots organizations working in Washington state who are mobilizing and lifting up the voices of different mamas: Community to Community, Got Green, and Catalyst for Kids. And as different as they may all look, sound, and work, we’re betting you’ll recognize that they are all kin to you. And we’re hoping you won’t be able to look away.