Vibrant red and green mismatched walls, overflowing bookshelves, and leftover Christmas decorations fill Staceyann Chin’s cozy Brooklyn apartment. The Jamaica-born poet and author greets us. Her hair is combed up in a high ponytail, the ends pointing directly upward like an antenna defying gravity. Just enough light escapes through the living room windows, giving the room a soft, warm glow. We sit as she clips her nails to get what she calls “fully lesbianized” for our photo shoot. Hung on the wall is a shiny banner that reads, “Happy Birthday Zuri Woohoo.” Zuri (which, spelled “nzuri,” means “good” in Swahili), Chin’s adorable one-year-old, is playing with her toys, a mix of building blocks, trucks, and stuffed animals, on a colorful floor mat.
“Ah twinkle linkle starry, how I wonder what you are-y,” Chin belts her rendition of the classic nursery rhyme into a bright yellow plastic microphone. Her thick Caribbean accent is a sweet melody accompanied by Zuri’s coos and laughter.
When asked to describe her first year of motherhood, Chin replies, “Wonderfully terrifying. Amazingly challenging.”
For the 41-year-old and first-time mom, her entire journey, from conception to pregnancy to parenting, has been a beautiful struggle and overall balancing act. Whether figuring out how to balance her bank account and travel schedule as a single Black lesbian mom or finding space and time for herself, Chin has certainly grown wiser over the last year. She admits, however, that much of this parenting thing remains trial and error.
In a candid conversation with ELIXHER, Chin shares her reflections from the last 12 months:
Moms Don’t Talk About Fucking
Motherhood has challenged my own identity of myself. For all of my adult life, I’ve been badass, take no prisoners, in your face, angry, foul mouth, say it like it is. In some circles, I might be called vulgar. But I’m aware of that identity and I sit very comfortably in it and enjoy it a little bit.
Being a mom, I have moments when I think, “Shit! She’s going to fucking read all that shit that I wrote about my vagina and making love and fucking, sleeping with other people’s women and whatever the fuck it is that I’m writing about.”
She’s going to read all that stuff one day and what will it do to her? Is she going to think, “Oh my God! I’m so traumatized by reading about my mother’s vagina”? Or will she be feminist and proud and think, “My mom is badass”?
Either one, I think, comes with challenges. There’s a part of me that wants to do what we’ve been socialized to do to be a mother. Like moms, they definitely don’t talk about fucking and they certainly don’t talk about fucking in public and not on the Internet.
A Fishbowl Life
What is a memoirist to do when she writes about her life but then she has a kid who doesn’t make the decision to be out in public—where she is by virtue of you writing about your own life which has her in it? I’m living a fishbowl life where everyone can see what’s happening with my kid.
I suppose it’s okay for now, but at some point her privacy will have to be considered, especially during those preteen and teen years when everything matters. The Internet is still kind of wild and everyone has access to it. Kids at school can pull up stuff on Zuri, Google search, and read all about her beginning and how she was an in vitro baby. I’m hoping by that time that it won’t matter, but I’m not sure.
What I hope now more than anything is to keep the conversation lines open to her. I wrote a poem about the arguments that will have to be apologized for. So I’m storing apologies when I need them. Like people keep Tylenol or Motrin on hand, I’m keeping a couple of apologies nearby so I can dispense them when I need to because I know I will have to apologize. Not because I’m deliberately going in to fuck up but because I know I’m still human.
My own progress has been ungraceful, clumsy, and I’ve fallen and hurt many people and I suppose I’m better at it now but can’t say that I’m perfect. Which means that there will be things that I’ll have to get down on one knee or two knees or sit on a chair and grab her by the shoulder or grab her by the face. Look at her dead on or if she ever gets taller than me, then I will have to look up at her and say, “I’m really sorry, honey. That was completely unintentional and I love you. Let’s figure out how we can get past it.”
Somebody asked me if I could send a photograph and there are so few photographs of me by myself and certainly nothing worth using. Every photograph is in mommy mode.
She just had her first birthday and I’m beginning to find the first stirrings of I don’t want to spend all day every day looking at this kid because a part of preparing her for the world is giving her the wings to be independent and to be away from me.
The thing with motherhood is if you do it right, they will want you but they won’t need you. If you fuck it up, they want you all the time, they need you all the time, and they never really find their own balance in the world.
You have a switch in your head that’s turned on when these babies arrive. It’s kind of a worry switch and it just stays on. There are moments when you can tell yourself, “Oh, the switch is on.” But it’s fine so you can kind of look this way and look at your movie and enjoy. Or you can have sex and actually take yourself to orgasm without thinking about where the kid is. These are all things we should all strive for.
There’s that struggle. As I said, if you do it right and she doesn’t need you then you need to have a life during the times when she doesn’t need you. You need to be able to go and fall in love, dance, have a romance, smile with strangers, write, and do all the things the first year doesn’t seem to give you the chance to do.
So it’s the struggle between the self I was and the self I’ve needed to be in the last year. The balance in between the two is actually what I’m striving for.
After a while you return to the self that wants to do things without the kid. There are things that I’m seeing that she is also ready for more space from me, so that’s the first cue and I’m taking that cue.
I have a lover who lives in Jamaica. I wouldn’t say that I’m dating now but that I’m seeing someone with Zuri. Dating is an odd word because I don’t know if I’m capable of that right now. Like I don’t want to risk being emotionally entrenched in you and you be someone who is not up for partnership. This person I’m seeing, we’ve been together a couple of times but we’ve never really gone for it.
I was on bed rest for six months so my pregnancy was brutal. There was never a moment that I knew Zuri was going to be okay. So I reached for my friends and became tight with a lot of people; there was always somebody in the house just in case. One of the friendships that got really strong during this time was my friendship with this woman I had been with before. A couple of months after Zuri was born, the tone of the conversation changed and we started talking about what it would be like now that I have a kid and we’re still long distance.
We’re so much older and we’re adults now. The risks are more. What would it mean for her to become close to this kid and what would that mean if the relationship doesn’t work out? What would be the game plan?
My priorities are different now. Certain things that used to excite me don’t anymore, like having mad skills in the bedroom, and being smart, witty, and political. You have to be kid-friendly. Before Zuri came into my life, I put up with a lot more bullshit from people. Now, Zuri and I need someone who is ready for where we are. When I say ready, I have to be with someone who isn’t hurting financially because I don’t have the extra money to carry someone now. She has to be ready to be in a house with a baby.
Even now I can miss someone for a moment but then it’s gone because there goes Zuri putting something in her mouth that I have to go and rescue. Or oh my god she pooped again and she has egg in her hair. You don’t have a lot of like uninterrupted moments of yearning for anyone.
My partner and I have a strong base of friendship so whatever happened or is happening I’m confident we’ll survive it. If we survive it as friends, that will be okay. If we survive it as lovers, it will be magic.
Your Silence Will Not Protect You
People have the idea that the less children know the better they are when it’s difficult. I was very worried about how people would respond to Zuri when she was born. But I find now that what makes me more nervous than anything is the silence they perpetuate. There’s silence around the donor question.
Zuri’s donor is very active in her life. He has seen her four or five times since she was born or maybe a couple more times than that. He and his girlfriend have been amazing. They were just here for Zuri’s 1st birthday.
I use the word “donor” because I don’t want to use the word “father.” He does not want to have any rights in that way. He can’t tell me what not to do. He cannot give me permission in anything. Neither can I ask him for the financial support should I need it. He doesn’t have to call like for five or six months or if he doesn’t have the time, it’s okay. I’m not in a place where I want to co-parent with him right now.
She will navigate him kind of like an uncle. When he comes around it’s great. I don’t know what this relationship between him and her will be. I can facilitate it when she’s young and eventually they will have a relationship that will exclude me. At some point if they want to say “daddy” and “daughter,” that’s a decision that they will make for themselves. I can’t say you have to avoid this word or do this. He will see her often enough in her life, she will know him, and have questions for him. It’s not a secret. Even the people close to me think that it raises questions around their own children that they don’t want to answer and it makes them uncomfortable so they don’t really speak about it.
I’m still figuring out how to talk about it with her. For now I’m just choosing the most honest path. “I wanted you so very badly and women can’t make babies by themselves, so Uncle X helped me.” We came up for this name for him, Upendo, which is “love” in Swahili. He will be her upendo. He will be her love. She will be his love.
The wonderful thing about where I am is that I don’t feel like I have a bunch of traditions to follow because how Zuri came to me is not traditional. I don’t want her to be the traditional kid in any way. I want her to be herself. So I’m keeping my ear to the ground, keeping my ear to her, keeping my ear to my own heart and keeping my ear to a community that I respect.
I don’t want her to be afraid of me; I just want her to understand what it is I’m asking of her. I will go as far as to say that I would love to incorporate what she feels in it so that it doesn’t become this kind of autocratic parenting. But I do believe that there’s some ways that I can see faster than you and I can see farther than you because of my experience. So there are instances where I will say don’t do that because I said so and we’ll talk about it later, but right now don’t do it because I said so. I think what our parents did wrong, certainly in Jamaica, is require the kind of blind following of what they asked.
There are a bunch of other people around me who are not doing it gracefully, but I think are doing it right. One of the problems when you’re aiming for grace, is that then you’re not really interested in the hitches, bumps, falls, and apologies. Those are the things that help you shape a thing that’s beautiful and useful and good to both of you. It’s those cracks, chips and bumps that make the sculpture.
I just want her to keep growing and keep up her spirit. I secretly want her to become a little feminist. I want her to say this is my body. I want her to follow her own heart. I don’t want her to love Barbie. I don’t want her to love having a little baby and I want her to explore a wider experience of womanhood. The time will come when those expectations will be put on her not by me but by other people. I want her to be able to say to other people, I like to build things and I don’t want to play the mommy. Later on if I become a mommy, I’ll choose to do that but right now, I want to play other things that I don’t necessarily like. I want her to see me doing things that are in resistance of heteronormativity. Like who am I? Who is this creature that is all radical and still progressive inside the cloak of motherhood? Oh, this is my mom.
I expose her to everything and have her choose. She can get the Barbie but she won’t get the Barbie who is just standing there and looking like a model. I want her to get the Barbie in a nurse’s uniform or we can put Barbie in a construction uniform.
I don’t want her to not have access to things that are considered feminine but I do want to frame that access through a different lens. So Barbie can’t always have her hair done and be in heels, because sometime Barbie needs to take the garbage out and heels aren’t that great for taking the garbage out. Sometimes she has to put it in a ponytail and that’s okay and beautiful. Sometimes Barbie wants to do something fun, not just sit around looking pretty but that can be fun, too.
Again, this parenting thing is trial and error and I found so far that in your dealings with other people and your dealings with her, that honesty is the best way forward because when I’m going through the door and I tell her I’m going through the door, she’ll throw less of a tantrum than when I sneak out. So already those kinds of things are showing up. It’s good for you to let them know what’s going on.
That applies to everything, not just parenting. That’s life.
This article originally appeared in ELIXHER Magazine Issue #1. Purchase the full issue here.