Mothering As Encouraging Appetites
an excerpt from Essential Labor
Essential Labor is out in one week! (Ahhhhhhhhh🤪🤪🤪!) You can preorder personalized copies from Third Place Books, signed copies from Book Larder, your local independent bookstore, or large online retailer. Thank you for your support.
I leave this Saturday for the first leg of my book tour which, after seeing fellow authors and friends publish books throughout the pandemic, I feel fortunate to be able to do at all. I’ve been calling it the Tour of My Dreams and it’s no exaggeration; I’ll be in conversation with so many writers, community leaders, and artists I admire, including four Pinay women (!!!). The tour is a mix of virtual and in-person events—hopefully a little something for everyone, many ways of coming together while keeping each other safe.
In truth, tour actually begins for me tomorrow, Wednesday May 4, when I park my butt in a chair and travel through the depths of internet to attend back-to-back-to-back online events with the Chamber of Mothers, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (whose work today is more necessary than ever), and the deYoung Museum in San Francisco (this is a particularly fun one—talking about Alice Neel’s paintings of motherhood with artists, curators, and health practitioners.) I’d love to see you in any of these zoom rooms.
Finally, all this sitting and self-promotion and talkingtalkingtalking inevitably makes me want to just shut up and move, which is why I am BEYOND hyped to announce my partnership with Dance Church, a beloved community I’ve been part of for nearly 10 years. In support of Essential Labor, Dance Church is holding in-person classes to coincide with my book tour events in New York (5/8), Seattle (5/22), and Los Angeles (6/4). And because I want to dance with you even if we can’t be together physically, Dance Church is releasing a free online class this Sunday, Mother’s Day at 10 am PT, that you can stream and get down to.
And now, without further ado, I offer you an excerpt from Essential Labor. It’s a small portion of a chapter called “Mothering As Encouraging Appetites” and it’s an essay I’ve been thinking about for at least ten years, if not most of my life. Thank you for being here and for reading.
See you out there!!!!!!!!
AS A KID, I padded into our yellow linoleum kitchen at all hours to take scoops of rice from the rice cooker that lived on the counter. I’d fill a bowl then pour patis and lemon juice over it, or soy sauce and lemon juice, depending on my mood, and eat it while sitting on the floor. My brothers used to yell at me for what they considered my highest crime, worse than being a tattletale: I’d beat them to a loaf of supermarket bakery French bread and dig out the squishy insides, which I’d chase with a shot of pickle juice straight from the jar. When they opened the paper bag, they’d find only a long, hollowed- out crust. I’d help myself to slices of Pepperidge Farm German Chocolate Cake, which my mom kept in its box in the freezer. I liked how, after eating approximately half the slices, the box had enough room to store the knife inside of it, where it would get finger-numbingly cold. My appetite has always felt outsized, and I’ve only ever wanted to indulge it.
Growing up, I noticed the food we ate was the product of a lot of work. Not only did it require ingredients that most people around me had never heard of, but those ingredients took a long time to cook. I was a small-town ’80s kid, grow- ing up at a time when the “ethnic” aisle in the grocery store was stocked with little more than La Choy soy sauce and canned water chestnuts. I could never imagine I’d live where I do now, shopping at Fou Lee, Seafood City, Viet-Wah, Uwa- jimaya, 99 Ranch, and H Mart. Many pantry staples—fish sauce, fifty-pound bags of rice, bagoong, sotanghon noodles, cane vinegar—were procured in Chinatown when we visited my Tita Fe in New York City. I remember my dad loading the hefty woven sacks of rice into the back of our van. When we arrived home, he would cut open a sack with a steak knife, flip it over, and pour its contents into our green rice dispenser, a three-foot-tall item I was oddly proud of our owning. It dispensed rice in three-cup increments with just the push of a finger.
We also ate a fair amount of canned corned beef in those days, but all the important food—the food my parents liked the most, the food we ate on special occasions, or the nights when my mom was home from work early—was Filipino. Pinakbet, munggo, adobo—dishes that required time to poach and shred chicken, braise pork belly, or chop small mountains of vegetables. For bulalo and sinigang and kare kare, we needed hours to braise pork neck bones and oxtails. When she made lumpia and pancit, typically for parties and gatherings, my mother would pull out gallon containers of Wesson oil and two electric woks and turn what seemed like laundry baskets of noodles using all her arm strength. Instead of our usual white six-cup rice cooker, she’d get out the fancy cream-colored ten-cupper with the built-in lid and decorative pastel flowers. On these occasions, I often ate so much that I got a stomachache. At age forty-four, it’s not so different. I always want more: another bite, another serving, another round.
My husband likes to tell the story of the first time he came to dinner at my parents’ house. There were four of us, and my mom and dad served a dinner of salad, pancit, baked salmon, and white rice. Plus two racks of smoked pork ribs. Filipinx elders are always asking you if you’ve eaten, always telling you to eat more. They are also the first people to declare, immediately upon seeing you, “You got fat!” The question I’ve been asked most frequently throughout my life by family is probably, “Have you eaten yet?” Whatever my answer is, the reply is “Kain na!”
At my home now, our oldest daughter loves chili, the bean-and-beef-filled one her father makes in our slow cooker, suffusing the house with the scent of cumin. She has been known to house three consecutive bowls—topped with shredded cheddar, diced onions, crushed tortilla chips, and sour cream—in one sitting. On more than one occasion she has excused herself after one bowl to run to the bathroom and poop, ensuring she has room for another serving. I resist the urge to tease her about it because, honestly, I get it.
SINCE THE MOMENT LIGAYA WAS born, people have been telling me that she looks just like me. “Your twin!” more than a few people have remarked. To me, she looks like herself, but four years in I can finally concede that there is a strong resemblance between us. Why was I hesitant to admit it?
As Ligaya grows into her own person, I see that her face looks very much like mine, but also that her body shape seems to echo mine. I don’t think she’ll be tall, but she will be robust and sturdy, her legs short and strong. I’ve never wanted to give voice to the resemblance for fear that it will curse her to have the same baggage and body image issues I’ve struggled with: self-conscious about her round stomach, thick calves, big boobs.
I have curiosity too: Will she, like me, have uneven body hair, her right armpit hairy and her left scattered with just a few thin wisps? Will her leg hair grow only to the middle of her shins, as though she’s wearing hairy mid-calf-length socks? Will her lips stay plump and delicious and will she retain the same expressive face that makes it nearly impossible to hide her emotions?
Everyone has their own innate understanding of how to be in their bodies, including my daughters. I am trying my best to stay back, to find the delicate place where my fears exist and where they become projections I put on my children. I keep my eye out for that line so I don’t cross it. I’m figuring out how to release control, follow their lead. I want to get out of their singular life paths, but I want to get in the way of the dominant narrative, box it out. How do you care and lead and recede at the same time?
Can I inspire my girls to not care what their stomachs are shaped like? To know that they are much more than their bodies? To pursue their appetites and, in the words of Carmen Maria Machado, “manifest the audacity of space-taking”? Can I give them what Machado calls “fatness of the mind”?
Woman, you make me cry every time I read your gorgeous writing. Especially about your daughters. You give voice to the fears and joys of so many mothers ❤️