Esther Martinez: Birthday Baby

The morning I found out I was having a girl, I went home, crawled back under the covers, and cried for two hours.

I had Googled “girl and boy ultrasound” and knew what to look for on the screen. If the baby cooperated and showed us the goods, I would see the sweet little sack with its protruding nub, like a miniature fist giving the finger. So when the sonographer moved her wand over my lubed-up belly and I saw the empty space between what I recognized as legs, I started to sweat.

“You ready?” she said.

“No.”

The sonographer smiled. “It’s a girl!”

“Are you sure?” I said. “Can you check again?”

She checked again. She said, “I’m sure.”

I turned to my husband, Sean. If he felt disappointment, his face didn’t betray it. Mine must have, though, because Sean grabbed my hand and said, “It’s ok.”

For the first 18 weeks of my pregnancy, Sean and I had been lovingly referring to my belly as “he.” We conceived on our wedding night, so while honeymooning in Provence, instead of souvenirs for us, we bought our petit garcon a bib with a mustache on it and a baby beret. And we chose a name—Beau, spelled b-e-a-u, the male adjective for beautiful in French.

On his dad’s side, Sean has mostly uncles, boy cousins, brothers and nephews. Ten boys to one girl. I was convinced we’d have a son, and that wasn’t entirely illogical:  the Kenniffs make boys.

But I didn’t just think we’d have a boy, I wanted a boy, and my reasons for that were, admittedly, less logical.

I waited until I was in the car to cry openly. I hadn’t wanted the sonographer to think I was crazy. I know you’re not supposed to care what the baby is. I know you’re at least supposed to say you don’t care what the baby is, “as long as it’s healthy.”

But I cared.

On the ride home, I enumerated the reasons:  “It was supposed to be mommy’s little boy and now it will be daddy’s little girl.”

“So?” Sean said.

“So? I was going to get love from two boys, you and Beau. Now instead I’ll have to share the love from one boy with another girl. That’s half the love. I already resent the baby. I’m a terrible mom.”

Pregnancy hormones make you irrational. But as I went through my list of complaints, I felt myself coming closer to something true.

Between sobs, I said, “I don’t want a daughter. I’m afraid to have a daughter. I’m afraid I’ll become my mother.”

I was born on January 17th, 1978, in a hallway, at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. Apparently, I knew what awaited me because the doctors had to use forceps to pull me, or rather, force me out. Perhaps because of this, I was born with a facial tick. For days after my birth, my chin quivered nonstop, making me look like I was about to cry.

When I was four, I asked my mother why I didn’t look like anyone in our family. I didn’t have tan, Cuban skin like her. I wasn’t a brunette like my older sister, like our Mexican father. I was porcelain-white, and blonde, and different. Latinos have a twisted sense of humor. My mother said, “Oh, that’s because you belonged to an American family, but they threw you in the garbage. Thank God we found you and brought you home.”

When my parents had been divorced a year, my mother sat my sister and me down before a weekend visitation with our dad and read a poem she’d written about how sad and lonely she felt when we went off to have fun and forgot all about her. It wasn’t a poem really. More like a guilt trip in verse. I was six.

By the time my father pulled up to get us, I was crying, and refused to go out with him. Mom was crying, and I didn’t want her to feel hurt and lonely.

That same year, we moved to Newark, New Jersey with my mother’s new husband and began what I call our gypsy years during which we moved 13 times before I turned 16.

On too many occasions to count during those years, my sister and I watched my mother and stepfather beat each other to blood. Glass figurines shattered against walls. Dinner plates smashed against the floor. The cops called so many times they knew us by name.

During fights with my stepfather, my mother—her face red with slap marks, arms bruised—would go into a fury. She couldn’t beat my stepfather, but my sister and I were a different story. She scanned our room and lashed out: We hadn’t finished our dinners. Or we had, but had left the plates in our bedroom. Or we’d taken the plates to the sink but hadn’t washed them. Or we’d washed them, but not well enough. Then we’d get hit with all the anger and hurt and frustration with which she’d been beaten.

As a teenager, when I fought back, my mom became increasingly vicious. She said the doctors told her the tick in my chin was epilepsy. That I’d end up a vegetable in a wheelchair. That no one would love me.  Once, when I defended my dad, she admitted the real reason I didn’t look like him—he wasn’t my dad after all. I was the product of an extramarital affair, a bastard (her words), and my biological father had wanted me aborted.

I didn’t know at the time that my mother had undiagnosed mental illness. That she’d suffered unimaginable trauma in her own childhood. That she couldn’t help herself. I responded by running away. By dropping out of school. By having sex too early. By drinking. One day, I took a bunch of pills. I didn’t really want to die, so I told her. “I just took a bunch of pills. Are you happy?” We spent the next half hour crouched over the toilet trying to make me vomit, my mother’s acrylic nails scraping the back of my throat.

When you’re told something over and over again, you believe it.  A thousand times my mother warned, “You’ll pay for everything you’ve done to me, when you have a daughter of your own.” The night after my sonogram, I woke up at 3am, my chin quivering. I  was afraid I would become my mother. I was also afraid my daughter would become me.

Luckily pregnancy lasts nine months, enough time for me to settle in and pray.

I prayed.

And in my head I heard God’s voice say to me, “I won’t always give you what you want, but I’ll always give you what you need.”

I said, “God, I’m still angry. I’m sad for the little girl I used to be. Who will save her?”

God said, “You will.”

I’m delivering my daughter at Jackson Memorial Hospital. (Hopefully not in the hallway.) She’s due on my birthday. She is my story starting over, the same opening lines, but entirely different circumstances. When I was born, my mother was married to a man she didn’t love.  She was 19, not ready to be a mom. I’m married to my best friend, a man I’ve loved for ten years. I’m older, hopefully wiser, definitely ready.

Having a daughter is my chance to rescue myself from my own childhood. It’s my chance to love that little girl I was, by loving the little girl that’s coming. My chance to give her a father who will claim her, keep her, and never leave.  To give her a mother who’s unconditionally loving. Who grew up with some challenges, but who’s also grown up.

We’ve picked a new name: Lilou, a French endearment of Lilly, which symbolizes birth and motherhood and cleansing.

Of course, I will not be my mother. My daughter will not be me. She will be far, far better.

***

Esther Martinez is the co-producer (along with Sliver of Stone contributor Andrea Askowitz) of Lip Service, a Miami-based, true-story, live-reading series.  Since its inception in 2006, Lip Service has grown into a bona fide literary happening, one which attracts several hundred people to its raucous quarterly events. Recently, Lip Service was acknowledged for its contribution to Miami’s cultural scene with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Martinez’s nonfiction has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsday, and others. She lives in Miami with her two loves—her husband Sean and their new daughter, Lilou.

Esther Martinez at Lip Service

Comments

  1. This is a deeply beautiful redemption story. Thank you for living it — and writing it.

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