Everybody's Titi Mayra
by Mayra Padilla

I am the person my friend calls when, days before a desperately needed second honeymoon to Italy with her husband, her mother tells her she can't babysit because she has hurt her back. Joyfully and confidently, I swarm into action. I move into my friend's house, care for and entertain her kids as they welcome their parental honeymoon. I collect bugs with them, lead them on discovery tours through the neighborhood, take them to matinees, do endless arts and crafts projects with them (which we tape to the living room wall as a souvenir of our good times), make dinner for them, bathe them, and ultimately comfort them when night time falls and they remember that despite all the fun being had, they miss their mommy and daddy. When my friend calls sounding tipsy from a crackling phone line somewhere in Italy, I assure her that everything is indeed fine. Because I am loving her children as if they were my own. If I had my own. But I don't. I am everybody's Titi Mayra.

Titi Mayra as a phenomenon wasn't born overnight. While the love of children has always been there, Titi Mayra, that veritable Cuban Auntie Mame, took a while to emerge. Mostly, she was born from a seed of awareness over the years that something was happening to my friendships as the women in my life became mothers. To be honest, when the first few babies were born, I didn't suspect anything right away. I noticed tiny cracks were forming in the friendships, but I chalked it up to the changes that are natural when someone is having a monumental life experience and the other is not. Sometimes we grow together; sometimes we drift apart. This I knew from experience. But while I couldn't officially name it, I did notice that my immediate response to the arrival of a new baby was to withdraw and give my friends s p a c e to absorb all the changes that come with the birth of a child. My behavior took me a while to recognize and I offered many defenses when it was pointed out to me. It was squarely in my blind spot. I actually thought that I was being polite, even helpful, by staying away. I understood that it was important to allow space for the sacred to occur, like letting mothers and fathers be born too and watching strangers become a family.

The truth is, in my circle of friends, I don't necessarily know my role when a new child is born. In the moments between the umbilical cord's severance and before the new grandparents arrive from out of town, I feel like I go from insider, a part of the family, to outsider, an intruder. Perhaps this is because I am someone who deeply considers her friends as family—there is no distinction due to bloodlines—and because of a lifelong struggle with my sense of place, a parting gift from my parents' separation at my tender age of two. In the swarm of activity that accompanies a new life, I find myself on the fringes of the circle, straining to get a peek in, wondering what is going on "in there." At first blush, the joyous addition to my friends' family can feel like a loss to mine. Suspecting I may not be wanted around, or worse yet, that my place is unclear, I recoil, shoulders slumped and slink away. I make it easy for friends not to notice that I'm… well… gone. I'm adept at fooling them into thinking that I am actually around. I may offer to run an errand or will bring them dinner, but will leave it on their doorstep so as to not disturb them or the new baby. For once, the machinations of polite and social mores seem to work in my favor. I'm being a "good" friend, not owning that along with that umbilical cord, I feel like my access to friends has been cut too.

Only after several of my new mom friends described in heart-wrenching detail the need they have to feel connected to their girlfriends during this time, how the love between them and their new babies isn't always "instant" and how they feel the rip of identity from full functioning individual to nursing mother (they hope!), did I realize that a big part of me was getting triggered. Something in my story was playing itself out on the big screen of projection affording me an opportunity to shed a little light on my unconscious.

Being single into my now late 30s has afforded me a certain level of freedom to indulge my inquisitive and peripatetic nature. I can't say I expected or even wanted all this freedom at this stage of my life, but after a long-term relationship didn't end with a walk down the aisle, I decided to embrace the life I was actually living instead of the one I just assumed I would have. My mantra (or my defense) is "no husband, no mortgage, no kids" which means that half the time I don't even know where I will be. Interesting museum exhibit in L.A? Oh, let me buy a cheap ticket and check it out. Friend I haven't seen in Boston for a while? A nice long weekend together will help us reconnect. Missing family? Let me surprise my nieces and nephews in Florida and show up for Easter along with the Easter bunny. Bored? Lonely? That painting class this weekend in Sonoma County will be the perfect cure.

As the gypsy single girlfriend who has for better or worse been the one who has forged the path of new experiences, I find myself in the presence of a new baby having very little to add. I can ask my friends about their episiotomy, their labor pains, how their partners really did in the delivery room, but I can't add anything to the experience. I can listen and I sincerely do and want to. But I can't relate. No matter how vivid this active imagination of mine might be, in this instance, my ego is wildly reminded that it has nothing to offer here. When I look down the list of my experiences, both desired and completed, giving birth and motherhood remain noticeably unchecked.

It is not until the newborns are in my life for a few months (okay, sometimes it happens on the eleventh month or at the one year birthday party marker), that what I call the "the thaw" begins. Suddenly the babies are more independent and on occasion, I can even complete a full sentence without interruption. Maybe, I've missed a few milestones in their young lives, like the first tooth, but I can't deny that as their little personalities begin to form, I clearly see the divine hand of God in this bundle of creation and I am in awe. As I witness their wondrousness, I have my own version of falling in love with them. And then I crack. I see the fissures in my own heart and feel horribly embarrassed by my earlier pullback, "where did Mayra go?" behavior. I begin to understand that my hanging back isn't really about being polite, giving space, or being a good friend. It's about avoiding the discomfort of the yet unanswerable question that unconsciously forms when I am in the company of my friends' children. The question that nags at me even if I don't initially grasp the root of the tension—that comes from such a deep place, it surprises me with its simplicity and its ferocity: "Will I ever have a child?"

In the graceful reflection of the mirror that my girlfriends who are mothers provide, I've discovered that my pullback, my disappearing act, is about protecting my own heart from the answer that unfurls from my question.

"Maybe, maybe not. I simply do not know yet."

To answer THE QUESTION, I have to make room for all the other questions knitted into the consideration:

"Am I going to regret not doing this?"

"Did I wait too long?"

"Is the future Mr. Padilla ever going to appear?"

"Should I do it on my own?"

"Can I do it on my own?"

" Do I really want this or is Titi Mayra enough?"

I suspect that ambivalence is a way station between regret and acceptance and that soon I will need to reconcile THE QUESTION before nature reconciles it for me. In the meantime, this I do know with a certainty that I don't always embody in my life. I know that the happiest moments of my life are spent as Titi Mayra. Playing, entertaining, calling on patience I didn't know I had, answering endless questions, painting toenails, resolving conflicts, loving as unconditionally as I know how. I know that in the sweet company of the children in my life, I've discovered the me I like best—the playful, creative, imaginative, trusting, loving, joyful, silly, simpler version of myself. The version that feels more grounded, that doesn't shy away from responsibility but doesn't feel burdened by it either. And I know that these children, my extended circle of nieces and nephews, serve as the balm that heals the longing I have to belong to something greater than myself, to someone other than me.

I am not a mother yet, but trust me, Titi Mayra is full-time work enough and the best practice I could ask for should I ever land the real job. Which reminds me it might be time for me to encourage my friends to plan a night or a weekend away to enjoy some couple time. The kids and I, we'll be just fine.

Mayra Padilla is a photographer, marketing consultant, writing student, and novice painter whose most treasured role is that of Titi (aunt) Mayra. Living in San Francisco, her favorite sound, other than the foghorns, is that of little people laughing. This is her first published piece.

feature added on 2008-11-09 :: ::

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