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In my real life

Hanging on to Salsa

By Kathleen Furin

September 2005

I kiss my sleeping daughters lightly, careful not to mark their cheeks with lipstick, which I almost never wear, careful not to wake them. I kiss my husband, who grunts, sort of, and slip down the stairs. I wait until I am outside to put on my heels. I don’t want the loud clack clack down hardwood floors to wake the girls. Too many times I have been on my way out only to be called back in, to nurse, to smooth a forehead wrinkled from a nightmare. Sometimes I think my children don’t want me to have fun unless they’re involved. They have a built-in radar system; “Mommy’s having fun without us!” And they are fun, my children, and most of the time I love our days together. But when I’m through, I’m through. I give a lot, and unlike some moms from some places or times, I believe I deserve a little something just for me. So I sneak out, stand on my porch barefoot, feeling cool air and warm moon on my skin. I smile, skip down the steps, wait until I’m away from our block to turn my music up as loud as I like.

It’s Wednesday night; salsa night, my night… sometimes. I went from being a true salsa junkie to being a mother… meaning that I went from coming in at 3 am to nursing at 3, 4, 5, and/or 6 am. Meaning that I went weeks, months, without my salsa dancing “fix.” Meaning that I went from high heels to practical shoes, at least most of the time. Meaning that there are certain outfits I will never wear again. Meaning that all my fun gets put on hold if my children need me. But the girls are older now, and usually sleep through the night, and so I go out when I can. What stops me most often now is my own exhaustion, not their need.

People don’t like this; some people, and even though loving to salsa dance is just a small part of my identity, it is an important one. Mothers aren’t supposed to be having fun, especially if some of that fun involves wearing sexy clothes, heels with spikes that could kill, laughing and twirling with strange men. Mothers are supposed to be self-sacrificing, plump, maternal. There are men who I used to dance with pre-kid who won’t even talk to me now, who judge me, think me a whore, or worse, a bad parent. I should be home with my children, a paragon of virtue.

But I don’t care. I love salsa. It is something I do because it makes me feel happy. It makes me feel free. The feeling of freedom is an illusion, of course, because once you become a mother you are never truly free, especially in your heart. But the yearning for freedom is all the more precious because it is grounded in family; obligation, love, commitment. I would be miserable if I had one and not the other. And salsa gives me those moments of illusion. It offers a way of being with other people in a friendly, social, yes, at-times sensual way, without having to talk. Being with grown-ups and not having to talk is a relief, especially when the conversation for most of the day has been about Brother Bear and Madeline and Pepito, all wonderful characters, for the most part, until the day they moved in. In my daughter’s four-year-old head, Madeline and Pepito are her cousins. Brother Bear is her punching bag, the scapegoat for all her frustrations. She doesn’t have an imaginary friend; she has an imaginary enemy. Instead of being mean to the baby, she is mean to Brother Bear, which is infinitely better until the millionth time you’ve had to be Brother Bear, screaming, “No! Stop it! I don’t like you!” over and over and over, so that in my head I am putting on my dancing shoes, doing copas and triple turns effortlessly, even as I am nodding and smiling and agreeing to play “Brother Bear jealousy about my ice cream cone.”

Salsa is a part of my children’s lives, too, part of their cultural heritage, really, as half-Latinas, and some of our best times are when we put the music on and just dance. They are too little to really learn how so we do our own thing, all holding hands and running like in ring-around-the-rosy, the baby just wiggling and shaking her butt. Many a day has salsa stopped the tears, totally transformed whiny, bored energy. Many a day has it stopped my own bitching, bored self. I always knew I would share my salsa love with my daughters, somehow. Their Latina side is their father’s side and there has always been a piece of me that has been sensitive to the fact that I truly love something that is not a part of my cultural heritage. I have some level of sensitivity, probably instilled in me by my husband, to be aware of issues of appropriation, things that are special and culturally unique being taken over, transformed, exploited by the dominant culture. So what can I do? I would like to say that I respect some other cultural norms and truths in the “salsa world” but the reality is, it just isn’t so. I hate the machismo bullshit and have no qualms about asking a guy to dance if I feel like it. I do speak Spanish (poor but intelligible). I donate money to an organization that supports Latino youth, I buy salsa CDs whenever I can. I try to take salsa classes from Latino instructors. I dream about dancing, having more time and energy. I fantasize about being a professional dancer one day, even though I know it’s too late (all the calls for auditions want people younger than 28!) And I dance.

Pregnancy changed my dancing just as it changed everything else. I swore I would dance no problem throughout my first pregnancy, but threw up too much during the first trimester, was too tired and sick of smoke thereafter. I went in for one last fling a couple of weeks before my daughter was born. The club owner shook his head at me, told me I’d better be careful. I couldn’t really dance, of course, but it was enough at that time to just be there, absorb the energy of everyone else, let people smile at me and pat my belly, listen to the hundredth person say “your baby is going to come out dancing if you keep this up!” I swore I would be back out there in weeks, didn’t realize how exhausted I would be from nursing and going back to work and just trying to adjust… with my second daughter I harbored no such illusions. I was out of the “scene” for almost four years. I didn’t realize that by the time I got back to dancing I wouldn’t hardly know anybody, would have to start over, make new salsa friends.

My salsa friends are totally different and separate from my real friends, for the most part, and I like it that way. In my real life I am an ardent feminist, an activist on all sorts of issues, loud and sort of bitchy. In my real life I am a breastfeeding mom who nurses anytime anywhere even though the baby is now 20 months, who plays silly games and wears the same pair of jeans and a dirty t-shirt and a raggedy-ass ponytail almost every day. In my real life I hold crying children, clean up spilled milk and paint and scrape play-doh off the dining room table that used to be my grandmom’s with barely a complaint. I read books constantly. I play “Brother Bear.” I am a master negotiator who only resorts to “Stop it or you’re not getting chocolate” about forty-four times a day. My arms are buff from pushing two girls in two swings at the same time, sometimes for what feels like hours. I can walk straight to the river otter exhibit in the zoo. I know the best place to park for the Please Touch Museum. No one makes better pb and honey sandwiches, although of course this is accomplished only through daily feedback from my daughter: “too much honey today, Mom. Not enough peanut butter.”

In my real life, in fact, I may be unrecognizable. A neighbor caught me going out one night and didn’t recognize me. She called me over a few days later. “Damn, girl, where we you going the other night?” she says. “You were stepping out. I said to myself, now damn, look at her. That’s how she got herself such a fine man, looking like that. Gino looked at her and then looked again.” We laugh. “Yeah, well,” I say. “Most of my days are spent in sand or dirt or water.” She smiles. “You’re a good mom, though,” she says.

Am I? I try hard to be. I take it very seriously. Being a mother is definitely the most important thing in my life. It’s just not the only thing in my life, and this is where I think I differ from my own mother, at least. I don’t remember her doing things that were selfish, just for her, like I do with my dancing. Maybe she did, and I just never knew it, being self-absorbed as kids are. But my girls know, even though I sneak out at night. They see my heels thrown aside the next day and slip their little brown feet into them. They try on my blue sequin halter top. “Are you going dancing tonight, Mommy?” they ask, and if it’s a Wednesday and things aren’t too crazy work-wise I smile and say “Yes.” “We want to come!” they cry, and the baby runs over to the stereo, points and says “dalsa.” “Dalsa.” (She likes it better than kid’s music, thank God).

I hear a lot of women who talk about the struggles of motherhood, the ways in which they feel diminished by the constant daily grind, the never-ending responsibility. Some say that they are less creative after they become mothers. While I can totally relate on one level, on another the opposite is true for me. Becoming a mother opened up possibilities within me even as it closed things down logistically. I always wanted to be a writer but never thought it was a true possibility. After my daughter was born I began to take a writing class. It wasn’t conscious at first, but as I began to have some small successes I realized that I didn’t want to be a mother who had never pursued her own dreams.

Somehow I understood that our children learn how to be from how we are, not from how we act, and I wanted to be authentic. I wanted my daughters to believe in their dreams because I believed in my own, not because I told them to. I wanted my daughters to have first-hand experience of a mother who loved herself. How could they love themselves if I didn’t teach them how? This change was very profound for me; I wasn’t willing to love myself for myself, but I was willing to learn how to do it for my daughters. Of course we all benefited. They have a mother who has things she loves outside of them; those things refresh me, energize me, help me be more present when I am with them. They have a momma who knows how to have a damn good time. Hopefully, they see a model for how their lives can be. Hopefully they will always allow themselves to have fun, do things they love.

When I ended up back in therapy after the birth of my second daughter I began to work harder on some of these issues. My therapist gave me an exercise in which I was to pick out a picture of myself in which I felt I was my most essential self. I did try; it seemed valuable; but I couldn’t do it. I don’t know if that says something about my own state of mental health or if that says something about the way we try to squeeze ourselves into categories when truly we are wide wide wide. Infinite and wide. I looked at pictures of myself pregnant; huge, taut belly, too much acne, too-long hair that hangs over big breasts. I looked at pictures of myself with my daughters, loved myself in this role even as I hated the messy hair, sloppy sweatshirts. I don’t have any pictures of my serious self, my writer self; maybe because it is so private, so close to my heart. In some pictures you can catch a glimpse of my wild self, the self much of society doesn’t want to know about. Since I have become a mother I am much more cautious and conservative than I used to be, but that wild daring girl is still in there. I duly chastise my children when they defy me, but in my head I am laughing, recognizing my own indomitable spirit and hoping they will always be strong enough to stand up to authority. I see my daughter flirting already and hope that she will be more free to enjoy her sexual energy; less tortured, less ill-educated. I plan the wild things we will do together once the girls are older, the places we will travel to together, the long hikes, the books we will share.

When I quit my part-time job to stay home with my 9-month old daughter I was surprised at how good I felt and how concerned certain friends were about the state of my feminist values. I remember thinking, “huh?” Maybe I was just too sleep-deprived to realize I was selling out on feminism. The truth was with the benefit cuts we had just endured at my job I was working to pay for day care; but I desperately wanted to be home anyway. I stayed home for a little over a year, no paid employment at all. Fortunately I was in a position (barely) to do so. What the experience did to my identity was fabulous! Little by little I felt layers of stress peel away; the stress of running out the door every day by 7:15 with fresh pumped milk and plenty of diapers, the stress of rushing in to pick up my baby only to have her take a minute or two to recognize me, the stress of a job that, while valuable, focused more on paper than people. Being able to focus in completely on my new daughter allowed me to re-experience the world in beautiful, powerful ways. I had a close friend who was staying home with his son; we checked in each morning at 8:00 am, with plans for parks or coffee shops or train rides. The truth is, I never could have been a stay-at-home mom if I’d actually had to stay at home. But I was out in the world, not shut up in a dingy office, and I loved almost every minute of it. I never questioned my feminist values. Staying home was not only my choice but my desire, and I was just grateful that we could afford it. It would have been different if I had wanted to work and was forced to stay home; or vice versa, like too many women now under fascist TANF laws. But for the first time in my life, maybe, I was doing exactly what I wanted. I didn’t have to meet someone else’s deadlines, schedules, or agenda…except my daughters’, and we were so intimately connected that it rarely felt like a sacrifice.

Much of what I experienced in my initial transition to motherhood was a newfound sense of power. Power, pure and simple. I had longed for a natural birth and worked hard to have one. Yes, I hate needles and anybody wielding one, but it was more than that. On an intuitive level I just felt that birth was something that should be experienced. Birth is so intimate, so personal; each woman will bring her own attitudes and philosophies to her birth, make her own meaning out of it. For me, birth felt like something spiritual; sacred. No one could have prepared me for how joyful I felt giving birth. It was absolutely the most exhilarating experience I could have had. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful; I certainly experienced pain in birth. But I also experienced a new awareness of myself as a woman, a sense of gratitude and awe for my body which had produced such an amazing, beautiful gift.

I carried that sense of strength, power, and accomplishment with me into my everyday life. In many ways the change within myself was not that conscious. It happened deep in my core, without me even having to think about it, without even being aware of it. Suddenly I believed, if I could dream it, I could do it. Fear, insecurity, logistics, finances; those were nothing more than minor hurdles to my dreams. That may sound corny, but it is true for me. I would not be the person I am today had I not experienced birth, had I not slipped and foundered and found my own way into mothering. Both things taught me to trust my inner voice, to heed my inner wisdom, to honor my own needs and desires. I did put many of my own desires on hold to meet the demands of my children and family, and I still do. But I seek a balance. As the girls grow they can understand more about being part of a family, of everybody working together to meet each others’ needs. As the mother in the family, I am responsible for meeting my own needs as well as theirs.

Fortunately I came to mothering in my 30’s and I felt as if I had deep reserves, plenty to give without replenishing, for a while, at least. After my children were born I felt as if I lived in a parallel universe, a sort of underground sea; the real world kept happening without me, floated by once in a while, bumped into me like a piece of driftwood. I was in a sort of suspended place of paradise in which my children and I discovered each other, learned how to get along. I could stay in this underground world for a long time without needing to come up for air, just floating along with my babies.

Still. I held the dancer girl inside, kept her in check when I needed to, pulled her out and brushed her off and took her out for a spin when I could. The first time I went out after my first daughter was born was just six weeks after her birth. It was February, and the moon was full, the air icy. I went to a smoke-free club and danced three songs before my milk started leaking and I left, mortified. I don’t think I even tried to get back out again until the summer. Many friends I had made in the salsa world had also moved on, moved away. I had to make new friends and it felt harder this time around. For one thing, not only was I a mother, I was older too. My body was different. In many ways it was better, especially in terms of how I felt about it, but you couldn’t see that from the outside looking in. I had stretch marks, a little belly that wouldn’t go away, more lines in my face, more grey in my hair. I went out anyway. I held on to my salsa identity like a drowning woman hanging on to life preserver.

My salsa haven is small, dark, filled with beautiful women and men who look good and smell even better. The music is too loud, the place is too crowded, but I love it. I am not a great dancer. If the guy is a really good lead I can follow along OK, but if he’s light and talented I tend to get lost. I hang in there, keep taking classes, dancing whenever I can, because salsa feeds my soul. There is just something about the music, the form of the dance. With the right guy, I lose myself completely, achieve an altered state of consciousness. It’s like being drunk without a hangover. Some of it is physiological I’m sure, an endorphin response, but some of it is magical, too. Salsa music is the most beautiful music in the world. When I hear it, I feel full of hope. Listening to it, deep down, I just know that everything will be OK; we will find a way to end poverty, violence, war, and hunger. There is a future of peace and abundance for all beings on earth; we just need to dance and drum our way into it. Dancing salsa allows me to just be. I’m not thinking about anything else; usually I’m not thinking at all. In my salsa world, there are people from all over. Young, old, black, white, Asian, Latino of course. Doctors dance with the guys who deliver pizza, secretaries spin with executive directors, attorneys are holding hands with the guy that cuts lawns all day. Salsa is our great equalizer. No one has to know or care how I spend my days, so long as I can follow their lead and not step on their feet! I am anonymous, sort of; all I have to do is dance. Oh yeah, and I can be just sexy enough to stay out of trouble!

So this is what motherhood did to me: allowed me to be, first and foremost, a woman who believes in her dreams and her growth and her freedom. Many of my dreams involve my family; my two beautiful daughters, my progressive husband who tolerates my salsa addiction (sort of). Motherhood gave me the courage to write, to say what I think and leave it at that, to open my own small business. Motherhood made me even more aware of how important it is to love and support each other as women. In spite of the fact that I quit my job to stay home for a time and I love a dance in which I follow the lead of a (gasp!) man, motherhood has reinforced my feminist values, inspired me to stay active in whatever way I can until things change for real. Motherhood has forced me to find “mommy shoes.”(pink tattered sandals in summer, scuffed hiking boots in winter.) I also have my work shoes(typical, professional footwear; black or brown). I have my bare feet, which connect me to the earth, which feel good on porch cement. And I have my heels; silver, gold, black, red, and blue. And as long as I can dance I will keep a pair around, just in case… because if there is anyone who deserves to have a good time, it’s those of us who are raising our kids, struggling to hold on to who we are as we stretch and shift and lean into whoever it is we will become.

mmo : september 2005

Kathleen Furin is the co-founder and co-director of the Maternal Wellness Center (, which provides education, psychotherapy, and advocacy for pregnant women, mothers, and families. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, The Birthkit, the web edition of Philadelphia Stories, The Expectant Mother’s Guide, and is forthcoming in the Bucks County Writer, The Mother, and Midwifery Today.
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