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I’ve never wanted to be a mother.

I take that back. The truth is, for a long time, I harbored a great deal of anxiety around motherhood. The commitment. The perfection expected of one woman’s life, freshly intertwined with another’s for as long as both shall live — and probably after that fact, too.

The pressures of that role are only alleviated when I think of the mothers in my life who ease into the role like a second skin, unafraid to make it their own entirely.

Ranking high on that list is my own mother who, with age, I’ve grown to see as a person greater than her positionality in my world. That also counts the mothers who surround me, their own children in careful tow.

Two of those women who make motherhood look human and possible are poet Tania Peralta, of Honduras, Vancouver, and Toronto, and essayist Dominique Matti, of Jersey and Philadelphia.

In this installation of Life Balms, I asked both Tania and Dominique if they’d be willing to speak to each other about their journeys as both writers and Mamas — Tania, to one Capricorn starchild, and Dominique, to two beautiful and brilliant baby boys.

Supporting independent creators Tania is currently establishing her independent publishing house, Peralta House, here. Dominique has a Patreon where you can get the exclusive on her illuminating, deeply touching essays.

As writers who fall outside of the constraints of traditional media industry — whatever that term means — both Tania and Dominique are candid about their tribulations and triumphs in life and career alike.

Catch their conversation — with my interjections, every so often — as they discuss postpartum mental health, survival, and what it is that drives their writing motivations (as well as what they’d need to continue producing the incredible work that they both produce).

Welcome to Life Balms, Mama edition

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Illustration of Tania Peralta by Ruth Basagoitia

Amani Bin Shikhan: Okay, so first question: How were your 2017s? And how is your 2018 going, so far?

Tania Peralta: I set my 2017 goals and intentions a little late. I think it was March. I wanted to get a full time job with salary and benefits, improve my credit, release my first book, and move out of the basement [I was living in]. I accomplished everything on that list and did it in faster and easier ways than I had imagined.

Then in January of this year, I lost my job and hated my new home at first, so it felt like everything I accomplished in 2017 was gone. I finally bounced back from that a bit and started with new goals and zooming out, and thanking myself because if I look back on 2017, even with everything that I lost, I am definitely still in a much better place.

Dominique Matti: My 2017 was intimately transformative. I gave birth to my second son a couple of days into it and due to sketchy landlord stuff, we had to move out of our place a couple of weeks after that.

So I spent the first six months living at my mom’s house in South Jersey which forced me to confront and contemplate a lot of things. By the time we moved back to Philly, I had a pretty clear vision of the ways I wanted to live differently. And I’ve been working to implement that since then.

TP: Moving — with kids or not — is so hard.

When you’re a mom, it’s like you and the unit you form with your kids become your own small country with its own catastrophes and triumphs.
— Dominique Matti

AB: That sounds really intense on both counts. Late congratulations, Dominique! And Tania, on the move and gaining perspective! Dominique, how did you feel post-birth?

DM: It was a postpartum disaster, to be honest. There’s this tension for me between being very open online, but really private in my personal life, so being forced out of isolation during a time where I just wanted to sequester off with my little family was rough. Tania, I’m glad you bounced back!

TP: Wow, I completely understand. My postpartum disaster was so unclear, but the living situation at the time made me mask it so that I could get my family into a better place.

DM: Maternal tunnel vision is so real.

TP: I feel like you don’t even know until after because you get into survival mode. I feel like a lot of the clarity (like you mentioned) comes from figuring out what’s going to be good for the kids in the long term and like, the extreme short term. Like, what are we eating today?

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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

DM: Absolutely. I used the word “intimately” about 2017 because so much was going on in the world outside our door. But when you’re a mom, it’s like you and the unit you form with your kids become your own small country with its own catastrophes and triumphs.

And in 2017, it took all of my strength and focus and energy just to manage what we all required to be okay. Within whatever four walls we occupied.

TP: I feel you. I remember seeing awful things on Twitter, but real life was also happening right in my home. I had to block out so much last year just to focus. It’s hard because you want to care and you do care and even as a creative person, you’re like, "Well, what can I do here? How can I help this world, somehow?"

But honestly, it starts at home, no matter how corny it sounds.

DM: Yes! And like, all the while, it’s impacting you and yours like a pestering hum or chronic ache under everything. But it’s not as loud as hunger or a text from your landlord or a question of where the lights went.

Maternal tunnel vision is so real.
— Dominique Matti

AB: When did you both become mamas? What was it like when you found out you were pregnant?

TP: My daughter was really born out of love and romance. We sat there, stared at each other and were like, “We should have a baby right now.” It was beautiful. Then I actually got pregnant and nothing went as planned. I don’t know what we were thinking, other than being in love.

We had no money. We were just so hopeful about everything. We kind of just trusted that things were going to be fine. We both knew that we were the right people to have a child with. Like, no matter what happens, this person is going to be a great father because he’s a great person.

But as much as we both have gone through in our lives prior to becoming parents, I don’t think either one of us knew firsthand how cruel the world can be when you’re a Black person or a person of color, or a part of a family unit.

I think the moment that came spinning at us was at the doctor’s appointments. I remember us talking about how we just knew that a lot of the things they would ask us weren’t being asked of a middle-aged white family.

You know when people ask you, what would you say to your old self or whatever? I always think of this one period of time when I was pregnant. Like, in the first and second trimesters. I was working two jobs and going to school… I don’t know how I did it. That’s the one version of me I would go back and hug.
— Tania Peralta

DM: I had my first son in 2015, when I was 22. I was floating through life. I was a cleaning lady by day and a bit of a SoundCloud producer by night. I stayed up late making beats on my busted laptop because I felt like if I put my poems over music, people would listen. I didn’t think being just a writer was possible for me. Anyway, when I found out I was pregnant, I was just like, “OK, this is what we’re doing now.”

I had gone through not having a baby I wanted in the past, and that seemed infinitely more painful to go through again than having one.

TP: Man, me too on the latter. Me too. Also LOL on “OK, this is what we’re doing now.” That’s that super mom power kicking in.

DM: My perception was extremely romantic until it was a thing that was happening. A neighbor asked me to help them move a dresser when I was seven months pregnant. And I was like, “Oh, here’s my induction into the club of Black women who are always expected to be of aid and never granted vulnerability or care or tenderness.” That stress is so much. On top of the regular stress of parenting.

TP: You know when people ask you, what would you say to your old self or whatever? I always think of this one period of time when I was pregnant. Like, in the first and second trimesters. I was working two jobs and going to school… I don’t know how I did it. That’s the one version of me I would go back and hug.

DM: Phew. There’s no mirror quite like motherhood. It shows you what you can do. And what you can’t. Shout out to you.

TP: Got me tearing up. It almost makes you numb — but in a good way. Nothing seems impossible. It just takes the resilience.

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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

DM: And when it shows you what you can’t you’re like, nah, I got this, too. Actually, just give me a minute; I’ma crack the code. But that resilience is also taxing as f---.

TP: So taxing also, cause the world starts to read you as this person that can handle everything — and you can, but you shouldn’t have to.

AB: How did you get into writing? And writing professionally, if those two things differ for you?

TP: I got into writing initially through ESL and reading programs when I arrived in Canada from Honduras, cause they were all like, “You’re behind! Catch up!” But I fell in love with reading and writing in the process.

During my second year of journalism school, an editor at the time really helped me build up my portfolio in music journalism. Those were some helpful times because he always gave me opportunities to make money. I was never perfect but never terrible, so every time I was assigned something, I learned a lot.

When I got pregnant, I became so uninterested in music journalism. That’s when the writing world completely changed for me. And there’s no definition to professionally writing anymore, to me.

Well, does being a professional writer mean I am paid by someone? Signed to someone? And if I’m not, does that make me a nonprofessional writer?
— Tania Peralta

DM: I started writing to cope with stuff, I think. When I was in first grade, I wrote this story for school about a dinosaur who was looking everywhere for its egg and couldn’t find it. Kind of a reverse version of that “Are You My Mother?” children’s book. That felt good and got really validated by my teacher at the time, so I took it into my identity.

Also, all through elementary my cousins and I had a girl group with dreams of being like 3LW, and I was designated the songwriter. I would write these grown-ass lyrics for us which got me started on poetry. And I just never really stopped.

AB: Oh my god, Dominique. I used to write song lyrics too!

TP: Omg!!!!! I so wish we were friends as kids.

AB: Can you explain what you mean about professional writing, Tania?

TP: Well, does being a professional writer mean I am paid by someone? Signed to someone? And if I’m not, does that make me a nonprofessional writer?

I feel like I’m still deciding what I mean by that. It’s this idea of “professional writing” as an imaginary door... And sometimes, I’m not so sure the people that are through that door are any more or less than the writers waiting to get in.

DM: I started writing professionally because when my eldest was like 1, I was working overnights from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. as a hotel room service attendant, and my husband was working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at a hospital, and I just wasn’t sleeping. At all.

My husband and I were both raised by single moms who are genuine miracle workers, and they’re both like astounded by how stressed we are since we have each other, but it’s still so much.
— Dominique Matti

And we were still broke. And also couldn’t afford daycare. So one of us had to stop. And he made more, and had the health insurance, and the baby was breastfed — so it was me who quit.

But I couldn’t afford not to make money, and mothering demands that you exhaust every resource and we reached a point where the only resource left was writing. So I was like, “Well… maybe I can make money doing that?”

TP: I feel everything you’re saying in my bones. My partner is carrying our family in more ways than one right now and the daycare system here in Canada is pretty insane, as well. So I’m in this part of my career where my resource to money is writing and reciting poetry at events.

DM: You’re carrying y’all too! When you don’t have the resources of childcare or time or money, or you’re depressed or whatever, everyone winds up carrying more than a reasonable share and giving up a lot, too.

My husband and I were both raised by single moms who are genuine miracle workers, and they’re both like astounded by how stressed we are since we have each other, but it’s still so much.

TP: I feel that. Both my mom and his mom are literal angels: mine had five kids and my mother-in-law had seven. We have one child and we’re exhausted. I know they aren’t perfect, but they’re truly an example to us.

As a mother, it brings me peace to know that my partner and I have already broken so many of the cycles that we were both born into.
— Tania Peralta

AB: In both of your works, you speak candidly about things a lot of people choose not to, at least publicly — anxiety, depression, financial insecurity, hard love. Can you speak to why you do that? And what does it take for you to share those truths with the world?

DM: Well, if I’m being really, really real, I just have poor boundaries around protecting myself.

TP: What do you mean by that, Dominique? The poor boundaries part?

DM: The way I grew up, a lot of my business wasn’t mine. So the concept of keeping things to yourself as a means of self-protection doesn’t occur to me as quickly as it does to others.

In the same vein, I grew up in a house where it wasn’t commonplace to be ashamed about a lot of the things people are ashamed of.

There’s this concept I keep coming back to: “How does the monster find out that it’s a monster?” And the answer I have so far is, “It encounters others.” A lot of the time I publish vulnerable things because shame doesn’t occur to me until it’s witnessed. And privacy doesn’t occur to me until I realize I’ve exposed a wound.

TP: Wow.

DM: The first thing I wrote, I had five followers and was just venting. It wound up getting like 300K views. And it wrecked me. I was anxiety-ridden for like a week. And it’s had this effect on me.

Now, when I sit down to write, I anticipate the response of an imaginary audience. In some ways, that’s been harmful, in terms of my writing being a safe haven for me. In another way, it’s forced me to be more accountable in my work.

I can’t think of a better way to honor a child than to heal a harmful legacy before it inherits it.
— Dominique Matti

TP: This is something I’m trying to work on because I was silenced at home, in my community for so long that I just go off. When I was pregnant, I started reading Black and Latinx literature and that’s why writing changed for me. I started seeing my experiences with words and situations I had actually lived through.

I was pregnant the first time I read “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” by Ntozake Shange and that was like... a life-changing read for me. That, as well as “Loose Woman” by Sandra Cisneros. They went into detail about real scary things.

DM: Oh my god, “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros changed me. I have a real volatile spot around being expected to soften myself and also around not being heard. But I’ve lost my intent a lot of times in reacting from that place. I’m working really hard on being tender and intentional. That was one of my 2017 lessons.

TP: To answer your question Amani, I just can’t write any other way now. A lot of my work is me talking to myself. Even if the consumer doesn’t read it that way.

AB: Do you find that cathartic or scary? Or both?

TP: I mean, I don’t care. The first time I hit a mass of people with that kind of work was for Erika Ramirez when she launched her magazine, ILY. In that piece, I exposed a lot of hush-hush things about my family.

And I think some people were really bothered because there’s a baby in the mix. I think they were bothered that I knew about a lot of the rumors about my family. But at the same time, it brought the power back to me. I was the one telling the story. That’s the all-time high for me.

DM: I can’t think of a better way to honor a child than to heal a harmful legacy before it inherits it.

TP: Some of the feedback showed how uncomfortable some people were for me to show this soft, personal side of a rapper (my partner is a musician). But I really don’t care. I think it gave us the power to tell our own stories in our work, no matter what. Breaking the cycles.

It takes a lot to finish things with bad mental health. It comes and goes for me.
— Tania Peralta

DM: Yes! That’s what my therapist said to me when I expressed anxieties about something I’m currently working on. She was like, “How beautiful is it that you have an opportunity to tell a story that so many other people keep telling for you — wrongly, at that?”

AB: What are your “life balms” or the things that bring you back to yourself? The things that bring you peace?

TP: As my own universe, completing things I said I would do. It takes a lot to finish things with bad mental health. It comes and goes for me. Working on my health brings me peace because I’ve created a home within myself. No matter what happens, I can just be by myself — even just mentally — and trust that everything will be okay.

As a mother, it brings me peace to know that my partner and I have already broken so many of the cycles that we were both born into. Like, even if, God forbid, anything happens to us, my daughter has two catalogues of work from us to find out who she came from. (And… coffee!)

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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

DM: Walking, candles, music, tarot. I accidentally developed a spiritual practice while looking into ancestral religions this year. I was raised very Catholic — like, did all the sacraments and stuff — and at some point let go of the church, but never filled that space with anything. I was learning some rituals and stuff but it still didn’t feel like it was mine, so I’ve been piecing my own stuff together.

I mostly do candle work. I declutter the room, choose colors that represent what I want to attract or embody, dress them in honey oils and herbs, etch my ancestor’s names into them, talk to them, set intentions — pretty much just pray over them. Light some incense, play some music.

It’s funny: I’m realizing that I’m [an extension of] my mom and grandma. My whole childhood, my mom would just light a bunch of jasmine vanilla candles from Bath and Body Works, blast The Fugees, and clean. My nana is a prayer warrior. (And this interview is brought to you by a three-shot iced lavender latte.)

AB: In an ideal world, what would you need to feel supported as a mama? As a writer?

TP: My answer is very specific to Toronto: A public space to execute my ideas. I feel like I keep wanting to do things and keep pitching things, but there’s no space to do it without personally funding it.

DM: With both of those roles, but mostly mothering, a large part of feeling unsupported is how few people see either thing as real work or labor deserving of support. It’s something I should be nothing less than happy to do. Around the clock. Forever.

I want shout outs, but also, I want people to offer to watch my kids for a few hours when my husband’s at a 12-hour shift so I can meet a deadline — or nap. I also want someone to come to my door with coffee like in sitcoms. With writing, I just want fair pay. Like enough to pay rent.

Tania’s Life Balms:

  • Tao Te Ching:” It helps me find clarity in my everyday life. The messages in there don’t force anything on you, they work as guidelines and offer alternative ways of viewing yourself and the people and things around you. It’s like studying so that you’re prepared for things [that will happen], good and bad. It’s like a deep breath for me. I guess, instead of yoga, this is the thing that keeps me chill.
  • Palo Santo: Palo Santo is special to me because it’s helped me and my family recreate home in new spaces. It’s a familiar smell and helpful before a conversation and after the conversation is over. With Palo Santo, I feel like I can control the energy I want in my home.
  • Starbucks’ breakfast blend: I’m currently brewing it because the beans are from Latin American countries and don’t give me a stomachache or anxiety. I drink a cup in the afternoon during [my daughter’s] nap so I can have energy for the rest of the day — and the energy to do a few hours of work once she’s asleep for the night. I use a French Press. That’s my favorite way to drink coffee.

Follow Tania’s journey as she establishes her independent publishing house, Peralta House, here. (Last year, she published her first collection of poems, “COYOTES” — it’s a must-read. Trust me.)

Dominque’s Life Balms:

  • Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot: Between Trump and my anxiety, it feels like I’m living on the cusp of the end of the world a lot. This deck dreams up the world we could build from the rubble, and since the imagery looks like me and my friends, it helps me to better imagine outcomes in which I make it through.
  • Assorted color chime candles: For a while, I underestimated my need to believe in a higher power, but I haven’t found a religion that I feel I belong to — or that I feel belongs to me. So far, just candles. I like using fire to pray because I’m very Aries-heavy, and the blank slate of these candles (as opposed to ones with holy figures on them) allows me to connect with ideas and energies that bring me a sense of peace.
  • Pocket Moleskine: I’ve carried one of these with me everywhere for like, a decade. I use it for creative writing and recently, at the suggestion of my therapist, journaling. It helps me to value my thoughts and ideas before my inner critic eviscerates them. It’s also nice to have a place to vent and write with no perceived audience.

Like Dominique and Tania’s thoughts? Follow them here and here.

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Amani Bin Shikhan is a culture writer and researcher with a focus on music, movement, tradition, and memory — when they coincide, especially. Follow her on Twitter. Photo by Asmaà Bana.