“À quien Dios no le da hijos, el diablo le da sobrinos.”
I never understood that old Spanish saying. Does it mean that kids of your own are a blessing but a sibling’s offspring are a curse? Does it mean that nurturing children who will never be your own is a torture for those permanently childless? Or is it that children get under your skin, that there’s no escaping the bittersweet pangs of filial love?
These questions have been very much in my mind since my sister Doris asked me to accompany her to China to pick up her daughter, her first child and the first baby we’ve welcomed into the immediate family in quite some time. Sitting in 16a before takeoff, I watched the video on my phone over and over. It runs two and a half minutes and shows my niece playing in her pink-and-yellow bedroom. When I shot it, she’d been in the United States just two weeks, and already she radiated comfort and joy, recognizing she had arrived in a safe and loving home. Offscreen, I pulled out all the tricks my sister and I had developed to get her to laugh on camera. I sang a silly hip-pop ditty where will.i.am asks a curvy girl, “Baby, where’d you get your body from?” and she responds in a breathy voice, “I got it from my Mama.” In the video, Milena squeals when she hears the song, her four front teeth visible within a face-splitting grin, and she collapses in mirth on the plush rug.
We found out she loved that song in the “baby hotel” in Guangzhou where Doris and I waited out the last of the adoption rituals that took Fu Xin Ning from her China origins to a New York life as Milena Xin González. Music videos kept her amused while we took care of things. We discovered she loved beats heavy on the bass — hip-hop, reggaetón, and dancehall. “She’s ready for the Bronx,” we joked.
Every time I sang the will.i.am tune, I thought of how apropos it was. Her big head, her moon-shaped eyes, her bony butt were all indeed things she’d gotten from her birth mother, not from us.
I felt self-conscious watching the video again — remembering all the times distant family, friends, and acquaintances had subjected me to cute baby videos — and thought, why in the world am I obligated to react as if this is some miracle, as if no other baby in creation has ever done these things? In my defense, I wouldn’t share this video with anyone. It’s my own private delight. In it, Milena picks up a small book, turns the pages intently, points to pictures of baby bunnies, and squeals again. She drops that book and two others into a red plastic bucket, walks down the hall and back, bucket in tow. By takeoff, I’d played the video a dozen times over, indulging myself in the near-empty plane, marveling at this little girl who’s made my sister so happy, whom I already love so deeply. The picture wiggles sometimes, teetering on pixilated breakdown. I hit “play” one more time.
In mainstream U.S. culture, aunts and uncles have no special status. The focus is on the sanctity of the nuclear family, with some indulgence granted to grandparents and their doting. I’m always shocked when Anglo friends tell me they speak to their siblings only occasionally and know little about the details of their lives. Dominican families, even ones as assimilated as ours, are tight, sometimes asphyxiatingly so. Every member of our extended families — from second cousins to comadres to “tíos” whose blood connections we need diagrams to trace — has a place in our lives. Our aunts and uncles have a prestige rating just below grandparents. They are more than surrogate parents. They are courts of appeal, guides to mysteries too embarrassing or trivial for parents to endure, refuge from parental martial law.
For me, being an aunt means I get kids without having them. It also means I get to pass on a piece of my world, the way my aunts and uncles gave me a piece of theirs.
The plane banked south, and the early morning light made reflective surfaces below light up like Christmas — yellow, red, green, sparkling blue. I could see the shadows of Manhattan skyscrapers extending over the shimmering water. If I followed the big mouth of Rockaway up toward Prospect Park, I could almost see home.
I was headed down for a few weeks to Santo Domingo, the first home I remember. I’ve been going to Santo Domingo more often in the past few years. Sometimes I weasel my way onto a conference program or invent an errand that cannot be taken care of by email or surrogates. That time, there was no special reason for my trip down; it was just part of a promise to myself to make the island a regular stop in my yearly travel schedule. I had bought the plane ticket before Doris and I knew when we were going to China. And as much as it hurt to separate from this new relationship, to fly away from that sweet, round face, I went.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve flown that same route. I’d have to count the stamps in eight passports to get the exact number. The first one, in a long-lost passport, was dated November 1966, when my tía and madrina Milena took me from the New York winter to the Dominican tropics, from my parents and siblings to my tía Hilda and tío Monché, with whom I’d live until I was 11. My trip and my niece’s almost mirror neatly. Nine-month-old Baby Caro flew with Tía Milena from New York to a new home; fourteen-month-old Baby Milena flew with Tía Caro to New York to a new home.
Of course, our circumstances were completely different. My parents both needed to work to support themselves and four kids and to buoy families back on the island. They preferred to entrust my care to siblings 1,500 miles away rather than to strangers next door. Fu Xin was given up by her young mother a day after she was born and had been cared for by a foster family while she awaited adoption.
Accompanying my sister to China brought up some deep emotions for me, some I expected and others I hadn’t considered. In my mind, my job on the China trip was to be calm, to offer my clear-eyed focus, to monitor what I imagined would be an intense emotional roller coaster for my sister. I think I managed that, though I’ll admit the process — minus one crucial missed flight the day before we met Fu Xin — was, in my eyes, smooth. And Doris, who in our family has a reputation as a llorona, too driven by excess emotion, was lucid, self-aware, digging out practical child-care nuggets from the bottomless mommy purse she’d already been carrying for years. Most surprising to me, she adapted well to whatever was happening in what was, to us, a whole other world — China, the transnational adoption protocol and industry, the idiosyncrasies of this little person. In other words, she was fully transformed into a mom.
In the day and a half between landing in Hong Kong and meeting the baby, jet lag, logistics, and our wonder at seeing a new continent kept us focused and calm. But on the first night with her, reality settled in. When Fu Xin screamed inconsolably for hours, pointing out the window and crying over and over the only word she knew, “Mama, mama, mama,” I wondered, did I cry like that, too? Did Tía Milena and Tía Hilda’s hearts break as mine was breaking? Did they, too, swallow their desperation at being unable to instantly make it all better?
Like all families, mine has a well-honed repertoire of routines about each member, fables that are supposed to reveal the essence of each of us. Like some milder, browner version of the Borg, we’ve uploaded the stories into the collective memory, so that any of us can retell any of them with the agreed-upon details and inflections, even if the teller was not present when the incident took place.
The stories about me as a baby fall into two general categories. There are the ones that portray me as a Caribbean Athena, sprung from Zeus as a fully formed egghead, a trait that earned me my family’s Homeric epithet “la niña superdotada.” Then there are the ones that show me as a quirky, stubborn spirit, which started out as “voluntariosa” (strong-willed) and crystallized into “space cadet” as a teen.
In the voluntariosa category, there is my insistence on having my food compartmentalized, or as my brother Luis describes it, “in a bento box arrangement.” And there is also my toddler resistance to bedtime, when I, according to my father and siblings, impersonated the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Incredible, stretching out my arms and legs from under my father’s grasp to latch onto the doorframe.
I was luckier than most kids sent away to be raised in more cost-efficient and culturally congruent environments. I got to visit my parents and siblings yearly, unlike so many others I’ve known who had only letters and the occasional phone call to sustain their filial bonds. But every trip to New York eventually came to an end, and there are also stories, less often told, about my departures. “You cried a lot when it was time to go back,” says my sister Esther. “We all cried. You were so cute. We’d get used to you, and then you’d have to go.”
I have no memory of this.
I have clear memories of the rituals to prepare for trips to New York. The packing days before, Tío Papocho carefully wrapping contraband fruit, bottles of rum, slabs of jalao sweet and sticky enough to yank out your very jawbone. I remember the Santo Domingo airport, the smell of disinfectant and expectation evaporating off granite floors, and the ozone-charged air at JFK in winter, the awaiting wool coats and suffocating scarves. But I have no memory whatsoever of the repeated cruelty of separation. And now that I am thinking about my niece’s new life with us, I try to imagine what it must have been like for Tía Hilda and Tío Monché to see me cry so desperately for people I barely knew, for a love more abstract than the one they showed me every day. Sometimes I imagine they were secretly relieved on the plane back, thinking we could all go back to pretending I was their own daughter, the only one they’d ever have.
Tío Monché had children from a previous marriage, but their names were never spoken at home. Tía Hilda had gotten married at the scandalously late age of 31, and the two never had kids of their own. So I was it — as long as my “real” parents weren’t around. In Santo Domingo, they were my parents. In New York, they were demoted to foster parents, and they had to turn off their intense bond with me, act as if the relationship was secondary.
Spanish is often more precise, and kinder, in how it names relationships. “Mamá de crianza,” the mother who raises you, sounds truer to the reality it describes than ‘foster mother,’ which has an institutional scent. It’s easy for me to think of the various aunts and uncles who raised me as madres and padres de crianza. “Foster” just doesn’t enter into it.
But that idyllic situation, multiple surrogate parents full of affection and infinite patience, had some dark foundations. The contentment of my childhood depended heavily on depressed fertility among several of my mother’s siblings, the side of the family most present in my childhood. Shortly after getting married, Tía Hilda had a hysterectomy. Tía Milena died from uterine cancer in her 50s. Tío Alcides was divorced before I could remember and never remarried. He saw his one daughter on Saturdays, which she’d spend at my house. Tío Papocho and Tía Lépida never married, for reasons equal parts tragic and mysterious. So their focus remained undiluted by the everyday care of kids of their own. And without my parents around, they all had near equal claim on my discipline, my instruction, my affections.
When I was young and pictured my adult life, I always imagined myself a writer. There was always a husband in that vision of the future, but the picture grew fuzzy when it came time to imagine kids. Although I knew plenty of artists with kids, I felt that women always put their art second to their children. In some ways that is as it should be; parenting is an intensive endeavor. But I was unwilling to let go of my writerly ambitions. I kept those maybe-selfish thoughts to myself.
As my 30s neared an end, I had to think good and hard about my fertility, how it, too, was winding down. I resented being unable to reason with my body. Not yet, not yet, I whispered. But my ovaries played deaf, stubbornly popping out eggs, depleting the store. I didn’t want to measure every man I was attracted to by his father potential. Shortly before my 40th birthday, no daddy on the horizon, I made peace with the idea that I would not give birth. I would not push my luck in a lab, either. I’d seen too many friends in too much pain over repeated fertility treatments and failures to complete a pregnancy. No miracle science babies for me, thanks.
I bought a one-way ticket to Tía-ville and never looked back.
A few months after Doris and Milena were settling into their new life together, I’d returned from Santo Domingo to my teaching and writing routine, visiting them as often as I could, but not often enough. One day the call came from her work number. “I am headed to the hospital, and I need you to meet me there. Olga is picking up Milena from day care, and you may have to stay with her while I’m there.” The pains that had forced her to double over under her desk required surgery to take her gall bladder out and a week-long hospital stay. I stayed in her apartment while she was gone, the longest continuous time I had spent taking care of Milena without her mother around.
Gall bladder surgery is not usually life-threatening. But a couple of times, basking in the TV white noise after Milena had fallen asleep for the night, a small corner of my mommy-mushed brain piped up, “This is a test run. This is what it would be like if I got her.” Superstitious, I swatted the thought down. But it’s something my sister and I have discussed. Should anything happen to Doris, I get custody. We know people sometimes die before we think it’s their time. Ian, one of my sister Esther’s sons, died at 19. A year later, my brother’s partner, Brent, also died, at 41. It’s made us more willing to prepare for the worst, because the worst sometimes happens.
When she told me she’d designated me as the custodial parent, I was unsurprised. I knew it was my duty, as the sister who lives closest. When we went to China, I already saw myself as my niece’s backup parent. I thought of Tía Hilda and calculated how old she was when she got me to raise. I miscalculated that she was 42, the age I was when getting Milena. She was in fact 52, closer to Doris’s age. I think the slip was subconscious. I am the available childless aunt, the closest among my siblings to a Tía Hilda. But repeating the contours of that relationship is difficult at best, given my career-driven, worldly life. I go out too often and spend too much of the rest of my time hunched over a computer keyboard. The same things I chose over having kids make it hard to give Milena all the time and attention she needs, the kind I got from my aunts and uncles.
I am close with all three of my siblings, but for many years and for many reasons I felt closest to Doris. She is closest to me in age, and even when I was a teenager the eight-year gap in our ages was easily hurdled. When I moved back to my parents’ house for good, she and I shared a sofa bed and then a room until she married. She is the one who was assigned by my mother to talk to me about menstruation, the one I swapped clothes with and stole Elvis Costello LPs from, and the one I talked to about things I was too scared or embarrassed to share with anyone else in the family.
When the adoption idea moved closer to reality, I began to think about my responsibilities to my sister and my coming niece. I promised myself to be my sister’s most reliable support, the person she could count on above all. On our way back from China, drunk with baby love, I imagined visiting weekly, being a constant in Milena’s life. But things have worked out otherwise. It takes me almost two hours to get to Doris’s house by subway. A cab there from Brooklyn costs more than 50 dollars. So crises aside, my visits are more like once or twice monthly. The situation is making me rethink key aspects of my life.
Moving closer to them is out of the question, too much of the sort of concession to family obligation expected of unmarried women. The spinster sisters of my mother’s generation thought nothing of moving for months at a time to take care of new babies and ill family members. When I moved back to New York, Tía Hilda and Tío Monché moved in with us, and until he died and she decided to move back to the Dominican Republic to become the female caretaker for her two brothers, she was the live-in babysitter for my sister Esther’s kids. In our more autonomous generation, a move driven by my sister’s needs is not something I easily consider or that she feels she can easily ask. Sometimes we joke about splitting a townhouse, but in the end, she stays in the comfortable Riverdale apartment she loves, and I stay in my Brooklyn pad, near shops, parks, a farmer’s market, concert halls, and museums.
After only a few days of close contact with Milena while my sister was in the hospital, I found my ears suddenly tuned to the voices of children her age. On the subway headed home, I heard a toddler laughing, a sound that at other times had blended into the background buzz. By the tone of the giggles, I could tell the child — I couldn’t see if it was a boy or girl — was happy but tired, soon to collapse into fits of crying frustration. It’s as if the prolonged exposure in such close quarters had recalibrated my sensibilities, at least for the moment. Each time I spend an extended time with Milena, I miss her with physical pangs. Me hace falta. Is this how filial love works? Like a viral infection?
In circles of single or childless friends, we often talk about catching baby fever. We notice clusters of pregnancies and joke that spending too much time around swelling bellies can result in contagion, even if there’s no likely father figure around. But I seem immune. Never have I felt the primal uterine pull I see in so many women I know. In the past few years, I’ve even lost the regret over not having one of my own.
It’s not that I dislike children. I wonder at their sprouting, at the synapses connecting, at the exponential quickness with which they figure out the world. And it’s not that I want to avoid the physical drain of child-rearing. In a few days my arms and shoulders throbbed with the repeated efforts of picking up 24-and-a-half-pound Milena, and the intense attention she requires made me feel like her caretaking appendage. I would not have been unhappy to have a child. But I did not want motherhood badly enough to do it by any means necessary, to do it on my own if I had to. The two relationships in which I considered having kids — well, the timing never seemed right.
I do envy one aspect of Doris’s bond with Milena, one that does not transfer to me. For some years at least, Doris will never be alone. Every morning, there is “Good morning, mama,” and the singing and talking on the drive to work and day care, and in the evening, projects and baths and books. Mommy and me, daughter and Doris, all the time. When I return home after spending days with Milena, my solitude suddenly feels as uncomfortable as an itchy sweater. I long to shake it off, to head back to her singing, her ear-shattering squeals at the sight of raspberries.
My love affair with Milena is not that of a first-timer. My sister Esther had three boys; the youngest is now 18. But I think none of us ever took our aunt- and uncle-dom seriously with them. I was 11 when my first nephew was born. Doris was 19 and Luis 21. Maybe we felt too young for the titles “tío” and “tía.” None of us felt like the clearly mature people our own aunts and uncles had been. So we were laissez-faire about what the nephews should call us, and they learned to call us by our first names. That was possibly a mistake, made the relationship too casual. But now that we are at various stages of middle age, “tía” and “tío” seem like appropriate forms of address.
I work hard to help 21-month-old Milena learn to pronounce the word “tía.” She sometimes says “titi,” a baby term for auntie common in Puerto Rico. But she has pronounced “tía” only once or twice, and I long for the title. She knows who I am and points to me when her mother asks where Tía Caro is. She even confuses me with her mother in one black-and-white photobooth strip she often stares at. For now, when she wants me to pick her up or get her something or play with her, she doesn’t call me anything at all, just looks up at me and makes her wishes clear.
I compare my toddler pictures to Milena’s. In both sets there are lots of high-chair shots, photos of cute outfits and combed baby hair, of playtime at home in diapers and little else. And I recognize the look on my aunts’ and uncles’ faces, the desire to do whatever it takes to hear that laugh again. When Milena sits in the chair made by my crossed legs and makes me read her a Dr. Seuss book for the 500th time, I think of Tía Hilda, reporting proudly to my parents how at age three I’d memorized the stories in my favorite books. When Milena offers me a tidbit of chicken from her plate, I think of how much I loved Tía Hilda’s thick bean purées. How all these little details add up to the bountiful love that never gets the recognition of a parent’s.
If that’s my curse, I’m happy to bear it. Maybe the devil knows what he’s doing.
Milena is turning eleven this year. “Tía Milena/Milena Tía” was originally written in 2007 and was previously published in Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives By Dominican Women This essay is reprinted with the permission of The University of Georgia Press.