The Metamorphosis in Miami: On Motherhood and “the Mati”

When I walked into this bathroom this morning and saw the dying cockroach, flailing it’s little feelers and all six legs, that’s when I knew I needed an exorcism. I know what you’re thinking: an exorcism is a bit of an overreaction. Surely some Raid would do the trick?

But the cockroach was just the last straw, a visible symbol of the lack of control any of us have over our surroundings, our days, our very being. I hate those insects more than anyone who lives in South Florida during rainy summers that drive them inside every available structure has a right to, but when I saw that dying cockroach, I felt its pain. Neither of us wanted to be there, staring at each other.

Let me back up a little. No, let me back up a lot, to when I was single and living in New York. That was a time when, for vast chunks of my day, I controlled what happened. I set the times for the interviews I would do, I wrote my articles, and then I met with editors who, for the most part, fed and cleaned themselves. Or I walked into a classroom and told adults what we would be talking  and writing about for the next 75 minutes.

These days it seems nothing in my day is within my control. My toddler is in charge. And she’s like a force of nature or an act of God, like a tsunami toying with the shore of a tropical paradise. Sometimes I am a sinner in the hands of an angry god–one who doesn’t want to get into her stroller. Sometimes I am an angel in paradise, surrounded by love and laughter and a little cherub who adores me. And there’s not much I can do to influence which it will be.

The thing I didn’t realize about motherhood was that my productivity, mood, and self-esteem would become so dependent on another person’s whims. Another thing I didn’t realize: how incredibly fine is the line between success and disaster. On the days that Amalía gets into her stroller and acts like a happy, healthy, beneficent sprite, I have moments of thinking, “Look at me! Getting it all done! Turning in the article! Running the errands! Doing the laundry! Writing the novel! Making the dinner! And all the while raising a happy small human.” In my mind, as I think this, there’s a wind machine toying with my blown-out hair, and a theme song playing–specifically the tune heard during the old Enjoli commercial of my childhood, only less creepy.

And then the gods smite me for my hubris. Inevitibly, about three minutes after I think how well I’m managing things, the carefully constructed world I’ve created comes crashing down, swept away in a tidal wave of tantrums on Amalia’s part and poorly executed multitasking on mine. Take the day B.C.: Before Cockroach. Because of various scheduling conflicts, I had a work call in the morning, instead of in the afternoon when I’d have a babysitter. When I scheduled the call, I imagined Amalia happily building Legos while I conducted business, until it was time for her to climb into her stroller for us to go to our appointment–lunch with several mommies and babies, the one time each week I interact with live grownups other than my husband.

In the real world outside my rose-colored brain, the call ran long, Amalia alternated between screaming and catatonia while staring at Pocoyo on my Ipad, and when the time came for us to leave, I was still on my cell phone and she was walking barefoot down the pedestrian road, refusing to a.) put on shoes or b.) get into her stroller. As far as I can tell, she didn’t get ringworm, and lunch went well until it became stinkily clear that I had forgotten to pack a change of diaper which we now desperately needed. That’s when Amalía started caterwauling, understandably. I finally forced her into her stroller over such loud screams that she was hyperventilating by the time we got home, at which point I went straight to the parking lot so I could open the gate for the babysitter, who wouldn’t be able to text me because the battery on my phone had died, thanks to Amalia’s using it for incessant Pocoyo watching during lunch.

As we stood in the parking lot, waiting for a babysitter who never came, Amalia turned to me and said, “Sorry, Mami.” I told her I was the sorry one; it was my fault for scheduling poorly, for trying to do too many things at once. I swore that tomorrow, and next week, we would all do better. And then, after 10 minutes of waiting for Godot, the Nanny, I went inside to charge my phone, and learned that the babysitter had texted to say she was stuck at her internship–and furthermore, it was turning into a full time job next week; she could still babysit for us if we ever wanted to go out at night, but I’d have no child care during the days.

I know, there’s a war in Syria and police are storming protestors in Turkey and there’s injustice all over the world. Losing your babysitter is minor in the scheme of things. But having someine I trust watch Amalía 10 hours a week so I can work is central to the funcitoning of my tiny, self-centered world.

That night, as we went to bed, I said to my husband, “tomorrow will be a better day.” And then I woke up and saw the cockroach.

So I reached back deep into cultural history–farther back than the Enjoli commercial–and decided that I must be afflicted with the Evil Eye, the bad luck that follows you after someone praises or envies you or things just seem to be going a little too well. As a folklore and mythology major in college, I wrote a paper on the Evil Eye, and how it exists in so many cultures under so many names. The “mati” in Greece. The “mal’occhio” in Italy. “Kein ayin hora” in Yiddish. And I think the reason belief in the Evil Eye is so widespread is because everyone in every culture has days when it feels like everything is going wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it. Like the world is spinning beyond your control. For me, motherhood has intensified that feeling because now I’m never in control, and also because, despite my complaining about the little tyrant, I now feel like I have so much to lose, so much worth envying. How could people see her and not adore her, perhaps inadvertently giving her the Evil Eye?

The great news is, once you’ve identified the Evil Eye as the root of all your problems, you immediately regain the illusion of control because there’s so much you can do to fight it–wear talismans to avoid it from sticking, for example. Or, have it removed.

Which is what I did. Minutes after spotting the dead cockroach, I called my aunt and had her take the Evil Eye off me. She said she could tell I’d been sorely afflicted–because she was yawning and her eyes were tearing before she finished the appropriate incantation. Naturally, I immediately felt better.

The same can not be said for the cockroach.


  1. Peter Hall says:

    Hi Eleni, I remember when our eldest son was about 2 and we never seamed to have a minute to ourselves. So one day I thought of a brilliant idea. I bought a portable cot and put it in the middle of the lounge room and I filled it up with his toys and then put him in it. Well of course there were screams of protest but it did give us a breather from having to constantly watch him. But our relaxation was short lived. Our son went through a learning curve and eventually realised that if he stacked his toys on top of one another, he could climb up them and make his way to freedom.

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