“Words We Cannot Say” Shows Loss and Truth in Motherhood

As May 2022 began, Sita Romero’s novel, Words We Cannot Say, hit bookshelves. Its timing was absolutely perfect. What better month to recognize the complicated, layered intricacies of motherhood? Romero’s work does just that, focusing particularly on the process of becoming a mother. What’s more, she manages to cover just about every emotion and challenge that coexist during these times that are both individual and intensely socially connected.

Romero, a former doula and mother herself, initially resisted telling this story. When we spoke, she even explained that she had, instead, wanted to challenge herself and not go for the “easy” of the life she knew. Five novels later, Romero realized that this story, the one told through the three narrators in Words We Cannot Say, “is the one that has to be told.” After all, for so many, the path to becoming a mother can be treacherous. Motherhood is not easy. Relationships, friendships, careers, and futures are messy. All of this, Romero says, “demanded my attention,” and the result is a real, occasionally brutal work that manages to capture the beauty that lives within the moments that challenge — and change — us.

Through vivid tales of female friendships, histories interwoven with trauma, and modern looks at relationships, Romero created a novel that does, indeed, need to be in the world. As a result of her honest and vivid storytelling, the experiences of pending motherhood and fatherhood remain with the reader — deep and rich in color, not in black and white.

Let’s talk about the writing process. How would you say the completed version of Words We Cannot Say varies from the first draft the most? In other words, what topics, scenes, dialogues, characters most surprised you with their evolution from start to finish?

I knew I wanted three distinct POVs. Not only are my characters different culturally, but they are struggling with different personal and professional issues. That said, as the author, there’s a tiny bit of ME and my voice mixed in with each of them. At first, I found that I was having a hard time keeping their distinct voices separate. 

So I went to the beginning, began with Penelope’s POV, and wrote her through all the way to the end. The other characters were “in there,” but they didn’t have any POVs until I finished with Penelope. I went back to the beginning and did it again. In the end, I weaved the narratives together after the fact. It was not an easy task because it initially created some timeline and plotline issues, but it made my characters better and worked to separate their voices. That said, if the book stood as it had as a first draft, it would only contain one perspective — Penelope’s. 

I also knew I wanted to write about complicated, real women, not women who “play nice” all the time. I received a lot of feedback about Penelope being unlikable. I insisted she make hard choices (and not always the best ones). However, I needed the reader to see other sides of her right up front before they witnessed her fumbling with difficult decisions and questionable judgment. So the opening scene is a fast-paced evening in a labor and delivery unit. It was written last, after I completed the whole book. I found the best way to introduce Penelope was to put her at work and allow the reader to see her shine as a labor and delivery nurse. The truth is, her circumstances put her in a difficult position. And, true to life, many people make interesting choices when that happens. 

There are three protagonists in your story, each with her own history of arriving to and existing in motherhood. You yourself are a mother. In creating these characters, would you say you drew more from personal experiences, those of friends, or a combination? And do you mind sharing which character resembles you the most professionally? Personally?

Having worked in women’s health for fifteen years, I attended hundreds of births as a doula, taught childbirth classes, and dedicated myself to working with families through the childbearing years. I’ve had a lot of personal experience working with people becoming parents for the first (and second, etc.) time. I’ve heard many stories of fertility challenges, losses, struggles with pregnancy presenting itself at an inopportune time with an inopportune partner, and just about every variation you can think of. 

So as I conceptualized each of the main characters, I had a very large pool of real-life experiences to draw from as inspiration. There are bits of each character that may stem from a single conversation, or a setting based on a home I went into a dozen years ago, or a hobby, or a personality quirk, and so on. I knew I had gotten it right when another writer read a section of my story and said, “Oh yes, I know Lotus. I have met her in real life before,” because she resembled a certain kind of mother she had interacted with in her own community. 

When a friend of seventeen years read this book, she immediately told me that she saw things in it that most people  won’t see — the pieces that are me. I ran a business for a dozen years, so I can see how I am a little bit Lotus. I’ve been the busy mom with a toddler before. I’ve seen hundreds of births, like Penelope, although as a doula, not as a nurse. I am probably the least like Nia. She’s glamorous and having a personal struggle that I have only seen from the outside. And while I am married to a Hispanic man and raising Hispanic children, I am not Hispanic myself. I may have experienced large family gatherings, the strong commitment to family, and the biases that can be present in Hispanic culture, but I am in it by adjacency. It was really interesting personally to explore how Nia navigates those situations as a character from within the Hispanic culture. 

It’s clear that Penelope, Nia, and Lotus are drawn to each other in part because of their open-mindedness and acceptance. How have you drawn from your own positive friendship experiences to craft this openness? And, conversely, did you craft any particular conversations or experiences in your novel based on something you “wish” you’d had when you needed it most?

I was very lucky that I found a group of incredibly supportive moms in early mothering. I became a mother at a young age and I honestly felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Then we moved; connecting to groups of other mothers was the thing that kept me sane in those busy years. We had just settled in Atlanta, my husband was sick, my oldest was struggling in school, and I had two babies less than two years apart. 

I experienced something truly inspiring with this found group of women. As a young mom, I had not had a lot of adult female friendships yet at this point. What I learned from them is just how much they loved and accepted each other. I had never been in a space with women where there were no catty behind-the-back scenarios. They taught me so much about mothering, acceptance, embracing diversity, and non-judgment. Looking back, it was probably one of the most profound experiences that shaped me in early motherhood 

As you say in the novel, “Each birth is different.” Some of the writing that stood out to me the most are the labor and delivery scenes. Your ability to put readers right in the moment is truly impressive. Tell us about the writing process with these scenes — were they harder to write, because you wanted to capture them perfectly? Or did these sections come easier because of your past career as a doula as well as your own birth experiences? 

A lot of the birth scenes came naturally but still needed plenty of edits. I work from an outline, so I know what I want to happen. But sometimes, when I am really tuned in and listening to my characters, things don’t go as expected. I may have a planned situation to throw at them, but they don’t have to behave in a specific way to reach a preconceived outcome. They can react how they like. I know that might sound kind of nutty, but I am always asking myself: What would Nia do? Penelope? Lotus? I want to write their reactions to a situation-in-scene in the way that feels most in character for them. So I try very hard to stay in my character’s head and let them act “in character.”

When I wrote about Lotus’s labor and birth — the rhythm of it, the waiting, the starts and stops, the unexpected nature of it, that was an amalgam of years of being part of so many birthing experiences. 

That said, I also called a midwife and ran down each and every detail of my birth scenes. When I conceptualized the opening scene, I knew a labor and delivery patient would be in trouble, but I didn’t know exactly how. I wanted an emergency, but one the nurse could help with, until the doctor was there. I needed a way to center Penelope. This midwife had worked as a nurse in a high-volume city hospital and been part of some emergencies just like the opening chapter. She was able to give me the details and specifics I needed to make that scene — and all my birthing scenes — real. 

The diversity featured in your novel is current in a way that is refreshing, with characters of many backgrounds who come from rich histories. What do you think readers gain as a result of this inclusivity? 

I always want my readers to see themselves. I want my novels to capture the diversity of people that makes our world so beautiful. But I also want to write what I “know” and not attempt to represent people that I know nothing about. As a reader and a lifelong learner, I am fascinated with learning about the insights of a particular religion or culture or subculture, but I want to learn those things from people who actually have some experience in it. 

Yes, Nia is Hispanic and I am not, but I have been part of the culture for the last 18 years. Penelope has complicated family relationships and it spills into her other relationships. This is something I certainly have personal experience with. Lotus is bisexual and polyamourous; I had a sensitivity reader who walked me through all the types of relationships that can be built within that framework. I was challenged to create specifics around their relationship, its rules, and what might break it down in the end. Their polyamory is not what breaks their marriage, it’s her husband’s sobriety.  

Ultimately, it’s been my hope that no one sees the book as a “checkbox“of diversity, but that the characters have been created in an intentional way that makes them real. 

Without giving too much of the plot away, I want to speak to the theme of loss that you explore in your work. You dive deeply and honestly into physical experiences, emotional pain, complicated relationships, feelings of guilt, miscarriage, infertility and fertility, and many more realities for women. These topics feel living and breathing and real as a result, but they are also topics that may be hard for some women to read. Was it difficult to decide how much and what to include in the story? What factors were involved in deciding how deep to dive?

I definitely had people in my ear who wanted me to make it “more commercial,” more fun, less serious. But I have known too many women who have experienced losses. 

I have personally had the experience of meeting a new doctor for the first time and having to answer questions about how many pregnancies I have had — and I think about that question every time I am asked. Am I supposed to share a bit of my grief with them? My history? Is it all just very clinical? Yet for some reason, we are the ones not supposed to bring it up? 

The complications contain pain. People ask questions. How were your pregnancies? How many children do you have? Those questions don’t always have the same answer, and they’re certainly not always easy to answer. I knew I wanted to make the theme of loss really important — there are stories we don’t want to tell each other, and therefore women who have had that experience don’t always have their voices heard. 

That leads me to the title. Your characters are, in part, so memorable because of their honesty — with each other, with their partners, and (through their narration) with us, the readers. So I’m curious to know: is this what you mean by words we cannot say? 

This is an interesting question. And yes, the inability (or difficulty in finding the “right” time and place) to speak our personal truths fuels the meaning behind the title. 

Lotus hides her grief and her needs. She feels as though she cannot say, “I need help” or “I feel like I could have prevented Stone’s death.” Nia hides her history and previous pregnancies. At first, she cannot say, “I had an abortion.” Penelope hides so much about her relationships and the insecurities that are a direct result of those relationships. She doesn’t know how to say, “No one will ever love me.” 

Society tends to dictate acceptance of telling our story. When are the times and places ever right? Why is it always our job to hold our truths back? It’s complicated beyond measure, and I was compelled to write about it. Women are being silenced and so are their histories.

Words We Cannot Say
By Sita Romero
Red Adept Publishing
Published April 19, 2022