Why, you're asking? Why would I be such a thoughtless, cruel, and ungrateful adult daughter as to let pass this day of honor and remembrance without so much as a, "Hey, thanks"? Well, if you're new here, you don't know that my relationship with my mother has for years been pretty toxic, and because I was tired of beating my head against a wall, I stopped: I haven't seen my mother in person in two years, haven't spoken to her on the phone in almost a year, haven't been in her home in almost three. It was like breaking up with a bad boyfriend, only, you know, it's one of the first people you ever formed a relationship with and who's in all your family photos and who's connected to every last one of your relatives.
(I feel a lot of grief about this. I don't have the kind of relationship with my mother that I wanted, and I don't think what I want from a mother is possible with my mother. So I'm not a callous, heartless ungrateful child. I'm sad. But I'm taking care of myself.)
I was wondering this morning, who was it that thought up Mother's Day? Who thought that our mothers needed their own day? Well, according to wikipedia, lots of people. Some version of Mother's Day is celebrated all over the world, from Brazil to Iran to Taiwan. Here in the United States, the first Mother's Day was a day for peace and a call for disarmament--there's a way to honor mothers: stop killing their sons in war--in 1872. The holiday as we know it was created by one woman who wanted to make her mother's dream come true (cue: violin swell) and was signed into national holiday-dom in 1914. Maybe it's good that moms have a day: they work a lot, they worry a lot, they feel pulled in a zillion different directions, and at the end of it all, they've probably only done an average job of raising a human being.
Confession time: When asked recently if I disliked mothers, I said no, that I don't dislike mothers, but that I do distrust mothers. I don't understand them. I have some great friends who are mothers. A new friend of mine, a hardworking and accomplished woman, calls her role as mother into her classroom and into her writing on a regular basis; she cites it as one of the things that makes her a better human being. Maybe it does. A young woman I used to know, one of the greatest young writers I've ever met, has recently become a mother. Her facebook page is full of photos of a lovely girl peering at the camera from within her gorgeously tattooed arms, looking like some kind of post-modern Precious Moments doll. My best friend in the world recently had her first child. She is less than a year old, and I hope and look forward to meeting her soon. She has the brilliance, interest and reflection of her mother, my friend, all over her. And yet, the other night, out with my husband, I said, "I don't understand why women become mothers. I mean, I think about myself, and I feel so Not Ready to be a mother; I can't understand, I can't believe, that women my age have kids.Why do it? Is there nothing else better to do?" I learned yesterday that it takes a woman's body five years to recover from childbirth/nursing, so that she's fully ready to have another. Five years! What makes a woman want to put herself through that, just to have some kid to take care of? When I realized that I didn't trust mothers, it hit me like a bucket of concrete in the back, but it felt like the truest thing I'd said in a while.
If you're a mother reading this, and it hurts you, I'm sorry. I know my distrust of mothers is excluseively about a profound and enduring distrust of my own mother. I think she wanted to be a woman who was a resource to me, who would help me grow into a woman that was strong, smart, capable, impressive, attractive, et cetera. However, what she was to me was a woman who wanted so desperately for me to succeed where she struggled that she imbibed me with some profound fear and actually passed on some of her own broken thinking, from which I am trying to disentangle myself. I realize that she wanted me to grow into a better version of herself, not into me. This doesn't seem to me a reason to become a mom, so you can create a version of yourself who will meet the man you never met, have the waistline you can't seem to have, get the job you always wanted, and be a better version of you.
But wait, that's the whole premise for that show, Toddlers and Tiaras, isn't it?
Anyway, I certainly don't know why my mother became a mom, and I have lots of doubts about why anyone else would do it either. I don't feel great about this. I don't want my best friend to read this and think that I have doubts about her life choices. I don't want to glaze my eyes over when my writer friend start talking about her tow-headed four year old, an only child who knows about Adele and Kafka and Wired and the Green Lantern. I don't want to sputter in bitterness if I start getting invitations to baby showers. I don't want my friends to think that I'm trying to work out my issues by evaluating their life choices. What if one of them reads this? They'll think I'm batshit crazy. They'll think I don't love or support them. These women aren't my mother. Not all women who have babies are my mother, I get it, I know it.
I wish that helped me to understand, or to trust mothers. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.
So yesterday instead of feeling sorry for myself about my fractured (hell, why sugar coat it: totaled) relationship with my mother, I wound up hosting a brunch for a bunch of friends, some old, some new. My husband had some plans that fell through, we called around to a group of folks, and voila. Dinner party at 11 am: perfectly ripe mango & pineapple, g-free vegan crepes, lots of laughter and sunshine. Great day. A short bike ride, a yoga class at the studio nearby--my new favorite studio--and even an hour of paid work. Score. At the end of the night I went to pick my husband up at a wine bar in Lincoln Park where he was working for a theatre company we both work with. I was content to stand in the back and listen to the stories being told, wait for him to clock out.
And then I heard it. The final teller took the mike. She was a beautiful woman, a sista with walnut skin and hair that she'd braided and then unbraided, so it stood around her hair like a halo. She began telling a story about her mother, and how her mother could open impossible jars or whatnot, and how members of the family gave her the label of having "retarded strength". (An offensive phrase, but that wasn't my trigger.) The next sentence she uttered was about wondering what it was that made her mother so strong.
Okay. So "Strong Black Woman" are words that go together like peanut butter and jelly. It's a phrase you hear repeated ad nauseum, so much so that you might think that they don't mint black women who aren't strong black women; we may be diverse in lots of ways--language, skin color, hair texture, politics, religion--but damn it if we ain't all strong, every last one of us. Mothers especially. The rhetoric of the strong black woman who is raising her kids and working two jobs and can do bad all by herself and don't need nothing from nobody is all over our art (sigh, thank you, Tyler Perry (was that sarcastic enough?)), our politics, our sociology; it's everywhere. So happens that last night on my way to work, I heard a musician talking about his mother, a strong black woman who was a vocalist and piano player who played a dizzying myriad of music for him to listen to, which is what shaped him into the brilliant, highly demanded jazz pianist he is today. This didn't put a good taste in my mouth. It put the taste of my mother in my mouth: chicken fat, bitterness and self-loathing, in case you were wondering.
So when this storyteller who'd gotten about twenty words of her story into the room started wondering aloud what made her mamma so strong, I had it. I leaned over to my husband: "I can't listen to this story. I'm gonna go for a walk." And in less than 30 seconds I was out the door and on Webster Avenue in the dark, walking away from the bar as fast as I could go.
I got about a hundred feet when I realized I'd left my jacket upstairs. Then after a few more steps, I realized I had no wallet. A few more: no phone. Wow, I ran up outta there. I must have really been upset.
I was upset. I'm over the idea of strong black woman, and entirely over the idea of my mother as strong black mother: because it wasn't the truth. My mother wasn't a strong black mother. She was very, very good at looking like one. She will work herself sick in order to impress her colleagues and supervisors. She will dress to the nines if she thinks she's being looked at by anyone with power or influence, who may evaluate her. She will speak the polite educated speak as well as speak the 'hood speak just like so many of us do. But these things don't make her strong; they just make her look strong.
The truth is I couldn't trust my mother to do for me the way I needed her to do because she was so consumed by her own need that I just didn't get in. It's like if you have a stab wound in your rib and a paper cut on your finger (oh, this is such a flawed metaphor, just go with me)--the stab wound takes all of your attention, and you barely notice the paper cut at all. At some point, you may even need the paper cut to work in service of the stab wound. (Okay, I give, metaphor broken.) My mother has so many wounds, and felt them so profoundly when I was growing up, that she was crippled by them. She couldn't care for me the way I needed her to; she often needed or demanded that I care for her.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that strong people aren't wounded. I'm saying that strong people can recognize they're wounded, and they work hard at trying not to make others responsible for those wounds. My mom couldn't do this. She made me take care of her. I did it because I wanted her to love me. But now that I've become me, and not her miniature, I'm finding that her love was conditional.
(NO: it has not escaped me that my distrust of mothers my age is akin to my own mother sliming me with her needs. Like she erased me so I could take care of her, so I am raining my neurosis all over my lovely friends and perfect strangers who are mothers, and showering them with distrust that they haven't earned. God, the shit we carry around on this planet, it is tough to deal with. This is what I'm saying.)
The strong black mother rhetoric that came out of that storyteller last night, I choked on it. It sent me fleeing into the night, underdressed, walking through Lincoln Park looking for somewhere I could be that was warm, or looking for things I could see that would distract me from how cold and nervous and just plain sad and mad I was.
Walking up Southport off Clybourn Avenue, I looked into people's dark windows, passed a couple huddled on a front stoop, talking softly, and considered going back, hoping that my restless ambling had wasted enough time to spare me the rest of that story. At the corner of Webster and Southport, I remembered what this woman had said in a meditation workshop that I attended this weekend. She was talking about walking meditation, and that sometimes we need to move on the Earth Mother, to show her our love and to ask her for what we need. "Imagine your need--peace, love, joy, whatever it is," she said, "imagine your foot as a great stamp. Ink it with your heart. With every step that you take imagine yourself pressing that word into the Earth, so that if you looked behind you, you'd see it written out in your footsteps." She gave us a mudra to use for our hands, and talked about keeping our gaze only a few feet in front of us. "You don't want to take in what's around you on this walk, you want to stay internal."
What the hell. This is what I should have been doing the whole time, I thought to myself. It's unlikely that the sidewalk is going to belittle my dietary choices and try to make me ashamed of my bdoy. So I imagined "healing" on the bottom of my sandals so thin I feel like Jesus when I wear them, in a bright blood red that would glow in the night like lasers. One step at a time, I walked, healing, healing healing, in the sidewalk past the salon and the fancy furniture store, past the Potbellys and the bar on the corner with the red neon sign. When I got to the light, it turned green, and so I slowly walked, healing healing healing, across the crosswalk at Clyborn Avenue. It took me nearly the whole 30 seconds.
|Clybourn Avenue looks nothing like Haleakela. But really, it might be my favorite place to put one foot in front of the other.|
So I still don't trust my mother; she's hurt me really badly, and as recently as this week, she continues to do so. And I say, somewhat contritely, that I still don't understand, or fully believe in, whatever it is that makes women like me become mothers. But at least I was able to walk healing around the block, rather than fume or cry or rage. I was able to breathe and ask the planet to rise up to meet me and to be there when I put my foot down. If you look close, you might be able to see my red footprints.
I believe in meditation. It's slow, like the way seasons change, but I believe in it. Do I feel healed yet? Nope. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.