I have a friend named D*. She is a soulmate and a light in my life; and if our friendship could be described as a masala, she brings the sweetness while I contribute the spice. My life is far more interesting with her in it, and through her life I’m able to get a glimpse of an alternative reality in my own lived experience had folks had reacted (or acted) differently to peculiar events. I am in awe of D – who has accomplished so much with quiet humility, never taking credit for anything and always very mindful to give praise to God – but I confess that there is an area of her life for which I harbor envy.
She has an incredible, loving relationship with her mother.
D* talks about her mother as though she created and hung the moon and stars. They paint together. She looks for gifts to present to her while we are out. Loving adulations for her mother are never far from her mouth, and it is the same for Auntie A when D is not present. Besides the bonds of being mother and daughter, they are two women who respect and adore one another.
And while these two women are white, I do not believe that race is the factor that has contributed to the success of their mother-daughter relationship.
So much of Black parenting (aka ‘old school parenting’) has been about instilling discipline and reactionary reverence for one’s parents, and less about building relationships that are built on intimacy or trust. Obedience, bordering on obsequiousness, is expected without question. While this method is good for maintaining order in a household (or at least the facade of it), it lends nothing to strengthening feelings of empathy or intimacy between parent and child. If my mother gave me an order today, I would comply because it is my duty to do so, not because she had invested a lifetime of positive intentionality into our relationship. My mother is an authority figure and as a ‘good’ Black/African child it speaks well of my upbringing to do as she says, mindlessly, preferably. While this method of child-rearing works well for some people, it did not work well for me. I have neither positive nor negative emotions towards my mother, a callousness that has been years in the building. Yet when I think about D and her mother, the warmth that they share, I crave that.
I know that this is not something I can ever have or experience as the daughter in my mother-daughter relationship, but I have determined that it is something I can have with my own girls. To accomplish this, I have had to look back and remember the moments, the minuscule toxic incidents that poisoned my relationship with my mother.
The apologies I needed.
The admissions of wrongdoing and errors in judgement.
The encouragement and congratulations for feats that might not have meant anything to her, but meant everything to me.
My mother is not perfect, and I believe she did what thought was best in her own estimation; but if 15 years of marriage has taught me anything, what ‘you think’ is best in a relationship usually does not pass muster. In any relationship, asking how one can be a better spouse, friend or yes – parent – will make a world of difference in outcomes. Simply posing the question is a demonstration in caring. So that’s what I did this week with my eldest child…the one who is most like me and therefore in most danger of losing. I decided to ask her while I was making pancakes. No one ever said anything they didn’t mean while eating pancakes!
“Is there anything I’ve done as a parent that you resent me for?”
“Huh?” She looked at me warily. “Why do you ask?”
“No reason. I’m just trying to evaluate myself as a parent.”
I braced myself for the response, thinking of all the sins my own mother had committed against me. An immediate apology was not far from my lips. After a while, she spoke.
“Well…there is one thing,” she said.
“What is it?”
“I wish you had never forced me to be in my biological father’s life. I wish you had just let me believe Daddy (meaning Marshall) was my dad. I wish you hadn’t forced me into a relationship with him.”
I held myself steady against the granite island. I was not expecting this, and certainly did not know how to apologize for it. An unjust spanking or a missed birthday party I could give an explanation for…but how does one go about making amends for doing the ONE thing that Black mothers are most stereotypically demonized for: Concealing the birth of and excluding a child from their biological father’s life?
I stuttered through my response.
“Well…before you were born I asked three of my friends whom I knew never knew or grew up without their dads if they wished their moms had included them in their lives. Two said yes. Only one didn’t resent their mother for it. I thought I was doing the right thing.” A pancake had begun to smoke in the griddle, and I was grateful to give it my attention. Eventually, I looked back over at her. “Is there anything else?”
“Ummm. I’m sure there is. Like maybe you didn’t buy me something when I was 5, but no…I don’t hate you or anything like that. I think you’re a pretty good mom.”
“Thanks for the pancakes!”
She came over, rested her head on my shoulder and then disappeared upstairs to her teenaged lair.
While it is comforting to know that I have thus far succeeded in not raising my daughter from a childhood from which she will have to heal, I still have to contend with the reality that she does hold some resentment towards me, even if it’s for something that’s out of my control. I can do nothing about the way her father makes her feel, for the stress he causes her; and if I’m honest, for the distress I have always known he was capable of causing her. My sin is that I had more faith in his ability to “change because he has a daughter now” AND for allowing societal pressure to allow him a physical presence in her life.
This admission has made me more compassionate towards my own mother. I empathize with some of the choices she made and for the power of choice she withheld from me. Maybe she thought that by disempowering me, it would keep me under her rule forever and ensure my fealty. That was a mistake. But am I making a mistake by empowering my own child too much? Will her sense of boundless liberty lead her further away from home, in time? Who is to say? That is the mystery – and frustration – of parenting. We plant a seed but often cannot predict what the results will be until the tree comes into fruition. We are stewards of those seeds, not their gods. We water, care for and hope for their strength and survival.