Many of us come to or avoid motherhood for a variety of deeply personal reasons that translate to our own dealings with mothers in ways we don’t initially recognize. As I continue on my journey through motherhood, peeking around every corner, giving myself room to be critical and celebratory as necessary, I’ve started to journey into my own complex relationship with mothers.
Everything that I knew of motherhood was first from my own mother.
My own mother met motherhood through a dysfunctional relationship with my father in a way that was both nurturing and detrimental for her. She, having grown up with her father working long hours married to my grandmother, was interested in loving a young, precarious, adventurous and literary man. Exclusively. My father, much less responsible then, made a family with her and navigated the multifarious wims of poverty, loving her inclusive of other women. I was born 10 months after my older sister, almost disabling my mother with bills, responsibilities, and the management of a young man who found better days in the romance pool than at home. I saw motherhood, as early as I can remember, stressed. I saw motherhood as overbearing. I saw motherhood as long days with agitation, sting, and unbalanced obligation. I saw motherhood in the way that many of my brown girl friends saw motherhood growing up in the inner city 1980s: As problematic.
My mother, a genuinely meek woman who quite literally has the tenacity of a giant, always made clear to me that quality mothering existed at the intersection of economics and love. She made clear to me, that I needed to love myself, provide for myself, and be clear to myself about the choice of motherhood. My mother didn’t want me to be involuntarily parenting at the sacrifice of my own undeveloped identity. That’s code for: my mother did not want me to be “a young mother.”
My grandmother, who never quite conformed to gender norms, didn’t have this pristine façade of a long standing relationship that she nurtured for decades. She lost her own mother at 4 years old to a homicide in a Mississippi baseball field. My grandmother started mothering as a teenager; even becoming a grandmother at 32 years old. My grandmother was married to, most of my life, a man she hadn’t laid eyes on in 20 years. She was introverted, preferring tough love, fights in the streets, and long hours at work. She was too busy for hugs. Too preoccupied with stress to to bake cupcakes for the school. She parented solo having almost never parented with anyone else for more than 10 years at a time. Mothering was independent. Mothering was duty. Mothering was obligation. My grandmother, who fist fought men at open air street markets, sat on her couch to watch basketball games with her sons, was no Aunt Viv. Mothering by my grandmother didn’t involve a lot of hugs, or kisses, or calls, or well wishes. Mothering was distant but discerning. Mothering was like the weather, it was bad and it was good but it was always there.
Those few times I saw my grandmother address motherhood it was always as an obvious state a woman would enter in. Like an inescapable disease. You’d better prepare because it was coming. She was neither celebratory nor disappointed about the next generation’s motherhood. She was just logistical. She was resourceful almost like helping you get out of this bind of motherhood you now were in.
And then there were my cousins. My cousins. Who were almost all better looking, much better dressed, and almost always smarter than I was. I saw many of them enter motherhood in their early teens. Secretively until it was obvious. I witnessed them enter motherhood with love as a condition often sacrificing their spirit for young boys who weren’t worthy. I saw them enter motherhood through rage, or poverty, or a lack of education, or an unhealthy disconnection with reality in the way that many people stereotype “Black” motherhood. I saw their singleness become scrutinized publicly through the stares of the women at church, by the hissing of the clerks in the welfare office, and by the young professionals zipping pass them on the bus stop. Motherhood was dressing children up in the latest fashions. Motherhood was arguing with other girls who were pregnant by the father of your kids. Motherhood was during high school. Motherhood was finding a babysitter and hustling. Motherhood just was…
Then there are the television mothers that I came of age with. The re-runs that fixtated this caricature of the infamous, incomparable, do everything Black mother: Claire Huxtable. The equitable, but funnier better half to the ever witty Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show. The mother of 5. Lawyer. Dual language speaker. Chef. Scholar. Brooklyn brownstone owner. Claire was almost never stressed. She was almost never searching through envelopes to figure out when her income taxes were coming back. I never remember Claire catching Cliff down at another woman’s house, in her car, or number on Cliff’s beeper. She was never counting foodstamp books the way I had seen my mother. Claire was almost always hyper feminine, waist cinched in, and bursting with laughter. She almost always spoke out to Cliff without fear of retribution or homelessness. Claire was a firm mother. She was an art lover, a history teller, a do-gooder and a say-something-er. I saw her then as sassy, educated, beautiful and quite literally respectable. She was aspirational. She was for me, the expectation. I saw motherhood, growing up an avid television watcher, as powerful, feminized and sassy. I quite literally saw her as ideal. But I saw her as fake and untouchable.
And while my 30-something year old self can interrogate how those early images shaped my own mothering practices and my own biases toward motherhood, it is clear that I would not have the capacity to mother if I didn’t learn, love, critique, and dissect those images before me. Apply, un-apply, and reapply different characteristics of each of those examples to my own mothering practices.
It is so funny to look back at how those images shaped me and continue to creep up in not only my conversations around mothering as I practice it today. I think it is so important that as we dissect our visceral reactions to young, single mothers or our exceptionalizing of “having it all” mothers. We should take a step back to understand how our personal relationships with mothers have shaped us. What about the tenacity of my mother can I cultivate? What about the strength of my grandmother can I adopt? What about the endurance of my cousins can I master? What about the sassiness of Claire can I personify? How do we learn from that? How do we unlearn from that? And how do we explore space for new archetypes of mothering to actualize in our own minds?
The journey continues.