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My own kids? Hmmm … they sort of get the whole boundary thing, but
it's not quite as reflexive as I'd like. For example, they sometimes butt into
grown-folks' conversation—as modern children are wont to do. And then have the
nerve to give me a look of puppy-dog confusion when I call them on it. I am
forced to remind them: "Dude I dared not even look in my mother's direction
when she was talking to her friends; your head is jogging back and forth like
you're checking a match at Arthur Ashe Stadium." Honestly, they are better than
most. Usually they try to control
themselves, but the fact is, kids today harbor the illusion that they are our
equals. They fancy themselves smarter, shorter adults—less keys and credit
Back in the day, mothers didn't suffer the mess we put up with
now. Of course, the culture as a whole was far more stringent. No one I knew
was unfamiliar with the sting of a belt across their backside. Beyond that
though, we didn't take our parents' attention—or their affection—for granted.
I, for one, wanted mama's approval. And it was clearly a prize not
easily won. Mama loved us. Of that my siblings and I had no doubt. But we also
knew she wasn't necessarily in love
with us—at least not just because.
There was no cheering our descent down the slide. She didn't hang
with clusters of moms at the playground like infatuated groupie spectators
squealing from the stands. Nor did she gush over our every stick figure drawing
and plaster them all over the house. Like everyone else's mother, my mom was
happy and sufficiently enthused when we won a spelling bee or some such
achievement, but she wasn't hanging on our words or asking, "You okay?" all the
time. I'm pretty sure we took up no more of her energy than was necessary.
Without saying so, she let us know we kids could sometimes rock her world, but
we couldn't be her world.
That's why mama observes my generation of mothers with befuddled
amusement. She concedes, of course, that times have changed: We mothers have
more complicated lives and our kids face far more dangers. Still, the
self-flagellating, all-consuming obsession to raise a child in a fashion akin
to a recipe-perfect soufflé is mind-blowing to her. And it's no wonder.
Mothering as an extreme sport is a world far removed from her own
sensibilities. When I stop to think about how my friends and I live, here are
just some of the ways we differ from old-school motherhood:
· Mama didn't run out of the house—as I
often do—wearing ill-fitting clothes and no lipstick.
· She didn't fret about how well I did
in school, how easily I made friends or how good I was in music lessons. (Wait…
Oh, that's right. I didn't have music lessons.)
· Mama never hired a babysitter.
· She didn't know of, consider, or care
about child-friendly explanations for life's difficulties. "Well. Your Uncle
Dave decided to blow his brains out" sufficed.
· She never let our displeasure get in
the way of her good time, dancing the Funky Chicken till her legs tired,
oblivious to our tears from embarrassment.
· Mama didn't pencil in "girlfriend
time": she relished hours-long, impromptu chat fests whenever Aunt San or Sugar
decided to drop by the house.
· She threw parties at the drop of a
hat and took full advantage of our free labor, putting us to work making the
deviled eggs and cream cheese celery sticks. (We loved every minute—especially
those times Jimmy Mo' got drunk.)
· She seldom took our side in a
misunderstanding or report of misconduct. If a neighbor, teacher or any other
grown-up accused us of wrongdoing, we were presumed guilty until proven
· Mama never played shrink. Her lips
never formed words like: "Tell me about it" or "How did that make you feel?"
· Mama wasn't studying us.
As kids we accepted this reality. It was neither harsh nor
troubling; rather, it seemed the natural order of things. As a child you knew
you didn't matter all that much in the grown-up world. If you lay bleeding,
someone would probably attend to you. And if you acted out, you definitely
commanded notice. But, by and large,
grown-ups were not studying kids. I don't mean the academic studying that leads
to a weird analysis, like "Sponge Bob linked to attention deficits" or "Day
care increases aggression in kids." In southern black parlance, studying means "paying attention to."
And lest my siblings and I get any fleeting misapprehension that we figured
into the larger scheme of things, mama was quick to remind us: "Child, I am not studying you!"
As any fool could see, mama had the whole motherhood thing down to
a science. Her ship was tight—so tight she reminded us almost daily, "I'm the
captain; you're the crew."
Through the lens of modern parenting, mama's ways may seem to
border on neglect—given our national obsession with everything child-related.
But they worked. The old-fashioned "not-studying-you" method fostered
independence, self-reliance, and a generation of thinkers and doers—running
circles around our newfangled, expert concepts.
Mama had balance—without really even trying—and without a gaggle
of contrived, self-help tips telling her how to get it. She and her friends
didn't sit around and gab about balance between drags on their cigarettes
saying, "Girrrl, I gotta get me some balance!" They didn't wonder if they spent
enough quality time with us kids. And they damn sure weren't pressed about
finding "me time." The very concept would've sent them into howling spasms of
"Girl, it's all Me Time!
Who else's time is it gon' be?"
People say I'm a lot like mama. Family and friends have always
said I got her smile, her high forehead and cheekbones. Growing up, I was never
able to see what they saw. I figured we looked like we were related, but I
never grasped the "your-mama-spit-you-out!" so obvious to the outside world.
But now, in my 40s, I finally get it. In fact, there are days when a mirror
catches me by surprise and I see her staring back at me. Her mouth. Her stance.
But beyond the physical markers, there are glimpses of her
mama-ness slowly creeping up on me. It is most palpable—for some reason—now
than ever before. Lord knows, my kids have spent the better part of their short
lives trying to work my last good nerve. It's their job, I tell myself. No need
to find the just-right response to: Is this a teachable moment? Do I take away
a privilege? Do I try to empathize?
No. I just take a good, long breath… Child, please.