As a child, the last of seven, I held on to my mother's long house dress and trailed her as she navigated the chaos of the house. Sucking my right thumb and clenching the fabric in my left fist I'd barely keep up with her paces, slowing her down. Not seeing anything beyond her dress, often bumping into her without knowledge of when she would move, stop nor her pace, there was no where else in the house I would rather be.
Although I was born into a crowd of a family, my parents were able to carve out a distinct, personal relationship with me. Perhaps it was because I was the youngest or the most demanding. Somehow in the midst of numerous jobs, immigration to the United States, poverty and other struggles they were able to apply a parenting style to me that they tailored to who I was.
I was not always happy with this style. Especially as a teen, I felt like they had no clue who I was, which may have been true. I don't come from a family that embraces the western, modern, open-communication child rearing-method. The tension of being from such an old-school Guyanese family while growing up in New York led me to feel as though my parents were not authorities. They did not know about or understand half of what I was talking about or dealing with. Their response was to reduce my exposure to anything they could not comprehend or control. Until I left home for college, I was only expected and allowed to go to church, school and the library. I had to fight for the library.
I'm an avid reader. Books transported me to places that I thought I would never experience. They awakened my desire to travel and see the world. The necessary escapism they provided made my situation more bearable. Any teenager in my situation would have been resentful, but with my inquisitive and independent nature, I was livid.
My father made most of the meals. He had a job as a nurse's aid and did overtime often. He cultivated a garden in the back of our house. I would shadow him as he told me stories of his time working in the bush in Guyana. When he could he would walk me to school until embarrassed, I asked him to stop. He would meet me at the corner and we would race home. He valued skill over false encouragement so he would always win. He taught me to laugh at defeat and accept the challenge. He adored me and made it known. I remember him smiling when I entered a room even when I was not pleasant to be around.
My mom was not around often. When we came to the country, she had to start from scratch to get her nursing degree while managing us seven children. After becoming a registered nurse, she went on to work two full time jobs at the same time: 80 hours a week, 40 hours at a state psychiatric hospital, 40 hours at a general county hospital. She left and came home while I was asleep. On her days off, we went to church and entertained. She would cook in huge batches that would take days to eat. She would call when I got in from school and often before I left. All requests would go through her and her answer was often "no". She expected a lot from me, I felt too much.
If I got a B, my father would lavish me with praise. I tutored him to take his certification exams. By the 7th grade I'd surpassed the education that my father had. My mother as not so easily impressed. Somehow I impressed her as a baby, before I could remember. She thought I was a genius that was forever slacking. I don't know about the genius part but I was always slacking. I was too busy figuring out how not to be bored to be ambitious. I could skim through while barely studying. I was always doing well on standardized exams without exception. So well, that I skipped grades. At 16, I graduated high school and went off to college.
Leaving home was bittersweet. My experiences with my parents set a pattern that I could now see following me throughout my young adult life; adoration from men and rejection from women. I did not understand either of my parents but while my father offered me an unconditional, deep, emotional connection, my mother's emotions were a mystery. When unsure of how to motivate me, she withheld affection in frustration leading to me feeling rejected.
I did not feel motivated to maintain consistent contact with my parents for a long time. My father, an amazing letter writer, would write letters extolling how much he was proud of me, loved me and was praying for me. A quite man, he never had much to say on the phone. However my mother, who had often parented me via telephone was well-aware that I was distancing myself. She wanted more access to me. I reacted by setting up conditions for re-engagement, I'd be honest and she would deal. This sounds basic but for a church-lady brought up in some colonial, restrictive, burn-in-hell fashion, this was a huge step. Her approval was her power and I was saying that I did not need it, I just needed her to see me for who I was.
She relented. In those early days of us re-establishing contact I was pretty merciless. I told her every movie I saw even though "the movie house was the devil's house." Every "illicit" thing I did I revealed. This was not an extensive list but I knew it would sound scandalous and hell-worthy to my mom. So I tested her but she kept calling. The result being that at some point I stop trying to shock and send her running and just told the truth. Although the truth was often shocking that was no longer why I told it. I told it because it became a habit, something that my mom and I now did.
She was the first to know when I realized I was bisexual. At some point in our subsequent conversations, I started listing impressive gay people and after a pregnant pause she said "That does not surprise me. Gay people are often very successful." I was shocked and sat silently on the phone. She continued "Satan takes the best and the brightest". I laugh every time I think of that. I started to introduce myself as her "best and brightest" child. That brought humor, the saving grace, into our relationship.
Laughter could illuminate the silliness of some of her beliefs but I accept that she won't change them. My challenge has been to create a loving, accepting relationship with my mom in spite of this.
Having an ambitious mom that expects a lot from you is an epic dilema. One the one hand, your mom does not conform, creates an impossible path for herself and succeeds. On the other hand your mom expects you to conform to her wishes for you, forsaking your own desires to do what she thinks is best. In the movie "Mommy Dearest", these expectations quickly turns to abuse. In the modern day drama of Alice Walker and her daughter Rebecca Walker, a more typical result plays out. Rebecca Walker acuses her mother of allowing her too much independance, not cooking meals while writing novels, prefering Pulitzer Prizes to the PTA and finally, in Rebecca's assessment, being a bad mom. Rebecca Walker has given many interviews and written anecdotes in her memoirs to ensure that her version of this story is aired.
As soon as I heard this, it struck a nerve with me. The things that I, as a teenager saw as unforgivable sins of my mother - not coming to my piano recitals or not being around to talk with me after school, I now see as necessary sacrifices that got us out of the projects and kept food on the table. The much discussed "work-life balance" is not a choice for poor women. Either life is work or there is no life for your children. Granted Alice Walker is not poor nor was she during most of the time she was raising her child. She suffers from the crushing weight of a child's expectations that most mothers have. Each child has an account of how their mother failed. Our judgement of our mothers is harsher that our judgement of our fathers. We expect them to intuitively know and be equiped to give us what we want. We have little patience for mothers who prioritize their careers, even though by doing so, they may be prioritizing their family's survival.