Birthday Cards, Child Abuse, Damsel-in-Distress Syndrome, Denial, Domestic Violence, Grinding Poverty, Limited Choices, Mama's Boy, Maurice Eugene Washington, Misogynoir, Mom, Mother-as-Best Friend, Mother-Son Relationship, Systemic Racism
This has been a month of months, teaching three classes at two different universities with two very different models for their everyday operations. Not to mention, another Al Jazeera article taking up my time, working on my latest “book” idea, and so many familial and parental events to attend and issues to address. Where did I have the time for all this when I worked full-time in the nonprofit world? Oh yeah, that’s right — I didn’t have the time for all this back then!
But this October’s also been a historic month. Forty years ago, my Mom married my one-time stepfather Maurice Washington. Thirty years ago, I broke free from my Mom’s mantra of practicality and from being first-born son/mama’s boy/younger brother/friend/husband substitute when I changed majors from computer science to history at the University of Pittsburgh. I still feel that becoming a historian has been a mixed blessing over the years. My retirement account and bank account think so as well.
And of course, there’s today, my Mom’s 71st birthday (Happy Birthday, Mom!). I’ve written plenty about Mom on this blog over the years. Lots of what I’ve written has been in the negative, and even eye-opening to me at times. My relationship with Mom has always been complicated, because our respective lives together were hard and horrible, with few moments of joy in between. There were so many moments of boredom, of wishing for a prosperity that never came, along with stacks of violence and threats of violence. Mom was abusive and vain, could be caring and defiant, and was prayerful and profane, all while I was growing up.
So when I say I love Mom, but I don’t like her, I hope it’s something folks can understand, even relate to. Mind you, this isn’t an expectation, because I write often for two people: myself, and that random person one of my posts might help. But in the past few months, on this issue, my friends and Twitter folk have let me down a bit. At least two people I’ve gotten to know pretty well have told me that to discuss my Mom warts and all is a no-go zone. “You can’t be talmabout yo’ mama like that! Hell wrong witchu, boy? That yo’ mama, fool!” Or, the more sophisticated approach: “Your mother is a victim of systemic racism and misgynoir, Donald, so cut her some slack!”
Hmm. It’s funny having folks who otherwise don’t believe in any sacred idols (cows or otherwise) tell me how I should view Mom, as if they were in the same room with me when she beat me with an extension cord at eight years old. Or as if I haven’t spent most of my adult life as a historian and writer involved in understanding human behavior and systems that exploit race, class, gender, sexual orientation in favor of cisgender heterosexual rich White males who feign Christianity as capitalism. Hello! I absolute do get it.
Two things, three things, heck, an infinity of things can be true at the same time, even and especially if they contradict each other. Quantum theory dictates that an electron or some other subatomic particle can be in two places at once and spin in sync with each other at opposite ends of the multiverse. So too it can be true that Mom is a victim of systemic racism, misogynoir, and domestic violence. And it can be equally true that she made some of the most messed up decisions (out of a limited set of choices) a young Black woman with two kids could make in 1978. Including marrying my idiot stepfather, partly in order to “make” me and my older brother Darren “men.”
Folks, if we are to truly understand the people in our lives, we have to grant them the fulness of their humanity. That means acknowledging that the people we love are imperfect, flawed, cracked and broken, maybe even fucked up human beings. That certainly describes me in full, then and now. I think it’s fair to say much of this about Mom as well.
As for whether I love Mom or not, whether I should ever discuss Mom in terms of my growing-up and adulthood times with her or not, it’s really not for anyone to approve or disapprove. After all, so many of you flaunt your wonderful and great relationships with your moms. It’s so sweet and syrupy and sugary and sticky that it’s almost disgusting. How your mama’s your best friend. How folks best be keepin’ your mama’s name outta their mouths before you get ready to throw down. About the oceans of support and love your mamas deluged you with from the moment of conception to this very nanosecond. It’s a truly wonderful thing. I don’t question it, I nearly always applaud it. I also lament it, because even when I thought I had that kind of relationship with Mom, it was in my head, not in reality. That truth hit me harder than a bullet train on its way to Kyoto running at full speed on my PhD graduation day.
And I do love Mom. I do. At times, she did the absolute best she could. Early on, she did tell me she loved me, ever so often. She never wanted the world of racism and evil to hurt me or leave me dead. I’ve long forgiven her for her vanity, her imperfections, and her many, many tragic mistakes as a parent. (Trust me, as a father, I’ve made my own mistakes, but I’ve made a point of always owning up to them.) But I am not God, and with this long memory of mine — usually but not always a blessing — I cannot forget everything that happened on Mom’s watch. Nor can I forget the denials of such from her throughout most of my adult life.
So where am I now? In a state of constant awkwardness on the subject of Mom, especially around her birthday. It’s really difficult to find a birthday card that says “I love you” but doesn’t go into “You’re the greatest, Mom!” or “You’re the reason for every good thing that’s happened in my life” mode. So folks, please just grant me my truth. Just listen without denial, deflection, defense, justification, or excuse. And I’ll promise to keep my envy of your love-enveloping relationship with yo’ moms to a minimum.