#blackparentquotes

I was all set to write something serious tonight, something that would really make us all stop and think. And then something came across my Twitter timeline that had me falling OUT and I just had to share it.

The hashtag was #blackparentquotes.

Sometimes I don’t get Black Twitter hashtags. This one I totally did. I obviously was raised by Black Parents. And I obviously am one. I found myself having heard or having said so many of them, I was simultaneously shocked and amused. Here are mine, that I came up with:

“Get your hands OFF my walls!”

My mother STILL says this. When I was a child, I could NOT understand. I never felt that my hands were dirty. But today – my walls are filthy. Why? CUZ I HAVEN’T TOLD MY KIDS TO KEEP THEIR HANDS OFF THE WALLS! Children have nasty hands. They refuse to use the banister to walk up the steps. As Andrea and I commiserated over Twitter, they act like they can’t stand on their own feet. Why are you leaning?! STAND UP!

[Child says something smart.] “Who you talkin’ to?”

My five-year-old is in this stage now where I say this probably every day. Now, back when I was growing up, this statement was followed by silence, actually waiting for a response. You had betta said, “Nobody,” so the retort would be, “That’s what I thought, cuz I know you wasn’t talkin’ to me like that.” Today, I’ll still say, “Who you talkin’ to?” but I will continue with a talk about being respectful and not talking to me that way. Then I’ll tell him how he should of said what he said. These kids don’t even know…

[Mom on the phone. Child is looking at the mom.] “Why you in my mouth?”

A variant is “Get out of my mouth!” Kids just don’t know how to eavesdrop on phone conversations without actually looking. I learned how to avoid that one quick. I don’t even talk on the phone now. But I do have to shuttle my kids away when I’m trying to have an adult conversation. I get the urge sometimes to say this, but I don’t think they’d get it.

[Mom and child walk into the store.] “Don’t ask for nothin’…”

This was just an ongoing instruction. She didn’t even have to say it.

Child: But [so-and-so’s] mom said they could do it! Mom: “Do I look like [so-and-so’s] mama?”

Nope. You sho’ ’nuff don’t.

“Put some shoes on your feet!”

That was my dad! All the time. I think it was a thing about stepping on something, or catching a cold. But I know it’s the reason  insist on walking barefoot in my house all. the. time. That’s the rebel in me.

“Just wait till we get home.”

I don’t say this. We’ve already had the spanking conversation on this site. Let me just say I have my spoon in the car. No need to wait.

And my favorite (can’t take credit for it though*):

Child: Mommy, can we go to McDonald’s? Mom: You got McDonald’s money?

YES! I say this to my kids ALL THE TIME!! It applies everywhere! “Mommy can we go…” “You got some money?” I try to make it clear to my children at all times that only people who earn money can spend money. They get money sometimes and they have to save some of it and they can spend some of it. But outside of that – naw. It even applies when my son wants to talk about stuff that is “his” – what?? Nope – if you don’t pay any bills in this house, then nothing belongs to you.

What are your favorite #blackparentquotes? Share in the comments!

* i am not a tweet stealer. that ish is not cool.

On Breast Ironing, Date Rape, and other Global Phenomena

I recently read an article about breast ironing, a practice that is increasingly common in Cameroon.  Mothers there, concerned about the early sexual maturity of their daughters, use hot stones to compress the developing breast tissue of their daughters, hoping to curb breast growth and, thereby, the attractiveness of their young girls to men who might impregnate them.  Video accompanying the article featured a girl crying and running away from her mother, who had ironed her breasts before.   At best, the practice physically violates.  At worst, it results in serious mental and physical damage, ranging from permanent physical deformities and burns to negative body image and unhealthy attitudes about sex and sexuality.   Breast ironing, and other practices like it, doesn’t teach girls agency, failing as it does to acknowledge that girls should be taught to make their own decisions about their bodies and exercise choice over whether to engage in sexual activity.  Moreover, breast ironing shames and blames girls for their sexuality, even as it fails to hold men and boys responsible for their role in premature sex and teenage pregnancy.

It’s easy to dismiss the practice as the product of a culturally backward society; not the type of thing that would be done in a “civilized” Western society.  And yet, the themes that underlie the practice in Cameroon are alive and well in American culture.  What else but a refusal to recognize female agency in sexual encounters informs the myopic “no sex before marriage” ethos in the United States, which, when applied under a double-standard—as is often the case, to the disadvantage of young girls—is not only ineffective (thank you, Bristol Palin) but also fails to teach girls how to either make well-informed decisions about their bodies or regulate the physical interactions that can lead to sex?

What else but a cultural exemption for men from sexual responsibility could be informing the lectures given to female college freshmen about how to prevent sexual assault: (1) never leave your drink unattended; (2) do not drink excessively in the company of men; (3) always go out in groups with other females, etc.  Where, in all of this, is the list for young college men?: (1) do not put something in somebody else’s drink, ever; (2) do not mix sexual encounters with alcohol; (3) if there is any confusion at all as to consent, cease all sexual activity immediately.  Lest we be fooled into thinking that men already know this, the evening news regularly reminds us that even grown-ass American males do not understand that coercive circumstances should never serve as the backdrop for sexual engagement (thank you, Ben Roethlisberger).

In the end, it is women and girls who are left suffering the consequences of cultural norms that frame sex as not only strictly for male pleasure, but also exclusively initiated at the behest of men, while placing responsibility for the sometimes negative consequences of sex strictly with females.  Unfortunately, the effects of these norms go beyond mere unplanned pregnancy, extending into abused and shattered female minds and bodies, at home and all around the world.

Politics of Black Hair

When rocking my daughter to sleep, I often spend time delighting in the patterns her hair makes on her head.  Like many people, her curl pattern is not uniform; it’s looser in the front and top, creating a soft crown of hair that I love to touch.  The hair in the back is more tightly wound, creating beautiful coils that dot her scalp.  The hair on the sides gently fan out in little waves, framing her tiny ears.

When I take her out in public, however, I sometimes forget to see the beauty of her hair, scanning as I am for the disapproval of others.  I find myself apologizing for the lint that her curls tend to trap.  If she’s just come from her father’s care, I interrogate him: “did you brush it before you left?!?”  In response to suggestions that her hair is short, I tensely explain, “it is growing; it’s just curly, so you can’t tell.”  The well-intentioned offers by relatives to “cornrow it so that it can grow” do not help.  In response, my back stiffens, and I plaster a smile on my face: “oh no; she’ll never sit for that.”

And, she won’t sit for it.  My 15-month old doesn’t like to be restrained, and since learning to walk and run, she doesn’t have to be.  But the truth is, I don’t want her hair braided or corn-rowed, because I like her poofy little afro.  Her short hair isn’t bothering her none, and it certainly doesn’t bother me.  My daughter is beautiful every day, whether her hair is long or short, lint-speckled or fresh from a washing, curled tight or billowed around her head like a halo.

I wish I could tell people this.  Tell white folks who have no experience with black hair that her coils are near perfect in their uniformity; that although more complicated to handle, black hair is the most versatile in the world.  Tell black folks who should know better that black hair needs moisture, not grease; gentle detangling, not too-tight cornrows; that every kink, standing for itself, does not have to be brushed out.  I’d like to tell everyone to abandon their obsession with long locks for my girl; stop teaching her at such an early age that she is less beautiful with tightly coiled hair.

But mostly I just smile and nod; it seems like such an uphill battle, and at this point in my life, I’m used to it.  After having worn locs for 2 years, a cousin asked me before I got married, “you’re gonna perm your hair for the wedding, right???”  When I go to the salon to get my hair re-tightened, the other stylists insist on standing near my chair, staring at my hair, and asking inane questions like “how does it stay???” Just yesterday, I thumbed through the pages of Essence magazine, and found not one article on natural hair care.  There was no end, however, of articles offering maintenance tips for chemically straightened hair.

I don’t begrudge other women the opportunity to make hair choices that are right for them.  But it saddens me that my family and friends don’t always appreciate the beauty of textured hair.  I don’t understand how you can be a licensed hair stylist but have absolutely no understanding of the basic mechanics of dreadlocs.  It’d be nice if acknowledgment and celebration of natural hair on black women went beyond a superficial pop-culture fixation on larger-than-life afros and perfectly groomed locs.

Until that day comes, I continue trying to shield my daughter from an onslaught of messages that undervalue her beauty, while navigating an aesthetic landmine of my own.  I’ve been talking about cutting off my locs and rockin’ a short afro for 2 years now, but I can’t work up the courage to do it; it seems I, too, am invested in a white beauty standard that prizes long hair.  Taking scissors to it all, however, just might be what liberates me from all this hair oppression, finally freeing me to delight in my child’s hair–and my own–whether we’re inside the house or out.

WebMD Can Kill You

As anyone with an Internet connection who’s ever wondered about that weird bump on their back, that unfamiliar sensation in their chest or that rumbling in their tummy knows, the one thing you don’t want to do before going to see your doctor is look up your symptoms on WebMD. 

WebMD and similar medical information sites are the opposite of the doctor’s creed: “first do no harm.”  When you type symptoms into these sites, they invariably find the most lethal, life-shortening diseases imaginable.

Thanks to WebMD and its progeny, a few years ago, I thought the benign mass my doctor found during a routine examination would turn out to be an extremely rare and incurable form of bone cancer.  Earlier this year, WebMD had me convinced I was suffering from esophageal cancer.  In the back of my mind, I had already started thinking about contingency plans for the kids’ parenting, whether or not my life insurance was paid up, etc. 

It turned out I had a small stomach ulcer that was completely cured with a few weeks of medication and sensible eating.  That episode also cured me of self-diagnosis via WebMD.

Apparently, I should have passed the lesson down to my daughter.

On the first day of school last week, my 13 year-old daughter rushed me at the door as soon as I got home.  “Mommy, I got a fever at school!”

I felt her forehead.  She felt mildly warm, but nothing alarming. “Umm-hmm. Did you take anything?”

“No.”

“Take some Advil.” 

She scowled at me, clearly annoyed that I wasn’t fawning over her.

There was no school for the rest of the week because of Rosh Hashanah.  I knew whatever was causing this mild temperature spike would be over in time for school on Monday.  She, of course, was not so convinced.

The next day, she again announced that she had a fever.  Not enough of a fever to cause her to cancel plans with her best friend, nor enough to choose to stay home instead of seeing Wicked with me.  It was just enough of a fever for her to demand peppermint tea from Starbucks before the show and to try to get me to run down and buy her concessions during the show’s intermission. 

I agreed to the peppermint tea, but refused the snacks.  WebMD didn’t say Twizzlers can help reduce a fever or soothe a sore throat. 

“You don’t care that I’m sick!” was the not-unexpected response.

The next day, she announced, “Mom, I have strep throat.”

“Really? And this is based on….”

“I looked up my symptoms, and I have all the symptoms of strep.”

I felt her forehead.  Not even slightly warm this time.  “You don’t have strep.”

“Why not?”

“For one, you don’t have a fever anymore.  This isn’t strep.”

“Mom, I’m really sick!  You have to take me the doctor!”

I wanted to laugh, but didn’t.  WebMD strikes again, I thought.

Being the unsung dramatic actress that she is, my daughter did not let the strep thing go until I finally agreed to take her to her pediatrician.

The nurse checked her temperature (normal), ears (uncongested) and throat (slightly reddish but otherwise unremarkable), and then asked, “So what’s been going on with you?” 

My daughter began reciting the list of symptoms of strep throat from WebMD.

 “Okay, honey, but is that what’s going on with you?”

“Yes!”

The nurse took a throat culture.  We waited the required five minutes for the results.

“Good news!  It’s not strep.  There’s a nasty throat virus going around, but it typically clears up in about 3-5 days, which is about where you are now.  So you should be able to go to school on Monday.”

I shook my head.  It cost me $55 for the doctor’s office to confirm the “nothing’s wrong with you” diagnosis that I had made in my living room.  My daughter felt vindicated by the mention of “throat virus.”  I thought of my mother, who would have blown sulfur powder down her throat and made her drink two tablespoons of cod liver oil.

I gave my daughter the “don’t self-diagnose using WebMD” speech afterwards, but I don’t hold out much hope.  After all, she’s a kid with an Internet connection and access to a site that helps reinforce her belief that she’s much smarter than Mom.  I just hope she doesn’t self-diagnose herself into hospice care before she makes it out of 8th grade.

Growing Up Too Fast

I was in the car with my 10 year old daughter listening to a segment on a morning radio show in which a listener asks the host for advice. In this particular letter the listener was a young lady who was in an abusive relationship, had been taken advantage of as a pre-teen.

I took it as an opportunity to discuss a few things with my daughter; first & most importantly she will NOT be dating anyone at age 12 (as had the young lady who wrote the letter). Secondly, if she ever, at any age, found herself in a position where a man was hurting her physically then she was immediately to tell someone. Perhaps the subject matter was a little strong for a 10 year old, perhaps not. I need her to know that there is no reason to ever be physically abused by someone. I needed her to know today and forever that that is the case.

As a person who was in a violent relationship it is especially important to me that women and girls understand that there is no normalcy, no rationalizing and no expectation that they be understanding or patient in these situations. Make a plan and GET OUT.

Things I didn’t discuss with my daughter but need some attention:

  1. Why is a 12 year old allowed to be alone with a high school boy?
  2. How do you have 4 children before age 23?
  3. What kind of people allow a 27 year old man to date a 12 year old? I don’t care how young he looked and how old she looked, somebody knew how old they actually were and should have said something!
  4. As a community, how can we make it clear what is acceptable to us, for our children. It seems that shame is non-existent these days

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this topic; how you have addressed or plan to address the issues brought forth.

Related links:

RAINN Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

Love Is Respect – National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline

Color Her Gone

The instructor of my “Home With Baby” class likes to tell us that breastfed babies are “color me gone;” having been properly nurtured at the breast, they eagerly run off to explore their environment, checking in with mom only momentarily before heading off again.  This week my daughter started crawling, and she is definitely gone!  Previously having been content to be held and carried around the house, she is now perpetually squirming in my arms, wanting to be placed on the floor.  Once down, she quickly moves away from me, off to examine some new corner of the room.  While I don’t believe that breastfeeding is a requirement for raising a “properly nurtured child” (whatever that means!), I do believe that one of our first tasks as parents is to create with our children bonds so stable and secure that they develop the courage to head out into the world without us.  Having cultivated that courage through nurturing, our second task is to let them go.

At only 9 months into motherhood, I know it’s too early to start writing overwrought pieces about letting my baby go.  But the truth is that I’ve been letting her go in small ways almost every single day, although figuring out when to do so isn’t always easy.  My daughter’s first solid food was Cheerios cereal.  In the beginning, she couldn’t eat them without assistance; they would stick to the palm of her hands, or she would drop them on the way to her mouth.  She would become frustrated, sometimes crying and pulling her hair.  It broke my heart to see her so discouraged; my stomach literally turned in knots. And so, when she started to cry, I quickly picked up a Cheerio and placed it in her mouth.  But eventually, I had to stop helping, leaving her to independently develop the killer pincer grasp she uses to accurately pick up the cereal today.  I had to let her be—had to let her go—so that she could discover her capabilities by herself.  A few weeks ago, she started trying to pull herself up into a standing position.  Her frustration again presented itself and in response, I obligingly placed her in the upright position she desired.  Again, however, I had to let her go.  Last Thursday, I walked into her room after she had woken from a nap to find her standing at the railing of her crib.  The smile on her face as she watched me enter the room made it clear that my delight at her mastery of this skill was matched only by her delight in having realized that she was capable of the mastery on her own.

This process—this letting go in small, but regular, intervals—can only end in heartbreak for me.  My husband and I already joke about the tears we will both shed when we head home after dropping her off at college for the first time.   We dramatically envision watching her image grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror as we drive further and further away.  We imagine that it might take us days, even weeks (but not too many weeks), to fully embrace the return of the freedoms we gave up 9 months ago: going to the movies or eating at a restaurant on a whim; watching TV late into the evenings, with no threat of a 3AM feeding; sleeping as late as we’d like on Sunday mornings.  And yet, we throw ourselves completely into the process anyway.  We hold her, and kiss her, and rock her to sleep at night.  I go to her if she does wake at 3, and sing and nurse her back to sleep, waiting until she is completely limp to place her in her crib.  I don’t force her to engage with people with whom she doesn’t want to engage.  I expose her to new places, new noises, new people, all while holding her, waiting for her to ask to be put down.  Her father’s is the first face she sees in the morning; mine is the last face she sees at night.  To the best of our abilities, we try to show her that she is secure with us; that despite the turbulence she may encounter in the world, there will always be peace in our arms.  She is now taking off without us, barely casting us a glance over her shoulder as she crawls across the room after an object that has caught her interest.

Sometimes when I’m playing with her on the floor or in the rocker, my daughter uses my body to pull herself up.  Once standing, she clumsily throws her arms around my neck.  Usually, she is after an object behind me, or eager to touch the cushion on the back of the chair.  Every once in a while, however, she lays her head in the crook of my neck, and becomes still.  I quickly wrap my arms around her, for I know the moment will not last long.  I breathe in her sweet baby smell, and try to hear the message I believe she is conveying to me: “don’t worry mommy; I’m always leaving you, but I am never really gone.”  And just like that, a second later, she is off again, exiting my arms as quickly as she entered them.

Raising Princess

I want to raise a child with character. I want my child to lead a life of service. I want my child to be of substance, to make a difference, to resonate with humanity during her time on this earth.

 Except my child is five.

 She wants to play princesses. She wants to dress up. She’s curious about high heels and makeup. And she’s so worried about disappointing me. I can see it in her eyes as she waits to see how I will react to her admiring one of those princesses, the ones she knows mommy can’t stand. And so I catch her watching for my approval (or disapproval) and I catch myself trying to twist my face to hide my dismay, to act like I’m okay with the blonde busty princess with the big gown and tiara, the one who obsesses about finding herself a prince and not much else. Both of us doing this dance, for the sake of the other.

“My mommy doesn’t like princesses,” I overhear her telling a friend recently.

“Why?” my friend asks. My ears perk up.

“Because she thinks they’re vain and shallow.”

I groan inside. I’ve done it! I’ve ruined the magic of princesses for my five year old. I’ve screwed up her childhood. She will be on some therapist’s couch in twenty years.

Later that night, I tell her I don’t dislike all princesses. I like some of them, the ones who do things for others, who are kind, who try to do service. I make a big deal out of the new Disney princess. I highlight the fact that she works so hard, that she has character and stands on her principles. “See? Mommy likes some princesses.”

I’m struggling! I’m struggling with trying to balance the whimsy of childhood and the need to teach character and spiritual qualities early on. I’m afraid that if I wait too long, it will be too late. I look around and see cause for alarm. I see girls bombarded night and day with images of women as sexual objects.  I see pre-teen girls wearing things I would expect to see on a thirty year old. I see women being rewarded for scandalous, immoral behavior. I see twelve and thirteen-year-olds whose milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. This makes me lose sleep.

I was no saint myself. I was no girl scout. But it seems like the situation has become dire for our little girls. They’re under assault, both explicitly and otherwise. They have become the playthings of the ignorant and they are cast in that role from an earlier and earlier age. And no matter how hard you work to stay on message, eventually they go to school. They make friends. Maybe some of those friends’ parents aren’t so bothered by the same things that bother you. Maybe during a play date, while you’re in the kitchen making lunch, you suddenly hear your daughter’s little friend teaching her some song about her “lovely lady lumps.” You feel a panic attack coming. You do your yoga breath to calm down.

And later that night you pray for guidance and wisdom … and balance.