This Child’s Mama

As a vocalist, and a obsessive music devourer, I cannot help but be saddened by the death of Whitney Houston. Even though I generally don’t cry and carry one about the death of someone I didn’t know personally, the death of a major icon is simply jarring. Especially an icon that means so much to something you love.

It’s been particularly unsettling to see all the images and videos of Whitney alive. Although who she’d become in more recent years is not the way many of us want to remember her, all the images speak to a simple fact: she was once here and now she isn’t. And so despite the various images of Whitney Houston that have flooded through the media and internets since her passing on Saturday, there is another image that I simply can’t get out of my mind.

That’s Bobbi Kristina, Whitney’s 18 year old daughter, being rushed to the hospital in the day or so after her mother’s death.

Let me say that I do not know the pain of losing a parent, especially losing a mother, although I know some of our writers and readers do. Two good friends both recently lost their mothers and their grief is palpable. But it is an unimaginable event to me.

But I do know that even the notion scares me at 31, so the terror of that feeling at 18…I do know what it feels like to be hopeless, to be shrouded in doubt and anxiety. I can only imagine what it means to lose your rock in the world, the person who makes you make sense.

We’ve watched, from the periphery, Bobbi Kristina grow up. We’ve seen the dysfunction of her parents’ relationship. We’ve seen both of her parents seemingly self-destruct in front of our eyes. But we don’t know her. We don’t know her pain.

But what we should know if that more than a pop idol, more than a sometimes media disaster, Whitney Houston was this child’s mama.

I hope the media can be sensitive to this fact as the story continues to unfold.

 

 

Single Mommy Blues

It seems we mothers spend a lot of time – and ink – talking about how hard it is to be a mother.

Numerous books, parenting blogs and websites are devoted to the topic. On playgrounds and playdates, mothers huddle together and talk about how incredibly difficult this motherhood game really is.

And yet the voices of some of us mothers mostly remain unheard.

The point of this post is not to compare notes to see which moms have it worst. Mothering is hard. It’s hard whether you’re single or married, whether you’re successfully co-parenting with a cooperative ex, or doing it all by yourself, whether you have the help of a village or only the help you are able to pay for.

But I want to talk about the special hardships faced by single mothers who are doing it alone. Really alone. Without the help of a reliable spouse, co-parent, or a network of friends or family members who pitch in whenever possible.

For several years after my divorce, I sacrificed having a personal life for the sake of my kids. Weekends were consumed by soccer, gymnastics, baseball, softball, tennis, golf, ice skating – you name an activity, we probably tried it. Dating? Hah! I wasn’t ready. Focusing on the kids was a great way to avoid thinking about how badly I’d flubbed the whole “picking the right partner” thing.

I didn’t become SuperMom because I wanted to. I did it because I lacked an alternative. I live in New York City. My family is in Michigan. My ex-husband was – and is -absent and uninvolved.

I had the help I was willing to pay for. I paid full-time rates for part-time babysitters to ensure I had someone to pick the kids up from school and care for them on half-days and school holidays. The extra expense killed my budget, but my work schedule was too demanding to enable me to rely on afterschool programs.

Recently, I tried co-parenting with my ex-husband, an experiment that now seems short-lived. His last overnight visit with the kids was New Year’s weekend. He is too unreliable to keep a regular visiting schedule, and I don’t have the energy to deal with the litany of excuses.

Although single parenting would be tough even if I worked at home, my demanding executive job makes the juggling even more difficult. Plus, in addition to my day job, I do speaking enagements and lectures. I write, for this blog and others, on my own time.

I even finally started dating again.

The writing, the dating, the lecturing, and some occasional exercise are things I do for myself. But they take away from the time I spend with my kids. I can no longer devote every weekend to their activities. And I feel incredibly guilty about it.

For example: my son is a natural baseball talent. Yet I don’t have time to take him to a baseball coach to work on his skills. I don’t have time – or a good enough pitching/throwing arm – to take him to the park and help him work on his catching, fielding and hitting. I haven’t found time to have him try out for a travel team – and even if he did, I’m not sure I would be able to haul him around from game to game.

His father, who played baseball in high school, takes no interest in his son’s baseball development. I get angry about this sometimes, and then I realize being angry is futile.

Well-meaning friends tell me to stop beating up on myself. They tell me to focus on the fact that, all by myself, I have raised smart, independent thinkers who are thriving in some of New York City’s most competitive schools.

I do acknowledge my blessings. But still, I’m tired. So please forgive me for indulging in a bit of whining.

Mothering is hard for all mothers. It is especially hard for us single women who are parenting completely by ourselves. And because we’re so used to doing everything all by ourselves, we don’t ask for help easily. Or always know how to accept it graciously, without constantly thanking the person who agreed to step in for us. Or apologizing for being burdensome.

So if you know a single mom who parents by herself, maybe you can offer her a little help. If your kids are friends, maybe you can offer to pick her kid up from school and host a playdate at your house. Or you can invite her kid to a weekend playdate or sleepover. Let her be the last parent to pick up her child from the birthday party. Because whether she says it or not, she values every single moment she gets to spend by herself. But she may not feel she has the right to ask for that time.

And try not to get too annoyed when she keeps saying “thank you.”

A Mother’s Love

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s passing. She left this earth 3 years ago today. I miss her, really and truly. I get sad as I reflect on the hows and whys of her death (pancreatic cancer at 51). I get sad when I think of the little boy who looks just like her but will never know her. I get sad when I think of all of the trials I have had to go through these past couple of years without the support of a maternal figure.

Thing is, I didnt always feel so warm and fuzzy about my mother. In fact, our relationship was rocky at best. Maybe it had something to do with me being her only child. Maybe my being a girl had something to do with it. I’ve noticed that there is a very unique, often rocky relationship between a mother and her first daughter, usually because the daughter ends up being just like her or the daughter steals the father’s attention. But that isnt what this blog is about. My mother’s issues had nothing to do with me at all, actually.

My mother grew up with two sisters and her parents. Well, my grandfather was sorta there. He had another family, complete with a wife and four other children. Oh, and I’m not supposed to know that. My mother and her sisters grew up with a working mother and a working father they rarely saw (but assumed it was because of work) who had a troubled relationship. He drank, he cheated, he smacked her around, they made up, loved hard, and my mother and her sisters were exposed to all of this dysfunction. They later found out about his other family, but it was under pretenses and untrue explanations.  Couldnt quite legitimize how my eldest aunt and his next oldest child are only about 10 months apart in age. Hmmm….

They were also exposed to a predator named “Sully” who did really horrible, nasty things to them. My mother especially, the youngest.  I would write more, as I intended to write a book about their story, but on her deathbed my mother made me promise not to. See my point later about her trying to please people.

Needless to say, my mother’s life was greatly affected by this.  It was also affected by growing up in a religious household and discovering she was not a heterosexual woman. She had little desire to marry a man and have children. In fact, my dad used to date my eldest aunt, and he and my mom were just really good friends (who got high together and whoops, here I am!).  Well, since my families knew each other (my dad’s family operated the local burger joint/candy store), they kinda forced them into a marriage that lasted all of 1.5 years.  Dad kinda bounced (he later returned) so it was just me and mom, mom and me. She had no idea what to do with me, I could tell. I spend about a year living with my grandmother and rarely seeing my mother while she “tried to figure it all out”.  Funny how cyclical life is… eh?

What followed was  years of moving around, staying with this one or that one, struggling to make it, trials and tribulations that my family doesnt even know about. I won’t write them in case they are reading, but my mom and I went through a LOT. She did things, unmentionable things, to make sure I was fed, clothed, and went to school. Finally, things began to settle down for us and I began to feel safer, more secure. 

My mother wasnt a very emotionally expressive person, and until she was on her death bed, I could count on two hands the times I remembered her telling me she loved me.  She was often quiet and withdrawn.  She also tried to please others, especially her family. When they critiqued her parenting styles, she changed to try and please them. When they critiqued her personal life, she tried to accomodate them, denying herself at the same time.  Eventually, that changed when she met a woman that she would go on to spend the rest of her life with… and consequently lose me.

I had no issue with my mother being in a same-sex relationship. I initially had a problem with her hiding it from me. Then, the problem became the woman herself. I won’t give that woman anymore than one sentence to say that she was my “Sully”.

My mother often left me alone with her and my life became a miserable, horrible existence. My mother seemed to finally be happy, so I said nothing. I cried myself to sleep most nights (sleeping on a couch because, well, she had been convinced that I didnt need a bed of my own). My mother had become an activist in the LGBT community, was smiling more, had parties, had friends, she went out dancing and seemed to be alive. Who was I to steal that joy from her when I spent most of my life thinking my existence alone had stolen her chances for happiness. If it werent for me, she could have persued her dream of being a writer, yanno?

So I said nothing.

Then, I heard about going to boarding school and I jumped at the opportunity. I left at 14 and never looked back. I avoided going home for breaks by occasionally staying with friends or staying with my dad. My mom would come to visit me, which was fine when she came alone, which was rare. I was just happy to be on my own, away from that house. I guess she could tell I was pulling away from her, but she chalked it up to me becoming more independent. I began smoking, drinking, using drugs, and at 16, became sexually active.

I told her the week before she died that I got pregnant at 16 by a man who was 24. She’d had no idea.

I was still brilliant so I did well in school. I involved myelf in all types of activities. Held various leadership roles. Even won an award for all of my contributions to the community. I went on to attend an Ivy League university where I did just as well. School became my escape. I enjoyed drama clubs and writing because I could escape from my life. I was as happy as one could be, I guess.

July 2001, my mother was in an accident so severe, she was no longer able to work. She sued and won a nice chunk of money. I received just enough to pay off my tuition. Why? Someone convinced her I didnt deserve or need any of it. That same someone spent most of it.

October 2005, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 6 months to live. February 2006, I find out I’m pregnant. October 2006, she bears witness to her first grandchild being born. April 2007, she was tired of fighting and decided it was time.

From October 2005 until April 2007, I connected with my mother in a way that I’d never been able to do before. I stopped caring about hurting her feelings. I let go of a lot of the anger and resentment, the same feelings that propelled me to greatness and fueled my desire to succeed. I focused on caring for her and beinging a new life into the world. We talked… a lot. She revealed, I revealed. It was healing in many ways. She apologized a LOT. She cried a LOT. I forgave a LOT.

And then she was gone.

And for the last three years, all I’ve been able to think of is why did I wait until she was dying to do this? Why did I hold so much in? Why couldnt I have been honest? I didn’t want to hurt someone I felt had been hurt enough in her life. I didnt want to be any more of a burden than I always felt I was.

But, like any child, I loved my mother and I just wanted to please her. I wanted her to be proud of me.  In her own ways, I know she was, even if it was hard to express it. She did, at the end. Every word I’d wanted to hear growing up, I heard those last months. So, I know she loved me. And as I’ve struggled with a failed marriage, depression, and being a first time mother, all I’ve wanted was my mommy. Here I am, again, crying myself to sleep at night.

I just needed one more year… just one.

My Marriage To Jesus

“Today, you’re marrying Jesus.”  Spoken to me in Kreyol by Granny, my caregiver, those words could only mean one thing: a Haitian First Holy Communion was about to commence.  Most Haitian Catholics make a big deal of Communions, and my mother was no exception.  On the day of the Sacrament, I wore a brilliant hand-made white dress so intricately detailed with lace, white beads, and chiffon, that it could only appropriately be described as a mini wedding dress.  Topped off with a white veil, attached to a crown of flowers, I was the most ornately dressed girl in my Communion class.  After the ceremony, my mother threw a party for me at our house.  So large was the crowd that preparation of the traditional Haitian dishes that would be served to our guests—lanbi, griyo, diri kole, banan peze, pen patat—began several days in advance.  I ran around the yard with the other children, while my parents and their guests talked, laughed, and danced the night away.  And because no Haitian Communion celebration is complete without First Holy Communion party favors, the hand-made white-chocolate lollipops (in the shape of the Eucharist, and of praying hands), candy-covered almonds wrapped in squares of white lace, and white lapel pins, all bore a ribbon with my name on it—“My First Holy Communion.”  Marrying Jesus, indeed.

Years later, my marriage to Jesus went the way of many American marriages: we separated.  The day a Catholic priest advised me, and the congregation of mostly working-class Blacks, that John Kerry’s stem-cell research platform transformed a vote for him into a sin that must be confessed was the last time I set foot in a Catholic church.  The day a Baptist pastor running a “New Members” class suggested to the participants (also made up, primarily, of working-class Blacks) that we weren’t meant to enjoy work was the last day I set foot in a Baptist church.  The hypocrisy of the former (so, Bush’s death-penalty stance did not similarly convey a disregard for life?), and the classism of the latter (what, only wealthy Whites got to pursue fulfilling careers?) have led me to avoid organized religion in general.  I am now, however, the mother of a 7-month old baby; and not to be too cliché, but the development of her spirituality weighs heavily on my soul.

My mother didn’t stop with a First Holy Communion; she enrolled me in religion classes that ultimately led to my making the sacrament of Confirmation.  Her persistence ensured not only that I understood the tenets of Christianity, but also that I have a store of beautiful memories associated with Christianity, no matter how estranged I am from the religion today.  I remember releasing into an Easter Sunday sky helium balloons, stuffed with scrolls bearing the message: “He Is Risen.”  I remember playing hand bells at Christmas; I remember attending midnight mass.

Today, I do not believe in the things that human beings, in our limitations, make God out to be—racist; sexist; homophobic; classist.  But I do believe in God, and so it’s important to me that my daughter also develops an understanding of something that is bigger than her; that she cultivates faith in a Higher Power that is guiding her life.  The academic in me wants her to have an understanding of the doctrinal underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian religions.  The mother in me wants her to develop her own cache of warm memories, reminding her of her special relationship with God.  But memories are not reason enough to expose her to those teachings I find so unacceptable in most religious institutions.  And so, I find myself unsure of how to proceed.  Is it time to join a church, if only for her sake?  Will I be cheating my daughter out of important cultural experiences if we don’t return to organized religion?  Are there other ways for us to teach her to be grateful for the gift of her life, a gift that surely comes from a Higher Being?

I don’t know how we will answer these questions, or what lies in store for my relationship with Jesus, but like many marriages going through a separation, it’s often the children that provide the motivation for reconciliation.

sugar and spice

While I now have a great relationship with my mother, it wasn’t always the case. While I know I could always do as Martha is now doing in the case of an emergency, growing up I felt like I had to keep most of who I really was bottled inside. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel like I had the common black girl-black mama relationship with my mother, where children should be seen and not heard, where mothers don’t talk much about sex except to say keep your legs shut, where tears are not tolerated and often met with threats of “shut up that noise or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

At the time, I admit that I felt unloved. It’s strange because on one hand in my head I knew my mother loved me, but in my heart I didn’t always feel it because I had to hold so much of who I was inside. To me, being able to be all that I am, allowed to have that space, is the truest expression of love. And I didn’t have that. I played the good girl all of my childhood. I wasn’t allowed to express anger or any negative emotion, so it all got bottled up as sadness, and eventually, depression. I never got into trouble, except to play in my mother’s makeup, which was a very bad idea, or to lose things, which was even worse because we didn’t have much to lose. At school I eventually learned to rebel in a good girl kind of way, using my intelligence as a weapon against my teachers, constantly challenging them in a way I was never allowed to at home. I would watch the television dramas of white girls yelling and screaming at their mothers, truly believing that if the thought ever crossed my mind, I should probably die because once my mother found out, I would.

But now, I have my own little girl. And let me tell you, she is nothing like me. Or maybe she is everything like me, but not yet “changed” like I was, having had the rebel forcibly removed. She’s two, and terrible. She throws ten minute tantrums when she doesn’t get her way, and she is very particular and specific about what her way is. She does not want her food cut, and insists on eating her food hot out the oven with no time to cool off. If cookies are in her line of sight around dinnertime, the tantrum must just run its course before she will even entertain the idea of eating dinner before dessert. Bedtime is sometimes smooth, other times consists of high pitched yells of nonsense for upwards of 30 minutes. She prefers her curly afro and resists the comb, but she likes to look “pretty” with ponytails and oftentimes demands it. She will kick and hit her brother if he bothers her or takes her toys, and if that doesn’t work, a high pitched scream will do the job. Once she’s done being spicy, then its all sugar again, and the baby in her comes back, all hugs and kisses.

When I see this in her, I’m amazed. My mother laughingly says that I was never like her, and I almost believe it. I say almost because on the inside, I’m a lot like my daughter. I get indignant at the smallest slight, believing that people should treat others nicely and getting angry when they don’t. I like things a particular way; I spend a good amount of time getting things in order the way I like them before I can start doing any other productive work. People tend to like me, I can be sweet and am a good girl, but I am also spicy and people tend to be intimidated by me because I am sharp and opinionated and rarely back down. I will argue about anything and everything.

But as a child, I was nothing like my daughter. But I hope my daughter will be nothing like me. As much as sometimes I have to tell my husband to remove her from my presence (like last night when she threw a cup of water off the table because she wanted juice – yeah, not a good look for her), I want her to maintain her feisty-ness, even as a child. She will have to tone it down, but of course she’s only terribly two. I like that she feels comfortable challenging me – I was never allowed to have a separate opinion, or to be angry, or to truly express being sad. I want her to know that it’s okay to have a full range of emotions, even as a child. I don’t want her to bottle up anything. She’ll need to learn appropriate ways of behaving – throwing water ain’t one of them – but that all emotions are okay, not just the good ones.

I want her to know that she really is sugar and spice and both things are nice.