By Ylonda Gault Caviness
Often the Look was not particularly stern. Nor scary. In fact, mama’s Look was eerily subtle on its surface. The pain danced on the edges—dangerously jagged, sharp points skirting the axis of her wan expression. It was clear, even to a young child, that just beyond the thin layer of restraint lie a machete-like pierce of pure, unadulterated, extra-strength ambivalence.
The Look rode shotgun with an audible sigh—weary and deep. A pointed and distinctive breath dripping heavily with enough annoyance and discontent to let you know mama was so, so sick and tired of your very existence in that moment. On the exhale, an assiduous listener—like myself—might strain to make out muffled syllables cloaked under exasperated huffs. That’s when her simmering aggravation was given voice—ever so faintly. Soft as a whisper, but laced with aversion, the words escaped her pursed lips “Child, please…”
In other words, “Go someplace and sit down” Child, please said, “Get out of my face.” It meant, “You don’t even warrant the energy it would take to go off on your behind.” For mama, Child, please was also shorthand for: “I’m going to smoke me a cigarette and I want nothing to do with your foolishness.” At that, she’d softly turn on her heels, for a cutting exit. Pure theater. Had we owned velvet curtains they’d have closed dramatically then and there.
We did not.
For the next ten minutes or so I felt like a bothersome speck of lint on her black, bell-bottom pants. Certainly there is an expert out there right now decrying the near-abusive blow to my self-esteem. But don’t give me that noise about kids’ confidence. I’m not trying to hear it. In most households these days, the children could stand to be knocked down a notch or two. Mama’s Child, please, packed a powerful and dramatic lesson. She was tone deaf, but her message held poetic rhythms, like the Queen of Soul chirping: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me! Her Child, please was all about the boundaries mama expected us kids to recognize. In an instant—before she uttered a sound, or even heaved in exasperation, I knew I’d crossed an indelible line.
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. 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 cards. 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”
•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 innocent.
•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 grownup world. If you lay bleeding, someone would probably attend to you. And if you acted out, you definitely commanded notice. But, by and large, grownups 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 laughter.
“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.
Ylonda Gault, @TheRealYlonda, is a longtime family/lifestyle editor; mother of three; and author of the highly acclaimed parenting memoir—Child, Please: How Mama’s Old School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself (Tarcher/Penguin), of which the above is an excerpt.