As I moved out of my parents’ home to start a new chapter in Harlem, it could not have been more clear to me that my mother (all mothers? all women?) is incredibly selfless. And that without her being so selfless, I could never be as care-free as am I. An entitlement I enjoy as a male. Even more so as a black male in a world that finds my black skin and presence threatening.
My perception of my mother has shifted as I’ve grown from an intellectually curious child to a faux rebellious teenager to an adult. While she has changed some, I’ve thought of her as loving nurturer, benevolent dictator, less benevolent dictator (teen years), empty nest mother who needs to really chill out and finally as a heavily burdened woman.
I remember the first time I thought of my mother as “burdened by womanhood” was when she told me about a trip she, my father and my niece had taken to an amusement park. I remember having an incredible sense of frustration as she told me the path they took to get home, an extended journey that made little logical sense. My mother and I have a very honest relationship and are so similar that I plainly asked her:
“Why are you such a smart woman who loves logic, but would take a route that adds an hour to your time?”
Her response was that my father insisted they go that direction and that it would be faster (it wasn’t). Still unsatisfied I probed further, asking her why she continues to listen to someone less logical than her in most cases when time and/or money is involved. She replied, “Your niece seemed to be having a good time and I didn’t have anywhere else to be. It was fine.”
Much later on, we revisited that conversation and I asked her why she does such illogical things. I know this sounds harsh, but to know my relationship with my mother is to view two sides of a coin arguing over which side is worth more (knowing full well, the value is of the two sides together and that it is equal). We debate as a means of communication and sit in silence or aggressive nodding where we agree — on most things.
It was in that follow up conversation that I apologized to my mother for not understanding her behaviors and actions. I truly didn’t understand how a woman who so strongly pushed me to be logical at all times had suddenly forgotten all of the lessons she so painfully taught me time and again. It simply boiled down to my mother putting herself last with nearly everyone. She would endure less healthy family ties to make sure a falling out never impacted her children. She would “go with the flow” knowing fully that she was in the right in nearly every matter to preserve my father’s sense of manhood or the masculinity of other men in my family. But she had strategically been playing a game I suspect most (if not all) women must play. Masculinity is fragile; women in a mix of selflessness and self-preservation avoid trampling on the male ego.
It was not until I was a young adult living away from home that I could more critically see all of what she had been sacrificing for me all these years. The weight that she bears as a mother for her two children and grandchildren is something I find unbearable. I would regularly ask “why don’t you just cut toxic people out of your life?” She never really gave me a full answer usually and it took me more years that it should have to figure out why. My mother is a real tiger mom that is so protective of her cubs she will place herself last every single time to ensure their safety and well being. She will take the poison to spare her children and do it a million times. From the time I realized this until I moved back home, I had been living my last year pre-HBS in NYC and then left for my two-year program.
Make no mistake: my mother is strong. I learned how to be strong from her and how to be outspoken and opinionated across many domains.
The spark for this post was when I travelled around Europe on my very last jaunt abroad before working. Her complete discomfort with my traveling over the past two years is something she had little “reason” to worry. Until Turkey. There was an airport bombing while I was in London, but before I was headed to Cappadocia and Istanbul. She waited for me to contact her about my plans — “I was waiting for you to say something” — because she puts my preference for privacy above her own interest in keeping me safe. I had travelled to dangerous places before, I lived in NYC and other cities with pockets of danger and I was raised to have street smarts. I was good.
I went to Turkey, I shared my communication plan with her in case things became dangerous, yet all the while I was not very worried. I was care-free.
Then a few days after I returned we had our usual argument about trivial things And then there was the attempted coup in Turkey. I finally realized that being a parent is not just stressful because it’s expensive or that kids are not always grateful; additionally, selfless parents carry the stress of their children’s stress. My mother was so elated to have me home and safe, she both said it a million times and showed by doing “illogical” things. While at the mall she asked what I wanted from the food court after she had just driven me to get food that I ate in the back of the car on the way to the mall. The cloud of maternal care and selflessness disorients my mother nearly every day.
But what’s the point of all of this?
Mothers bear a burden that fathers (often) do not bear. The weight of being a woman is incredibly heavy. The weight of being a sister or living daughter is heavy. The weight of being a parent is incredibly heavy. The weight of it all is incredible. I don’t think we should be content with women shouldering the significant burdens of parenting. Nor should we be okay with misogynist structures in our society that disempower women. Men (sons) need to ensure that we are better than the men who came before us. It is not okay to have a mother you love dearly because of how much she does for you and not raise your sons as you would your daughter. Sons need to value women and strive for equality.
For me, it’s a priority to check other men on their privilege. I now know that I would not be this care-free if I did not have a mother who sacrificed so much to make my path frictionless. And it’s important for me to call out what women have done to allow men to enjoy the privileges they may take for granted. Furthermore, I am trying to get my mother to be more selfish. It’s time for her to stop catering to me and others. Slowly but surely, we are working towards a path where she can be comfortable and free of guilt for putting her needs over anyone else’s.
I would strongly encourage all children to talk to their mothers about what they prioritize as it relates to you. Don’t ask them about sacrifices because they don’t see it that way. And don’t call it a burden because that’s an awkward thing to say. But do ask them.
And ask them what you can do to be a better child to make their life easier.