They said I wasn’t maternal.
I was supposed to be the one who traveled the world deeply committed to “the cause” and fully prepared to burn the dynamite at both ends if it meant results for my work. So when, at the tender age of 23, I announced that I was carrying my first child, the reactions were deeply divided – not between right and wrong – but between degrees of wrongness. Some thought it was a terrible “career move” and that I was cutting short what could shape up to be a promising future. Others thought that the man was just all wrong. “He’ll leave you know,” they said. However, what most agreed on was how much they couldn’t see me raising a kid. Me with the occasional bad attitude who had “bacdafucup” tattooed in the corners of my side-eye, me with the flippant mouth and the tendency to let a sailor or two fall out sometimes – in the name of justice of course, me the work-a-holic, who will always get the job done, but may forget to eat or…you know, sleep in the process.
“How you gonna take care of a baby?” was the question that I heard most often.
And I didn’t know.
The fear that I had, like any normal first time mother, was exacerbated by the buzzing undercurrent all around me. “What ARE you going to do?” was the chorus.
And I really didn’t know.
It was all I could do to ask anybody anything, but somehow I managed to ask God. I didn’t have a relationship with Him at the time. “I’m just spiritual” was my canned answer, but really, I was absent. So when I asked questions I didn’t know what to expect or how to expect it. But there, in the midst of the questions and the fear and the confusion and the anxiety, my God introduced me to my baby.
She was calming, she was funny, she was attentive, she was magic. From early on there was connection that made me feel so protective of my child as much as it made me feel so protected by my child.
And then she was born.
It was clear once she was here that I was just a vessel. When she came home elders made comments like “She’s got an old soul” and “You know she’s been here before.” Even now there are few people who meet her that don’t just feel the magic, but also leave with a little fairy dust on their shoulders. When she was four years old and boldly proclaimed that she was not eating meat anymore because of “…how they treat the chickens and the cows mommy” people thought I put her up to it, until they saw me sucking down beef baby back ribs with a side of fried chicken. When she took her love of animals to another level and tried to start a petition in her school to stop cruelty to animals in the third grade, again, they thought it was me. I did teach her to read and write and think. I did introduce her to the concept of justice and injustice – or rather I gave it a name because she had a keen sense for it already. I did nurture her exploration of her identity and I still do. But, I didn’t make her write the poetry, I didn’t ask her to loc her hair, I didn’t even teach her to dance. Not at all. In fact, if I am completely honest with myself (and I am) I can readily admit that I often stand in awe of her. She is different. She marches to the beat of a different drum and she is okay with that. Her convictions, her worldview, her voice – they are not up for compromise. It is what I admire and enjoy the most about my dear child.
As I have watched her grow up, I have grown – and that”s no cliché. I’m a better mother, a better friend, a better communicator, and at least a better woman because she is in my life. I have had to stretch my understanding of humanity and grasp of humility because of her and when that happens there is no turning back.
Once, in the fourth grade a group of girls decided to “jump” her in between classes. It was the final straw in a long line of attacks and bullying that she had to endure all year-long. I was angry at the teachers and the school and the parents, but I was also a little angry at her.
“What is wrong with you!!”? I screamed at her. “Why won’t you defend yourself?” I wanted her one time to just grab one of those little scrawny girls and shake them or punch them or something! I was frustrated with instructing her day after day on how to stand up for herself only to have her come home with yet another story of torment. As I yelled at her, she began to cry and I didn’t care. “You need to defend yourself! Just HIT one of them one day! Why won’t you do that??” I continued to scream. And my sweet baby, looked up at me with her little eyes filled with tears and yelled back, “I just don’t like violence!” It killed me. What was I doing? I had become so consumed with my own past with bullies and violence that I lost sight of who she was – and that was – that she was not me. The following week in school I was called in because she had received a demerit for lingering in the bathroom. When I got to the bottom of the story, my child had stayed behind because a little girl in her class was having an issue with her zipper and didn’t make it to the bathroom. The little girl was embarrassed and needed help getting the zipper down and out of the pants to clean them. It didn’t surprise me that my kid stayed behind to help the child, but it did stun me to find out it was one of the four girls who had jumped her the previous week. “I had to help her mommy,” she told me, “it doesn’t matter what she did before, the kids would have laughed at her and I know what that feels like.” I just shook my head in agreement.
I have raised my girl child, my baby giant up until this point to the best of my ability watching her go from toddling around in her babyGap sweats to stumbling around my house trying to own this 5’8 wonder body she has developed. I shower her with love and affection, but more importantly, I try to understand who she is as an individual. It’s the only way I can parent her and I think it’s the best way. I often deflect praise for how well she is turning out because I feel like I have had so little to do with it. I understand now that thinking that way is both right and wrong. It’s right because she is a gift, like all of our children are, not belonging to me, but to the world. But also, what God gifted me in her was a lighting rod. From her birth until now she has been the thing by which all things in my life are measured. In essence her life raised the bar for my own, as it should. I have worked hard to live up to her expectations because that’s all she had – expectations. Those expectations, even the ones I failed to reach, have helped me to create a standard for myself that I don’t know if I would have reached alone.
Thirteen years ago, today, just days before Thanksgiving, I was formally introduced to the most energetic, effervescent, sensitive, brilliant, magnanimous, poetic, talented, intelligent, deep thinking, thoughtful, wonderful person I know and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Many would probably argue that I’m still not maternal, but I am her mother, and that’s everything I need to be.