Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

Your Mothering Mileage May Vary.

1.

Suppose every year is a pearl. We add the year to the slowly unspooling thread that is our lives. The strand looks like nothing you’d find under glass, nothing worthy of sale or display. The strand has no uniformity and little discernible beauty. Most of the pearls are pebbled or bulbous, gritty or oddly marbled, misshapen, under-formed. Cracked.

Then you live a pristine year, one in which you do not experience unimaginable loss or a betrayal deep enough to stagger you, one mercifully devoid of grief and plentiful in unanticipated joy. You receive an opportunity much greater than the one you pined for during the pebble year, and you stumble upon the love you prayed for during the year you cracked. None of the tears that milked up the marbled year appear during this one. And before long, 12 delicious months have passed. They yield you a pearl that emerges spectacularly whole. It is spherical and opaline, as pearls are intended to be. And you cannot help but twirl it endlessly between your fingers until you can feel the heat that such methodical friction generates. This pearl could cause momentum, other pristine years to follow. Whatever you did right could become a replicable formula. You could be entering an entire decade of such faultless years, uniformly gorgeous enough to display under glass, worthy of protecting with lock and key.

Or you could find yourself flailing mere months into the formation of the next pearl. You could feel every necessary irritant acutely. You will empathize with the oyster and finally understand the world. You’ve been holding it all this time, after all, cradling it in your palm, piercing and prying and wresting free what it holds for you each year. The world has opened itself to you so achingly and you have taken from it, hungrily, since you were born. Now that you can comprehend the pain you must inflict, and not only endure, to add every year to your life, the oyster itself is much harder to hold.

The world is a writhing thing. It is harder to handle.

I have learned a lot in the past 18 months. 2016 was the year of the pristine pearl. 2017 and 2018, at least till now, have been harder to hold. Both have contained moments at which my grasp of the world came close to slipping. I have learned more in this fidgety discomfort than I did in the year of plenty. But the toll that learning has exacted is silence.

The page, expecting as always to be filled with lovely sentiments about the rewards of mothering, even under inopportune circumstances — and perhaps, especially because of them — must remain blank for awhile.

* * * *

For the last year and a half, after seven years of insisting that I was fine parenting a child without much hands-on help from her dad, pretending that I was fine with the contribution he did make, because, perhaps, it was the best he could do, I finally confessed the con. I was never okay; I’d just had a lot to prove. He’d walked away from our relationship on the same day we found out I was carrying his child then decided that he wanted to “co-parent,” first from 3,000 miles away and a few years later, once a week (or so) from an hour away. It seemed important for me to do everything he was opting not to do, competently enough to make him feel like he wasn’t missed. It didn’t occur to me that he’d respond to that by starting a different family with someone else. I thought he’d respond by making himself indispensable.

It was temporarily unfathomable that he’d be capable of buying a home, proposing marriage, and family-planning with someone else, when getting him to tell me when he’s about to pick our kid up, in further advance than two hours of arrival seemed too taxing a request. But it wasn’t just possible. It was easy.

In the end, I think that’s what drove me to confess that I had never entirely given up on him. Though too few of our years had been happy ones, there were 16 of them in all. We’d met at 21, had a child at 30. We were 37 then. It was too long a time to let pass as though none of it had mattered. It had all mattered, and I’d been too proud to admit it.

You do not, after all, admit to someone who abandoned you that you should’ve accepted his apologies earlier. You do not say to the person who does too little parenting that you would rather him do too little with you than watch him do more, with someone else. You do not admit how much it kills you that there are now several people in this world whose only frame of reference for your daughter’s family are him and a woman you have only seen once.

I now know firsthand how humiliating all of that is to say, even if it must be said, even when it changes nothing.

Love is not what you profess in the interest of self-preservation. Love is not what settles at the bottom of desperation.

Love is letting go. More specifically: Love is letting go of everything that he was not, for you, so that he can be everything he has become, with someone else, for your daughter.

Do not be fooled, however: as obvious and inevitable as that may sound: the process of achieving it is artless.

2.

It has taken me longer than other women to let go of who I was before becoming a parent. Some impulse knitted deep within stubbornly twists against what motherhood demands. There is much that I’ve grown to love, but I have never fully settled into the sacrifice of it. Though more radical moms than I will tell you that you do not need to sacrifice too much of yourself to mother, I have, unfortunately, not found that to be so. The truth of that assertion would depend on how adaptable you are to begin with — wouldn’t it? — on how easily you could fold family into who you already were or how thoroughly it would upend your former sense of yourself?

Your mothering mileage may vary.

More than boogers and bowels and homework battles and public tantrums, more than sleeplessness or clinginess, more than random emissions of gas or liquid, more than eight years of daily tears over trifles for which she rarely offers timely explanation, more than fears about an adolescent future spent contentiously, it’s the idea that I have to relinquish my right to rage, quiet my recurring resentment, and pretend that my innate impulsiveness simply ceased to exist when I became a parent that bothers me most of all.

These were all traits I could keep in check as an only child. There had always been room to express them; I could do so in moderation. But a mother who is always in the presence of her child does not have room to rage; it sets too poor an example. It alienates the child. A mother who receives anything from the father of her child cannot admit frustration with the many things she does not receive; it appears too ungrateful. It alienates the father of the child. A mother cannot extemporaneously purchase a single plane ticket to an international destination — because she can only afford one and it’s too good a flash deal to pass up. There is no one who will watch her child when she is away and she should not expect anyone to do so.

I am not an unselfish person. That is what being unable to write anything decent in the past year and a half has taught me. I am mean when I feel most creatively unfulfilled. I turn feral when I feel abandoned. And under either circumstance, spending time in my company is ill-advised.

My daughter does not seem to mind this. I am quick to apologize to most people, but I reconcile with her fastest of all. When I can help it, I do not create cause for such reconciliation. I attune myself to a frequency where annoyances rarely find purchase. I seem most patient with all of it, then. I seem like the picture of calm.

Because none of this actually matters, does it? Not if we’re honest with ourselves. Not really.

* * * *

My aunt, the clinical therapist, tells me quite often that parents need only be adequate. A child does not need nearly as much to thrive as we insist children do. And some will not fare well, no matter how much effort their parents exert. Anguish is baked into all existence; everyone bears their share and the distribution of shares isn’t fair.

As true as I imagine this must be, a mother must already feel adequate to be comforted by it. I only feel adequate on the odd days, and even on some of those, I am skeptical.

My daughter does not seem to mind this, either, though she has reached a stage, at nearly 8, when she confuses my getting upset with her with me disliking her as a person.

“I thought you liked me,” she’ll say. Or worse, when she’s teary, “I thought you loved me.”

“You were happy this morning,” she’ll accuse. “You hugged me then.”

“I’ll hug you now,” I might respond. “But you still need to do what I’ve asked.”

She knows that I love her. It’s obvious. But she knows that I’m ill-tempered, too. Mercurial and silent and sad. And she does not yet understand how many things we are allowed to feel at once. Her eight little pearls are like baby teeth, all small and white, all falling, so far, onto her life’s strand, just as they should be.

Still, she wants touchstones of affirmation: Of course, I love you. I’m not mad at you; I just need you to stop interrupting me and raising your voice when I’m telling you something. There is no one I like more than you. But please get off of me now. I need a little space to breathe.

I knew I would not be the type of mother for whom sacrifice would be easy. I would never have confessed it before my daughter was born — I am not sure I even realized it then — but I have always been my own favorite person. Before I became a parent, I could let anyone go, if I needed to; I had me. Motherhood rendered me unrecognizable to myself for awhile. It was a long performance for which the curtain never went down and there was always a need both for improvisation and improvement.

I’ve been thrown a few curves I could not account for, in the past year and a half. It forced me to cancel the show. The curtain wasn’t just down; for awhile it was a shroud. I am no longer someone who wants to prove anything to anyone else, not in parenting or any other area of my life. I am simply committed to better understanding who I have become. I do not want to offer her to anyone else, not as a writer or a woman or a mother, until I have a better handle on who she is. I am more unsteady on my feet these days. And because unlike my daughter, I did not grow up believing I could ask the people around me, “Do you like me?” without fearing or disbelieving the answer, I understand why she so often needs to hear it these days. She needn’t worry. Now, she’s my favorite person.

Do I like me? is the more challenging question.

3.

I wrote all of this because I was worried.

One week from today, my daughter and I will be at a writing residency in Putnam County, NY. I need to warm up in advance of the journey. As much as I’ve longed for and dreamed about having a full week to write without feeling any guilt over leaving my daughter behind in order to attain it, I’m nervous about how productive I’ll be. I’ve been trying not to put much pressure on output, but I want to maximize the time (especially since a number of people contributed to my last-minute crowdfunding campaign to make it easier for us to get there. I want to be a worthy investment).

It has not been the most emotionally healthy time in my post-parenting life and by extension, it’s been the least creatively productive time in my post-parenting life. I’ve found it difficult to muster the will to write or the belief that anyone wants to read about this (or anything else on which I have an opinion. I’ve also found it difficult to develop cogent opinions, as in case you haven’t noticed, the country is in more intense shambles than usual). I’ve been writing about this stuff for a long time now, and living it is even less interesting than writing about it. Fortunately, I’ll be working on a novel draft and Hope Chest stuff while I’m there.

I’m not presumptuous enough to expect that anything I post anywhere will resonate with anyone else. But I am always hopeful that something will, with someone. Life is hard. No matter how difficult yours is, no one else’s is enviable. Protect your own pearls. They’re priceless.

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Audio, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting, Resisting Motherhood

Woman to (Will-Be) Woman.

Episode 4 of my new, indie podcast Hope Chest is available for streaming and downloading now. I’ve decided to suspend the practice of posting the whole text of an audio essay here, because I’m trying very hard to shape up an essay collection for publication and it just makes sense to hold the written content in reserve. But here’s a little backstory on the piece in advance of listening: in December of last year, I was hit with this sort of double-slap romantic reality check.

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It’s a long story. Like, a dates-back-16-years-to-when-I-was-21 long. But I’ll try to keep this relatively brief, because the whole point here is for me to compel you to listen, not to bog you down with a long read.

Suffice it to say, there’s “alone” and there’s alone. “Alone” is being unattached, noncommittal, and by yourself, romantically, but with partners — or the idea of partners — that you’re secretly (and perhaps it’s even a secret to you) holding in mental and emotional reserve. In my case? There were two. In-case-of-emergency-men. I’ll-call-you-when-I-need-you men. You-may-not-answer-the-call men. I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world men. Car-advice men. Comfortable-silence men. Uncomfortable-silence men. This-will-never-be-what-I-want-or-need-it-to-be-but-it’s-still-chill men.

One was my co-parent. The other was a friend I dated for a blink-and-you-missed-it few months a few years ago. In December, I had to give them both up — like, for real, for real, cold turkey — simultaneously. I don’t yet know how to describe what that felt like. They both already felt so distant; I’d thought I’d already seared all the edges off of any romantic notions for one of them long ago, and I’d been going through an interminable, years-long process of doing the same with the other. Imagine the shock I felt, then, when I felt an inverse of the emotions I assumed I would about both of them, whenever I used to envision “letting go.” It was… a lot messier than I’d presumed. A flash of heat for the guy for whom my heart had gone cold. An ambivalence about the other, who had long set me aflame. No one was more startled than I.

I’m still fairly inarticulate about how emotionally scattered I felt for the first three months of this year. I was breadcrumbs in the woods. I was swallowing myself. There was no path.

That probably won’t be what you get from this essay at all, actually, but that was the motivation for it. It’s about women taking the very necessary time to understand themselves. Our selves are constantly changing. Here’s the thing.  I may have been languishing in the same stale feelings for far too long, but I didn’t recognize it, because my circumstances kept changing. What would make me store in-case-of-emergency company as a younger, childless woman and what would compel me to do the same at 37 with a school-aged kid was dissimilar enough to fool me.

I had taken for granted that I was being honest with myself about my feelings (or lack thereof), “checking in with myself” and repeating mantras (and outright lies) to train myself out of negative emotions or pretending not to have positive ones, if I thought they’d be a burden to whomever I might express them to. But all the while, despite all the years I’ve spent single, despite all the time I spend literally at a physical remove from my exes, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was still viewing myself and processing the events of my life, through some prism that considered them and their feelings their potential reactions and all the hypothetical ways I might process them moving on with their lives.

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When the time came for all of us to actually move on with our emotional lives, with some sense of finality, I didn’t do anything I thought I would. I spent the first quarter of 2017 like an amnesiac, looking at the simplest things and wondering what I thought of them. Eating foods and surprising myself at my enthusiasm about its flavor. (Turns out I’m really partial to biscotti with anise seeds baked into it and falafel makes me smile really widely. I am not as into curry as I thought I was.) And then there were all the selfies. A crazy number of selfies. Because I needed to figure out again what makes me feel attractive or interesting or mysterious or desirable and I’d finally, finally decided not to gauge that against what I perceived as other people’s interests and preferences.

I’m still sorting it.

These months contained a thorough undoing. But they (and it) were quiet. I guess “Woman to (Will-Be) Woman” is part of what I continue to take away from how I’ve spent them.

 

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, Race, Resisting Motherhood

Private Black Motherhood and Public White Protest.

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1.

Mother: What is a woman?
Child: A woman is… um… hmm…

It is a trick question. The definition will always differ, depending on the person being asked to provide it. You will define womanhood differently than I, for instance. It will mean something else by the time you become one than it meant almost 20 years ago, when I did. But I will still ask you this question often anyway. I will ask it, in part, because we are Black and this means that even though you are six, there are many adults — even some in positions of authority — who will begin insisting on your womanhood in just a few fleeting years. Depending on your height and when your curves come in to assert themselves, pressing upon all the previously flat and straight plains of your body, those adults may ogle you. They may reach for you on the street and curse at you as you run away. (While you are still a girl, always run away.) They may accuse you of something, then try convincing the judicial system to see adulthood in your still soft cheeks, your brace-bedecked teeth, the hair you’re still only allowed to straighten on special occasions. They did this to Catherine Jones in 1999. They tried to do it with Bresha Meadows just last year. You should know that some adults begin to treat at black girls like women as early as age 10 or 12 or 14. It has happened to other little black girls as early as 7 and 8. Countless ones, whose names we may never know, but whose disappearances Black mothers quite feel acutely as we look down into the faces of our own daughters and implore them, admonish them: Don’t be in no hurry. Take your time getting grown.

You must figure out for yourself what a woman is. You must never lose sight of yourself as the girl that you are and be certain that you are ready to molt girlhood when the time comes. It cannot come late enough for me. If I could, I would certainly postpone it. But it is not for me to decide. My prayer is that you will be the only person who will have a say in deciding it.

You did not speak a language I could clearly understand until the middle of your fourth year. Before that, when you spoke at all, you added -en suffixes to words where I would not have guessed they could belong. On your tongue, water became wah-den. Granny became Go-den. And for a while, without any reason I could decipher, you called Nana, your great-grandmother, Morning.

When you were two-and-a-half, I had you assessed. You weren’t talking much at all then. The women who came into our home with their folders and tote bags, jotting across their clipboard pages when you could complete a puzzle, scribbling furiously along their carbon triplicate forms when you could not, suggested that I take you to an audiologist. Within six months you were being fitted for hearing aids, with an estimated mild to moderate loss in both ears.

I believe that, the way that you hear greatly informs the way you interact with the world. It’s what led you to the language you developed. It’s what keeps you locked in to your vivid imagination, with its cast of unseen characters and its action that only plays inside your mind. And sometimes, I’ve felt that it’s kept me locked out. You have been attending school for nearly four years now but this is the first year when asking you what happened there is an action I can expect to be met with a descriptive, decipherable answer.

I have had to learn that you are on your own time. We have always been on a road where I have had to trust you to indicate when you are ready for us to pull over and ready for us to move on.

I think I am a better parent for it, at least I hope that I am. You are not a child who would benefit most from having my will imposed upon you. You are not a child whose ideas I want to mold so that they mimic mine. I am not even sure that, with you, such a task would be possible.

3.

You did not have much time here before the core of American civilization found itself deeply compromised. You did not point to television screens and cry out, “There’s Obama!” until his very last year in office. Nana told you who he was. She made you practice saying his name. O. Bah. Ma. You seemed to like repeating it, seemed to relish the ease with which the vowels swept through your throat. Like speaking out was easy.

I know you will ask me when you are older and finally see photos of other children, hoisted upon their parents shoulders or tucked safely between chest and arm: Why didn’t we carry signs? Why didn’t we go picket injustice? Cry loud, spare not, wear pink. Cuss without blushing. Why didn’t we find ourselves in the company of all those other women? Washington is so close, after all. We could’ve.

It is impossible to know if you will ever be satisfied with my answer. I am still quite unsure of decisions like these, concerning you, myself.

In truth, it may have been better for you to go. Perhaps you would have understood, on a visceral or emotional level if not yet an intellectual one, that something is amiss with all the world, and now, what has long been so is finally affecting our centuries-insulated country in ways White people no longer feel safe ignoring. Women have volunteered to lead the charge of dissent because women have far more to immediately lose than men, now that this man and his cronies have assumed the national seat of power.

Maybe, at six, that would have been useful for you to intuit, if not yet truly know.

But if I may be entirely honest — and with you, this is ever my aim —  I do not much feel like being a warrior. I want to remain the mother I’ve already fought so hard to become. And she is soft-edged, yielding, and kind. She spends her weekends wrapped in a hot pink Snuggie with her child, staving off her constant financial woes, silently keeping her existential inner conflict — about housing or untimely death or co-parenting or politics or the romance she sometimes pines for but has not yet found — in check. She frequently dissolves into giggles. She hugs hard and delivers smatterings of kisses to every inch of exposed skin. She is not carefree, neither is she careless. But she is about the business of preserving the sanctity of her domestic life. And for her, this is its own resistance. She remembers the Black women who fought in generations before her, who were forced to have children they did not want or plan, who were unknowingly sterilized or implanted with unregulated birth control without consent, or denied clean, safe, affordable housing for children they were shamed into delivering but could not afford to raise. I think of what they must have been fighting for — and it was the hope and the freedom my generation thought it had finally achieved in the eight years that the First Family was black and the Black mother in the White House declared herself a mother first and a freedom-fighting advocate second.

I am not yet finished pretending I can afford myself the same luxury. I, too, want to be the mother I have fashioned myself to be, first. I want to fold my activism into this existing model. For me, this means figuring out how best to support the other mothers who feel so far removed from the idea that a poster and a chant will reunite airport detainees or close the miles between them and their stranded, visa-less children. It means thinking of and praying for them in a somber and meditative space. It means writing and writing and writing, because for me, writing is more effective than marching at making my efforts feel less futile. I would rather teach you what’s at stake by explaining that your school, with its large percentage of students from immigrant families, is filled with classmates who are facing a far different set of challenges and odds than you.

But so far, I haven’t told you anything. Nana no longer beckons you to the television when the president begins to speak. She has not taught you to recognize him, has never encouraged you to utter his name. For now, I wish to keep it this way.

My wish for you is that you will stay right where you are, so often locked in, by your unique way of hearing, the vestiges of that language you invented when you were a toddler, the lingering barriers of communication only those who love and protect you can currently breach. At present, I believe you are safest there. And as in all things, I will look to you for my cues. You will tell me when you need to know more.

You will have so, so long to be a woman. And, for as long as men like this president and his mostly male team hold political sway, fighting for your basic rights — human, racial, gendered, reproductive — will be as disheartening as it is essential. If you are like me, you will grow weary of demanding what should have been yours by right of birth.

I am more than happy to do this for you. I will defend you, myself, and others in the ways I hope I can be most effective. As a woman, I know how important it is for a woman to lift her own voice. As your mother, I know how vital it is for your to find yours. I can imagine how much time it will take and how distinct it will sound. This is not a process I intend to rush. I suspect that there will be plenty left for you to fight, when your time has come; and I believe we will find ourselves in highly capable hands, however you choose to do so.

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Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction, Parenting, Pop Culture, Resisting Motherhood

Busyness, Business, Birthday, Buzzfeed.

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I haven’t been able to blog here in over a month and I miss it. I didn’t want anyone who follows me here to believe I’ve abandoned this space. It’s my sanctum. But I’ve had the very good problem of being swamped with paid writing work — in so much that some of the things I might’ve written here have been placed — or will be placed — at very cool websites.

Writing on deadline and being increasingly line-edited by people committed to making the work better than I can make it on my own (disjointed as my trains of thought have become with the noise of my toddler, the relocation of her dad to town, after years living on the other side of the country, and the demands of raising a child while working a day job from home) has been rewarding and humbling.

October was a rough month for me. My life felt racked with big, disconcerting change and I wasn’t sure how to adjust to any of it. I’m still figuring that out, but I’ve had experience. I have to remind myself that, in the years since my daughter was born, I’ve transitioned out of adjunct college instruction, moved from Michigan to Maryland, navigated the IEP and pediatric audiological processes with my daughter, written for various national publications, started an online community for single parents of color, and scored a fellowship in social media community engagement. I’m constantly criticizing myself for not being “further along” in my career, but sometimes, we’ve just got to stop and assess the ground we’ve already gained. In fact, if we don’t take the time to do that, we’ll reach a point where it’s difficult to know what’s left to conquer and which direction to turn in order to pursue any of it.

In less than a week, I’ll turn 35 — and it’s a good age, a good time. I’m not at all where I envisioned myself, when I was younger and strained to imagine what it would feel like to be just five years shy of 40. But I’m making my way and it’s been an incredible trip. The past month in particular has been teaching me things I’ve actively avoided learning:

  1. Forgiveness from afar looks different than forgiveness up close. And sometimes you think you’re over things, simply because you’ve enjoyed a great deal of physical distance from them. But there’s always a closing of that distance. There’s always a day of reckoning.
  2. I’m not my best self when I’m afraid. And it’s incredible how quickly and drastically fear can make you regress.
  3. It’s an honor to be receiving an increased number of requests to write. But it’s also okay to decline those requests when I’m overextended or just going through something that’ll compromise the quality (or punctuality) of the work. Not everything is about “writing through it,” and you don’t always have to push yourself. Or, I don’t, at least. I shouldn’t speak for anyone else there.
  4. If you sense that you’re plateauing, you probably are. Take on assignments that won’t be such cakewalks for you. (For me, that’s meant scaling back my unfiltered, unedited blogging here and letting my words go under other writers’/editors’ scalpels. It’s changing the way I compose and making me less certain of where a piece is going — which can be pretty thrilling (if also terrifying and debilitating).
  5. At some point, it can’t hurt to find yourself a therapist. I’ve never had one; finding one will probably be my birthday gift to myself. There are things I need to work on in the next five years that aren’t career-specific or even particularly measurable — social and emotional things — that I don’t think I can handle anymore without help from an objective outside party.

My performance of adulthood has sharpened in my 30s. Like Nicole Richie is saying in the gifs above, I’m finally ready to declare myself a grown-up. Mostly. I’m definitely still living like a glorified commuter student in a lot of ways. And that’s okay. Mostly. There’s no one way to live, no single set of social markers that we have to reach in order to declare ourselves mature or well-adjusted or highly-functioning. We just have to keep going.

So I plan to greet my next year of life, incomparable gift that it is, with contentment.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been published in Buzzfeed. Twice. Here, I’m talking about mothering and empathy. And here, I’m talking about Bill Cosby’s pre-Huxtable persona and how it leaves me feeling less shock and betrayal about the “good” doctor’s alleged bad deeds.

Also look out for a short piece on The Hurston-Wright Foundation I’ve penned for the Jan/Feb ’15 issue of Poets & Writers, a piece in The Guardian (hopefully; I’ll edit to embed a link when/if that goes live), and a long feature on black fatherhood in Colorlines, scheduled for publication in the upcoming week.

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Nonfiction, Parenting, Race, Resisting Motherhood

What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose.

As controversial a portrayal of black parenting as 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' presents, Hushpuppy's  limited supervision and sense of community were ultimately essential to her survival.

As controversial a portrayal of black parenting as ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ presents, Hushpuppy’s limited supervision and sense of community were ultimately essential to her survival.

The little boy who used to live on the second floor, the one with the cornrows grazing the back of his neck and the owlish glasses, never stayed indoors. He was always running, chasing the family cat or asking around, home to home, if a new child in the neighborhood could come out to play. He was nine or so, polite and precocious, always noticing things. You dropped this. You’re forgetting that. He held the lobby door open for my grandmother, my mother, and I whenever he saw us coming.

A boy like that catches the eye, out of doors as he so often is. It was easy, then, to notice that his mother hadn’t entrusted him with a key to his family’s apartment. We knew it because sometimes, he’d linger too long outside the locked, intercom-activated lobby door. We knew it because, while walking up to our own third floor residence, we too often noted that his family’s door was kept slightly ajar. He was either rushing in and slamming it or waiting downstairs for someone to open it when he’d locked himself out.

It was risky, his mom opting to leave their whole apartment vulnerable rather than giving him a key. It was risky, too, to reserve comment and to let them sort through that decision and its consequences alone.

But I remember being nine myself and in need of a key after school. I remember losing it too, on many occasions, and begging the rental office managers to let me borrow their spare. I asked so often they would finally have to inform my furious, frustrated mom.

The memory was what kept me quiet on the days when the neighbor boy sprinted confidently up to his cracked door and slipped inside — and it was also what made me ask if he needed to use our phone or wanted someone to wait with him when he was in the lobby alone.

Latchkey life is a series of covert missions, held precariously in place by a cardinal rule: don’t get caught.

Debra Harrell was charged with "unlawful conduct toward a child," after allowing her daughter to play in a local park during her work shifts.

Debra Harrell was charged with “unlawful conduct toward a child,” after allowing her daughter to play in a local park during her work shifts.

I thought about this code when I heard about Debra Harrell, the 46-year-old South Carolina mom who let her nine-year-old daughter play in a park for three days while she worked her shifts at McDonald’s.

If I’d driven by and spotted Debra’s daughter braiding tall grass at 1pm, then passed by again to find her eating fruit under a shady tree at 4, I would’ve thought little of it. Even if, as in this case, she was there for three days in a row. I may’ve asked, as the concerned observer did in this instance, where the girl’s mother had gone. But if she’d shown me the cell phone her mother had given her in case of emergency and if she seemed safe and unbothered, I would’ve moved along.

Just as all who wander are not lost, all who play outside alone — even all day — are not abandoned.

When I moved into my grandmother’s third floor apartment, my daughter was two and noisy. She was not sleep trained and sometimes she’d let out a squeal or leap across the carpet well after 8pm.

“If you don’t get that girl to be quieter, the neighbors downstairs might call the police,” my grandmother admonished one night.

I thought I’d misheard her but she went on, “They’ll say they heard her screaming or that you never have her in the bed at night. Child Protective Services will come up here and they’ll take her away from you. CPS loves to take black children.”

The warning winded me. My eyes stung. My chest heaved. I wanted to tell her how hurtful she was being and I did. “You’re saying that if CPS came and assessed my parenting, they’d still find cause to take my child. You’re implying I’m unfit.”

“I know you love your child,” she said in a voice that didn’t soften. “But I’m telling you the truth.”

It was a court stenographer’s truth, the truth of a woman who had spent over 20 years transcribing heinous crimes, tragic accidents and separations of children from parents, based on everything from hearsay to hard evidence. It was also the truth of an elder for whom the memory of being policed for playing while black — in the wrong park, on the wrong street, at the wrong hour — was still fresh.

I thought of the boy downstairs, his unlocked door, the infants in the basement apartments who wailed at all hours of night. My daughter wasn’t the only child in the building. Her noise didn’t exist in some disruptive vacuum and it didn’t seem constant enough to warrant complaint.

But I was never able to shake my grandmother’s warning. She was telling me that, as a black mother, loving my child wouldn’t necessarily stop a caseworker from recommending her removal from my custody. It would take months, but eventually, I understood that her conferral of worry was, in its way, her own expression of love.

Cases like Debra Harrell’s frighten me. They reify the idea that the rules are different for my black family. For us, noisy nighttime play or unsupervised daytime play don’t just draw annoyance or concern. They draw authorities. They draw teams of people with the power to determine whether or not our children can come home.

There are parts of parenting that are predicated on privacy, on intimate negotiations of what will and will not be able to work under our own roofs on a given day. Bedtime, dinner, and discipline choices differ from household to household. We have all had moments where we’ve considered ourselves fortunate no one witnessed us bribing our child with candy or snapping at him when a gentler word would’ve been best.

But there are other parts of parenting where privacy is as perilous as it is necessary, like determining when your child is “mature enough” to be left alone for hours at a time. It can be difficult for families with latchkey children — and the strangers who observe their decisions — to know the difference.

At what point does incurious observation become concern? At what point should concern involve intervention? And once authorities have intervened, which infractions should warrant the removal of children from their homes?

Once-there-was-a-Hushpuppy-and-she-lived-with-her-daddy-in-the-Bathtub.

Sadly, parents without access to safe, affordable child care often depend on the silence of strangers. For them, that silence is kindness. But true kindness would actually be the opposite. True kindness would be conversation. It would be finding out the full story before it becomes a somber national headline, waiting with the child until her mother arrives, offering to keep an eye on the child at play or helping the family find better local resources.

And it would be educating oneself about the stakes for black low-income and single-parent families. They are higher. More than half of all children entering foster care in the U.S. are children of color. Twenty-six percent of those children are black, which is double to the total population of black children in this country. There is a real precedent for worry that taking a latchkey or unsupervised play situation directly to the authorities will result, not in help for a mother and child, but in a mother losing her child.

The idea that erring on the side of caution can make things worse may seem counter-intuitive until you hear enough stories like Debra Harrell’s, until you have a few latchkey kids as neighbors, until you’ve heard your own family warn you to keep your toddler from being so noisy, lest someone try to take her away.

When the little boy downstairs moved away, it seemed sudden. We hadn’t seen boxes. They’d done the heavy lifting after dark. By the time he said goodbye his family’s apartment was already empty. We both stood there a little longer than we needed to. I was hoping his new neighbors would view his family’s situation as I did: as a negotiation of need, as a case where a simple, “Are you okay?” was often enough to tide the child over until his mother came home.  I hoped his new neighbors would be watchful and supportive, the kind of people who considered alerting authorities to the presence of a latchkey kid playing unsupervised outside, as a last resort.

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Make Him a Balloon, Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

Resisting Motherhood.

It doesn’t feel as permanent as it should. I still linger at the window; I am still expectant (though of what, I do not know. Relief? Permission?). I’ve barely shaken the sense that someone left her here, some unduly trusting soul, trying to teach me something. On occasion, I anticipate that this someone will reemerge to reclaim her. The prospect doesn’t sadden me. We have never been apart long enough for me to miss her; in her absence, I feel raw obligation to return. And I do. I rush.

It is unromantic.

When this someone comes, to determine if her trust has been ill-placed, an inspection will occur, making clear just how many of my duties I perform not with particular joy but by rote. I mother because I must, not because I am given to throes of euphoria while doing so. This, I suppose, is common. But there is something else, equally obvious: I had been waiting.

I am glad that someone has come.

*  *  *

You need to make her be quiet. The neighbors downstairs will hear her jumping and laughing at this hour, and they’ll call DHS. DHS loves to take black children.

*  *  *

It has been 40 months. No one has come. It is possible, now, that no one will.

I fill the hours with embraces and photographs, kitchen karaoke and dining room dance parties. Frequent I love you’s. So many kisses. The aphorisms hold: being present, relishing the moment, slowing, rather than marking time — it all helps. But inside, a second skin is twisting against rope. Tightly bound, it is burning.

*  *  *

They are going to tell you medicate her, if you can’t learn to make her keep still.

*  *  *

Motherhood is an overlay, sheer and clinging. It obfuscates appearance, makes pre-child passions opaque, but it does not alter what lies beneath. What I cherish about my daughter is what I would’ve cherished, had I never become her mother: her boldness; her mercurial heights and depths; the scent of her freshly bathed skin; my nose in her parted hair.

I am still me underneath.

But motherhood cannot be peeled away. It wraps around, becomes a top-lying dermis and, over time, we are meant to forget its artifice. At times, the urge to lift it away from the skin begins to pressurize. There is too little air; there are too few opportunities for new breath.

Here is the truth that helps, that slices through this whaleskin and lets in a slip of light: children are not so life-changing. They are like many other things and persons adults acquire and decide they cannot live well without. Their needs are not so different: tenderness and tending. They are complicated bliss. They are blessing and barnacle.

But they are not all we are.

*  *  *

Maybe you, and your missed days of prenatal vitamin intake, lie at the root of this behavior, this delay. Maybe you need to be reminded, during your every resting, writing moment, of what you need to do.

*  *  *

It is best to pretend that I do not need silence, that nothing essential is eroding inside me without it. I smile in pinched ways that I hope my child and others understand. I am here. I find this enjoyable. No, there is nothing behind my eyes that is stricken with panic and wanting to run. If you see this, you are imagining it.

The first two parts are not lies. I am here. I do find this enjoyable. But I am also acting. This is a Method performance: I am always in character, always awaiting the time when it will be apropos to step out.

There are reasons: my only-childhood and its resulting inexperience with children; my summer transience, three months of each year spent hundreds of miles apart from home; the far-reaching tentacles of too much free and isolated time. And I am also too accustomed to things ending, especially the things someone I love has insisted never would.

*  *  *

You need to learn to do more. This — working, bathing, clothing, preparing foods, feeding, reading, entertaining, coming straight home, rarely asking for non-work time to yourself — is not enough.

*  *  *

A lifetime spent holding a part of yourself in reserve does not resolve with the birth of a child. We mothers are still entitled to unknowable parts, if we want them. We protect them by snatching time. Demanding it. Allowing ourselves to love someone other than our children — with ardor, not apology. Reading books that are not written on boards or filled with crude drawings of talking cows. Letting something extracurricular lapse. Listening to ourselves — and making sure that what we are saying isn’t always about mothering. Everyone is talking to us about being a mother; the irony is: we only get great at it by holding onto what we loved about ourselves before becoming one.

Mothering isn’t selfless. Quite the opposite.

*  *  *

I did everything myself, so no one had the right to criticize my parenting.

*  *  *

If you are an introvert, you will be reluctant to go out and away; you are happiest at home. But what you need now is counter-intuitive. Instinct says to envelop the child, make her as essential to your happiness as being alone has always been. This is a flawed approach. If you must be incrementally alone to feel whole, then you must find ways to be alone.

It does not matter if you will be harshly criticized; that is all the more reason to leave. Aloneness allows you to quiet even the cruelest critics. In silence, you must take hold of yourself, unbind the ropes and tend to the burning skin, the ancient skin, that which was with you before you were born. You cannot let it fester; it will bleed into your mothering. Something will always be pulling apart.

Mother, you must protect yourself. It was you that you watched for at the window. You are the only Cavalry coming.

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Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.

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She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.

She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.

We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?

Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.

This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.

When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)

Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.

This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.

“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”

I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”

They lean forward in anticipation.

But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.

A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.

I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.

“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.

I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.

Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.

“So I Googled it,” I tell the women at the table. “And I found the lyrics and a YouTube video. I’ve learned it, and we sing it all the time.”

The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.

What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.

I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.

It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?

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