Child, Please: Memoir of a Daughter

By Ylonda Gault Caviness

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” sufficed.
  • 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 grown-up world. If you lay bleeding, someone would probably attend to you. And if you acted out, you definitely commanded notice.  But, by and large, grown-ups 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!”…

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.

Adapted from Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself by Ylonda Gault Caviness. © 2015 by Ylonda Gault Caviness. Jeremy P. Tarcher Books, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.

Photograph via Creative Commons.