I remember being 8 years old and watching my mother get dressed in the bathroom. It was the late '80s, and my mom leaned in close to the mirror to draw black eyeliner around her lips, then blended it in with red lipstick. Her hair was short and funky. I stood beside her, asking her why she had to leave. When she said she was going to a concert, I sighed with jealousy and said, "I want to be like you when I grow up." She stopped what she was doing, looked down at me, and said, "I want you to be everything I am not."
In some ways, her wish came true. My mother started an Associate's degree, but for reasons I don't know, she never finished. I went to college, graduated from law school, and will soon have my Master's in creative writing. I got married on March 27, 2010, because it was a week before my 30 birthday. My mother did not marry until she was in her 50s. I waited to have kids until I was 33. My mom had me at 17, right before she gradated high school. Being raised by a single, teen mom taught me that being a mother is only a part of one's identity. It's not the sum total of everything you are.
In my teens, I was embarrassed to have such a young parent. We wore the same size clothes and often shared outfits and shoes. She candidly talked about boys and sex, which was the last topic I ever wanted to discuss with my mother. Everyone who knew my mom loved her — my friends growing up, my best friends from college, my coworkers — maybe more than they loved me.
As a child, it was hard not to resent the fact that sometimes other responsibilities got in the way of her being with me. But as a mother now looking back on what had to be an entirely overwhelming responsibility for a woman in her 20s, I've learned that caring for your family doesn't always mean being a caretaker.
She worked long hours when I was growing up, leaving my aunt to get me dressed for school, to feed me dinner, or to give me baths at night. For my extended family — made up mainly of single women and older disabled men — she was the bread winner. At the time, I didn't realize that she was doing so much for everyone else. It's only now, as an adult realizing how much it costs to take care of a family, that I understand her sacrifice. No wonder she didn't have time to finish that Associate's degree.
When I was in kindergarten, I wrote a book called Shirley's Blocks. My teacher submitted it to a state-wide contest and I won. The awards ceremony was a big deal. I was supposed to walk across the stage and received a giant gold medal for my book, which my teacher had bound and was going to present to me on stage. But, my mother either didn't remember the time of the show, or just couldn't get me out the door, on the road, and at the theater in time. When we finally arrived, I had missed my part in the awards program. I was devastated. So much so that when I think about that moment, I'm still hurt.
My mom gave me the freedom to happily enjoy the parts of my life that belonged to me and not my kids. I'd never be the mother I am today without her sage advice.
As a child, it was hard not to resent the fact that sometimes other responsibilities got in the way of her being with me. But as a mother now looking back on what had to be an entirely overwhelming responsibility for a woman in her 20s, I've learned that caring for your family doesn't always mean being a caretaker. Sometimes it means making sure there's food on the table and a roof over everyone's heads.
Despite how hard she worked, she still found time to enjoy herself. My mother was young and beautiful and dated often. As Juanita, Jody's mom in John Singleton's movie, Baby Boy said, "Mama's gotta have a life too." That scene in the bathroom mirror played out many times in our home, and each time, I resented the fact she was leaving me. I felt as if she loved her friends or her boyfriends more than she loved me, but even though I don't know or understand the struggle of being a single parent, I understand now how important it was for her to get out and do something just for herself.
I might've thought we were polar opposites, but when I became a mother I learned just how alike we really are. I find myself repeating the same warnings to my own boys — "because I said so!" — and using empty threats — "sit your tail down!" — to get them to cooperate.
I struggled with going back to school to finish my Master's degree after my boys were born, especially because I work outside of my home. But writing makes me truly happy, and I learned from my teen mom that there is no shame, no guilt, in wanting to be happy, in wanting to "do you." My mom gave me the freedom to happily enjoy the parts of my life that belonged to me and not my kids. I'd never be the mother I am today without her sage advice.
My mother grew up with me in many ways. When I was young, we'd fight like sisters or best friends, heated teary battles that involved lots of screaming and maybe even a slap or two. But, it was the only way of life I knew. I remember saying when I was a kid that I didn't want to be married. I said that I wanted to have children young so that I wouldn't be an "old" mom. I wanted to understand my kids the way my mom had. But, to be honest, I'm thankful life did not turn out that way for me. I understand now why my mom told me she wanted me to be everything she wasn't. She wanted me to have more.
When she did, she picked him up and kissed him all over his face and neck. He giggled, delighted to be in her arms. I realized I do the very same thing.
It's so easy to romanticize a way of life you don't understand when you're young. As I matured, she did too. She is no longer hot-tempered, and in turn, I am not as impatient. And now that I'm older, I'm able to have more meaningful conversations with my mother, spend time with her without becoming irritated or annoyed like young girls are with parents who try too hard to be "cool." As life happened to the both of us, we've both learned to understand that we may be polar opposites, but that hasn't ever changed the love we have for one another.
Because I am my mother's daughter, I value independence, hard work, and self-preservation. She taught me these virtues all while essentially learning them herself. It was not easy, and our relationship isn't always the greatest, but we love one another like sisters, like best friends, like mother and daughter. I might've thought we were polar opposites, but when I became a mother I learned just how alike we really are. I find myself repeating the same warnings to my own boys — "because I said so!" — and using empty threats — "sit your tail down!" — to get them to cooperate. I also find myself giving in to them in the same ways my mother would with me: giving them whatever they want, letting them stay up later than normal, or letting them watch a little too much television sometimes.
Just this past Christmas, my mom came with my stepfather to visit us and her grandsons. The boys love their grandma so much that they search for her whenever she leaves the room. When she disappeared into the restroom, my son James banged on the door for her to come out. When she did, she picked him up and kissed him all over his face and neck. He giggled, delighted to be in her arms. I realized I do that very same thing.