Today, I share a conversation I had with Timothy A. Dukes, behavioral specialist. We discussed parenting and children, specifically during the pandemic. However, he shared insights about how to help children re-set their behavior, as well as how parents should do something as simple as asking our children, “What can I do to make your day better?,” which can be beneficial even if there’s no pandemic occurring.
It was 1993. Dwight and I had just figured out that we were in mutual adoration of one another. Smitten, really.
I was working at a pre-school, called Sara Swickard, which was affiliated with Western Michigan University, our alma mater. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and working at the pre-school made perfect sense.
One summer’s day, I left work to find a flower and a note attached to my car’s windshield. I don’t remember what the note said, but I remember how I felt, surprised and loved. It was a welcomed break from the booty calls I’d participated in and the unsuccessful partnerships I’d called “relationships.” He liked me. He actually liked me.
Dwight says I mention this memory often. He’s probably right because I can still conjure the butterflies that fluttered that summer if I think on it long enough. I know the depths of the shock of someone leaving a rose with a note on your windshield feeling. But the reality is I’ll never have it again. That was yesterday. He was different and so was I.
And that’s part of my challenge. I always want yesterday’s emotions.
For example, I remember my youngest daughter’s joy during her first conscious Christmas.
“For meeee???” she exclaimed when she realized all those shiny wrapped gifts were hers and hers alone. “Thank yoooouuu Mommeee! Thank yoooouuu Daddeee!”
Her face was indescribable. She’d never looked like that before and she’d never look like that again.
Christmas would become commonplace and sometimes obligatory. Gifts would be expectant, so much so, that when Dwight and I paid over $3k for her to visit England with her English teacher, she’d forget that Christmas 2018 was wrapped up in those sacrificial dollar signs and grimaced at the idea of having no tangible present. Her disappointment was palpable.
I want yesterday’s memories, the ones from over a decade ago.
I wish my oldest daughter was still an adolescent, taking selfies with her sister and me, complaining about how horrible my angles are, snatching my phone, while making it social media presentable. But she’s not. This past Christmas, she brought her boyfriend, who was seemingly attached to her physical being. Private conversations rarely existed because he was always around.
I was happy that she would be alone during our last Thanksgiving because that meant we could be like we were, pre-boyfriends and pre-adultood. Just the four of us. For once, I understood the difficulties of accepting your child’s significant other. It’s hard. You want to be welcoming, but at the same time, you wish things were like they were before they arrived.
But that’s impossible. Things can never be as they were before. Time moves on and changes occur.
So, I do the best I can accepting what is.
Dwight no longer believes people should use flowers the way that they do, so if he buys them and brings them home, the meaning is different. Desi knows Christmas is a social construct, so when she buys and receives presents there’s now an underlying awareness of societal conformity. Kesi brought her boyfriend home for the holidays. He will forever be etched in 2019’s holiday photos.
One day, I’ll stop chasing yesterday’s memories. One day, I’ll accept what is because to do otherwise is to invite suffering. And who wants to do that?
When I was twenty-two years old, my Grannie called me fat. We were discussing clothes, maybe my bra size or upcoming wedding dress size or something like that. And that’s when she said it.
“You’re supposed to wait until you’re married and have kids to get fat. You’re not supposed to be fat before you even get married.”
I was 125 pounds and a size six.
I probably met her criticisms and judgments with silence as usual. But let’s be clear. I cared about what she said. She was my Grannie and as far as I knew, she’d experienced more than I had about how women were supposed to look and act.
After that day I obsessed about my weight. I read up on how to lose pounds.
One popular way in the 90s was to count calories. So, I counted. I ate no more than 1200 calories per day. That meant I usually had a baked potato or salad for lunch.
Five times a week, I popped in a Donna Richardson tape and sweated to old Motown hits in Dwight’s apartment. By the time, our wedding date rolled around, I was an abnormal 100 pounds and wore a size one. Even in my youth, I’d never been so small.
On our honeymoon, I ate all the tacos and drank all the Margaritas. Subconsciously, I was married, and according to Grannie had a license to get fat. I returned to a size considered normal for me.
Years later, both of our daughters visited Dwight’s parents, whom they affectionately call nana and papa.
Although I’d already been briefed about the trip’s happenings, I asked the obligatory question anyway, “How was your visit?”
Desi spoke up. “It was okay, but Nana just kept calling Kesi fat.”
It was true. She’d ridiculed Kesi’s nine-year-old frame the entire two weeks and actually used the word, fat. Though she never said a word about the incident, weeks after Kesi returned home, she ate less. I could tell she was affected.
Consequently, I sprung into “save my daughter” mode and insisted on having a conversation with Nana. But as I reflect, I’m not entirely sure if I was protecting my daughter, or if I was just triggered. Was my twenty-two year-old self projecting my own past hurts onto the situation? Was I speaking to Kesi’s Nana or saying what I wished I could have to my own grandmother a decade prior?
My point for sharing this is twofold. First of all, I think we ought to do better about how we speak to and about our daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins, and goddaughters. Whether they admit it or not, they look up to us as ways to be in the world. Because of that situation, I rarely comment on others’ weight gain, especially not my own daughters’.
Secondly, the more I try to be conscious about how I interact in the world, the harder I believe it is. While I do subscribe to everyone being him or herself, it also seems to be worthwhile to try as much as possible to first be aware of our insecurities and pasts, and then try as much as possible not to project those onto someone else.
I’d love to hear what you think.
For the past 18 years, I’ve straddled the hard and fine line of motherhood. I’ve guessed and second-guessed each and every decision because, unlike other relationships, you never really know if you did the “right” thing until years later.
Swim team is a perfect example. In 2008, my oldest daughter, Kesi almost drowned. She was nine. Consequently, we decided she should learn to swim. A few lessons later, she joined the swim team. I thought they’d be swimming once a day and training for light competition. Turns out they had two-a-days all summer, with weekly competitions, and a culminating all-state competition at the end of August.
“This is going to be a lot of work,” I announced after day one. “Do you think you can do it?”
Her raspy voice whispered from the backseat “Yeah. Do you think I can do it?”
That’s one of those think on your feet parenting kind of moments. And being myself, there was only one answer.
“Of course Kase! You can do anything you set your mind to.”
And she did. She worked her ass off training twice a day. She went from being the slowest, only African-American little girl swimmer in that pool, to having an amazing backstroke at the end of the summer competition.
So I did what we do here in the States. I signed her up to “train” during the fall and winter. Surely, if she worked through the winter months, she’d be even more awesome for the following summer.
By May of the following year, she quit. She was tired. She didn’t want to do it anymore.
Because Dwight and I firmly believe in not making children do what they don’t want to do, we allowed her to.
And I’ve always wondered if I should’ve made her do it. Have I lived up to my role as her mother? Was I supposed to teach her work ethic by making her swim? Was I supposed to give her some speech about not giving up just because you don’t feel like it?
Years later, will she tell her therapist that she wished her mother would’ve pushed her harder? Will her whole life hinge on if I made her pursue swim team a second year?
Eventually, I always come to the same conclusion. I…don’t…know. Parenting is a careful dance of allowing your child to be his or herself, while still being yourself. To do that, you have to know who that is. My role is to guide her. I’m here to show her how to stand confident in making decisions that are aligned with how she feels. I’m here to tell her that it’s okay to change her mind about something, even if she’s knee-deep in it and doesn’t see a way out. Like my Grannie says, “If you made your bed hard, then get out the bed.”
Today, my daughter is an 18 year-old senior on the cusp of high school graduation. Three years ago, she intended to complete a Cosmetology license at a trade school so that she could fulfill her then dream of doing hair. At that time, I felt just like I did when I watched her competing in that backstroke.
“That your daughter?” a passerby asked.
“Yep,” my husband and I proudly replied.
Just like swimming, somewhere along her path, she decided doing hair wasn’t for her. She changed her mind, and consequently changed the direction of her life. Now, she wants to go to college to be a Cosmetic Chemist.
Although she hasn’t asked, the question still floats in the air, “Do you think I can do it?”
My answer is the same, “Of course Kase! You can do anything you set your mind to.”
And I hope she believes it. Because for me, that’s what mothering is all about. It’s parenting the person I see before me. It’s parenting an individual, not an identity. My daughter isn’t me. She’s her own person with her own experiences. In my mind, being a mother is helping her cultivate her self and her dreams, no matter how many times that changes.
On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to remind everyone that mothering looks as different as we do. Subsequently, I’m sure we’re all doing the best that we can in each moment. What do you think? How do you see motherhood? How do you think your mother saw her role?