I don’t know why I was so mean to my mother all those teenage years. But if I’m being honest, it was probably because of money. Not so much the fact that we didn’t have it, moreso her attitude because of it.
I’ll start from the beginning. My mom was my best friend. We were like Gilmore Girls level inseparable. The thing I remember and valued most about my mom was her support. She possessed this pride and commitment to showing up. She was the PTA mom, the chaperone, the dance mom, everything. She sat in the rocking chair every Monday as she watched me during my piano rehearsal just as she stood outside the window and peeped in on my dance practice. She never missed a recital of any kind. If there was a matinee and an evening recital, she’d be at both. If we had to travel for a competition, she’d make the trip. She never skipped a choir concert nor a band concert. Heck, she volunteered at band camp. All the kids in my classes knew and loved my mom as much as I did (okay, not as much as I did, but close).
But showing up wasn’t her only way of supporting me. She also stuck by me. When I had to stay up past 4am working on a major school project, she was up with me relying on caffeine like we do oxygen. She pushed me to turn in top-knotch work. To always reflect my best self in all I do. I learned to not only dedicate my smarts to school, but also my creativity, a gift not everyone has. The things we created together were always the assignments teachers asked to keep as examples for the following years or displayed in the classroom. She also stuck by me in ways I didn’t appreciate until I got older. She pushed me to be well-rounded which basically translates to “my mom keeps making me get involved in stuff.” When she discovered my talent in writing, she made me join and stay in Power of the Pen. When I was asked to be a part of Academic Challenge, you know my mom made me take it. She had me accompanying the church choir on piano, attending youth group, joining an improv acting group– the list goes on. Some things I chose for myself, but even so she wasn’t letting me quit them without a good run.
There are two memories with my mom that I remember distinctly. The first was in elementary school when I got the opportunity to go to Chicago for a week for some sort of national academic youth program. When it was time to say goodbye to my mom, I bawled my eyes out until they were pink and puffy like cotton candy. A week without my mom? That’s insane.
The other memory also happens in elementary school. After a dance class my mom and I went shopping and grabbed some food. It was night time when we finished paying for our dinner. The sky was a navy-ish black. We walked to our car only to find that it wouldn’t start. I watched as my mother’s face turned into a sorrowful expression. She had no one to call and now her little girl would have to walk a few miles home in the cold winter. I didn’t understand why she was so sad or why she thought I would be sad. I got to take a walk with my momma! It was an adventure. And the best part, because it was cold she let me put on the new fur cheetah coat and boots (I was a stylin’ kid) she had just bought me. So there I was. Hand in hand with my mom, in my cheetah-girl-takes-NYC coat, enjoying a walk with my mom, talking about anything and everything under the moon.
I think about this moment sometimes. How single mothers have to keep being a mom even when it’s hard. When they just want to tell their kid they’re poor when their car breaks down, or they can’t afford the toy, or they’re stressed out because my friends want to come over and we don’t have food. My mom didn’t tell me that stuff when I was kid. She just kept being a mom. And as an only child, I was spoiled. I had piles of presents under the tree, a closet full of clothes, and a basement full of dolls. I had new outfits for every formal event in my life, and food whenever I was hungry. I got my hair done semi-often, and I did what my friends did.
It wasn’t until I got older that every token or gift that I received and enjoyed in my life, came at a cost. When my mom paid for back-to-school clothes, yes she looked happy to do that for me and I’m certain that she was, but it drained her financially. When she paid for me to go to Europe for the first time with the People to People program, she did so with a smile on her face, but it drained her. When she took me to McDonalds, she hesitated, but she did it. She gave me the life I wanted, the life she wanted to give her only daughter, but there was more behind the scenes than I could possibly know.
So when it came to those classic teenage years of entering high school, getting my first “real” boyfriend, working, driving, social media, applying to colleges, and obviously school dances, my mom wasn’t my first priority anymore. My life was changing the way high schooler’s lives often do. Plus I was making my own money and I was expected to use it wisely (not to say that I didn’t often ask for help with gas or new clothes).
But it wasn’t just that my life was changing. As I grew older, my mom didn’t have to cookie-cut around things anymore. She could tell me what bills she had to pay. She could tell me she couldn’t afford certain things. She could tell me why there was less food in the house. She could tell me why Christmas would be small this year. She could tell me to figure it out. And while I respected and understood our financial situation, I didn’t understand why everything led to, well… our financial situation. I could begin by talking to her about the weather and somehow it would lead to “I’m broke.” If I mentioned that I saw a cool dress she would immediately respond, “I can’t afford it” whether or not I was asking for it. It became hard to talk to her about anything when everything took a negative turn down the same path of poverty. I saw her as a negative person. Plus, I was in high school. I was “too cool” for that energy. I was finally at a time in life where there were other huge events besides my academics and extracurriculars. I wanted to talk to her about my boyfriend or about open mic night but she showed no interest. All she wanted to hear was, “Mom, I got straight A’s again” because that meant I’d get into college with a scholarship for being black and smart. She cared when I won awards and aced my tests. She cared when I did things I could put on resumes and college applications. And it wasn’t that she didn’t care, but there were a million other things going on in her world that were not ignorable, whether it was work, family, bills, you name it.
I would often be confused when my mom and I didn’t have this close relationship anymore where we actually shared aspects of our personal lives, yet somehow I’d hear her bragging about me to another mom on the phone. I thought, so you can only love me from a distance? Or, is this just a mommy-has-best competition?
But I realize now, my mother was a single black mother. She owned a cleaning business. She cleaned homes often of people I went to school with. People I went to school with who could afford to have ladies come in and clean their homes. So, she wanted me to have the same education, opportunities, and recognition as those other kids regardless of our circumstance. Regardless of whether or not she cleaned houses and they didn’t. She worked so that I could be noticed. So that I could get somewhere. She worked so that I could show off my back-to-school clothes like everyone else. She worked so that she could afford my dance recital costumes. She worked so that I could travel. She worked so that I could go on field trips and look beautiful at prom and fill my gas tank and apply for college. She worked so that I could make it. Because that’s what single moms do. They give their all for the people they care about, their children. Even if giving more means getting less.
Sometimes I feel bad. My mom was artificially inseminated to have me. She chose to have me. To be a single mom. So I could at least not have been a brat, right? She wanted to have me so bad that she’d put up with me asking her for money and being a 16 year-old know-it-all. But I bet even then she knew that when I got to college and finally left the nest, I’d be running right back to her. She had to know even then that I’d call her everyday because I have a new question about how the world works. Because I’m struggling or confused and I finally have a taste of her world, the real world. That it would just take growing up to finally see that mothers are superheroes. Single moms are superheroes. Single black moms are superheroes. Badasses who told you so.