Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Sweetheart, you have to wait."

Let me preface this post by saying that I have never been a single mother and I have no doubt in my mind that it presents a lot of challenges and difficulties different and more complex than what I deal with as a married mother. But in a general way, motherhood changes things in the life of a woman dramatically forever--sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in not so positive ways. Sometimes the positivity of it has to do with perspective and how your mind processes what you are experiencing. Sometimes it's just universal: surviving on 3 hours of (broken) sleep during the early months of a child's life is just not pleasant. There are not two ways about it. I think one thing we can agree on is that mothering shifts (or should shift) our focus from ourselves to our children. What is interesting is the degree to which that occurs. For some mothers it seems to be a total shift. For others, not quite.

I recently subscribed to Brain, Child magazine and while I generally like to read the interesting and thought-provoking articles, I was annoyed by one article in particular called "Sugar Mama" by Andrea McDowell in which she writes:

"Without another adult around to blunt the demands of child and housework, taking care of my disease slips aside. How can I make the blood test a priority when the person I love more than anyone else in the world is standing by my knees, pleading for apple juice?"

I wanted to just scream. Who is going to get that apple juice if you are dead? This kind of reasoning just doesn't make any damn sense to me. I get it . . . single motherhood places all the responsibility for the well-being of your child squarely on your shoulders. The author stresses that while married she'd let things like changing the sheets and washing the dishes slip but as a single mother, she feels she can't let any little thing go undone because of societal pressure (she's trying to counteract the societal assumption that she's doing irreparable harm to her child by being a single mom) and her own pressure (driven by feelings of guilt).

But is your child hurt? About to do something daring and dangerous? Is their demand life or death?

I also get it. The guilt . . . feeling like you've taken something away from the child. Her father. Her old house. How things used to be. You don't want to deny your child anything else. But at some point, you have to realize that if you left for legitimate reasons, you did the best for the child. Why neglect yourself, over-exert yourself to the point of harming yourself to try to make up for it? What are you talking about? Why are you being so overly dramatic? And also, this sets up a dangerous dynamic between mother and child since children are quite intuitive. This child will soon realize that mom has guilt issues and will indulge, indulge, indulge to try to make up for the way things are. That's not a good dynamic at all.

Like I said, I've never been a single mother so I may not be being completely fair. I may even be being harsh. I do not know how heavily that guilt weighs down on divorced moms. It may be all-encompassing and paralyzing at times.

But I've heard similar arguments for maternal neglect from mothers in relationships too . . . Oprah did a show about the things mother's let "slip" now that they've got children. Mother's admit to not taking a shower for days on end and other nastiness that folks really shouldn't be admitting to on national television.

And, you will notice, that none of these "confessors" are women of color. I don't know if it's a cultural thing. Maybe we do indulge in some of this self-neglect but we won't admit to it. Basic things though, like bathing, making sure we look presentable in public and taking life-saving medicine we generally do to the best of our ability. We might not be able to achieve pre-child levels but these things don't just get thrown under the bus. At least the Black mothers I know--single or not. Because if mama is dead or dirty, the real sufferers are the children anyway.

Of course mainstream media tries to make it seem like Black mothers are just not as "attached" to our children as White mothers. We don't prioritize our kids to the extent that White women do. Supposedly, we don't even put as much thought into having our children. We're perfectly happy having four or five kids by eight different men (because who can keep track anyway?) while living in poverty and squalor. I think mainstream media gets this idea from the fact that most Black, at least those I know anyway, do not make a total shift when children come along. At least not for long (I generally excuse those first few months).

Could it be because of our histories? Is it a wisdom passed down from generation to generation? I hear Kahlil Gibran again . . . "Your children are not your children . . . ". They grow up. They move out. They stop needing you. It's just foolhardy to neglect yourself under the guise of taking care of your child--single or not.

Yes, self-esteem issues do come into play when talking about this topic. There are Black women who do seem to put everyone else ahead of themselves to the detriment of their own health and well-being. So maybe it is just that not many of us are willing to out ourselves in articles and on TV. But I have to be honest . . . apple juice over blood sugar testing? Most Black women, I think, would say, "Sweetheart, you have to wait till mama is done." And let the child pitch a fit if they want.

Look, I have to have my toenails looking in tip-top shape at all times. Even in winter. It's my thing. Plenty of times, I've told my kids they would just have to hold their horses until the polish dries. Then I'd get whatever they need. The hubby is not here to get it. They have to wait. And that's not even a life and death kind of thing.

Anyway, back to the article. Maybe this author is peculiar all around regardless of her race because in all honesty, I don't know if she's White or Black. But from the tone of the article, I'm assuming she's White. Maybe she does have self-esteem issues that resulted from her divorce (or failed marriage). Maybe she feels like a failure deep down and that is why she refuses to or can't prioritize her health. That's a very real possibility. McDowell does make some salient points like her fear of falling into a diabetic coma and her daughter finding her that way. The solution, though, seems like something that any mother, single or married would do: put an emergency number on speed dial and practice with the child calling that number. At the very least, we generally all teach our children to dial 911. She also talks about her worry about the unseen ways in which the divorce has affected her young daughter. And she talks about what I think if I were a single mother would be my biggest stress: knowing that I just can't drop the ball because there's no one to pick up the slack. There's no back-up plan. As a single mother, you are the one and only plan especially with no support system in place. But for me, I think, that would be all the more reason why I just couldn't neglect something as important as keeping my diabetes in check.

But maybe it's just me. My mother has severe asthma and has had it most of her life. I remember being acutely panicked as a child, scared out of my pants watching my mother gasp for air and turn blue while we hoped and prayed the inhaler worked. Watched on more than one occasion her being rushed to the hospital because it wasn't working. Her asthma was not well controlled. Diabetes is not asthma. I know there are significant differences especially in the area of controlling it so I can't draw a direct comparison. But if my mother had at her disposal things she could do to make it more manageable, as an adult I can truthfully say I would have wanted her to do it. I might not have been happy as a child to wait the 10 minutes it took her but as an adult, I would have been grateful. It would speak volumes to me about how much she valued herself which for a girl child is of utmost importance. She would be saying, "No matter what is going on, no matter how much I have to do, no matter how many tasks I need to juggle, I will take good care of myself because I love myself and I love you."

Mothering is tough in a myriad of ways and I often wondered how single moms made it. I honestly have a profound respect for single mothers--especially divorced ones, i.e. ones who didn't make the choice from the outset to be single.


Shay said...

Gurl, this post is excellent! I have been a single Mama as well as a married Mama with a active involved husband. Even when I was a 21 yo single mama working multiple jobs, I still made time for things like bathing. It wasn't rocket science either, I simply got up an hour before my son and took care of my needs. I stayed up late if needed to take of things and to this day my son still remembers that Sat morning was the day we cleaned the house and did laundry.

I'm not trying to be cocky but considering I was able to do that as a young Black single Mama makes me leery of the Mamas (generally white and I hate to generalize) who act as if they can figure out how to do simple stuff when married with kids and they don't work outside the house. Come on to me!

As for this woman in the piece, taking care of herself is even more important because she is a single Mama. Apple juice or a snack can wait because if Mama goes into a diabetic comathat kid is going to be worse off.

I think a great deal of this is cultural yet my white girlfriends really don't see it that way. (check my FB page out) Yet time and time again its only my white buddies who struggle with things like pooping and showering while raising kids.

Its hard enough though being a single Mama without creating more stress for yourself. I know when i was a single Mama, I felt I had to take care of myself because at that time I had no way of knowing if my ex would pick up the slack.

Great post!

Chi-Chi, The Original Wombman said...

Thanks Shay . . . indeed, I'm amazed at all the extra stress folks like to create for themselves. And a single mom, I think it would be A1 priority to get rid of any unnecessary stress. And believe me, I know some single moms who seem to have it more together than I do. When you know there's no one to pick up the slack, it changes how you approach things dramatically. Thank for commenting.

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