By: Iyabo Onipede – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
Here in the US we recently celebrated Mother’s Day. A couple of clients of mine do not have good relationships with their children and they keep reaching out, but the kids just don’t respond. The kids are busy with their own lives. The kids hate their moms and the moms don’t really know why. My clients were dreading Mother’s Day because they knew they would be lucky if they got a phone call.
These were not bad people from what I could tell. They did the best they could. One mother spent time in prison and the kids never forgave her even though she has gotten her life back on track and has accomplished a lot. These women are just mother’s whose relationships with their kids did not quite turn out the way they hoped.
On Mother’s Day, I put a post out on Facebook applauding such mothers. It was an interesting post to me as it was a spur of the moment post. I mentioned how the Bible asks us to honor our mother and father, so our lives would be long. I was reflecting on why that is the only one of the ten commandments that has a “reward.” I waxed poetic about mothering and I also said sometimes, honoring our parents means keeping our distance if the relationship was abusive.
I was thinking of myself also as I wrote this Facebook post and how I always wanted to be a mother but after four miscarriages and a host of other “life” issues, that did not happen.
I was surprised at the attention this post got. I had several private messages in my inbox and several comments on the post that were quite negative. I was even asked to take down the post as it was the kind of thing that endorsed abusive behaviors from mothers to children and also promoted glorifying womanhood. Some of the comments also indicated that it was anti-feminist of me to glorify motherhood.
I was stunned. At first, I tried to show that I did give “an escape clause” by saying that you should honor from afar if it was an abusive situation but when I got about 10 different women responding to my initial comment, I took a step back.
I sent a couple of messages to women I know and trust and asked them to read my statements and tell me what my blind spot was.
It turns out that this was a cultural issue! Yup! Culture! Not a blind spot but culture!
Every woman that had a problem with my post was a white woman. On the surface, it is too easy to say it is a racial issue. I don’t think it had anything to do with race. I think it had to do with culture. So, I explored that in conversation with several white women. Turns out that “White Mothering” is different from “Black Mothering.” Who would have thunk?
I am going to write about this from the following perspectives: African American, Yoruba (my Nigerian tribe) and White American.
When I went to seminary in mid-life, my younger African American classmates called me “Auntie.” I am much older than them and they would consider it rude to just call me by my first name. I was old enough to be their mother’s so this was a way of indicating respect. This position of Auntie is awesome. I get to be cheeky to them, boss them around, ask them to do all sorts of errands for them and periodically, I feed them. They come to me for advice and they see me as a source of wisdom. The way they treat me is like a respected older sister or Aunt. I loved every moment of it.
I had a relationship with my pastor’s wife for over thirty years. A glorious African American woman, she passed away a couple of years. I was closer to her than my own mom and I called her “Mother.” Everyone knew that she and her husband were my adopted “parents.” I did not have bad parents for me to adopt another set of parents. Nope. I just loved them, and they loved me and so they became my parents. Especially because I lived far away from my biological parents, they filled a void in my life. They knew and loved my parents, and no one had an issue with me having a mummy, a daddy, a dad and a mother.
This encounter I had with an older precious gentleman friend of mine reveals how the Yoruba, my Nigerian tribe, conceives of motherhood. My friend and I have known each other for many years and Dr. Lucas is now in his eighties. He visits the United States periodically and one evening after a lovely dinner, we walked the long hallway to his hotel room in some swank downtown Atlanta hotel. He had awful cataracts and would not have them removed until he finished writing his memoirs because he was scared of becoming blind as a result of the surgery. So, he wore these glasses that magnified his eyes a hundred times it seems like.
As we walked down this hallway, my arm in his arm to give him some support as his steps were somewhat wobbly, I talked about my regret of not having children. He stopped abruptly, under a chandelier of a thousand lights, and said these unforgettable words, “Don’t you remember? Iyabo, don’t you remember?” His eyes, reflecting the lights above his head, danced as they were magnified with solemnity, he turned towards me and said, “You do remember don’t you dear one?”
Puzzled, I stopped and turned to him and he grabbed both my hands in his. I said, “Remember, what?”
He whispered, “Don’t you remember that you told your children not to come? Don’t you remember that you told them that you loved them so much you did not them to come? You did not want them to come because this world is too wicked. You did not want them to experience any pain.”
My brow deepened into a frown as I did not fully understand what he was saying. Why were we whispering secrets in a hotel hallway, I thought?
His voice softened, and he gently yet passionately, he said, “You made the choice to protect them. Don’t you see? You are the best mother in the world.”
I was transported to another space and time. I imagined four little babies and me telling them, “The world is too wicked. I do not want you to experience any pain. Don’t come. I love you too much to see you suffer.” I imagined what that would have felt like to utter those words. My chest swelled with emotion as I tried to comprehend what my precious friend was telling me.
As tears welled up in my eyes, I shook my head, still trying to understand this otherworldly conversation. My old friend said, “This is how the Yoruba [tribe] treat women who do not bear children and because you made the ‘choice’ to not have children, you are not only the best mother in the world, but you become the mother of all the children. You have the most children of all women because you love children more than anyone else.”
We resumed our walk down the hallway in silence as I fought tears. At his door, he patted me on the back, gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He was so frail, I wondered if I would ever see him again. I took deep breaths and pulled those tears back. We said our goodbyes. I expressed gratitude for his healing words.
I walked back to the elevator alone and saw a two-seater sofa in the hallway, I sat down heavily in it and wondered what just happened. I experienced cognitive dissonance. Dr. Lucas was a man of science, not given to sentiment. Yet, I knew his words were powerful as they touched a place in me that I had never explored.
Now, the tears flowed freely. I cried tears that I did not know existed within me. The depth of those tears was profound. My cells wept. My grief wept. Even my womb wept. I felt angelic presences around me and I tasted my tears knowing that the extra saltiness was regret leaving my body.
It was only for a few minutes but when I was done, I was done. When I got up, I straightened my skirt out, took a deep breath, stood tall, and felt a wave of pride come over me. “I am a wonderful mother,” I muttered under my breath. “I’ve got lots of babies!”
By the time I got to my car, I had a smile on my lips.
I was a mother to all the children. All of them.
From that day forward, I never felt a void again about not having children. Somehow, I felt the distinctive resonance of “truth” in my old friend’s statement and I knew that my not having kids although I wanted them not a mistake or even a defining factor in my life.
The mythology of my Yoruba culture healed my heart, my soul and the emptiness of my womb. It is a mystery to me. But it was a powerful healing experience.
I always wanted children. Many people do not believe I don’t have kids because I am often described as “nurturing.” Yet, life does what life does and here I am. I do feel whole though. But healing had to come through a cultural lens for me.
Now, let’s talk about what motherhood means for white American culture. My experience of white American culture is that motherhood is very narrowly defined. It is that woman who birthed you or adopted you. As an African woman, I can have twenty women in my life that I call “Mother,” or “Mom” but not so in white American culture.
Also, it seems to me that white American culture permits criticisms of mothers. African American and African cultures extend a particular grace and forgiveness to mothers. They are allowed to get away with a lot. And even when they are awful, horrible mothers, there is still a communal respect for motherhood. And in those contexts, when you are not properly parented by your mother, there is always some auntie or mother hanging around somewhere to love on you and scold you all in the same breath.
Please don’t get me wrong: There are bad, horrible mothers, regardless of the race or culture. But how the culture frames motherhood is also a huge factor in how we relate to mothers.
I believe this is why the responses to my Facebook post were from a narrow interpretation of motherhood. I did not understand this at the time because that is how our cultural lenses work. We think our considerations are the only ones out there. Implicit in my Facebook post was this broader understanding of motherhood and the cultural respect my socialization gives to the mere fact that the female body is created and designed for creativity and birthing babies. The actual birthing of the babies and nurturing them is not the issue. The real blessing I was proclaiming was on the energy of mommyhood.
I consider motherhood a wonderful lens to explore cultural difference. It is a fairly safe subject, but I was quite shocked as to the huge difference in interpretation.
I wonder, how do you define motherhood and has this post helped you see, that from a cultural lens, motherhood is defined differently?
Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).
Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).
Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com
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