Every year as Mother’s Day approaches, we are surrounded by gifts to purchase for the person who birthed us. We sift through cards that read things like “a mother’s unconditional love,” “thank you for always supporting me,” and “you’re the world’s best mom.” This is always a tough time of year for me and many like me who don’t have healthy relationships with their mothers. Reading these words just doesn’t resonate.
There are levels to the kind of disconnect one can have with their mother. Some mothers are abusive and neglectful while others smother, shame and gaslight. Healing is necessary for all of it. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long, ugly and beautiful process.
My Mother and Me
When my mother was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up she enthusiastically answered “a mom!” I’m sure the adult who asked her this was shocked and may have burst out laughing like most do when children say things that seem too grown for their age. My mother was serious though. She is the fourth out of six children, loved being around family, and couldn’t wait to be married and have children of her own. So in 1987 she had me.
My mother carried me for almost 10 months. Standing slightly above five feet, I can only imagine her wobbling around Brooklyn in the 80s begging for me to finally introduce myself to the world and to her. After all, she’d been waiting to meet me ever since she was a little girl.
On September 11th at 12:15 p.m. I finally made my grand entrance via C-section. She’s always quick to mention that she bears an ugly horizontal scar because they had to cut her to get me out. Growing up this reminder usually came up when she felt I needed to be checked, but we’ll get to that later.
Like many Black mothers, my mom was left to raise me and my younger brother without my father. Luckily, she had my grandmother to help her carry the load but she was still considered a single parent.
My mother had very high expectations for me. I’m sure she had these expectations from when she pictured her “perfect daughter” as a child. She wanted me to be strong, smart, beautiful, drive a nice car, marry a rich man and be her best friend (a.k.a. tell her every little detail about my life). These were her dreams for me, similar to the dreams many mothers have for their daughters.* And it may sound really sweet but the truth is: children do not exist to live someone else’s dream of who they should be.
Cycles of Power and Control
I was a very sassy child. I think that says a lot about my independent and fiery spirit but my mom would disagree. She encouraged me to stand my ground and set boundaries but not when it came to her. This is very confusing for a child who’s trying be her carefree black-girl self. This was the foundation of the power dynamic that continued to brew in our relationship. The idea that “you can be a strong and independent person but when it comes to me, you do as I say and don’t ask questions!” is rooted in the power and control that many black mothers try to impose on their daughters.
The power and control that exists in parenting is not isolated. I believe it stems from cycles of parenting. My grandmother had major control issues with my mom so it was natural for my mother to think that’s the ideal way to be a parent. I watched my mom hide in a closet as my grandmother came down the stairs to our basement apartment screaming and yelling and threatening to kick us out onto the street. I watched my mother be so fearful yet un-phased at the same time because she knew my grandmother was just upset for that moment and “didn’t really mean it”. A few hours later, I would see them eating dinner together, gossiping and laughing with Haitian music playing in the background. It was as if nothing happened. I saw this dynamic play out between them throughout my childhood and I was confused. My grandmother said really hurtful things, didn’t apologize, and my mom didn’t expect it because “grandma didn’t really mean it.” Their relationship taught me that sometimes people do things that are really messed up and they don’t have to be accountable for their actions because they love you. That’s some twisted shit. Cue the abuse I would then experience at the hands of a woman I dated for three years. She had that same mindset. I guess this is why mental health professionals ask us so much about our childhood.
Impact and Accountability
We miss out on a lot when we don’t have a healthy relationship with our mothers. When the very person who is supposed to love us unconditionally and support us does the opposite, there is an internal quake. We become forced to seek this kind of love elsewhere (insert chosen family and community). Romantic relationships and friendships are impacted. Specifically, the relationships we have with the women in our lives (insert mommy issues). If we feel abandoned by the person who birthed us, it becomes very believable that our partner will stop loving us for who we are. That they too will lash out on us when we disagree with them. That they too will hurt us and never take responsibility for the pain they’ve caused. The impact is as heavy as a thousand chains wrapped around our bodies.
The key to addressing this impact is accountability. It is imperative to have critical conversations and spiritually confront the complex relationship that some of us have with the Black woman who raised us. The relationship between a Black mother and her daughter is a complex one largely due to generational trauma. In my household growing up, the Black mothers didn’t apologize to their children. I distinctly remember hearing my mother’s older sister say that she doesn’t believe in saying sorry to a person younger than her. This was especially hard for me to grasp because there was so much harm done with no apology. Acknowledgement of a mother’s harm through an apology may not suffice for everyone but for me it is a great first step in the healing process.
I didn’t talk to my mother for over a year because I was tired of how she used power and control in our relationship. I was tired of how she would throw things that were out of my control in my face whenever I didn’t do what she wanted. This behavior mirrored the abuse that showed up in my last romantic relationship because it was based on the idea that “loving you means I get to control you and when things go bad… I get to hurt you where it hurts the most.” That’s the kind of love I want to steer clear of. Because of cycles of unhealed and ignored trauma, some of our mothers don’t know how to love us in the healthiest ways. Our Black mothers have to heal through their shit first. If not, their trauma and pain will be passed on to their children.
I am convinced that the hardships that exist between a Black mother and daughter are based on survival as well as oppression. History shows that Black mothers have had to make countless sacrifices to ensure their own survival as well as their daughters. The abuse they faced trickled down to us and as they teach us to survive in a world that disregards and dehumanized us, an act of oppression occurs that supersedes tenderness, acceptance and support. Black mothers can get so caught up with trying to prepare us for the cold world that they in turn become frozen with their daughters. But the same way the impact of trauma can be passed on through generations, a culture of accountability and resilience can too.
This is why I believe in the transformative power of healing politics. To practice a healing politics means acknowledging trauma, holding yourself accountable for its impact, and stressing the importance of resilience when navigating a world that often overwhelms us with hurt. Healing is essential for those of us who have strained relationships with our mothers; just as it is essential to living a life that finds a way to thrive through the pain.
Hailing from Brooklyn, East New York, with Haitian blood running through her veins, Jewel Cadet is deeply rooted in a concern for the rights and freedoms of black girls, femmes and trans & cis women. As a community organizer, Jewel boldly claims all of her intersecting identities as she fights for her freedom and the freedom of those around her.
*The term daughter is gendered as fuck. It literally means a girl or woman in relation to her parents. In writing this piece I aim to include everyone who has been socialized by their mother, as a daughter with the understanding that all those who have been socialized this way do not all identify as such. And for those who were socialized as daughters and don’t identify as such. I see you. You are forever worthy of an accountability and healing process as well. Your pain is valid. For those who had a Black woman give birth to you but didn’t raise you, you deserve accountability too. I believe that one must acknowledge that harm has been done in order to start the healing process. You deserve that. We all do. And when we don’t get it from the one who has caused us harm, we can find a way to give that to ourselves through our chosen family and community.