Somewhere underneath my bed in my childhood room there is a notebook full of pages of 12-year-old me telling my mother in frantically slanted handwriting that I am human and angry. One of her favorite lines whenever she caught a whiff of my audacity to feel angry was: I suggest you fix your face. Quiet. Tight-lipped. A promise she never had to keep with that invisible but implied “or else.” There was no place for silent disobedience; not when she fed me, clothed me, took me on vacations, and did the very best to show me she loved me. What valid reason could I have for being any kind of upset with her about anything? What right? She’s my mother.
In the face of difficult times she often reminded me that I come from a long line of strong, Black women and mothers. Davis women cry when we need to, but we don’t break down.The weekend my parents made their annual trip to Chicago it had been a year since I ended my relationship with my son’s father. It had been a year of wanting to do just that — crawl up, fall out, and allow myself the time and space to get through it however I could. I could only ever sigh and nod through the phone in response to the charge to pull myself together.
We decided to spend an afternoon at the park. On a perfect 75 degree day I wanted to show my son how to fly a kite. I remembered how calming and freeing it felt to watch the kite’s colors and tail whipping in the wind, doing something only possible when dreaming. After so much turmoil in a year — he and I figuring out how to be a household of two — I wanted us to do something fun; something he might come to love us doing together, outdoors in the sun.
He was excited to try kite flying, ready to be a master of the craft and see Lightning McQueen soar in the sky. I showed him that it begins with running opposite the wind with a slow release of the string through your fingers once it is airborne. The kite dove nose first into the ground again and again. He skulked back, dragging it along in the dirt or threw himself to the ground. He quickly learned flying a kite isn’t easy and with each try he became increasingly frustrated. There just wasn’t enough wind. I explained that it wasn’t him. It wasn’t his fault the kite wouldn’t fly. Just have fun. Can’t we just have some fun together?
The kite is stupid! The kite is stupid! I’m stupid! I’m so stupid! Leave me alone! Stop talking to me!
This was the same kind of distress he’d recently displayed in the grocery store when tight-lipped and quiet I told him to put back a candy bar he’d dropped into our bag. No harm done. But he broke out in tears and wails of I’m stupid! loud enough for every person in the checkout lines to hear. His distress was a dichotomy of real and unchecked, a tug between being myself as a mother and the ones I was raised by. I pulled him close to me, told him I love him, to not say those things to himself about himself, that we all make mistakes, and tried to get us out of there as fast as possible.
After the last kite defeat, he ran to sit on the side of the playground, huffing, puffing, and turning his back to me. I was hurt. We were both hurting in our own ways. I saw my mother watching us; a true momma hawk. I couldn’t fix my face when I sat on the bench next to her, struggling to put the kite back in its packaging.
I explained to my mother what happened. He just needs a minute. He got frustrated with the kite and told me he doesn’t want me to talk to him.
He’s 5. He doesn’t need a minute.
I will go over there. He doesn’t need to be coddled right now.
I’m not going to coddle him.
YOU’RE NOT HELPING ME RIGHT NOW!
I shouted at my mother.
In front of another Black family standing close by.
Afraid, shocked and shaking I told her, very out loud, that I needed her to stay here. I would be the one to talk to him because I knew what he needed: space to feel his own sense of hurt, anger, disappointment, and even blame. It was more than the kite. He was carrying big emotions in such a small body, and in my bigger body, I knew their weight made no adjustments for size. He needed to know that regardless of how old he is, or what role I play in his life, he is free to feel as a part of his humanity; that what goes on inside his head and heart is real and valid. Her jaw locked and her face tightened the way it had when I was a child and behaved out of line, but this time, without any pushback or scolding, my mother sat back down.
I afforded my son what I felt I wasn’t as a child: the freedom to honor and express all of his true feelings to me.
I told him I didn’t mean to yell. I apologized for doing so, and together we used our words to talk through our kite experience.
A few days after my parents returned home I had a chance to explain to my mother what my son’s emotional needs would be for his upcoming visit with them. I knew she wasn’t happy with my “talking back” to her, but she claimed she didn’t think any more about it after it happened. I didn’t entirely believe that, but I did believe she was proud. I wasn’t just her daughter. I was a mother, and I was becoming the mother she raised me to be, which is to say, a brand of mother outside of the ones in our family who raised us. I was becoming stronger in exactly who I was and the type of mother I needed to be for my son. As I opened up to her about my son, his father, and I being in family therapy she listened and understood. I didn’t have to fight or keep silent. We were two strong, Black mothers mothering.
Click here to read our interview with Jennifer Steele.
Jennifer Steele is a native of Middletown, CT, and a current Chicagoan, and received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2008. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Revolving Door Arts alongside her service to the young people of Chicago through her work at Chicago Public Library. She is a 2015 fellow of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and her work has appeared in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Callaloo, Columbia Poetry Review, and others. She is the author of the chapbook A House In Its Hunger (Central Square Press, 2018)
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