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Black motherhood and survival: what my mother has taught me

22 May 2017

My conscience is the sound of my mother’s voice. I hear it echoing in the back of my mind whenever I do something I know she’d disapprove of. Sometimes it’s scrutinizing, sometimes it’s cautionary, but most of the time it’s just concerned. Though I often try and resign myself to just not caring, truthfully I know that my mother’s disappointment, second to her worry, is my biggest fear. I’ve been thinking a lot about my conscience, and specifically about emotional and psychological burdens. Both my mother’s and, in turn, the ones she has laden me with over the years.

I find that it’s sometimes all too easy to forget that our mothers had their own lives before motherhood. That they argued with their parents, laughed at terrible jokes, lamented the loss of close friends, had doubts about their faith, hated their clothes, and spent long melancholic summer evenings contemplating the direction their lives would eventually take. For a lot of women, motherhood snatches away these memories, eclipsing them with the newest priorities in their lives: their children. Despite its often-touted (and false) status as ‘the pinnacle of womanhood’, motherhood is in fact characterized by a series of painful dichotomies and unattainable expectations.

It is a political and public act of sacrifice and redemption. Mothers are praised, but left isolated. They can neither be too selfish, for fear of being neglectful, nor selfless for fear of being too soft. Black womanhood and motherhood are inextricably linked – regardless of whether they have children or not, black women are unfairly expected to be nurturing, healing, and mothering. In actual motherhood, this demand becomes unfathomable for black women. I know that in some way motherhood stripped away a lot of my mother’s own sense of being. She was no longer a woman moving through the world at her own pace or in her own time. She felt forced to identify and define herself within the confines of maternal parameters.

My mother’s upbringing was one in which discipline, in its extremities, was not just common, but paramount. For her, there was more discipline than there was affection. She was born in Germany in the 1960s to a military father, and spent the first few years of her life growing up there in a very much authoritarian household. After relocating back to Cameroon as a teenager, she eventually left for the UK in her early twenties to be with my father, who was about to embark on his PhD in the UK. She left her family, her education, and all her own aspirations and pursuits behind to live in Cambridge, where she worked multiple jobs as a cleaner and a caterer to support my father while he studied. Despite leaving Cameroon at a young age, with no real idea about what she was going to do or what future she had in the UK, my mother insists that she knew she’d be more successful here than back home. For her, the definition of success was different to how I see it today – for her it meant a home, a steady income, and a family before all else. Before the qualities that define success for me: mental well-being, peace of mind, self-discovery, and satisfaction.

White supremacy and misogynoir inherently rob black women of their virtue; we constantly have to prove our right to our own existence by demonstrating our value within society. One way many black women try to recover this virtue is through the achievements of their children.  They use the accomplishments of their children as a tool to recover worth and honour by conforming to the ideals of a white neoliberal oppressor. With the added pressure of being an immigrant mother, it becomes almost inevitable that they invest their hopes for a more fruitful life in their children. However, it results in arbitrary competitions over whose child is the most successful, even the most profitable. It becomes an endless cycle of narcissistic projection; this longing for perfection only yields black children who do the exact same thing: children who set themselves impossibly high standards for their own existence.

Single parent BME households are one of the most vulnerable groups within the UK. They are continually denounced, isolated, and unfairly prosecuted through stereotypes and accusations across all media. I can sense how becoming a single mother has changed my mother – she acts as if she has something extra to prove to everyone, including herself. As her daughter, my mother comes down hardest on me because I know that she expects me to empathise – we’re both looking for God in all the same places. My mother uses me as a mirror – she projects onto me all of her ambitions, ideals, and longings, as well as her fears, delusions and angers. It can feel irritating at best and completely suffocating at worst. I don’t want to disappoint her, as I feel like doing so would be a disservice to all her endeavours and afflictions, and the life she gave up for the sake of motherhood. So, in turn, I do the little things I can to make her life a bit easier. I try my best in school, I look after my siblings, and when I know the pain of hearing something would hurt her, I simply keep it to myself. I’m aware of the amount of labour, discomfort and grief that she has experienced, and in a lot of ways I feel guilty for that – a weird sense of responsibility.

I’ve witnessed my mother’s hardships, her distress, and her strife – I know that she is worn to thin skin, and I could never face the possibility of being behind any more pain that she endures. But at the same time, I have to realise that I cannot live for her. As much as I would- and even sometimes feel like I should – I can’t. It’s one of the most tasking elements of my life, trying to reconcile my mother’s expectations of me with the personal vision and direction I have for my own life. Not letting my mother’s sacrifices be in vain, but also acknowledging that I have the right to my own agency and decisions.

But where do I go from here? It’s still difficult to say out loud, but before I am anyone’s daughter I am my own person, and I’ve realized that constantly trying to please my mother is a fruitless endeavour. She will always want more from and most importantly for me – not for any malicious reason – but simply because she’s my mother. I am proud of her for noticing her mistakes – for watching, learning, and realising what kind of child I was- and trying her best to accommodate for me. It wasn’t, however, always easy. It took a lot for me to learn not to project my frustrations onto her as well. All I wanted from her was more and more and more but I now understand that she was, like me, just a woman trying her best to survive.

My conscience is the sound of my mother’s voice.  From time to time I listen to it, but I’m learning to listen to the sound of my own too.