Mama didn’t like what I fed the baby. Give that child a bottle and call it a day.

Mama didn’t like when I fed the baby. It’s every four hours—not every whenever.

She didn’t like “doctor-recommended” advice. I guess common sense isn’t common at all.

She said I didn’t swaddle the baby right. Wrap. Tuck. Fold. Simple.

I held the baby wrong too: My grip was supposed to be tight. I can just look at that poor child and tell she’s uncomfortable.

And why the hell was I holding the baby so much anyway? According to mama, I carried her too much. Fussed too much. Thought too much. Read too much. Bought too much.

Mama was too much.

In hindsight I should’ve known we might butt heads. Mama and I hadn’t spent concentrated, 24-7 time together since I was a child. Back then, she said I could be anything I wanted to be. I believed her.

After high school, I left the cold, gritty gray of Buffalo for Northwestern University outside Chicago—the only school I’d applied to. My grades, SAT scores and essay were pretty good. Not great. Probably, I’d willed myself out of Buffalo, into the Medill School of Journalism. For my entire adult life mama and I were separated by hundreds of miles. She liked visiting me in Chicago. When I moved East, she loved visiting me in New York. Between visits, we talked on the phone all the time. Shared secrets. Laughed. I liked to think we were close despite the distance.

On an extraordinarily humane August day—clear skies with a southerly wind—we brought the baby home to the Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment my husband had renovated himself. Three bedrooms, plus outdoor space. By city standards, it was palatial. With mama in my cozy space of new motherhood, the walls began to close in upon me. Her scrutiny lurked in every room, every nook and cranny. I soon learned I had not only failed Baby Basics, but I had a slew of heretofore undiscovered shortcomings that needed her urgent attention.

  • Mama said I was not cleaning our wood floors properly. Damp mopping with vinegar was apparently the only way to go.
  • Mama said I needed to “do something” with my hair.
  • Mama said I should encourage my husband more often—praise him for changing a diaper, cleaning spit-up, and virtually every act of care giving he bestowed upon the creature borne of DNA he’d so willingly provided.
  • Mama said I should sleep when the baby slept—unless of course she sent me on an errand or two.
  • Mama said, that from the looks of my still-bulging belly, the doctors had maybe forgotten to deliver the baby’s hidden twin. She cracked herself up with that one.

I have no scientific proof, but I am pretty sure that in most families a new baby is a sweetly moving experience, rich in promise and emotion. I suppose mama felt some of that. Deep down. Right now, though, there was no time for snotty-nosed sentiment. This was all business. The feeding schedules, bedtime rituals and other baby regulations required her utmost attention and my meticulous compliance. Post-natal hormones sleep deprivation and new-mom vulnerability be damned.

We had a baby to raise. So what if the poor lil’ thing couldn’t yet see straight and her tissue paper thin skin still peeled daily. Rules were rules. And they were made to be followed. Naptime was naptime. Period. Only a fool would risk a child’s total ruination by jumping up whenever she cried. Not on mama’s watch. As she declared with dark foreboding on more than one occasion: “What you do at six weeks, you’ll do at 16!!” Usually this dire warning was accompanied by a raised eyebrow—her left, which was code for: “Go ahead with your fool self. Don’t act like I never told you.”

Mama had a plan to whip me into shape but good. She would make a mama out of me if it killed us. It nearly did.

Once while I nursed my baby in the quiet nursery, mama came in to pull my tiny newborn infant off my swollen breast—oblivious to the near-industrial strength powers of a baby’s suction-cup grip: “C’mon now… Let go. It’s bath time,” she cloyingly sang in a newly acquired grandmother lilt. When her grandchild wailed, mama would simply sing louder, often dropping a passive-aggressive comment (in baby talk, of course) on her way out—something like, “Thank you, Grandma. Silly mommy doesn’t hold me right.”

Even when mama left me to my own devices with the baby (a rarity), her judgments echoed in my head, largely because I could hear her in the next room. Mama always enjoyed gossip with her friends—“Sugar” and a core group of two or three women were like “other mothers” to my siblings and me. They called frequently to check on me. Mere seconds after gushing with grandma pride, mama would start in. Born lacking the filter mechanism that keeps most humans from disgorging any and all brain wave activities, mama felt she ought to share her observations of my amateurish maternal performance with everyone. In fact, she delighted in these chat fests.

Giirrrrrl… Bless her heart. She’s trying,” mama would crow—bemused as though I were a cute toddler attempting some grown-up feat. “Talking ‘bout what the doctor said and what the book said…I told her ‘Look, I raised three children….’” Technically, I suppose it was not gossip. Mama was basically repeating what she’d been telling me for weeks—albeit with more gleeful jeering than instruction. The conversations were always laced with boisterous laughter on her part and tsk-tut headshaking. She added the occasional “Hmph,” for high effect, punctuated by the “Uuuuuh-huh” and “Okay?” utterances without which an exchange between some black women would not be complete. Even more than all her arbitrary rules, these telephone exchanges grew old quickly.

A few times I’d considered calling her out on this behavior—giving mama a piece of my mind. “I am a grown-ass woman,” I wanted to blast, “not the butt of your amusement.” But then I barely had enough energy to shower and brush my teeth. And you’d have to know mama to understand what a futile exercise an open, heartfelt dialogue would be. She would accuse me of being overly sensitive. Very likely, the word “silly” would pass her lips. And, in the end, she’d laugh and give me a love tap on the forehead. To mama’s way of thinking, there was no downside to speaking her mind—no matter how hurtful. Any upset would be way beyond her comprehension. She’d argue—defiantly, “Look, I was just saying….”

That was about the closest she’d come to any kind of apology. It was hard to deal with. But for nearly 60 years, mama had practiced separating herself from emotions—beginning, I suppose, with the onslaught of shame and ridicule she endured from The Stepmother, who taunted her with insults like “You so black and ugly’ and “You ain’t shit.” Mama’s own mother died when she was just four years old. A few years later, her dad—my grandfather, Papa, remarried an excruciatingly miserable woman who brought several of own children to the marriage—light-skinned with “white people” hair. No telling who their daddy was or where he was. Soon after, Mama’s three sisters left Alabama for Mississippi—leaving her and her brother Dave behind, for some reason. Mama seldom spoke about it: What few sketches of her childhood I had came from family friends relatives, not mama herself. Asking questions yielded little or nothing because the “past is the past,” mama would always say, “no sense dredging it up.” What hurt her more than The Stepmother’s cruelty, I think, was Papa’s inability or refusal to recognize it. He worked for the railroad and was in and out of town frequently. When he was home, he tried in his own way to give mama and her brother extra love and attention. That usually meant slipping them treats and spare cash. Uncle Dave happily accepted while mama on the other hand refused—telling her father, “If you can’t give it to me in front of her, keep it.”

If she was detached from her own feelings, mama couldn’t really manage to put much stock into anyone else’s. It’s not like I have a psychology degree. But I tell myself that, partly because I believe it to be true and partly because I need it to be.

Mama meant well. Lord knows she did.

I think she desperately needed to keep life simple and on her terms. To her mind, there were only two ways of doing things: Her way and the wrong way. Take your pick. She saw it as her appointed duty to point out the error of your ways at every opportunity—to keep you from going out into the world “half-ass backward.” As my luck would have it, having mama on hand for this protracted visit gave her plenty of time to right my wrongs.

See, some parents dish out tough love when it is needed. Tough love was pretty much the only love mama knew. Like her coffee, it was strong, black and intense at every turn. For more than 30 years, I’d stood witness to mama’s love, running deep and hard. Its unwavering nature was fitting. Mama lived in a cut and dry, black-and-white world that left little or no room for almosts. As my father would learn nine years into their marriage, mama’s love was inherently unforgiving. I now know that it was not because she was so strong, but because she was delicate. Dad had his own ghosts—stories he didn’t tell or joke about. Like his mother up and leaving the South Carolina home she’d made with my grandfather and their six young children for a new life up North. He didn’t talk about how he subsisted on little food and no education to speak of as a boy. How much he wanted to be loved or how badly he needed to be taken care of. It’s little wonder that he took up with women all around town and squandered his paycheck—to the point where his penchant for three-piece suits, pocket watches and the like left his wife and kids groping around with the lights out and eating canned pork-n-beans.

Frailty was not an option for those who loved mama. She needed you to buck up—for your own good. It may have felt unrelentingly cold, but mama was only trying to help you when she tore you down. I knew that. Love, in the only form she knew, led her to this boot camp style of nurturing. It was preparation for all the difficulties she knew you’d face.

Sure, I wanted a little tenderness, but mama grew up in Birmingham with the scourge of Jim Crow outside her door—blocks away from the famous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls in 1963. And there was little safety in her home with The Stepmother who barely fed her, let alone loved her.

Mama didn’t do tender. From mama, you got the love you needed, not the love you wanted.

It was better this way. Life could chew you up and spit you out. And, as mama often reminded my siblings and me, “crying about it won’t do any good.” More than its stark lens, the hardest thing to accept about mama’s strong love was this: Usually she was right.

Like the time in third grade when I returned home from the first day at my new school—one of the six I attended from kindergarten to eighth grade. It had been a good day and I excitedly shared stories about my new friends. There was Orlando with the funny accent who was clearly smitten with me. There was a girl named Yolanda—the first with my name that I’d met in my whole life, despite the odd spelling. At recess, tons of kids invited me to play. Even the nuns seemed cool. This was going to be one great school.

After letting me babble on and on while she nodded obligingly, mama turned to look me straight in the eye and said matter-of-factly: “These kids are not your friends—until they prove it. And most of them never will.” When I looked up at her, visibly shaken, she took the time to break things down to my eight-year-old level, something she seldom did, so I knew this had to be important: “A friend is not a person who is nice to you. A friend is someone who is there for you.”

See? That’s what I’m talking about. No matter how mama’s words cut, you had to respect her gangster.

I knew well mama’s straight-no-chaser, brown juice tongue. I knew her implacable standards. I could sometimes remember, in vivid detail, nights when she woke my siblings and me in the middle of the night to address a mediocre chore performance: You call that floor clean? Mop it till you get it right! I knew that, like the James Brown song, “Mama didn’t take no mess!”

What I hadn’t counted on was the idea that by giving birth and mothering my baby I could somehow, once again, fall short. Call me crazy, but I thought mama would be pleased with me. I thought—hoped—she would appreciate (maybe even respect?) the woman I’d become. I’d borne her first grandchild, after all. And she’d waited a long time. Not that she minded or complained because I’d done this baby thing the “right” way: finished school, gotten married. Not like some of her friends’ daughters who had produced “illegitimate” kids.

There were many, many things mama was adamantly against: streaked windows; dingy underwear; ashy knees and elbows; stained tile grout; and toilet rings among them. But “bastards” were near the top of the list. She’d drilled into my sister and me (my brother too, for that matter) that we were not to bring home any bastard babies. She’d have no parts of it. My sister and I were ordered to keep our panties up and our dresses down. Period. She reminded us constantly that, “I’ve raised my children. I have no plans to raise yours. If you want to have sex and act all grown, you best get the hell up out of here.”

Maybe it was pregnancy brain, but in the weeks leading up to mama’s arrival I had apparently erased all traces of history and reality. I somehow expected Grandma-mama to be totally different from mama-mama. Nothing about new motherhood was going as planned. There was no dewy-eyed joy between mama and me. Mine were the only teary eyes between us. And I hid them—sneaking to the bathroom after mama’s well intended scoldings. Weeks after giving birth, I felt like mush—literally and figuratively. Vaginal walls were still bleeding and sore. Brain cells, if not dead, were on life support. My once strong frame felt doughy and fragile. The body that had easily boxed a few rounds in the gym a month prior was now winded walking up the block. The baby was beautiful (in a bug-eyed guppy kind of way). Despite her scrawny looks at five pounds and change, she was healthy. And I loved her with a force that was so strong I could feel the earth shifting around me.

On the flip side, this deep love and all that came with it had rocked my world emotionally. I was both overjoyed and overwrought. One minute I was intoxicatingly happy just looking at my baby. The next, I felt like she was holding me prisoner and I wanted nothing more than for her to get up off me. Moments later, her quiet would awaken me from a sound sleep. Is she breathing? Did she die in her sleep? Then, once up, I’d spend the next several hours wracked with guilt over my selfish non-maternal thoughts. I didn’t deserve my baby; I was uncaring, unfit and unhinged. Just a hot mess.

If I hadn’t known better, I might’ve thought I was suffering some form of postpartum depression. Maybe. No one I knew had ever talked about it directly. There were magazine articles about it that I skimmed over. I had a few of the signs, I thought. But then I’d catch myself, quickly come to my senses—uh-uh, not me. Just saying the word, “depression,” brought on anxiety. Mama, like many of her generation, had always dismissed that kind of psychobabble. I mean, everyone knows that black women don’t have time to be depressed. We are far too busy, too practical, too strong and too—I don’t know, too black, I suppose, for that nonsense. When you’re a strong black woman you don’t sit in quiet reflection or take to your bed in despair like some pinafore-wearing soap opera character. You get up e’ry day—like the old folks say, put one foot in front of the other and keep on keeping on. In other words, you did like mama.

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