When my son was born I had a lot to learn. I had a friend who had a baby, but she was so thrilled being a mom she wanted to do everything herself. After several months she let me try to change her diaper twice, but both times it fell off.
My husband was an expert. When he was in middle school his family kept a cousin’s baby until she could get her life together. His mother tells how he came home from school and immediately took charge of the baby, and how sad he was when the cousin came to get him, especially since her life wasn’t settled yet. When our son was born my husband taught me how to properly diaper, burp, bathe, and get snot out of his nose. I didn’t know that was a part of the deal.
Once I felt secure my son would survive, my worries shifted to raising a black boy in a racist society. He was adored by friends, and our Baha’i Faith Community and most of our family, but I worried about the rest of the world. Was there some trick to this that I needed to know? I asked my husband and he said the worst possible thing. “Ask my mother.”
I did not want to ask his mother. I was still trying to convince her I was worthy of her son, and that he was not a complete idiot for marrying a white girl. She gave us her blessing, but said she didn’t know why a black man would make his life harder by marrying a white woman.
“The Ask” was easier than I thought. My mother in law is a natural storyteller. She talked while making Sunday dinner which was an all day event. All I needed to do was offer to help, and pose one question while peeling potatoes. “So, what did you do to make George turn out so good?”
She laughed, and then told one story after another. Some were about her mistakes. She put too much responsibility on him. She had to work and he was the oldest. She had no daughters so he had to learn everything about cooking and cleaning. I thanked her for that. “He’s taught me how to clean, and I don’t cook!” She sighed and I realized I just revealed something I wish I hadn’t. But I think she already knew.
“Things will happen you can’t control and you have to make the best of it.”
I thought she was talking about me, but she then told a story about when he was three and broke his leg playing and was in the Cook County Hospital for six months. Visiting day was once a week. Some weeks she didn’t have a babysitter to watch his baby brother, or didn’t have bus money. When she came the following week he wouldn’t look at her. She sat and talked to him about how happy she was to see him again and kept talking and asking questions until he answered one. He grabbed her hand and didn’t let go until she had to leave. She never explained why she hadn’t come. She didn’t want him to blame his brother and he was too young to understand about money. When she left she said, “I am happy you are getting better and because when you are all better you will come home.” She learned to only make promises she could keep.
She did things other family members criticized. It was common for families to send their children down South to visit family who still lived there. She refused because she would have to teach them how to act around white people. This was in the late 50’s when breaking these rules could get you killed: don’t look at them in the eyes, don’t speak unless they speak to you, say “Yes Ma’am and Yes Sir” and say it like you are happy. If they are walking toward you get off the sidewalk, and if they ask you to run an errand for them don’t act as if they have lost their mind. And most important, never look or say anything to a white girl. “If I taught him that, no matter what I said about him being as good as white people, it would feel like a lie.” She witnessed the effect of that on friends and family, especially the men. “It would have broken his spirit.”
Nobody was allowed to use the “N word” or talk negatively about white people in her house because she didn’t want her boys to become hopeless and hateful. “There are good white people who will be helpful and if you distrust all of them, you miss opportunities.” She did not tell them they had to work harder than whites. She expected them to work as hard as they could and not attribute any failure to racial prejudice. Even if it was true, it wouldn’t be helpful because there was nothing they could do about it and it would discourage them from trying again.
She let them figure things out on their own, but intervened once. My husband’s high school put him in the vocation education track instead of college bound. If the school counselor had ever had a conversation with him, or saw him attempt to drill a screw, he would have known he belonged in college. His mother insisted her son be placed in the college track even though she had no idea they could send him to college. “Do your best and pray.” He won a theater scholarship for college, and that’s how we met. She laughed about that. “Be careful what you pray for.”
Throughout her stories there was a common theme. She protected his spirit.
I took that advice and ran with it. Every situation was evaluated accordingly. If family members didn’t fully accept my children, we didn’t visit them. We decided not to spank our kids. There were better ways to mold character. Not everyone in our family agreed. There was an uncle who said he loved kids, but believed all children needed a smack now and then. His stories sounded more like beatings to me. Even my adored mother-in-law talked about spanking a grandchild who got on her last nerve. So our kids never spent time alone with them.
When my son was kindergarten age, I investigated the neighborhood school. The children began each day writing a worksheet before they could do the more “fun” activities. I knew that boys often do not have the fine motor muscles to write until they are older. My son had difficulty holding a pencil and having perfectionist tendencies he became frustrated and discouraged. I imagined him struggling to write, and being the last one done. This boy who liked to contemplate infinity and announced one day that he figured out multiplication was fast adding, could be made to feel stupid. And his teacher might label him as slow or lazy. I’d worked in schools and knew how easily that can happen. I found a private school with a child centered curriculum that focused on each child’s strengths. They had the goal of integrating arts into all curricular areas so we worked out a tuition barter in exchange for my being an artist in residence.
Going to school with my children might have annoyed them, but it allowed me to check on their spirits. I think it worked because people ask me for advice on raising kids. “Yours turned out so good. How did you do it?”