On Mothering, White Privilege, And My Crooked Journey. Part II, of several
“Hi baby. Your name is E., for my mother. I love you. I love you so much. You are going to be such a happy girl, do you know that? Do you know how much we wanted you? I am so glad you are here, my beautiful girl. So very glad.”
Fifteen years ago, the OR nurses handed this screaming new human to D. and I and expected us to parent. That was a pretty big expectation to have for two people from dysfunctional backgrounds. But at this point? You can’t spell dysfunctional without USA. Everybody, it seems, has some level of crazy in their backgrounds. Those who don’t are lying and uninteresting and I am not talking to them anyway.
So. Back to the OR, where this beautiful being was pulled from my swollen womb after days of labor. This is not an exaggeration. I was admitted to the hospital on a Wednesday night and given a pitocin IV to start my labor. I learned that hard labor wasn’t just for exiled Russians: E. wasn’t born until Saturday morning.
Now, I loved the hospital and our comfy cozy ‘family’ room, with its couch and private bathroom. But I couldn’t help but notice the day after E. was born, when I was made to get out of bed and start walking around, that ‘my’ side of the hallway was awfully quiet. Quiet and private. Quiet and private and white. Oh my.
When I walked around the hallway, past the empty rooms on my side of the wing, there it was: the baby ghetto.
There, women and their babies were kept four to a room, the only privacy those thin curtains that screech when you pull them back. I remember thinking: Why the fuck are there four women — plus four babies! — to a room, when there are like, 10 empty rooms over on the other side? Keep in mind, I was still somewhat exhausted, so it took me all of 23 seconds to realize:
Oh, this is where the women who have state-paid health care give birth. On the other side of the hall.
The gotdamned back of the baby bus.
Fanfuckingtastic. My kid is all of 24 hours old, and already she’s reaping the benefits of not being born poor.
I asked a nurse about it. She said “those moms” had vaginal births, while I had a c-section, so I got my own room. Yeah, OK. So because you push a human being out of your honeyhole, you get the privilege of sharing your new baby, sore honeyhole, and bathroom, with three strangers? And because this was the city, “those women” were all women of color.
Total coincidence, I’m sure.
Welcome to the world, E.!! Your umbilical cord isn’t even scabbed over and your mom is going to give you an earful about how gotdamned lucky you are and how gotdamned unfair this big, ugly world is to people of color and the poor. How you are already blessed, because you have parents who have decent jobs and private health care. Oh, and white skin.
Sorry, Babygirl, but Mommy isn’t going to sugar-coat or white-wash the reality of the world for you.
You are perfect and unblemished and loved and wanted, just like those poorer babies born on the other side of the hall. Only, you are going to have an easier time of it. And I am grateful, E., don’t get me wrong. Because you, my precious little girl, deserve everything good the world has to offer.
And so do those other babies, born on the other side of the hall.
I knew what it was like to be seated on the other side of the hall. The poor side. The free gym uniform side. The free- or reduced-lunch side. The You People side. The side where the lunch lady looked down at your green ticket (reduced lunch!) or red ticket (free lunch!) and felt perfectly at ease commenting on your choices: Oh, you have money for extra chocolate milk, but not enough to pay for your whole lunch? That’s so typical of You People.
And you, all of 12 or 13, your eyes filling with hot tears of embarrassment, and hurt, and most of all, Rage: I have extra money because I babysat. This isn’t my mom’s money, this is my money.
The middle school lunch lady didn’t give a shit that my single mother was out of work and trying desperately to find a job. Or that she’d divorced her abuser after a decade of hell and, while he went on to a successful law practice, she had a high school education and three kids that his child support didn’t. As in, didn’t pay the actual cost of supporting and raising three kids. The lunch lady didn’t know that, before the economy soured and she lost her job, this child’s mom slung food and drinks for a living. That she put up with bullshit from men who thought their tips entitled them to grope her. And that kid’s mom had to smile and suck it up, because she couldn’t raise three kids on $2.01 an hour, which was minimum wage for waitresses, and she needed that tip.
My mom loved New York, and where we lived was a great place to be a kid. But she wanted something else, some other adventure, and so we landed in New England, two years before the Navy pulled out of town, leaving a void and a deep suck of empty houses and businesses in its wake. It took a while, but she found work as a waitress and then, as a bartender. She liked to drink, was social, had a great work ethic and a dysfunctional background; restaurant work was a good fit for her.
It never occurred to me to be embarrassed that she was a bartender until some of the older kids at the barn where I rode made fun of her. Like a lot of young riders, they were white kids of privilege. It’s an expensive sport; my mother paid for one lesson a week and so, in order to ride more and increase my time around the horses, I cleaned the barn in exchange for extra riding time.
For years, I was a barn-rat: it was a safe place, being amongst the horses, and I have always had a deep connection to animals. Even the mean ones, the grouchy ex-runners with quirky habits, liked me. The kids, though: most of them were entitled little fuckers with more money than grace.
R. was the gingeriest of gingers: his hair was blaze orange, like surveyor’s tape, and you could play connect the dots on the masses of freckles that spotted his whitewhitewhite skin. He never broke a sweat, even when shoveling acres of horsehit on a hot summer day. Where most of us wore t-shirts (because, hello? It’s a gotdamned BARN and flies and shit are SOP), R. wore buttondowns, always neatly tucked in, and his pants were spotless. He oozed barnboy glam. R. was the only child of older parents, and they spoiled the shit out of him. He got a car for his 16th birthday, his tack was Passier, his fieldboots Italian, his breeches custom made. He was funny in really bitchy way, and if he saw a weakness in a person, R. would latch on like a thirsty tick attaches itself to a dog in the hot summer.
One sunny fall Sunday D and DS and I went out for lunch after cleaning the barn. We were at a stoplight in front of the bar where my mom worked. They were busting my balls about her being a bartender, when suddenly, there she was: my mom, her boyfriend, and another couple, bursting out the side door. I froze in the backseat, praying they didn’t see. But of course the universe flipped me the bird.
My mom reached out and goosed her boyfriend.
OH MY GOD! R. laughed. YOUR MOTHER’S A WHORE!!!
She wasn’t, of course; that was her boyfriend and they were having fun. But not to R. He saw my look of mortification and that was that. So now I wasn’t only the poor kid at the barn, I was the poor kid whose mother was a drunk, bartender, whore, who grabbed men’s asses in public.
It was the lunch lady all over again.
I was too young to know what I know now: My mother, for all her faults, busted her ass to provide for us. She put up with a lot of garbage from garbage humans in order to give us a nice house, Levis instead of Toughskins, Schwinn instead of Huffy, Nike instead of, well, you get the picture. If people were going to mock us, it wasn’t because we “looked poor,” whatever that meant.
The junior high lunch lady was a real bitch, but I still did very well. I loved school, made good grades, was liked by my teachers, and I was popular because I wasn’t a douchebag.
High school, though. Jesus.
Unlike a lot of my friends, who couldn’t stand their nosy parents in high school, all I wanted was my mom. Not the one I had, but the old one. The one who did show up sometimes, before S., my oldest brother, broke his neck at the age of 20 and was paralyzed, for life, from the shoulders down.
S.’s ill-advised dive into a shallow pond triggered our mother’s deeper dive into the bottle; she went from drinking too much sometimes and staying out 3 nights a week, to drinking all the fucking time and staying out every night of the week. She stayed underwater — well, under the influence — for years, not emerging for a decade, long after I’d married and moved away (fled, actually).
But I needed her in high school. I needed my mother to be there and reassure me that it would be okay. I needed her to be there for S. so that I could have a ‘normal’ life. I needed back my mom who told me I was a brilliant writer. Who, when I was in elementary school and junior high, bragged about my good grades to her friends and customers. Who didn’t call me a fatworthlesspieceofshit so much that it came out (and still comes out, in my head) stacatto-like, as one word. Who at least pretended to enjoy mothering.
I wanted my mom to extract herself from the cognac bottle and start being my mother. Be the adult who took care of her quadriplegic son, instead of abdicating that responsibility to her teenage daughter. Come home from work and make dinner, instead of lying: “I’ll be home in fifteen minutes, as soon as I finish this drink.” (Of course, I was stupid and needy enough to want to believe that, so I asked that same question every fucking day: Ma, what time are you coming home? And every day I’d get that same fucking lie about being home in 15 minutes.)
I needed my mother to ask me about school, and nag me to do my homework. I needed my mom to insist that I continue riding, because it meant so much to me and it was the one sport I was really good at. I needed back the mom who would randomly take me out to dinner, just us, the two of us, and then go book shopping, or to the movies on Dollar Night for ladies.
Instead, I got the abusive, nasty drunk mom who hated being a mother. Who would scream at S. and me and curse our births. Who called my paralyzed brother a fucking burden, and me a fatworthlesspieceofshit and both of us A TRAP.
As if her life would have been so much better if we were dead.
What she didn’t seem to get, at that time, was there was a touch of sad irony: I couldn’t fucking stand being her kid anymore than she could handle being my mother, and I wanted me dead, too. I just didn’t want to give her the pleasure of winning that psychological warfare. So when I cut my wrist deep with a razor, I didn’t do it so deeply that I would die, just deep enough for people to notice. When I swallowed a bottle of aspirin, I was immediately regretful and also kind of scared, so I ran next door to my neighbor, Mrs. O., who made me drink raw eggs until I puked each soggy Bayer back up. And she talked and listened to me. And I decided that fuck no I didn’t want to die. I wanted to get the fuck out. So I got help from a school social worker when I was 15 — my first therapist — and eventually, I made it out.
That social worker saved my life. He could have given lessons to some of my teachers on how not to treat students from broken backgrounds. Like my geometry teacher.
From the moment I walked into her class wearing S.’s old ripped jeans, a Grateful Dead t-shirt, and Timberland boots, she didn’t like me. Taking attendance, she paused at my name: Squinting her eyes: Are you S&K’s sister? Yes. Yes I am.
From that second on, contempt. And disgust. And condescension. And meanness.
It was so unnecessary. While I was an honor roll student in junior high, neither of my brothers cared much for school. By the time I got to high school, the path had been pretty much laid out for what I was expected to be which, in my teachers’ estimation, was to be unmotivated and, well, kind of a loser. Like my brothers.
Both S&K had been arrested a few times: nothing serious, but in the early 80s getting pinched in our smallish town was ABIGFUCKINGDEAL.
The geometry teacher had had K. in her class and wasn’t impressed. What was clear, too, was that she had prejudices against poor kids. And I use poor as a pejorative, not an adjective. She looked down on me from the second I identified myself by raising my hand when she called attendance. She didn’t see Heather, the young woman who had potential, but as THATGIRLFROMTHETRASHYFAMILY.
She treated me with disdain, and I obliged her expected lack of effort. And by that I mean: I tried to do my homework, but often didn’t. I tried to do well on tests, but never did. I had trouble with math; as a writer, my brain was more wired for words. But that’s only a small part. I couldn’t finish my homework and do well on tests because my life — my REAL FUCKING LIFE — at home was a shitshow.
The fact that I got to school on any given day? A motherfucking miracle.
Teachers, then, weren’t interested in knowing that the likelihood that the indifferent, failing kid sitting in front of them just hours before (take your pick, because these aren’t just mine): was molested by a stronger sibling, parent, or mother’s boyfriend; swallowed pills to get to sleep; used razors to slice open flesh and let the sadness bleed out; served as a verbal punching bag and a physical target from drunk parents; didn’t eat because there was no food in the house because there was no money in the bank because money was for booze or drugs; played caretaker for a disabled sibling or parent; any one or a combination of each of the above.
MrsGeometryTeacher didn’t care about that, and neither did most of the others. They saw me as damaged, less-than, sub-par, trashy, and not worth the time. And when none was expected, no fucks were given. I was the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. The one whose neighbors left a copy of The Happy Hooker in our mailbox, taunting my mother; the one who heard rumors that her mom had sex with a teenager (which would have been wishful thinking on his part because my mother was a beautiful woman).
Like those babies in the hospital, I was from the other side of the hall. The poor side. The less-than side.
So whatever. I did what I had to do to get through high school; showed up when I could, and even when I shouldn’t have because I was exhausted from no sleep. I looked at the experience as a means to an end: the sooner I could finish, the sooner I could be done with the daily feeling of not being good enough. Of being judged and treated like shit by people who were supposed to educate me.
No fucks given.
I knew then, even, that when I had a child I would make sure that they would never know the pain of being ashamed of who they were, where they came from, or what they were about. That their sense of self would be strong enough to withstand the judgement of others; that they would have every opportunity to be whatever they chose, because they would deserve to shoot for the moon, regardless of our social or economic status. That they would be free to be a kid, not a caretaker, not a mini-adult, not someone else’s punching bag.
I knew that they would never wish for a mother who supported them and a home that was safe. Because that would be a given.