Five Atypical Maternal Decisions

The unconventional ways in which my mom made me strong

My mom is not a typical mom. She spent the majority of her twenties and thirties traveling the world, conceived me at age forty in the midst of a violent revolution, and raised me all by herself. She was a “tough love” kind of mom, which was difficult to distinguish from being a “no love” kind of mom at times during my youth. Our conflicts run deep, and we haven’t spoken for almost two full years. It’s better for both of us this way, at least for now. But as I grow older, I sometimes reflect on a few key decisions in her unconventional parenting process that directly produced some of the best traits in the 27-year old adult I am today.

1) She let me pick out my own clothes

When I was little, I had some interesting fashion impulses. I would often be seen at preschool wearing two different socks, or even two different shoes. I loved bright colors, and in my little 4-year old mind, if I had two feet, why would I waste the opportunity to display more colors by wearing the same color on each foot? Bo-ring.

My teachers attempted to intervene about my wardrobe decisions at some point or another, probably just to see if my mom was being negligent in her expected parental duty of dressing me for school in the morning, and she would explain her reasoning as follows: Her decision to let me choose my own clothing was a deliberate one, and she restrained herself from picking out my clothing even if I wasn’t dressing according to any conventional standards. She predicted that if she intervened, I would come to view my fashion decisions as “wrong” and doubt my ability to dress myself; it could create anxiety that might thwart my natural sense of self-expression and leave me following societally-prescribed dress codes created by fashion magazines, mall mannikins, and celebrities.

In high school, to her dismay, I went through a name brand phase where I wanted to be like the other kids and wear Abercrombie and Tommy Hilfiger shirts boasting their logos. “Why would you want to pay $30 for a $3 shirt?” she’d ask. “Whatever, you don’t understand anything about fashion,” I would retort. Today, she would be happy to know, I wouldn’t wear those brands if they paid me, and I truly do understand the concept of value when it comes to textile goods.

2) She allowed me to abandon organized religion

Every other weekend when I was in elementary school, my mom would drive us from Ann Arbor to the rural little town of Chesaning, Michigan, to visit my grandpa. On Sundays, she would drive me to Sunday School at the Methodist church. One day while we were learning about the Twelve Disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Simon, Jude Thaddaeus, and Judas Iscariot), I raised my hand and asked the teacher why we never learned about girls.

“Because they weren’t important back then,” she said.

This claim sent six-year-old me into an existential tailspin, and I went home and told my mom that I never wanted to go back there. She supported my decision. Twenty years later, I am grateful to not have been raised with the influence of any organized religion that may have tampered with my sense of reality, science, and justice.

3) She had my back the first time I questioned authority

In fourth grade, I had a teacher named Ms. Reichart, who in retrospect was a pretty basic bitch. One day, as part of a unit that was supposed to inform us about the governmental and legislative history of the state of Michigan, we were given a color-by-numbers print-out of the state seal. In this moment, something came over me that was indicative of the stands I would take for years to come, and I raised my hand.

“What’s the point of this?” I asked. Ms. Reichart was flabbergasted.

“The point of this, Arikia, is to learn about the state seal.”

“Well, aren’t there other ways to learn about it? I think we’re a little old for coloring by numbers.”

Ms. Reichart kicked my eight-year-old self out into the hallway with some crayons and the stupid assignment where I waited until she came out and berated me for questioning her. To try to illustrate her point, she quizzed me about the meaning of the Latin words on the seal, such as E Pluribus Unum. “Out of many, one,” I replied. When she asked me how I knew that, I told her I read the explanation at the top of the paper. “See, you are learning something from this assignment,” she said. “No, the assignment was to color by numbers, and I didn’t do that. I learned from reading.”

She’d had enough of my logic and sent me to the principle’s office where they scheduled a parent-teacher conference with my mom. I had never been in trouble at school before and was scared about what would happen, but when I got home and my mom asked me what happened, she burst out laughing when I told her. When she spoke with Ms. Reichart in the requested conference, my mom demanded to know why she was wasting our class time making us do “busy work,” and told her to step up her teaching game. To this day, I will take the first step to call out bullshit when others lack the courage.

4) She seeded my journalistic abilities

Just a few days ago, I was talking with a LadyBits contributor who asked me where I got the ability to walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation. I haven’t thought about this in years, but I realized that it all comes back to one moment when I was about nine years old.

Always the social butterfly, I used to host Friday night pizza parties for my friends where we would eat Little Caesar’s pizza, drink root beer floats, and play our next-level version of hopscotch and video games. One day when it came time to prepare, I handed my mom the phone and asked her if she could order the pizza. She didn’t take the phone.

“Why don’t you do it this time?”

I was horrified. “What? I can’t call them.”

“Why not? You know your address. You know what kind of pizza you want. You know how to look up a phone number in the phone book. Do it yourself.”

I proceeded to whine, and then she laid it out for me: “I’m not going to call them. So either you can call them, or you won’t get your pizza.”

Grudgingly, I picked up the phone and dialed. And it was EASY.

In my journalism career, I’ve interviewed a lot of people who made me nervous, and I’ve conducted a lot of cool interviews that I wouldn’t have if I’d let fear rule me. It’s OK to be nervous; it’s not OK to not do something that needs to be done. Now I have learned to hone that sense of fear to my advantage—if the thought of doing something is making me nervous, that’s usually reason enough TO do it.

5) She let me go

Motherhood is one of the biggest conundrums of life: The mother uses all of her physical, biological, and emotional resources to give birth to a child that is totally dependent in every way. Throughout the child’s development, the mother must sacrifice her own independence and provide love, knowing that eventually the child will grow up and leave. When it comes to any other kind of relationship, this doesn’t sound fair: We give love so that we get it back, and bring people closer to us. So many mothers in this world never manage to properly disconnect, and their poor kids can’t stand on their own two feet well into adulthood. But my mom knew that my independence was the greatest gift she could give me.

Her process of instilling this in me was long, painful, and largely flawed, but the result was what she intended: I am independent, self-sufficient, and I know how to get everything I need in life for myself. For that I will always be grateful.

Happy mother’s day, mom. You did the best you could, and I turned out pretty alright.

Me and my mom, 1988.