When Jean Wore Red… (Because I’m random and had 15 minutes to spare.)

“What do you think? Does it look okay?” Miss Brenda tugged on her dress and frowned at herself in the mirror.

“It looks fine, Miss Brenda. The color is quite becoming,” Shar commented.

Miss Brenda smiled, first at herself and then at Shar. “Well, thank you. I never really know what to wear sometimes. Seems like an old woman like me would not be so concerned about how my clothes fit. I thought I was long past that stage of life.”

“You’re not an old woman.”

“I am. I’m 60 years old; and by most accounts, that makes me an old woman.”

“Not by my account.”

“Humph,” Miss Brenda arched her back to stand taller and tilted her head to the right, upwards as if she were giving a look of pleasant disdain. Nose pointed in the air, hands on her hips, sitting back in a mature woman’s dip. “You don’t have sugar coat it for me. I’m having a little trouble picking out a dress. I’m not looking for my self-esteem. Ya’ll young folks always thinking that an old woman needs her ego stroked, needs to be boosted up. I don’t. I do enough of that on my own. Just ain’t had to pick out a dress like this in a long time. Well, not for an event like this.”

“So where’s Mr. Sam taking you?” Shar asked.

“And ya’ll nosey. I never had the gumption to ask a grown woman her business. But now, young folks don’t mind asking an old lady all of her private information. I know your mama taught you better.”

“Yes ma’am. She did. I’m sorry.”

“Well anyway, he’s taking me down to Charlene’s Vegan Soul Food. I don’t know why he chose that place. Me and soul food ain’t had too much to do with one another since my doctor told me that it was helping me get to my grave a little early. Besides, who is Charlene Vegan? I’ve never heard of her.”

Shar covered her mouth as she giggled so as not to appear disrespectful in her response. “That’s not a person’s name, Miss Brenda. Vegan is a way of eating that doesn’t include animal products. So Mr. Sam is probably being considerate of your diet.”

Miss Brenda turned from the mirror to give Shar a chastising stare before going back into the dressing room. Shar grabbed all the eight dresses that didn’t make the cut and handed them to the sales associate.

“We won’t be needing these.”

The sales associate took the dresses and returned them to their sections. Miss Brenda stepped out of the dressing room and handed the dress and her bag to Shar. She checked the mirror to make sure all her buttons were fastened correctly before dabbing on some lipstick.

“Red,” she laughed. “I remember when I couldn’t wear red anything. My mama always said red was for those women. When I was younger, I didn’t really know who those women were until I saw Daddy talking to Jean Somersby. It was Sunday after church. Mama had taken us to the store to get some ice cream. Me, Sophie and James ran in the store and Mama walked in behind us. Daddy stayed outside to talk to some of the deacons. Mama was in a good mood after church, so she let us grab all the candy we wanted.

When we came back outside, Jean was standing next to Daddy with one hand on his shoulder and the other clutching her barely covered breast. She let out the most flirtatious laugh when she saw Mama. Daddy, of course, was all flustered and told Jean to have a good day as he removed her hand. Mama told us to get in the car, and Daddy hopped in as fast as he could. As we sped off, I looked back at Jean with her red lipstick and dress cinched tightly at the waist. I don’t know what it was about her, but I thought she was beautiful. Mama was beautiful too, but in a different way. Jean had that beauty that made men desire her and women want to be her – or fight her.

All the way home, Daddy tried to make conversation with Mama. But she didn’t respond. She never said one word. And when we finally made it home, I asked Mama what Daddy said to Miss Jean to make her smile so hard. She turned to me quickly, ‘Brenda, her name is Jean. You call her that. You hear me?’ and she walked away. That was the first time Mama said I could call a grown woman by her first name. So Miss Jean became Jean, and that’s how I always addressed her. We were equals. And I liked it that way.

That was a long time ago. But I do loves me some red; makes me feel like Jean looked to me that day – all playful, flirtatious and in control.”

Shar looked confused at Miss Brenda’s suggestion that Jean had control.

“I know what you’re thinking. ‘How was Jean in control that day?’ Child, let me tell you… Anytime a woman gets a man that flustered and makes his wife so upset that she tells her 11-year-old daughter to address that woman by her first name, that woman is in control. Daddy might have come home with us, but both he and Mama in that moment with Jean for quite some time. Now hand me my purse and let’s get out of here. I’ve told you too much of my business as it is.”

“Yes ma’am.”

 

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Notes on Father’s (and Mother’s) Day…

I must admit, I always have to check the calendar to know when Father’s Day is approaching. It’s one of those holidays that I never spent much time celebrating. As a child, I looked forward to Mother’s Day. In school, we’d always create some artsy, awkward gift for our mothers. And Ma would smile like we’d given her the best gifts ever. I don’t remember what we did for Father’s Day. And I’m sure that my teachers organized some type of Father’s Day arts and crafts lesson, but it’s likely that I shied away from participation. As I’ve grown older, I approach Father’s Day with uncertain trepidation. Some years, I celebrated by purchasing a gift for my mother. Other times I’ve thought about sending my father a card but could never justify doing so. This year, I did neither. No gift for my mother; no thoughts of cards for my father. Ironically, I dreamt of him the night before Father’s Day and figured that was the Universe’s way of saying that he still resides in my emotional blind spot. I’m okay with that.

It’s not that I never knew great fathers. I had a god-father. I had uncles. I had a father-figure in my sister’s father. I knew fathers in the church. I have friends who are fathers. I had a husband who is now a great father to our son and my step-son. But I didn’t have my father, not with any consistency. He was there sometimes. I recall an instance when he came to a basketball game with me. I recall him taking me to eat once. I recall him taking my sister and me to play once. There might be other subdued memories, but the immediate recollections are minimal. So many of the lessons that stereotypically gendered notions of fatherhood would have us believe are taught to children by a male were actually taught to me by a female – my mother. My mother was the one who attempted to scare away the boys and tell me what they really wanted. My mother was the one who taught me the proper questions to ask when taking my car to be serviced. My mother was the one who taught me how to do yard work. And had I gotten married in a traditional ceremony, it would have been my mother to walk me down the aisle. So in my eyes, she deserved those gifts on Father’s Day – and any other day.

Purchasing a gift for my mother on Father’s Day or celebrating her on that day had very little to do with my father’s absence and more to do with her presence. Yet, social media would have us believe that celebrating mothers on Father’s Day – or doing the opposite when applicable – is in some way about discrediting good fathers. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when social media intersects with commercialism and the hurt in emotional blind spots. Celebrating mothers is in no way a denouncement of fathers; similarly, celebrating fathers is in no way a reflection on mothers. Parenting is not a competition and should not be viewed dichotomously.

My initial plan was to avoid my Facebook feed on Father’s Day, but I gave in to the curiosity and scanned my friends’ pages. I was glad to see that there were just as many positive posts about fathers as there were about mothers on Mother’s Day. I smiled at each of the pictures of my friends with their fathers, particularly my female friends with their fathers. (This reminded me that I don’t have any pictures of my father and me when I was a child and only two pictures during adulthood.) I saw very few, if any, “father-bashing” posts. I did, however, see posts reminding women that we could never be fathers because we aren’t men. I saw posts stating that many single-mothers were bitter about the fathers of their children because the relationships ended. I even saw posts stating that the mothers shouldn’t complain about the fathers’ absences because the mothers should have chosen better men to father their children. I saw posts suggesting that the mothers likely were the reasons some fathers are not in the child’s or children’s lives. And most of these posts were by women and liked by women.

Based on individual reality, there could some truth to those posts. However, there’s a lot that could be unpacked within each of those statements. Fatherhood as a gendered concept, the reality of unresolved hurt, and the implication that making choices and maintaining a father’s presence is solely the responsibility of the mother are but a few troubling assumptions that require a more in-depth discussion than could be teased out in a blog. But the understanding of individual realities seemed to be missing from many of the posts. Some women may find the angst of Father’s Day difficult to understand – women who are married/partnered and whose husbands/partners father their children; women who were parented by fathers; women who are no longer married/partnered but whose ex-husbands/partners father their children. While I make no assumption here that all women that fall into these categories are unable to understand the difficulty of Father’s Day for some women who cannot identify with either of the categories, I argue that the individual experience is such that none of us can be the omnipotent social media therapist and jolt women into our version of reality. None of us can force a parent (as in mother or father) or child to forgive. None of us can heal the hurt by subliminally chastising folks in a social media post. None of us can do that. This blog won’t do that.

I have been a mother who was single; yet, I felt that I belonged to a parenting community. I was raised by a community of mostly women, but always respected and understood the need for fathers. I, too, have explored my own unresolved emotions and did the work to get to a point of peaceful indifference (And even the word ‘indifference’ suggests that there is more work to be done.). I don’t resent my father. I don’t resent his absence. I reconciled that I must have been in his parenting blind spot for his own reasons. That is not within my control. However, what is in my control is continuing to do the work to nurture wholeness for myself. I hope that we, as a parenting community will continue to do the same. Let’s resist the urge to keep a parenting tally. Let’s resist the urge to throw mothers and fathers (and all those who exist in the margins of those categories) into the ring to face-off, sparring for points. When we do that, the winner can be contested but the loser is easily identified. Children lose when we concern ourselves with capitalism’s hold on celebrating those who have loved us. Children lose when we fail to do the emotional work. Children lose when we fail to co-parent. Children lose when we isolate mothers and fathers into Westernized sociological norms, when our ancestry of parenting is centered on love and holistic realization of self for the child. Children lose when we become so engulfed in our own stuff that we forget about the children.

I’m always one for bucking tradition. So next year maybe I’ll ignite a celebration for Parents Day or Love Day. Because really…children need parents and love – and neither of those is bound by stereotypes, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, etc.

Karlesha Thurman’s Breastfeeding Is Natural and Normal. Our Reactions Are Not.

I became pregnant with my now 16-year-old son during the summer of 1997. I completed the requirements for my undergraduate degree in English in November of that same year. My son was born in March 5, 1998, and I participated in commencement ceremonies in May 1998. And I was a breastfeeding mother. Prior to the ceremony, I pumped but the longer that I sat in the University of West Alabama’s Tiger Stadium listening to speech after speech, the more uncomfortable I became. Nature had plans all its own. Regardless of the pumping that had taken place prior to the ceremony, my breasts filled with milk and I had no recourse other than to sit there and wait. As soon as the ceremony was over, I quickly grabbed my son to relieve my breasts of the milky tension. I unzipped my gown, pulled the shoulder strap from my dress, threw a blanket over his head and fed him. And I did this all while I smiled with my friends and family. This was not the first or last time that I had to rush to relieve my breasts from the stinging discomfort that results when the milk is ready to nourish a hungry baby. I recall that once I sped home from work hoping my son’s godmother hadn’t fed him because I was seriously in pain. Of course, she had fed him and I had to squeeze my breasts and release the milk into the bathroom sink for some relief.

What I learned from being a young, breastfeeding mother was that no matter how much planning you think you’ve done, the milk and your baby will alter those plans without notice. So yes, I totally understand why Long Beach State University GRADUATE Karlesha Thurman fed her baby at her commencement ceremony. And no, I don’t see thing wrong with it. According to an ABC News blog, Thurman felt the picture was a thoughtful display of mothering [And I agree.] and posted it to the Facebook group Black Women do Breastfeed. The picture quickly went viral. Since then, there has been much written, Tweeted, Facebook’d, and Instagram’d about Thurman’s intentions when the picture was taken and posted. Some claim that she did it for attention, and others suggest she was only doing what mothers do. I contend the latter is more accurate. However, even if she did make a purposeful attempt to feed her baby at the ceremony, breastfeeding a baby is a natural occurrence that we need to stop stigmatizing. Not only was she able to provide food for her baby, but she also helped to get the #NormalizeBreastfeeding message across through her photo.

Breastfeeding

A mother breastfeeding her baby at a commencement ceremony, in the mall, at her home, in the post office is completely normal. Our reactions are not natural and contribute to further alienating mothers who want to breastfeed their children. Thurman noted that when she became pregnant, she thought about leaving school temporarily or permanently. However, she decided to stay in school with hopes of securing a better future for her and her daughter. That’s what her picture represents. Thurman stands in her cap and gown, breastfeeding her daughter with an infectious smile on her face. She accomplished what many of us who’ve juggled motherhood, education, employment – life – have accomplished. Undoubtedly, she knows the anxiety of wondering whether she could do it all. The picture is proof that she did. Her joy and success illuminate from the picture, but the public is only worried about the appropriateness of a breast being visible in public. We’re worried about a breast being used to feed a baby and foster a bond between the mother and daughter. If the appropriateness of the timing of feeding a baby is our most significant concern when we view Thurman’s photo, we don’t have shit else to do with our lives. Let’s stop worrying about this young mother doing what she’s supposed to do for her daughter – be a mother. Period.

What would should do is educate ourselves on the disparities and benefits related to breastfeeding. A report by the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) indicated that the percentage of Black women that breastfed their children increased from 47% to 60% from 2000 to 2008. However, “Black infants consistently had the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration across all study years” (CDC, 2013). We should also be concerned with how breastfeeding benefits infants and mothers. For example, the CDC (2009) noted that breastfeeding lowers an infant’s risk for respiratory and ear infections, Type 2 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome. Benefits for mothers include lowered risk of breast and ovarian cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Mothers also benefit from a tightened uterus, diminished post-birth bleeding, and suppressed ovulation. We also should celebrate the fact that Thurman is a young mother who’s breastfeeding her daughter as the rates of mothers under the age of 30 that breastfeed their children are significantly low.

Motherhood can be a challenging, daunting, isolating, rewarding, satisfying, loving experience. Continuing to shame mothers for their breastfeeding choices is a practice that we must discontinue. Karlesha Thurman breastfeeding her daughter was natural and normal. It’s our reactions that are not.

#NormalizeBreastfeeding