3 Things My Conservative Mother Taught Me That I Wish I Could Forget


I think often of what my mother would say about this life I’m living. I think about it when I’m at home, (where I live with many people, none of whom is a dude I’m married to), when I’m walking around in my neighborhood (Brooklyn, largely West Indian population, not gentrified yet), when I get dressed (did I wear these pants yesterday? Will I probably wear them tomorrow? Yes and yes), when I’m traveling (alone, or to places where she’d probably rather I’d not go), and on and on. At my worst moments, it’s like she’s still alive, and I’m still accountable to living how she’d probably want me to live.

I’ve been accused of holding the politics I hold, because I’m rebelling. Look, it’s possible. It’s likely, even. There’s an incongruity, though, between the way we’re socialized to think about rebellion (something a spoiled child does) and what unlearning the stuff we’re programmed to believe really looks like. Unlearning means breaking ties—with people, perhaps, and also, within your own brain. It’s pretty terrifying to go from seeing through a certain lens, which you’ve likely believed has made you safer, to glimpsing how unstable, cruel, and crazy the world actually is, and that the tales we’ve told ourselves cannot protect us.   

It’s hard to talk about these things without feeling a certain sense of betrayal, even though everyone I’m about to mention is now dead (my mother died when I was 19, my grandmother when I was 25). It’s been essential, though, for me to sift through these memories and moments and stories, to look them in the face, so I can get a little closer to the life I want to live.

To be unlearned:

1. If someone’s not white, they’re dangerous, poor, and lazy.

The house we lived in until I was 17 was located next to an apartment building, which was populated mainly by folks of color. I can never remember having any particular encounters with anyone who lived there, but my mother was completely annoyed by everyone who lived there. She claimed that they were all living on public assistance and, therefore, were lazy and manipulating the system so they would never have to work. It seemed wrong to me, but I could never describe why exactly. My grandmother, who was basically my second parent, went along with this, referring to black people in particular as “shvartzas.” To this day, the moment she referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as a trouble maker, still sticks in my brain like a mouse in a glue trap.

My mother was angry at people she perceived as leeching, but she herself was struggling financially, as a single parent, to raise a kid and maintain a mortgage without a college degree and with consistently ill health. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that her racism—as well as her anger and fear—was an example of a political and cultural system that turns vulnerable populations against one another. It’s the sickening efficacy of that system that makes it difficult to see how toxic it is. 

2. Don’t be too independent.

When I was 16, I had a boyfriend. It was the most innocuous relationship in the history of high school relationships, in spite of the fact that I did not have any interest in following the rules. I’m not sure if anyone besides my mother was actually interested in the rules, which basically orbited around the principle of letting him pay for me, pick me up, hold the door for me, and ask me out. Needless to say, I was extremely uncomfortable with this (it will not shock you to learn that I still am), and I refused to comply, which made my mother really angry. It was the first time I ever heard her use the word feminist as an insult, this from the woman who had also taught me to have opinions and to hold them tightly and fiercely. (She would later be proud of me when I was named "Class Feminist" my senior year.)

It was around this time that it occurred to me that I was not the kid my mother had hoped for. I was mercurial, stubborn, earnest, and independent in a way that made her uncomfortable. My mother craved safety—in her physical body, in her financial and emotional life, and for me. She was afraid of being alone, of being vulnerable, of pushing people away. My desperate, almost rabid grasp at independence (allegedly since I was 18 months old), frightened her. If I didn’t let this boy feel as though he was in control, he might not like me. If I kept up this behavior, no boys would like me, and then I’d never find a husband, and I’d be alone, which was terrifying, abnormal, and unacceptable.

3. What you want now, you won’t want later. (Or, don’t trust yourself.)

It’s possible that all the therapy and radical feminist thought in the universe won’t restore to me what I never had, which is the ability to trust my own instincts. I think it’s like this for a lot of women, constantly being told that the world we’re experiencing isn’t real. When I was 12, I told my grandmother I wanted to live in New York City when I was older. Her response: “I wanted to do that, too. You’ll change your mind.” When I told her later that I didn’t think I wanted to get married, she said, “I didn’t want to get married, either. But then I did.”

This idea that I could want something so badly at one point in life, but not follow through with it was sad, and made me wonder if I could possibly ever really know what I wanted. On one hand, people change their minds, and it’s OK. On the other, it seemed cruel to tell me that the life I was imagining for myself shouldn’t be something I took seriously, because it wouldn’t happen. She had regrets, I know, many of them, some of her own making, and others that were the result of things that were out of her control.

In retrospect, this was a collision, right before my eyes, of the issues of class and gender in my grandmother’s life. She had gone to work at the age of 9, married my grandfather young, had three children, and lived in the same town her entire life. It might very well have been that after a certain point, she couldn’t imagine a different reality.

The truth is that I knew there was something not right about these lessons when I was learning them, and now, there's space to do the work that's required to move forward. I’d like to think that we all see ourselves as perpetually imperfect, unfinished projects, which is tragic, but also hopeful.

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