Toronto
2 min

My mother, my hair, my life

Will I ever make peace with my mother? This is a question I have spent many sleepless nights on. I am 30 years old; I consider myself reasonably put together and mature. But I still have not reconciled or conquered my relationship with my mother. 

Since I am the oldest of six children, I helped raised my brothers and sisters. Sometimes my mother treated me as though I were her equal, both of us mothering the children and running the house. There was understanding, mutual respect and reliance. Other times she treated me as her daughter: I wasn’t to ask questions or speak out of turn. I never knew when the tone of our interactions would change.

That dynamic continues today. A few weeks ago, I went home for a quick get-in-get-out visit. When I arrived, my mother was appalled by the state of my hair. She started immediately with cutting criticism about how terrible my natural hair looked. She then sat me down and combed my hair.

As any black woman knows all too well, the combing of your hair by your mother is a painful affair, both physically and emotionally. My mother pulled and tugged and tried her damnedest to get out every kink and curl.  While she was combing through the thickness, she kept repeating, “I don’t understand where you got this thick African hair!”

She used to make me pinch my nose when I was a little girl, so it wouldn’t be too broad. At her request, I kept out of the sun — her idea of my adult life involved palatable, unobtrusive blackness and assumed heterosexuality.

There I was, sitting on the edge of the bathtub in her bathroom, shoulders hunched, head down, on the verge of tears. I am 30 years old — did I mention that? I was also on the verge of screaming at the top of my lungs, “Of course I have thick African hair. Do I look Swedish to you?” But I didn’t say anything.

After it was over, she asked me to speak with my youngest sister because her attitude is getting out of hand. The emotional switch meant I couldn’t be eight years old now that she needed me to intervene in my younger sister’s behaviour.

To my mother, with every decision I’ve ever made, I took the hard road instead of the easy one. Why did I decide to be a writer, actress, burlesque performer — an artist? Why didn’t I choose a good, safe real job? Why, after all these years, have I still not gotten over that “pesky gay phase”?

To my mother, I have been blessed with light brown skin, a pretty face and a nice body. I am intelligent enough and don’t do unladylike things such as smoke or drink excessively. I could get myself a good, black man who would love me and take care of me. I could have an easy life.

But really, what’s easy?

I have never understood the mixed messages: being proud of my blackness but straightening my hair; marrying for safety but also for love; making a career in the land of opportunity but keeping my head down and finding a solid job with benefits.

I know I love her and she loves me, but somewhere in the middle of that love we both get lost. I want us to meet halfway and to love and respect each other without all the confusion. I want for us to gain some understanding of each other.

I want us to forgive each other for not being exactly what the other wanted. Just recently, Mother came for a visit, and when she looked at me all she said was, “I love you.” It may be too soon to hope, but it made me dream that our relationship could evolve, baby step by baby step.

I am willing to start moving in that direction. Hopefully she will too, and I’ll meet her somewhere in the middle.