The praise song of a churchlady’s daughter on Mother’s Day.
During the Christmas holidays a few years ago, I received a card from one of my former students. The handwritten message ended with this line: “And just in case I never mentioned it, thanks for being hard on me.”
“Thanks for being hard on me.” The twisted logic of these words was eerily strange and hauntingly familiar, compelling me to revisit the memories of my mother’s childrearing practices. In addition to all the normal behaviors and actions affiliated with a mother’s love—hugs and kisses; favorite foods; warm baths; protection from danger real and imagined, and those persons who would (or could) harm me—was a two-letter word: “No.”
“No” was my mother’s constant refrain. Every time I questioned her refusal to grant whatever request I made that entailed being out of her presence, she responded with her favorite aphorism: “No means I love you.”
I was convinced that there was no way my mother could have loved me because she said no to virtually everything. She said no to my request for a midnight curfew; no to my desire to have my boyfriend’s curfew at our house extend to after dark; no to my wish to wear revealing clothes that implied I was willing to take on the role of some guy’s baby’s mama (back then the term did not exist, but the practice did); no to my yearning to roam outside like the white girls, virtually sans clothes (she knew that good skin is always in, so she insisted that most of my body be covered); no to my plea that I be allowed to cut my arrogant hair (back then, long hair was cool, but I had way too much of it—in my view); no to invitations to sleepovers (the weekly floor‑to‑ceiling housecleaning had to be done on Saturday mornings); no to my opting out of the churchgoing that dominated social life in the Black community where I grew up; no to skipping homework, even when the teachers had not assigned any; no to taking business‑track courses because all the other girls did; no to my going to the local dance clubs with the boys who wanted to take me; no to my desire to remain on the girls’ basketball team because the team traveled on buses after school and at night. The answer, even before I asked, was always “no.”
This made no sense to me. I was annoyed at her. Mother‑induced social deviance, combined with compulsory excellence in school, sentenced me to marginalization and ostracism. My peers teased me unmercifully. But my mother’s sagacity was the outcome of lived experiences that enabled her to recognize the power of sexual gratification and the insatiable foraging of the (Black) female body.
My mother recognized the primacy of my stigmatized status as a Black girl who would become a Black woman. She understood, as I did not, that regardless of my accomplishments, for most people that would be my number one identity. She wanted me to be able to stand alone without feeling alone. She wanted me to be able to support myself financially in case I ended up like her, solely responsible for the support and care of my children. I came to adult status knowing that females whose ancestors were enslaved in this country have a continuous history of paid and unpaid employment. Being able to support herself made a Black woman less vulnerable to the unacceptable demands and practices of the man or men in her life. My mother would not have labeled this as patriarchy or misogyny, but she would have experienced it as such.
But my mother did not realize that African American + female + schooling (whether BA, PhD, JD, or MD, and other symbols of achievement) often means the absence of marriage. The vast majority of adult, professional Black women I know who (like me) are not in traditionally female professions are either unmarried or divorced, or they have chosen partners outside the race. Single women make up the vast majority of Black women I know. In her book, Women with Money, Jean Chatzky (2019) asserts that “more than 50 percent of women are single—and many will stay that way.” Sadly, men often caricature these women as mean and cannibalistic.
With 20/20 hindsight, I know my mother loved me—unconditionally. The overwhelming fear that she would fail to get me safely to adulthood had fueled her actions. In the wake of my father’s death when I was ten, my mother tied me and my wombmate to opposite ends of her apron strings and dragged us through our adolescence. She dragged us to church; to Sunday school, to school and more school. Her love fell like an impenetrable fog over our lives: essential to our survival but seriously underappreciated. Her take‑no‑prisoners approach to her daughters’ safety and well‑being taught me to be comfortable, or at least familiar and conversant, with discomfort. I learned I did not have to please everyone with my life choices; that I could—and should—fight back when others mistreat me or tried to make me do what I do not think is right. Her childrearing practices, characterized by constraints on my premature desire to be an adult female, prepared me to lead the life I am compelled to live: living without the support of peers became my norm.
It was against this personal history that I read my former student’s words. She acknowledged my Herculean efforts—cajoling and even scolding her—to induce her to believe in her own abilities. Her belated appreciation evoked a flotilla of memories, and I wondered if my mother’s “No means I love you” childrearing practices were still needed to bring a young Black girl to adulthood.
I must publicly acknowledge my Black mother’s awesome contribution to my life. Sagacious but unlettered, like generations of Black mothers before her, both during enslavement and after official emancipation, she intervened between me and an economy that sought to consume me, my labors—productive and reproductive—and my body prematurely. Born into a socioeconomic system that valued acceptance and conformity as the most important goals for girls but made them fatal errors on the pathway to adult Black womanhood, I stand in awe of my mother’s strength and sagacity. Borrowing the words of my former student, I say posthumously: Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and “thanks for being hard on me.”
Signithia Fordham is an anthropologist and a former Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies (2002–2007), University of Rochester, in Rochester, NY.
Fordham, Signithia. 2019. “No Means I Love You.” Anthropology News website, May 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1160