A mother sees herself through her daughter's eyes.
By Karen Turner
The way we perceive ourselves isn’t always how the people we know and love perceive us. A reflection on my identity sent me to my daughter, an 18-year-old high school graduate about to start her first year at Langston.
I wanted her to tell me how I was the shit and she wouldn’t want another mother if she could choose. And while she did say that in so many words, she also made me accept a hard truth about myself.
Talk about growing, and continuing to do so.
I am a 39-year-old African-American mother of three. My oldest is the daughter I spoke of. I also have a 14-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, my mother moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when I was five years old. I’ve lived here my whole life. Raised by a single mother of four, I learned survival skills at a young age. I witnessed firsthand what sacrifices a mother makes for her children. I observed and would ultimately mimic this as love without words.
If I can be honest for a moment, I would say that I really never wanted to be a mother. It looked hard. Like a struggle.
See, my mother had four kids by four different fathers. My siblings and I never thought we looked alike, and honestly, we don’t. My sister and I are of a dark complexion, my older brother is a medium hue of brown, and my baby brother is somewhere in between all of us. I am the second child, the oldest girl. Growing up I never felt pretty, but I was smart. All the adults around me said that, anyway.
I grew up in the ’80s, when terms like “tar-baby,” “African-booty scratcher,” and shit like that were terms of endearment used by family members. These are the people who unconsciously set you up to fail and then judge you when you do.
I grew up feeling ugly. Being constantly being made fun of for having a darker pigmentation than those around you, people of the same race (hell, some of them darker than you, but who still made you feel less-than because of your gender) takes a toll. I don’t think they knew how those words would shape and mold me. Several have said since then, “We were playing” or “You still thinking about that?” Some will admit that they had no idea that I was struggling with low self-esteem, especially since I was so “smart and grown” for my age. (Clearly being taught that I was ugly because I was dark-skinned — and believing it — was dumb.)
The thing about family is they are the first people we as individuals look to for identity. We want others to somehow define for us who we are. Or maybe it’s that our families are supposed to teach us and encourage us to define and search for ourselves.
That was not my personal experience, and it would be years until I was able to see the root of it all.
If I were to describe myself, I would say that I am a hard-working mother, who — similar to my own mother — displays my love by acts of service. I do things for people I love.
Yet because I know how I craved hearing my mother say “I love you,” I make sure I say it to my children.
My children’s father and I met when I was 18 years old and we are not married. What my situation taught me was that no matter if you have one father of your children or four, being a mother is still hard work and sacrifice.
I value family and my friends are my family. I live by a code of loyalty and tend to take it personally when other don’t value the same. I extend myself to others unselfishly and this can be a blessing and a curse.
I am a case manager for homeless and at-risk youth. I’ve worked in the mental and behavioral health field for 17 years and have held various positions. I love helping people. I identify with the at-risk youth.
At one point I was there myself, and I feel it’s my duty to let them know there is more, that with a little resilience, perseverance, and determination, they, too, can do whatever they want.
I struggled to feel adequate in a field that transitioned from passion and dedication to having degrees and letters behind your name. My staying power has always resided in the fact that I brought something different.
Sometimes my work transfers over to my home life. My daughter shares that I am very passionate about the work I do and that at times it consumes me.
She says she sees me as a “confident, real, down to earth, free-spirit,” but explains that at times I have not been available emotionally, mentally, or physically to her because of youth I worked with calling me after hours. She speaks of that cousin or best friend who pops up unannounced and requires a therapy session because I have all the answers.
Then she talks about my overload and the outbursts that follow. Points to my episodes of passing out, which the doctor may have misdiagnosed as vertigo. The fact that I wore a heart monitor for 30 days, and that a MRI is yet to be done because I refuse to go back.
I try to excuse this, say that the children I service don’t have the things she has. In my mind, I'm building character. I’m teaching her that it doesn’t cost you anything to treat people with dignity and respect.
I never noticed that her observation of me was similar to the one I had of my mom. I never noticed that I took care of others to avoid taking care of myself. I never noticed that being in an unhealthy relationship so that I could have “one baby-daddy” would deter my daughter from wanting one at all.
She spoke of the original breakup of her father and me when she was five. It was as if she could see the day it happened. That shit hurt me to my core. I didn’t think she could remember it so vividly.
My baby talked about how from that day, whenever she would blow the candles on her birthday cake, her wish was that we got back together. She confides how happy she was when after 10 years of wishing, it happened. About a year into it again, however, she says she started to notice me changing, says the mother she knew to be so down to earth and open had become someone more reserved and moody.
I listened intently as my daughter discussed with me what she’d concluded to be my sacrifices. She became teary-eyed when she said, “Mama, I know you only stayed with Daddy because of us.” She spoke of wanting it for years. I knew she was excited, and when reasons for the original breakup resurfaced, I sucked it up!
I had also secretly prayed for our reunion. During the years we split, I wouldn’t allow any other man close to my heart. (That’s where that blessing and curse comes in.) I continued a sexual relationship with him knowing that he had other relationships. When I became pregnant again after 10 years, I knew it was a sign that we were supposed to try.
What I didn’t realize is we both had changed! Nothing about us was the same. I kind of laughed and was like, “What?”
I never identified myself as someone who runs from her problems, giving people advice I should have taken for myself. But I kind of was. I tried so hard to hide this part of me. I tried to busy myself with others problems because then I didn’t have to look at my own.
I am a contradiction to the saying “misery loves company.” Not my ass, I want see people happy even in my misery.
I understand that my children may look at me and see a completely different version of myself than I do. I can also admit that while their perception is not mine, it’s still part of who I am.
I heard this on a spiritual channel from author Sara Jake Roberts: “It wasn’t until I could identify that there was something functioning on the inside of me that was birthed in low-self-esteem and insecurities that I started to access who I was. I now realize how all those little pieces, whether good, bad, or ugly, make up the woman I identify as today.”
is a dedicated and passionate mother of three who resides in Kansas City, Missouri. She’s spent the past 17 years working in the mental and behavioral-health field. Currently a case manager for at-risk & homeless youth, Ms. Turner’s hobbies include reading, journaling, dancing, and listening to music.