family christmas

May 3, 2009 § 9 Comments

1. i come from a traditional black southern christian family.  well really its more like a clan.  from northern south carolina.

its important to know where one comes from.  in order to know where one is going.

and after christmas 2006 i realized that where i came from was seriously messed up.  and where i was going was away.  far away.

2. i was 7 months pregnant.  visiting my family for the holidays.  habibi had stayed in minneapolis to work.

christmas season had already been exhausting.  my mother was determined to constantly ‘improve’ me and tell me that the choices i was making for my pregnancy and birth were wrong.  obviously i would not be able to have a home birth.  obviously it wasnt safe.  obviously i had no idea what i was doing.  obviously my hair clothes well general appearance was subpar.

then christmas came.  and for christmas dinner my moms brothers and sisters arrived.  with their children.

and my moms brother and his wife decided that there was something very very wrong with me.  the wife kept asking me why did i look the way that i did.  why had my breasts gotten bigger?  why had i gained weight?  didnt i know that breastfeeding was *stupid*?  didnt i know that you needed a c-section?  didnt i know that you cant travel with a baby?

you may at this point be reading these questions thinking: had she ever been pregnant, had kids?  why would she asks such *stupid* questions?

she had two biological children, my cousins.  age 16 and 18.

as i got up from her rounds of critiques framed as questions, my uncle was standing in the hall way.

3.break: now my uncle, my moms younger brother, is also my godfather.  and in a black traditional family that means alot.  he is basically like a second father.  who has promised that if anything happened to my parents he would take care of me as if i was one of own children.  its deep.

4. he starts by talking about how much weight ive gained.  then pokes me in one breast.  then the other one. hard. then pokes my pregnant belly.  harder. laughing the whole time.  then when i turn around to get away- he slaps me on the ass.

i go upstairs.  calm down.

go back down stairs.  decide to go to the living room and check my email.

he is standing in the hallway.  wont let me go by.  blocking my way.  laughing.  calling me chubster.  i am asking him to please get out of my way so that i can go on the computer.  and he wont let me through.  reaches out to touch me and i look at my cousins and other family in the living room.  my mom and his wife are in the kitchen behind me.  and i say…

all of you can go fuck yourself.

and i go back upstairs and cry.

call habibi.  hoping for some sympathy.  he is with his parents.  his parents seem more disappointed that i used the word fuck than that i just got sexually harrassed by my uncle.

my mom comes upstairs a couple of times to yell at me…how dare  i disrespect my uncle, her brother.  and on christmas day no less.

the family eats dinner downstairs without me.  open gifts without me.  leave without saying good bye.

my mom gives me the silent treatment for the next 24 hours.  and then lectures me on using the word fuck.  and then demands that i apologize to my uncle for offending him.

5. this is the christmas that i realize that i have no family.  or at least no one with whom my connection by blood or marriage is any thing mor than a connection by blood or marriage.  it just is.  it doesnt determine whom i love or respect or who loves or respects me.

i choose my family. my family chooses me.

fuck tradition.

i had one side of my family explaining to me that because he was an elder i could not address him in such a manner no matter what i did.

i had the other side of my family who diminished what he did and said that i was just ‘sensitive’ about people touching me and my belly during pregnancy and had over reacted.  and oh yeah…curse words are bad.

6. when i finally returned to minneapolis my mom refused to speak to me for the next two months.  and did not return my emails or phone calls until i was 36 weeks pregnant.  when she (after mocking my decision to have a home birth and telling me i could never do it and refusing to let me have a home birth in her house because she ‘didnt want to clean up the blood’) demanded to come to the home birth.

i had a c-section because of ftp (failure to progress)…(gee i wonder why i wasnt progressing surrounded by all that stress and more oh much much more…)

7. probably the c-section was the healthiest thing my body could endure at that time.  who was i around that i could be vulnerable with?  the racist classist midwife?  my mother?  my supposed friends/labor support who were ‘tired of waiting’.  there was a little bit of love and respect during that labor/birth.  and a whole lot of guilt trips, what i supposedly owed others (my time my attention my gratitude my body my birth my child), abandonments, and emotional pressure.

who knows what horrible things could have happened during a vaginal birth.  what would have come out of my mothers/friends/midwifes/partners mouth/hands/actions.  maybe the csection scar is visible.  but invisible scars often burn harder.

8. i dont identify with those families anymore.  they come and go.  in and out.  sometimes they are helpful and i am thankful.  sometimes they are not and i walk away.  i came *through* a black traditional family not *from* them.  to emerge as myself.  a part of the human community.  connected to sentient beings everywhere in every time.  just as my daughter came *through* me.  to be her own person.  unowned.  unbought. unbossed. connected to the universe and free.

9. i dont know what is wrong with people.  why they act like respecting another persons body wishes agency is such a struggle.  its really easy.  stop thinking that *somebody* is in control and start respecting that a person decides for themselves what is best for them.  and your job is to support them (not influence them, not take away all their other choices until the idea of choice is a joke, not decide for them/tell them what they need, not assume that you know better than them, not tell them how they should respond, be stronger, get over it, deal with it later,etc.) and their decision every step of the way.

just stop thinking that you are an expert on another persons body/life.  just stop thinking/acting as if you know better than them.  stop thinking that you have all the right answers.

how hard is that?

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§ 9 Responses to family christmas

  • Renee says:

    i have no family. or at least no one with whom my connection by blood or marriage is any thing mor than a connection by blood or marriage. it just is. it doesnt determine whom i love or respect or who loves or respects me.

    i choose my family. my family chooses me.

    fuck tradition.

    I particularly identify with this. I see myself as a survivor of the traditional black family. The idea that because someone is older than you that they cannot be offensive or over step their bounds is ridiculous. Generation after generation submitting to humiliation because someone is to ignorant to show respect. I divorced myself because ultimately I realized that it is not healthy and just because something is traditional does not make it right. We can choose our own family and share love with whom ever we choose. In my children and my spouse I have found the kind of love and unconditional support that never existed in my family of origin. It is amazing when love is used to create rather than oppress or make one feel guilty. Count yourself as a survivor and never forget the lessons that you learned.

  • Isabel says:

    #9 – YES.

    I remember once I was talking to this girl at the volunteer program I did and she was saying how she wanted to be a social worker because what really mattered to her was family, and she wanted to work on strengthening families. And I think I maybe offended/scandalized her because although I meant to be polite/supportive/etc. I think I said something like “huh that’s so interesting to me, because family is just like not something that matters to me.” by which I did NOT mean: my family does not matter to me, because I am lucky that my mom is awesome (in large part because your #8 is a big part of her childrearing philosophy), & so is my little brother, & so are a couple other family members. by which I DID mean: some families can’t be strengthened; some family members are permanently toxic for other family members; some schisms cannot be healed and it offends ME that anyone would see the problem with my upbringing as “coming from a broken home” rather than “being the child of a sociopath.” by which i also meant: to me saying you believe in family more than anything sounds like you believe in elected-families less; sounds like you believe it’s inherently better to turn for support to people related to you than to people who love you and like you and accept you the way you are.

    all of which is a roundabout way of saying, sometimes, family doesn’t mean shit.

    which is a somewhat crude way of saying, thank you for this post.

  • mama says:

    @renee,isabel
    thanks for the support. its kind of amazing that in my whole time growing up no one ever bothered to mention that we can create our own families. actually when i brought this up to my mother and her sister they looked at me as if i had just admitted to worshipping satan. basically in my fam i am the really selfish, disconnected, self-centered, never keep in touch one…
    oh and did i mention i am also one of the few persons in my family who is happy with her life? i just got a letter from my mother giving me the rundown on everyone else’s life and i was like: god, how depressing. why would i want to be part of that? i mean folks make the choices that they make in the circumstances that they are in…but…
    once my mom asked what did i see the purpose of my life being and i said: to be happy. and she started on a 15 minute lecture on how selfish i was.
    yeah…sometimes we survive our families and our family members. and have to create the communities that we need in order to continue surviving.
    man i just aired my familys dirty laundry…wonder how long it will be before i hear from them again…;)

  • Amapola says:

    oh, chosen family. thank god for chosen family.

    this makes me think so much of my partner’s family, who she finally cut off all contact with a few months back. how they would all have dinners and gatherings and just “forget” to invite her, then say she had abandoned the family, removed herself, pushed them away. how the nicer-but-enabling family members would seem so shocked when she called shit out, responding at best, “but i’ve never seen x behave in any way that isn’t loving…” and you wonder, where the fuck have you been? and what stories have you been telling yourselves to explain the absences and incongruities? and when she was included… why was she working that job? didn’t she want to do better work, make use of her education? (forget oppression, that’s got nothing to do with it). what was she doing with me? with her life? stop making everyone so damn uncomfortable.

    though i know it is so painful for her, we are building our own family and it is so loving. and accountable. when someone says, you’ve hurt me, then answer is “what can i do to make it right?” instead of “you shouldn’t feel that way/i never did that/you’re crazy.” it’s kind of mind blowing.

    my family of origin is messy, but not abusive. visiting their home has a four day limit, though. longer than that is not good for me, at least not now.

    & #9 — seriously. seriously. it’s not that hard. acting love is not that hard, and that’s all it is.

  • Derek says:

    This is so insane. I have never understood how anyone could have a problem with swear words in this day and age. To make things worse you had your uncle sexually harass you, and at Christmas no less? And family members were making more light of using the word “fuck”? If I’m allowed a small pun, that’s so fucked up.

    There’s something very disturbing about an older male taking advantage of a younger female, particularly when they’re pregnant, and don’t have the ability to readily defend themselves.

    I think it’s common to have issues with family. It’s probably normal. It’s not normal to have a parent take the side of their brother over their child, especially when the problem was instigated by your uncle.

    What’s mind blowing is that what your uncle did is actually against the law. Saying “fuck” in a private home isn’t. By my way of thinking, calling the police would have been a normal reaction in such an event.

    • mama says:

      @derek
      yeah it was the moment when i realized that my family is irredeemably fucked up. you know? like. before i had thought ok…but the good out weighs the bad…and then i realized…we have gone way past the point of trying to find out what balances what…
      like if this is a family culture in which the word ‘fuck’ is worse than my uncle and godfather sexually harrassing his pregnant niece/goddaughter in front of a whole bunch of the family…
      then there is something sick about the people who claim to love me. if that is love i want no part. but then it isnt love. it is the absence thereof.

      • Derek says:

        Family members can be bizarre. Not to defend them or anything, because what they did was seriously messed up, but maybe your mom figured hey, you’d forgive her for that, but your brother wouldn’t forgive if everyone jumped on his back. I know I’ve had experiences like that with my (direct) family when other family members have come over to visit. In any case, they’re behavior is inexcusable. Is there any tradition or attitude (that you’re aware of) that embraces male chauvanism or male dominance in your family?

  • sasha says:

    For me today, the most amazing idea in your piece, and I’m paraphrasing it, because I didn’t come from a traditional African American family, but what you said literally dropped my jaw:

    “I came THROUGH my family, not from them.”

    Wow. I’ll think about that, and about my own family, for a long while. Your words might be a key opening me to find some more freedom in my life.

    Their is a lot of talk about Elders in Native American and Native Canadian and Metis cultures, and I think this is often good, because colonialism and residential schools messed with the traditional culture so much.

    But there is a lot of Bullshit, too. Like we’re supposed to respect some woman because the Elders told her to go and become a lawyer and and she did it, but what are we to make of this whole “Elder veneration” thing when they tell some girl to shut up about being raped by a Cheif?

    Where is the hushed reverance for the girl “the Elders decided” would be turned into a whore, and then she “complies” and due to her despair ends up on some street corner selling herself for a ten dollar rock?

    thank God neither the lawyer nor the crack addict is my path, but I know a close “family” that has one of each, and I hate it when people close to them talk about “respecting our Elders”.

    Nina Simone said, “Ain’t nobody perfect, becuase ain’t no body free.”, and I say, “Amen to that.”

    All of our Elders– white, black, red, and yellow, are hundreds of years into a lifeway that is killing us all.

    A pregnant woman is medicine, she, in her body, is power, is both new and ancient. SHE is the Elder.

    The new spark of life inside her is closer to wherever the ancestors go when they die to any of us born.

    In a funny way, the universe inside the pregnant woman is the closest to heaven we get in this world.

    YOU were the Elder, sister.

    I’m sorry your mother and your uncle and your family betrayed their responsibility to you.

    Elders only ever treat youngers with love and respect.

    • mama says:

      @sasha. your comment moved me. i went back and read it several times. thank you thank you. for it. you have no idea how it lifted me out of those sneaky feeling of self-doubt and self-hate…blessed be to you. and the fact that you quoted my favorite nina simone line is like kismet.

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