How I Became My Mother
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Before there were tiger moms and helicopter parents, Caribbean mamas had those parenting styles down pat.

Being strict and going heavy on the rules? Check. Paying very close attention to their children’s experiences and problems? Check. Focusing on education? Monitoring who their friends are and where they are allowed to spend their time? Check and check. 

Spare the rod and spoil the child was not just a Bible verse, it could have been a mantra for many of the mothers I knew when growing up in Jamaica. I remember making a promise to myself that if I ever had children I would not be as hard on them as my parents were on me and my siblings. No way. I would be like a friend to my son or daughter and we would share everything. When I told her this, my mom, Lucille, just laughed and said, “Uh-huh. Wait until you have children. You will see.”

Fast-forward to February 2002 and a hospital in Brooklyn one Sunday afternoon where my little bundle of joy made his appearance. I recall being super nervous bringing him home on Tuesday evening. How could they have trusted me with this tiny thing that weighed a little over six pounds? Were they insane? I was so relieved a couple of hours later to see my mother, who had just stepped off a flight from Jamaica, walk through the door. She washed her hands, gave me a hug and then took him from my arms. I exhaled.

During those early months she stayed with us I made sure to soak up as much knowledge as I could, especially about all those Caribbean home remedies for minor childhood ailments. (She taught me so much about the antimicrobial properties of garlic, and she’s the reason I always have the following in my home: fresh ginger, raw honey, apple cider vinegar, limes and, of course, a bottle of white rum, which is better than rubbing alcohol any day.)

Sadly, my mother passed away when my son was 4, so he has only vague memories of her. I had turned to her often in those years to get sage advice. After all, she had raised five kids and we hadn’t turned out so bad.

To paraphrase the popular saying, life is what happens when you’re busy raising a kid, it took me a while to realize that I was evolving into the kind of parent I had vowed never to be. And there were clues. I should have noticed it when I began to answer his “But why?” questions with the ever-popular “Because I said so.” Or whenever he asked how come so and so’s parents let him or her do this or that and he couldn’t, my response would usually be, “They can do what they want with their child. You’re my child and this is my rule.” Sounds familiar?

Another hint should have been the fact that he was only allowed to go on playdates if I knew the parents well. Each time he begged me to let him go I could almost hear my mother in my head saying, You’re going to send that child to some stranger’s home? You don’t know how they run that house.

Before long those invitations for playdates became party invites and I had to have full details before I’d even consider letting him attend. Caribbean moms have interrogation skills that would be useful to the CIA: “What’s this you giving me? Who is this invitation from? I don’t recognize the name. This boy is in your class? How come I don’t know him? He’s in another class? Then why did he invite you? You’re not sure? Why you want to go to a party with people you don’t know? Who else is going? What kind of party is it? Why are they having it there? Who has a party on a Sunday? Where are his parents from?”  

He knew not to ask me for permission to go somewhere at the last minute. I needed at least a week’s notice—sometimes more—or else the answer would invariably be no.

Some other lessons he learned: 

  1. Every adult is to be addressed as Miss or Mr. (insert first name). Close family friends could be Auntie this or Uncle that.
  2. If you visit a friend, don’t stay too late. People don’t want you in their home after a certain hour.
  3. Video games are reserved for weekends—after all your homework is done.
  4. It doesn’t matter if everyone else in your circle is going somewhere. You still might not be allowed to go—and you won’t die if you can’t.
  5. If you get a cell phone so you can call home if you’re running late and you don’t call, perhaps you don’t need a cell phone—until you can keep your word.
  6. “But” is not a part of your vocabulary when addressing your parents.

The first time it struck me that I might have followed in my mother’s footsteps was the day I gave him “the look” in public and he stopped what he was doing immediately. You know the one I’m talking about. It says, Just wait until we get home. My mom used it often with me and my siblings and now I was using it with my child. 

I had to face the fact that I had become my mother. Oh, my tactics might be a bit more modern, but they were basically the same: My house, my rules. Respect your elders. Education matters. Actions have consequences. Work before play—always. Check, check, check, check and check.

Fortunately for my son, over the years I settled on a happy mix of old-school island parenting and an updated, more relaxed version. Some things are nonnegotiable and other things I’ll discuss. I’m willing to be flexible if you deserve it, but I could still be as hard-core as my folks were if necessary. 

My mother is probably in heaven smiling and saying, “Uh-huh. Told you.”

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