Last weekend my girlfriend and I celebrated our 3rd year as friends, partners, and lovers. She flew from Chicago to New York and was at my house the entire time, sharing an air bed with me in a room I shared with my twin. As always, she made my home feel more and more like a home.
Lately my mother has been unfriendly towards my girlfriend. It’s been troubling me because her sentiment is so recent and seemingly out of the blue. My girlfriend doesn’t want to give up on creating a stronger bond with my mom, something I admire her for, but I could tell it hurt her spirit because she loves my family unconditionally.
In one of our arguments, my mother had said my girlfriend was taking care of me. By this I knew she meant something more along the lines of financially. And when I said the words “my girlfriend” and she scoffed, “girlfriend?” I heard her, behind her voice, disappointingly say, ” I thought I taught you better than that.” After some moments, I could tell she, my mother, was projecting guilt in the form of anger. I knew she felt guilty for not being there over the years, for not being involved even though she was always around. I blamed myself because she taught me how to care of myself. At an early age, I knew what burdens children could be on a single mother, especially one who was an immigrant. So I, along with my siblings, learned to look after myself. I wanted to make myself indispensable, and wanted if not needed.
When I did get support from someone outside of my family, from a mentor or a teacher or a partner, my mother would admonish me by condemning them and their intentions (especially if the person was not black). For some time all I felt was shame when someone offered me a helping hand. All the while it was painful to turn down help when I more than needed it. But I would do it anyway. I took on my mother’s attitude, believing if someone helped me then they were expecting something in return. My mother would say, in a heavy west African accent, I was a fool, the kind of person who gets taken advantage of because I would give and not expect or ask for reciprocity. I knew what it was like to look as though you want, and not as tough you need. This was my borrowed idea of strength: self-reliance, autonomy, independence.
It was ironic though because I knew my mother needed us, her children, and she needed us to need her. Not by means of finance, but emotionally and spiritually—by true means of survival. For the past three years, I’ve loosened up on the strong black woman trope as a singular identity, the only kind my mother knew, the only kind for which I could not blame her. To that regard, my mother may have taught me what it is to be strong and self-sufficient, but my girlfriend taught me what is to be loved, to need and to feel free of shame. She taught me gratitude and how important it is to show it incessantly. She taught me to not accept being taken for granted and to recognize when I’m being taken advantage of. She taught me to be loved. But most importantly, she taught me to understand my mother instead of reflecting her anger, and has been encouraging me to establish a better relationship with my mother, one with open communication, understanding and tenderness.She did not teach me to stand, contrary to what my mother believes. But she did teach me to stand up for myself (and when it comes to my family, she taught me to do so respectfully). She helped me realize by being vulnerable and putting my guards down (even just a little), I wasn’t being weak; I was being open, not just welcoming light (happiness) into my life, but most importantly letting out from it all of the darkness.
It’s still sometimes a wonder as to how my girlfriend loves me, and all that comes along with me. But she does, with kindness and fervor. As she inspires me to be a better partner, she also inspires me to be a better daughter, sister, friend and person. This anniversary, I’ve come to understand how important it is to grow in love and how it’s never too late or how you’re never too old. And that goes for any relationship.