Sunday, August 20, 2023

You're Not My Mom

You're not my mom.

It's one of the most common fights in blended families. The step-parent makes a move to discipline, correct, or otherwise parent a step-child, and inadvertently triggers rage and rebellion that can sour the home and weaken the bonds between every single person in the family towards everyone else. Sometimes, the pain and fear of divorce, grief, and change are so strong that even a positive reinforcement on the part of the new parent - a hug, an affirmation, a kindness - can be met with hostility and withdrawal. It's like trying to cross a minefield with snowshoes on.

We had a couple of years of this cycle of rage. My kids made mistakes, my wife made mistakes, I made mistakes. I often felt trapped in the middle, like a UN negotiator trying to sort out a peace treaty between warring nations, except both nations think of me as a countryman. We prayed, we loved, we got professional counseling, and things got better. Ultimately, it took some maturing on the part of everyone involved, including myself, and even some relocation and time apart, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we're a real family now.

But they still don't call my wife "Mom."

And I don't really want them to. We already went through the war of the names, what everyone is supposed to call everyone else without hurting someone else's feelings. When the dust settled, my oldest daughter put it in the best words possible. In one family meeting, after discussing all those years of strife and reconciliation, she said to my wife, her stepmother, as best I can quote it, "You're not my mother, because I only have one, but you are my parent, and I know you love me and want the best for me."

It was so wise, I wish I had thought of it myself. I've been thinking about it for the past three years or so, since she said it. Maybe this wisdom came through her own motherhood and learning to rely on others in the process, or maybe she's just got it like that, but, I swear, this one way of thinking is going to change our bloodline for the better for generations. 

It's not just about making peace within the home, or reconciling with a stepparent. When you really tease out the implications of such an idea, that one doesn't have to be a biological mother or father to be a parent, it has such wide-spread ramifications on the family culture. Because if I can adopt that mindset, it opens me up to accept other people as parents as well. I'm still parenting my grown children who have left the home, even if it looks different now than when they were younger. I'm also parenting my younger children, ages ten and four. But beyond that, I'm parenting my grandchildren. They know that Papa is fun, but he don't take no mess. Rather than undermine my daughter and their father by subverting their rules and parenting, I'm trying to co-parent with them and create a community of parents, a league of superheroes all trying to protect and guide the littles through life. 

My kids and grand-kids are growing up with the idea that they have so many parents that not only aren't their mother and father, but aren't related to them. Sure, they understand, in their way, that their grandparents (and step-grandparents!) are parents as well, but they will also see their uncles and aunties, some of them biological and some of them "play-aunties," as parents. When they're at school, they'll see their teachers as parents, there to care for them and correct them. Even some elders in the church or community are their parents, in their own limited way. It feels like something we lost along the way to the nuclear family parade, where we only recognize and celebrate the immediate biological connections between adults and children, and not the broader cultural and social ones.

Of course, there have to be boundaries. Our kids need to also know that they can trust their instincts about grown-ups and listen to their own "creep-alarm" when it goes off in their heads. There's a hierarchy at work here, and the custodial parents have the fullest rights and the fullest responsibilities over their children. And, I'm aware, even in my own experience, that investing too much respect for elders can also cripple a child.

I had an experience just the other day that made me think about the need to sometimes push back against elders who are just flat wrong. It was kind of a minor dispute, but it really forced me to challenge my thinking about elders. I was at the movies with my wife, something we rarely get to do because of a lack of available babysitters. When we got into the theater, this old man and his wife were in our seats. When I gently informed him he was in the wrong seat, he got huffy and said, "What's the difference?"

See, you have to understand, I've always had an intense respect for elders, especially old people. I can't say if this is a generational thing, or a church, thing, or a personal thing, but talking back to elders is just very difficult for me. I'd rather humble myself than disrespect an old person, and sometimes, that means I'm getting taken advantage of.

But not this time.

After I took a second to really process his audacity, I calmly explained the difference to him. Mainly, the difference is that I picked and paid for those seats because they're good seats, which is probably why he decided to poach them and refuse to get up. But he had me at a disadvantage, because if he won't get up and move voluntarily, my only options are putting hands on him or snitching to the manager, and neither one seemed right to me. Since he continued to be unreasonable, I told him, without yelling, but loudly enough so that people around would hear, that out or respect, I was going to take the seats a little down the same row, but that what he was doing wasn't cool. I told him, for everyone to hear, that we don't live in the days of the Royale twin screen cinema where it's first-come, first-served and the popcorn is fifteen cents a bucket. I told him, furthermore, that if I end up taking someone else's seat, and they come for it, then I'm going to have to find a way to make him move. He accepted those terms. In a minute, someone else did come, and he ended up moving, with all twelve or so people in the theater jeering at him while the previews started. I was pretty proud of myself, and only wish that my wife had been there to see my heroic, diplomatic handling of the situation, but she had stepped out to the lobby to put a literal bucket of fake butter on her bucket of popcorn.

The whole experience made me question one thing:

How old do I have to get to be able to just punch an old man in the face and it not be considered elder abuse? I mean, I'm about to turn fifty, so when is it gonna be just two old dudes working something out?

But seriously, it did make me proud for a minute, to be able to show respect to someone old enough (barely) to be my father, but also advocate for myself without Karening down the hall to the manager. This is what I want to raise my kids and grand-kids with. I want them to think of their older family members, teachers, and community elders as parents, worthy of respect and sources of wisdom and guidance, regardless of their biological connections. But I also want them to be able to advocate for themselves, to set fair boundaries and speak up when those boundaries are violated. I want them to think of their step-parents as parents, and their grandparents and uncles and aunties and play-uncles and play-aunties and teachers as well. But I also want them to have the courage and diplomacy to be able to say to any of them, "I don't like that," or "you crossed the line there," or even "this is not cool, and I'm not prepared to tolerate it." And I want them to be able to do this without escalating the situation into a screaming match with the repeated refrain of "You're not my mom!"

Now that I see that in writing, it looks like a gargantuan task. 

But as daunting as it is, I still think it's the goal, and I know that my kids and grand-kids have the best possible team around them, with the skills to get them there. At the front lines, they have their custodial parents, obviously, but behind and supporting them, they have generations of parents, a wealth of wisdom and love to see them through.

And if they ever have to say to one of their "parents," or even one of their parents, that a boundary has been crossed and they feel violated, there are enough of us to sort that out in their best interest.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Run, and Don't Look Back

Interracial relationships can be a blessing, can fill your life with new perspective and adventure, but they can also be hard. My experience in marriage has been pockets of time that, sometimes years in a row, where toxicity from external sources never pops up, only to be followed by an incident that brings the focus right back onto the differences and difficulties. We've been married for eleven years now, and, praise God, we've never had internal toxicity regarding race. But sometimes, I think that the long stretches of ease lull us into a false comfort zone that makes the racism and toxicity feel like it comes out of nowhere, when we probably should have been expecting it.

It could be a micro-aggression, a little snide remark or insinuation, especially hurtful if it's from someone who knows us. Or it could be full-blown hostility, especially with the way racial issues are ramping up these days, and especially in Florida. But, again, thank God, we have each others' backs. However, a recent story on Twitter reminded me that not everyone is so lucky.

Sometimes the call is coming from inside the house.

Reddit post entitled "My boyfriend called me the hard R." In short, a Black woman in a relationship with a white man accidentally dented his truck and he called her a racial slur. They've been together three years, apparently with no incident of racism, but he says that stress and anger caused him to slip and say it. He apologized afterwards and tried to be affectionate, but she's hurt and thinking of ending the relationship.

Sorry for the language there, but it really expresses her pain. I can't even imagine the hurt. I wonder if this woman had signs leading up to this, red flags that she either didn't see or ignored, and I remind myself that I've missed a few red billboards in the past, so no judgment. But, and I've said it before, interracial dating or marriage does not make one anti-racist. It doesn't even mean the person is simply not racist. There are a lot of reasons why a white person might choose to date or even marry outside of their race, and, as counterintuitive as it might sound, racism is one of them.

I actually hope that doesn't make sense to you. I hope that idea makes you scratch your head in bewilderment, because that might imply that the racist reasoning here is just irrational, and you're too good a person to think that way. But I've seen it so many times. Let me break it down.

If a person thinks of the romantic relationship as a partnership between equals, two souls connected by the bonds of love and attraction, together seeking mutual goals as well as supporting each other as individuals, then the idea of choosing a mate with racist intentions seems stupid, counterproductive, as well as obviously evil. On the other hand, consider that not everyone approaches relationships that way. There are a lot of wicked folks out there whose primary goal in dating or marriage is finding someone they can dominate. If that's their mindset, then it makes perfect (evil) sense for them to choose someone they think is inferior, beneath them.

In the situation this woman posted, she's been dating this man for three years, and yet it took this accident to really bring out the racism in him. He reacted harshly, not just with anger for someone who damaged a possession of his, but with the full force of his racism poured out on someone he thinks of as inferior. Nobody says that racial slur out of anger who hasn't already said it many times out of a racist mentality.

Here's the punchy pull quote in case you're just skimming this post:

Nobody says that racial slur out of anger who hasn't already said it many times out of a racist mentality.

The fact that this bullet is loaded in the chamber means it's already part of his arsenal. The girlfriend says that this guy has never said anything racist before in three years of dating, but I'd bet, at least I hope, that she's been replaying a lot of conversations in her mind lately to test that theory. Even if it wasn't specifically racist, how can she get away from the idea that he thinks of her as inferior? 

So here's my advice to this woman, this child of God, and anyone in the same predicament:

Turn that ship around and head back to port, because you're just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Run, and don't look back.

Head for the hills, whence cometh your help.


She's not married to this person, and doesn't seem to have any kids for him, which is a blessing. Otherwise, it would be a whole lot more complicated. As it is, she can break up with him, block his number and socials, and knock the dust of him off her feet. 

To be clear, it is not her job to fix this, if it can be fixed at all. It is not incumbent upon her to put herself in the way of emotional danger one second more. She doesn't have to figure out how to let him down easy, or weigh the pros and cons, because, I guarantee, she hasn't seen even half the cons yet. It takes a few seconds to break up with someone who isn't your spouse, and there's a whole lot of life on the other side of that conversation, too much to spend one more minute attached to him. I'm not saying it would be easy. If they're living together, I hope she's got family or friends, a place to go immediately for shelter and encouragement enough to face the days ahead. 

Some might point to his excuse about stress, and I would refer them to the classy pull quote in the box above. Even if I bought that line, which I do not, why would I want to be involved, maybe even married, to someone whose go-to reaction to stress is to pour racist vitriol on their partner? Over a truck? Others might point to how sorry he was afterwards, how affectionate. Of course he is, because that's classic abusive behavior. They brutalize someone, and then stroke the wounds they inflicted to keep the victim on the hook. What really happened is a racist, abusive partner dropped the facade a little too soon, before he had a firm legal grip on her, and she got a glimpse of what he really is. The proper reaction when you see the wolf's teeth sticking out from under the sheep's skin is not to consider your options, or to try to look at it from the wolf's perspective, with all the stress he's under. The proper response is to run, rabbit, run. 

Lastly, for anyone considering getting into an interracial relationship, I want to emphasize that this is not normal. There will be plenty of issues and obstacles, but this ain't supposed to be one of them. This is not something to work through, or go to counseling together to resolve. This is a dealbreaker, something to flee from. There are too many threats from outside to have to worry about threats from the person who's supposed to be fighting for and beside you.