NEW YORK (AP) — Ylonda Gault Caviness has no use for mommy groups, peeling the skins off peas for babies, wet-wipe warmers and the shelves and shelves of parenting books that have taken over child-rearing.
But it wasn’t always that way. When her first child came along 16 years ago, Caviness took a back seat to her baby’s everything. When child No. 2 landed, she patiently hung in there. Then along came her third. That’s when a bit of advice from her old-school mama sounded in her head: “Girl, you better check yourself before you wreck yourself!”
In other words, this working, African-American mom of three breathed in and out — deeply — then took a seat and realized making her brood happy all the time at all costs, including her own sanity, was the wrong way to go.
In a sweet, funny memoir looking back on her own upbringing in Buffalo and reflecting on the contemporary complexities of parenting in suburban New York City, the 50-year-old Caviness writes of relishing her “me-time” and learning to ignore the dust bunnies. She declares herself “too blessed to be stressed.”
In other words, her mama got a lot of things right.
Caviness’ book, “Child, Please: How Mama’s old-school lessons helped me check myself before I wrecked myself,” was released May 5 by Penguin.
A conversation with Ylonda Gault Caviness:
AP: Tell me about your mother and her style of raising you and your two siblings.
Caviness: My mom was and is a very pragmatic person. She was single for a large part of our upbringing. She worked in a factory. She grew up in the Jim Crow South. But she had not an ounce of bitterness despite the fact that she grew up four blocks away from the 16th Street church bombing in Birmingham.
The thing I remember most is that she seemed genuinely happy when she came home from work and genuinely happy when she interacted with us. I mean, not when we got whoopins, but when she walked in the house she was grinning from ear to ear as though we were fuel.
In hindsight, I feel that she did that because she made sure she took care of herself. She didn’t fawn over us. She made it very clear that we could rock her world but we couldn’t be her world.
AP: What are some of the hard truths about race and raising children that you take on in your book?
Caviness: In many black households, discipline and compliance are far more important. I think that comes from history. I think that when you look back at slavery and things like Jim Crow, our parents had to protect us from a world that would not likely look upon us kindly. They were harsh with discipline so that when they put us out into the world we wouldn’t appear uppity to whites, that we would be compliant to authority so that we would stay alive, so that we would stay out of trouble.
I believe that legacy continues.
AP: Is that a positive or a negative?
Caviness: I don’t think it’s either. It’s just still a reality. We’re not post-racial, but things are different now and we can fill our kids heads with thoughts that they’re all that and a bag of chips and everything’s fine, but as we see now with the violence from police, we really do have to maintain, as a race, some of that keep-it-realness.
We have to make sure that our children understand to a certain extent, within reason, that the world is still not necessarily going to treat them fairly. I’m not saying at every turn they’re going to be discriminated against. I’m not saying that we should scare our kids. But I do think we need to prepare them for the reality of what the world is.
AP: You recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times along those lines and had some anonymous commenters declaring you a racist.
Caviness: I wanted to write it as a black mom who was brought up a certain way, and I’m not saying every black mom in the country was brought up the way I was. We’re not a monolith. But I do think it’s important to have this conversation because of what happened in Baltimore with Toya Graham, the mom who grabbed her son and smacked him upside the head to pull him out of the uprising.
I felt a moment when I thought, ‘Wow, she did what she believed in and I respect her for that.’ But a lot of blacks on social media were saying things like, ‘Oh she’s part of that whole slave mentality and she’s a pawn and of course the media is shooting her because she’s beating yet another black child.’
I just feel very strongly that we can’t judge her. I don’t beat my kids, but really I don’t beat them because I don’t think it works. It didn’t work on me.
A lot of people, black and white, were sitting on their sofas in their houses and listening to Anderson Cooper tell them what was going on in Baltimore and this woman had the sirens outside her door, and she looks in her house and her baby is not there and she sees him with a brick in his hand and police all around him. I feel as though what she did was akin to grabbing a toddler out of oncoming traffic. It’s just that legacy we have.
AP: How does a mother of today reconcile the past with the ‘professionalization’ of parenthood? The expert advice, all the opinions, the mommy wars.
Caviness: Some of it has to be maternal instinct, wisdom that you have, the common sense that you were born with. But I know we cannot raise our kids entirely in the old-school way. We have to mix the old and the new, but keep your common sense about you, based on your kids. Not what a book says.
Sometimes, as a culture, Americans are reluctant to go through that organic, trial-and-error process of figuring things out. We want a quick fix. We want our kids to have some sense of joy, but we need to make them strong. We need to make them resilient. We need to make sure they have integrity.
Happiness is fleeting, but we can’t raise kids if the goal is to always keep them happy. Sometimes they’ve got to be uncomfortable and they’ve got to figure things out.
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