Love is confusing. If anyone tells you they’ve figured it out, they’re probably trying to sell you a book. But most of us can at least agree that love is one of the most powerful forces in our lives. It is simultaneously the most rewarding and confounding emotion, causing us both euphoria and agony and, at times, driving us to do things that would seem insane to any rational observer. I would never claim I know everything there is to know about love. In fact, I believe love is a concept that is largely unknowable. But in my life, everything I understand about love I learned from my mum.
When I was young, I didn’t understand what motivated my mother, what governed her decisions, or got her through the darkest nights. Now that I’m a father I know it was love. I know it because the instant my daughter came into this world I felt as if my very soul had been poured into this tiny person.
It was alarming, at first, to feel the entire focus of my life shift away from myself and onto this new life. Very suddenly, my purpose for living had fundamentally changed and I was no longer my own top priority. I believe this overwhelming and joyous feeling of selflessness is at the very core of love. As parents it is what drives and motivates us to endure the pain, headaches, financial hardship and personal sacrifice involved in raising children. Looking back on how my mother raised my brothers and me, I realize that parenting is love.
Love is infinitely complex and difficult to unravel, but here are a few lessons my mother taught me about love that have shaped me deeply as a person and a parent:
In 1983, separated from my estranged father and seeking the promises of America, my mother made the toughest decision of both of our lives. She decided to leave Barbados, our Caribbean homeland, and immigrate to the United States, leaving my brother Glen and me behind. Unable to bring all of her three children into the country, and not wanting any of us to be alone, she made the heart wrenching decision to leave two of us behind while she, and our oldest brother Wayne, went on to pave the way for our eventual reunion. This act of incredible courage and selflessness was the most difficult and risky thing my mother had ever done, but she knew there was a chance it would change our lives forever. My mother uprooted her entire life and risked everything she had for love, and I am forever grateful.
After three long years, when I was ten, my mother had finally earned enough money to have Glen and I join her in the United States. She had managed, through sheer grit and determination, to settle in a working class suburb of Philadelphia whose residents crossed every level of the socio-economic ladder. She had succeeded in reuniting her boys in America and in doing so gave us opportunities that we had only dreamed of in Barbados. But for my mother, the journey didn’t stop when we arrived. It had only just begun. With her ninth-grade education, she held down multiple jobs—from scrubbing motel floors to taking fast food orders—in order to support the family. Despite her crippling schedule, she still managed to put herself through cosmetology school and eventually earned higher paying work as a beautician. Everything she did, she did for us. Her philosophy was simple: kids first.
Because of my mother’s around-the-clock schedule, she needed a good deal of help from our community to make sure that my brothers and I were well cared for. Asking for help is no easy task for a parent, but luckily for us my mum had the wisdom and humility to seek out people who could support us while she was earning a living. Fortunately, we also benefitted from the wonderfully strong sense of community my neighborhood shared. Whether it was Vonnie, Glen’s volunteer tutor who helped him learn to effectively manage his Dyslexia, or Mrs. Bing, the middle school counselor who challenged me academically with various weekend readings and developmental assignments, my brothers and I benefited immeasurably from the service of others. My mother was a tenacious worker, but she was also humble, charming and utterly unafraid to enlist support for her kids when she needed it.
Pay it forward.
One thing I will always be grateful for is the importance my mother placed on giving back. She knew how important community was in our lives, and she raised my brothers and me to recognize and appreciate the ways others had helped us along the way. She taught us that life was not worth living without a purpose. In her own life, she made it abundantly clear that we, her children, were her purpose. She showered us with warmth and affection as she relentlessly worked to provide us with better opportunities than the ones she had been born into. But she also taught us that our purpose could be derived by reflecting on what friends in the community had done to support us. My mother insisted that we do for other children what she and others in the community had done for us. Indeed, adherence to this principle of giving back what I have been given has shaped my path as both a parent and an educator.
Thank you, mum, for everything you’ve done! You inspire me every day.