Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself

Like many modern mothers, Ylonda Gault Caviness started out with a “self-flagellating, all-consuming obsession to raise a child in a fashion akin to a recipe-perfect soufflé.” 

I was far, far away from family who could support and ground me. Had I been back in Buffalo, Sugar—Mama’s best friend and my godmother—would’ve simply sat me down and said, “Baby, you need JESUS!” Instead I thought I needed T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints: Birth to Three and a baby monitor with audio and motion sensors. At the time, I was simply trying to raise my kid in a more enlightened fashion.

But then she realized something. Her own mother’s dismissive response to children’s entreaties, “Child, please,” had been all about boundaries: “Without saying so, she let us know we kids could sometimes rock her world, but we couldn’t be her world.” That “not studying you” method isn’t just acceptable, Gault Caviness decides, it’s better at fostering independence and self-reliance in children and emotional wholeness in mothers.

childplease

Child, Please is a memoir of the backstory and unfolding of this epiphany. 

In it, Gault Caviness transitions with ease from the heavy and potentially inflammatory to the trivial and universally relatable. Ease, in fact—an assertive ease—is what characterizes her tone. She’s the straight shooter you can trust to be as loving and open as she is tough and opinionated: “White parents are punks,” Gault Caviness writes, before consoling a few pages later: “I have seen for myself that many of you are not at all punks. You are, to be sure, far more, um, flexible, than most black parents. We simply have different expectations and discipline styles.” 

Race is always relevant in Child, Please, and yet, in some ways also completely irrelevant: “Somewhere in my idyllic view of life with a nice family, a nice life, I pictured myself being happy. At the very least approaching a modicum of contentment. Instead, most every day I feel like I’m not enough of this, too much of that.” Gault Caviness acknowledges dissonance between suburban mom life and blackness, yet simultaneously rejects it. In her words, the two coexist: “I find visits to joints like the Container Store to be near-orgasmic experiences.” 

I developed a bit of a friend crush on Gault Caviness, I’ll admit. Who wouldn’t want to hangout with this mama? 

One of them will start in with something asinine like, “We don’t have any orange juice, Mommy?” And I’ll have to just snap. Both good humor and good sense will momentarily take leave and I’ll scream, “Do you SEE any orange juice? Do I look like a Florida citrus tree to you? Do I? Well, it looks like you’re in for a day without sunshine, boo. Okay? Deal with it!” Of course, their eyes will get all big and spooked and they will be emotionally scarred—for life, or at least until I apologize fifteen minutes later. Dang. I really hate it when this blues comes on me. It is in these moments that the cat is let out of the proverbial bag. And my children know, really know, their otherwise loving and devoted mother is all kinds of cray-cray. I should probably lie down. That would help. I need, um . . . honestly, I don’t know what I need. But sleep does work wonders.

It’s not me, kids, it’s you. Okay, fine, actually maybe it is me. (But also it’s you.)

But Gault Caviness doesn’t just describe the condition of feeling not “like a mother so much as … the sum of my to-do list.” She doles out an answer:  

My ultimate Me Time fix involves a simple little flip of the switch I do in my head from time to time. It’s handy-dandy and needs no scheduling, planning, or calling in favors…. When various and sundry people get in your ear—kids, spouses, coworkers, family—about their needs and wants, pay them no mind. Repeat as needed. 

What could be better than a friend whose company you enjoy even as she points out your flaws and bosses you around?

A truncated version of this review first appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.

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