Throughout my life, my mother always had a habit of asking me to evaluate her parenting. For years, to avoid uncomfortable conversations I’d say, “Yes, you’re a great mom,” and “Yes, I had a fine childhood,” thinking I was doing what was right to protect us both from a lot of arguing and heartache. I thought allowing her this reality would be better for us both, and it would help us maintain a more peaceful mother-and-child relationship. While I absolutely adore my mother, there was a lot about my childhood that I couldn’t ignore had harmed me. Of course, I wanted to tell her that—but I also absolutely wanted to maintain the basic boundaries of our existing relationship. I also wanted my mother to be a person I could actually be myself around, because hell, I wanted her to like me. All of me.
My mother and I did not begin our existing relationship at birth. Before we were Tarana and Kaia we were mother and daughter, and it was impossible to see each other outside of those identities. I could not adjust my adolescent lens to see her as a whole person, and she could not look at me and see anything but her baby. And as I got older, those lenses stayed the same for each of us until I finally questioned them.
It wasn’t until I was grown that I first saw my mother as someone fully human; more than the holder of the title “mommy.” I could see in her, for just a second, a glimpse of the person she is outside of that role, and it hit me suddenly: She’d had an entire life before she had me, a whole life I barely knew anything about. And as I was processing that, an even harder thought hit me:
“What if we don’t like each other?!”
I had never taken time to think about the kind of person my mother is. The things I once complained about to my friends were typical mom things—she forced me to clean my room or the kitchen when I didn’t think I needed to; not letting me socialize or wouldn’t give me money when I needed it at school, and so on. In fact, there were many things she had done (often in direct response to my behavior, since I’m being honest) that sat with me until the very moment where I gave thought to the authenticity of our relationship, and realized we’d have to tend to it like our own little garden.
Unfortunately, neither of us had green thumbs, which left us yanking cluelessly at long-neglected weeds, trying to desperately erase their presence. The truth is, we exist so much further outside the limited roles of mother and child. Just as she grew to become mother, activist, leader, organizer and so much more, I grew to become queer, Trans, creative, and disruptive. As I was outgrowing the girl I was raised to be and discovering someone new, I wanted her to celebrate the potential of who I could be, even if I didn’t quite know who that was at the time. I also had an anxiety that a lot of our relationship was based on our shared ‘womanhood.’ My mother’s plans to raise a carefree and joyous Black woman were shattered the day I logged into Tumblr and discovered an entire world filled with language to describe the feelings I was having—but how do you start that conversation? How does one explain an entire metamorphosis to people who are just not all the way there in their understanding of the gender binary?
So, when she looked at me and asked again, “Pooh, I was never too strict on you, right?” her eyes brimming with something I couldn’t necessarily understand, I hesitated. For the first time, I debated just telling her the truth; just for a moment. It’s hard to accept that parents just don’t have the answers like you believe they do. It’s difficult to see nuance in situations that literally traumatized you, but at some point, we must accept that they’re simply people who make choices, too—just like at some point, they must understand and accept the consequences of those choices.
When we talk about motherhood and the bond that comes with having a child, we automatically associate that relationship as beginning as birth—and what is that if not bioessentialism persevering? Motherhood is about making the choice to love and sacrifice for yours. Motherhood is about giving your child the tools they need to face the world. The mother-and-child dynamic is an earned bond between a mothering figure and one who needs a hand to hold in this world. It is a lifelong and intimate union—but most importantly, the mother-and-child dynamic is one rooted in accountability and forgiveness. It is making the choice to love in spite of, because of, and every reason in between unconditionally.
My mother’s love for me did not end with me sharing the truth of myself with her; I know like I know my name there is nothing I can do to separate me from her love. What it did was open up space for us to get to know each other, to understand each other’s perspective, and I’m grateful for that. My mother protected me so fiercely because she was the only blockade between me and a mountain of generational trauma. She wanted so desperately to get it right for me because she knew that I would one day have to go into a world that would try its hardest to swallow me whole—not knowing that at the same time I was already being digested. These were things neither of us knew how to articulate because we did not speak of them.
My relationship with my mother did not truly begin until we led with honesty and accountability, something we’d never truly tried before. In the new relationship we’ve built there is grace and understanding. We have created a safe space with each other that holds everything that we are, and that is what building a bond is. It is coming as you are and sharing what wisdom and experiences you have. Motherhood is the dedication to building a relationship with your child at every stage in their lives, while accepting that the person you created is not meant to stay the same person forever.
Kaia Naadira is a non-binary, Brooklyn-based filmmaker and photographer whose work is inspired by and almost exclusively centers stories from the black, queer community. Their work has won an Audience Award at the BlackStar Film festival in Philadelphia, as well as the Black Trans Media film festival and Revolve Film Festival; their writing is included in the recently released bestseller, You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience and the Black Experience.