Birds, Bees, Fire, and Brimstone: Unlearning My Mother's Relationship Teachings

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by Kriste Peoples of Honey Help Yourself

Instead of having a gentle mother-daughter conversation about the birds and the bees, I got a fire and brimstone sermon: You think this feeling is love, but it ain’t. Love comes through Jesus. Those knuckle-headed boys don’t want nothing but to ruin your life and the only reason they come around acting like they like you is because they want to get in your pants. They don’t like you. They don’t want you either. And once they get what they want–after they’ve used you and taken something you can’t never get back–where will you be?

They’ll leave you knocked up or knocked out somewhere in a gutter and then what? Where you gonna go? You ain’t coming back here because I can tell you I’m through raising babies in this house. Them twenty seconds of sin ain’t worth a lifetime of trouble. You better find love in the Lord if you know what’s good for you. But apparently you don’t because you’re so hot to throw yourself down behind these illiterate jailbound idiots. And for what? Ten seconds of pleasure, think you know so much.

Them boys don’t want you—them little ugly, nappy-headed rascals who don’t know no better than to scratch themselves in public. And for what? Five seconds of fun? They don’t care about you…”

Needless to say, her sermon worked. By the grace of our Lord, my grandmother, God and his assembly, I managed to avoid the evil clutches of those teeming, godless, rabid hooligans who went wilding in the streets, dicks in hand–cocked and ready–looking to do their business on tender preteens like me.

Nearing the end of my adolescence, and feeling mildly accomplished at having heeded my mother’s searing relationship messages, I proudly pointed myself in the direction of college, all but foregoing the forbidden pleasure of boys. My all but nonexistent dating life didn’t escape the notice of my mother. And that’s when she started asking questions like Have you met anybody special yet?

She had no idea how deeply I had internalized her message of abstinence and ultimately, abandonment at the careless, callous hands of the unfair sex. By the time I’d hit my mid-twenties, I realized I’d steered clear of all manner of real relationships for years, choosing instead the risk-free types who didn’t ask much of me or require too much of an emotional investment.

There was the endearingly sexless geek whose idea of a hot weekend was ordering in and reading through a stack of obscure titles on loan from the neighborhood library. And the enigmatic foreign artist who’d suddenly succumb what he called the constant tug of his homeland whenever things heated up between us. And let’s not forget the kind-hearted borderline gay who kept my self-esteem on life support after a cool brooding musician and inflated jock played craps all over my emotions. All told, none of them were without their charm, but none of them had any real staying power either. I’d made sure of it. I’d been hardwired. Now I can’t say I was happy with what I got in return. But I can assure you I was safe. After all, men didn’t mean me no good, did they?

With the advent of my mother’s newfound crusade to get me hitched, I had a hard time reconciling her earlier insistence to the contrary. During our Saturday morning talks, she’d ply me with questions so predictable, she eventually resorted to plainly saying, Well, you know what I’m gonna ask next. Which consisted of at least two of the following, and not in any particular order: Have you met Mr. Wonderful yet? What about Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now? Any secret admirers? Anybody calling? And lastly, Why are you being so picky and hard on men?

As the years progressed and my twenties came and went, the timbre of my man talk remained unchanged. From miles away I could feel my mother, having all but diagnosed my chronic manlessness as inoperable, sighing heavenward at the very real likelihood I wouldn’t be adding to the count of grandchildren she so enjoyed. All the while I marveled at her inability to understand how steadily her hard-driving sermon had been echoing in my head and repeating on me for so long.

By the time I’d entered my thirties, I realized I’d spent far too long feeling inadequate and, frankly, ugly around the men I liked. Sometimes, I’d have flashbacks of walking down my junior high school corridor smiling shyly at Kevin, the football and track star whom I secretly adored, only to have him point me out to his friends and make jokes at my expense. They laughed in my face.

But, I’m not fourteen anymore, I remind myself. And, despite the occasional suggestion to the contrary, I know that grown men don’t all act like insensitive, oversexed teenagers. Oh, and I can assure you that unpublished volumes of my own personal research has shown me that pleasure can indeed last much longer than five seconds.

It’s my good fortune to have met so many wonderful people who helped me debunk some longstanding beliefs of my childhood, those flinty ideas prized and passed down through the women in my family like purple hearts conferred for service in the Great War of Love. It was these friends and lovers who taught me I didn’t have to be a casualty of my own heart. And not every date, fling and flirtation needed to be met with stiff upper lips and riddled with grief, drama and dread. I actually had a choice about what happened. Mind you, I wasn’t a quick study, but eventually it started to make sense.

That’s why I love the quote from Alice Walker’s Celie when she says something like I’m poor, I’m black, I might be ugly and can’t cook, but I’m here. I’m here. Here’s a woman who – because of the odds against her – has learned to embrace herself and move courageously toward life on her own terms. She may stumble, but she loves who she is, understanding at last that she is divine, beautiful and free.

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