Billy Johnson II knows how hard it was to raise him, and in recognition of the woman whose fingerprints are all over the man he is today, this year he has just one valentine: his mother.
Mama you know I love you
Mama you’re the queen of my heart
Your love is like
Tears from the stars
Mama I just want you to know
Lovin’ you is like food to my soul
—BoysIIMen, A Song for Mama
My valentine this year is a woman whom is also my first love; and the only woman who has ever loved me unconditionally: my mother. She has been there for me through the most challenging and rewarding times in my life. My mother brilliantly balanced multiple caring roles while insuring my emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual needs were addressed.
While I was going through elementary school, my mother would go over my daily lessons with me, insuring I had a firm grasp on the material. Those moments when I demonstrated academic excellence and came home bragging about my performance, my mother allowed me to take all the credit, saying nothing of the countless hours she spent assisting her son with his studies.
One strategy I learned during our study sessions consist of applying academic content to my everyday life. For example if the subject was mathematics, my mother would advise me to consider how long it would take me to save my allowance in order to buy an Atari. If the topic was reading comprehension and I struggled to understand the meaning of certain words, again I would be advised to read the definition and then apply its meaning to my life experiences.
This strategy has assisted me both as a university student as well as in my professional life. No matter if I was exploring research design and analysis or neuropsychology, I had an easier time understanding the material as I related the content to my life. As a psychologist this strategy assists me with empathizing with my clients. I realize I cannot fully connect to the exact emotions of my client’s experience of losing his/her partner. However, I can consider my own experiences of loss and then share the general sense of grief my client may be experiencing. This strategy is also present in my approach to writing articles as I often use my own experiences with racism and sexism to strengthen my conceptualization.
I have been a sports fanatic as far back as I can remember. While growing up I was either in the backyard or the basketball court playing games with friends, or at home, pleading with my sisters to allow me to watch the latest “big game.”
On the other hand my mother hates sports. HATES IT! However, in spite of her disdain for sports my mother signed me up for little league baseball, pee wee football and basketball. Furthermore, when she was able my mother would consistently attend my sporting events to cheer me on.
A colleague recently asked me, why did my mother enroll me in sports if she disliked them so much?
My short answer is I don’t know, I’ve never asked and she’s never offered to share. However, if I were to take a few educated guesses I would assume she did so for the following reasons:
She knew how much I liked sports. I was often running around the house, wrestling with the dog or playing basketball in the kitchen with the trashcan as the hoop. My mother never ‘directed’ me or my siblings towards particular hobbies; instead she gave maximum support to the interests we chose. My choice was athletic competition.
My mother also viewed athletics as an opportunity for me to make new friends and expand my social system. My closest friends were often members of the teams in which I was involved, as we were together during numerous practice sessions, as well as before, during and after games. Usually by mid-season the team felt less like a collection of athletic strangers and more like a family. I learned to appreciate the different strengths of my teammates and carve out a role for myself in this new family. My involvement in sports therefore enhanced my relationships with other people, and these relationships in turn increased my love of sports.
Being involved in athletics reinforced the importance of being responsible for my actions and accountable to other people. Playing Pee-wee football meant keeping track of the equipment we had to wear during the games. For example I was responsible for my mouth guard, jock strap, shoulder pads etc… If I lost or misplaced my gear, then I was unable to play in the game. I recall on one occasion misplacing (read ‘lost’) my chin strap and being forced to sit out a game. I was personally distraught, and more importantly I disappointed my coach and my teammates who were expecting me to be prepared. From that point on I kept my football gear in a singular place at home and made sure I had everything I needed on game day.
After the game was over, and I had give my impressions of why the team won or lost the game, my mother typically only had one question: “Did you do your best”? Her focus was rarely on the game’s outcome, but rather my effort level during the contest. There were times I would exclaim, “Mom, I tried as hard as I could,” to which she would remind me, “Then you gave it your all. That’s all you can do.” Other times I would feel that I did not leave it all on the field, and she would say, “Ya gotta do your best if you wanna get better.” I carry these sentiments with me no matter what tasks I endeavor to complete. On those occasions when I believe that I did not give my best efforts, I try to inwardly acknowledge as much and then make a vow to produce a better effort the next time.
Not every interaction with my mother was pleasant. I imagine that I was not the easiest child to parent, as I often engaged in mischief. From the ages 8-11 I was a constant thief, going into my mom’s purse looking for dollar bills or loose change. There were a few times when I even swiped my mother’s Automatic Teller Machine card and had myself a fabulous time purchasing merchandise at the mall. That is, until my mother caught wind of my activities (mother’s intuition?) and put a stop to my stealing once and for all.
To say that she was angry is an understatement! What was my punishment? Let’s just say I became “intimately acquainted” with my mother’s belt. I was also forbidden to leave the house for a month, at 11 years old I felt that being grounded on this scale was a virtual death sentence. As for the spanking I received, keep in mind that I grew up in a time when physical discipline was a widely accepted form of parenting. Most people agreed that if a child received a spanking, he or she needed it. Looking back, I have no doubt that my spanking was well earned.
Little did my mother know that I was not just stealing from her, I had made a habit of stealing video games from department stores and candy bars from neighborhood mom and pop shops. However, after my mother’s discipline, my lesson was learned. I never again stole from my mother or anywhere else.
I want to be clear about this. Yes, it’s true that the physical discipline grabbed my attention and fed me the message that my behavior was serious and highly unacceptable. This was not the first time I was spanked, but was probably the worst of them. There was also one line that my mother said to me that I will never forget. As she was informing me of what the remainder of my punishment would be, she looked at me with a look of both sadness and exasperation and said,“If this happens again I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” I didn’t know what she would do either, but something deep inside told me I had just broken my mother’s heart. I never wanted to see that look again, nor did I ever want the spanking or the punishment. All of which likely were a big part of why the behavior ceased!
At the age of 12, being the new kid in the neighborhood I was brutally beaten by local gang members. Upon my arrival home, it was my mother who insisted that the entire family pile in the car, find and punish “those hooligans.”
We drove around for at least an hour without ever finding my perpetrators. It was a difficult situation for both me and my family. Looking back I was less concerned with whether or not we would be able to track down my opponents, and instead I felt a sense of safety knowing that no matter the conflict or adversity I would face, my mother “had my back” through any challenge or obstacle.
While in the eighth grade I received my first (and only) out of school suspension for fisticuffs with a classmate. However, it was not the principal’s lecture, or possible retribution from my opponent’s friends that I feared, but my mother’s disappointment. I heard her footsteps as she made her way to my location. I tried in vain to read her face as the principal conveyed to my mother his version of the events which led to my suspension. Finally, my mother motioned to me that we were headed out. After which our dialogue followed in this way:
Mom: “He must have really pissed you off.”
Me: “Um, yeah, I guess.”
Mom: “I thought so. C’mon, let’s get some McDonalds.”
At that time eating at McDonalds was generally reserved for the celebration of achievements or weekend excursions. Instead of punishing her young son, my mother comforted me and demonstrated understanding. Oh, and she was right, my opponent did piss me off! Nevertheless, as I devoured my burgers and fries, my mother made sure to inform me that future behavior of that sort would not be acceptable.
Why the seemingly contradictory responses? Looking back I believe my mother was trying to send two messages. On the one hand she may have assumed that my actions were justified. She knew that I was not the type of child that looked for trouble or who was frequently involved in violent interactions. As a matter of fact, I typically walked away from “invitations” to brawl. Therefore the circumstances must have been exceptional for me to use violence as a problem-solving method. On the other hand, she did not want me to think that I now had a license to regularly engage in behavior that would get me suspended from school. That said, we did not have a long discussion about the fight. She simply said “Let’s not make this an everyday occurrence.” Her advice was, of course, heeded.
When my adult behavior extended beyond places my mother could understand (i.e. joining a fraternity, dating white women) I never met with my mother’s judgment. Don’t get me wrong: she’s human, and made sure to let me know when I was making questionable decisions. But ultimately she trusted in me and perhaps believed that she has raised her son to avoid making decisions which would be harmful. Furthermore, those times when I have made detrimental choices, instead of an “I told ya so” my mother was there providing support and validation.
Not long ago I experienced my worst episode of clinical depression and I decided my only antidote was to leave my job, family, and friends and spend six months in Mexico. My mother did not try to talk me out of it; instead she drove me to the airport and asked me to call her frequently. I did what I was told.
My mother and I are not friends. I will never know her innermost thoughts and struggles, nor do I confide in her like a best friend. However, her prints are all over the person I am today, and it is her voice that is with me as I have made my most challenging decisions. More importantly, it is because of my mother’s ability to convey love through her discipline, understanding, nurturing, strength, and compassion that every day I search for ways to be a better man.
Happy Valentine’s Day to the love of my life, my mother. From your son,
Billy Johnson II
Image courtesy of the author