How 21st-Century Mamas Became the "Bad Cop"

Op-ed

Growing up, my mama was always busy. Her daily endeavor began when it was still dark out –– she would kiss my sister and me awake right before the alarm would go off, then head to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, lunch, and snack. From then until forever, my mama was a chauffeur, a housekeeper, a cook, a secretary, an accountant, a professor, a therapist, an encyclopedia, a beautician, a playmate, a counselor, a nurse. Oh yes, and her actual job –– a writer.

My mama is but a universal example of what mothers have to face every single day. Wake up early, get the kids ready for school, get the kids to school, get to work, work, get home. Wash, clean, cook, cook some more, and, of course, tend to children and partners. Make doctors appointments, lecture bad behavior, praise accomplishments, help with assignments, listen, give advice, soothe meltdowns.

Our society has been constructed in a way that places a secret dependence on mothers. Yes, secret, because ultimately, they don’t get the credit they deserve. Since I was a little girl, my mama would instill good habits into me, repeating the same things over and over again until they stuck: “Don’t chew with your mouth full.” “Straighten your posture.” “Use your knife to eat, don’t scrape food with the fork like a lunatic.” “If you're not hungry for dinner, then you're not hungry for dessert.” “Say thank you.” “Say please.” “Always offer a cafecito when guests arrive.” Then, later: “You can’t go to a party in the middle of Old Havana on a Tuesday night.” “You can't wear that to school.” “You forgot to take the trash out. Do it now.”

Most mothers are like mine in the sense that they’re left with no choice but to become the bad cops, while fathers are the angels that arrive just in time for an I-feel-you hug or a comforting pat on the back. Whenever we got into fights, I would take on hefty grudges on my mama just because I detested how she always won the argument. Why was she constantly lecturing me? Why did she want to make me feel like I was misbehaving when I was doing something as simple as slouching? Who cared whether I wore jeans over something more formal when we went out to dinner?

Sometimes, we would go nearly a week without exchanging anything other than a “yes” or a “no,” especially as I got older and started taking more “rebellious” actions (for example, forgetting to call at midnight when out with friends, or dilly-dallying when she was already waiting downstairs to get to the beach before it got too crowded). Once, after a particularly big argument involving six mangos and a cockroach, I called my dad to vent; later that day, my mama asked me, “Did you call your father to give him this week’s complaints about me?” The night was black and then it was blacker.

Mothers are sacrificing favoritism in order to build our personalities, our good habits, our strength –– and although we’re convinced they scold us out of spite, it is anything but. My mama has always been well aware of the consequences that come hand in hand with playing the bad cop in our family, but her motives are unswerving. The benefits of teaching me how to carry myself fluently in society compensate for the disadvantages — “I’m not just raising women,” she always says, “but remarkable human beings.” This sort of sacrifice certainly means that mothers deserve more than just one day of celebration a year, correct?

And yet, that’s far from the case.

With recent progress made on sexism, women have nobly entered the workforce, finally fulfilling a long-lost right that too many of our ancestors were denied. But although this means that mothers, too, can develop careers, traditional home models have barely adjusted, making it almost impossible for these foundational members of our community to find a life for themselves outside the house.

And mothers who fly in the face of our inimical “home models,” choosing to enter the workforce instead, are often known as “bad” mothers –– yet nobody says the same about fathers. Fathers have the privilege of reveling in their private life, of fulfilling their family domain as well as their social and professional domains, of sleeping at night knowing they did something that will be recognized by society –– but the toil of a mother receives practically no acknowledgement.

Quarantine has only made matters worse. While before, at least our mothers had those occasional moments for themselves that allowed for the indulging of other notions — whether in the house when kids were in school or at work where they could focus entirely on themselves — now they’re home all day, trying to juggle a languishing personal life with the magnification of their previous load of responsibilities. It’s not just breakfast and dinner, it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack. It’s dealing with constant interruptions while trying to work. It’s cleaning up after everybody all day, it’s handling the harrowing impact of quarantine on kids and husbands or partners.

And how often do they get to do something for themselves? How often do I see my mother lie down to watch a film of her choice, on her own time, without anybody barging in? How often can she dedicate time to writing her novel? How often can she make a chicken sandwich for herself without having to make one for every other member in the household? And on the rare occasions she gets fed up, nobody understands that it’s not because she’s on her period, but rather, because she’s accumulated an ocean of disruptions that don’t allow her to focus. I’ve witnessed it myself, and it’s bad.

We forget who mothers really are. We forget everything they do for us behind the scenes, in secret, so that we won’t suffer from knowing. We forget about the times they said, “No, don’t worry, I already made you your cafecito, and by the way, I added a special ingredient, too” and “That’s all right, everybody breaks things” and “Why didn’t you send me your essay before turning it in?” and “Don’t text him back, he doesn’t deserve you” and, of course, “You eat the last piece of chocolate. I don’t want it.”

As a daughter, son, or father, it must be rattling to read this. But the blame isn’t just on you. Everybody has been involved in creating such a society where mothers are the pillars that sustain us and yet are also among those who suffer the most.

So, daughters, sons, and fathers –– it’s time to step up. What can you do to mitigate the immense weight that mothers carry around every single day, especially now in quarantine? Surprise her. Find ways to take initiative around the house without waiting for her to ask –– when the sink is cluttered, wash the dishes; when the trash is full, take it out; when she’s making dinner, set the table (although to be honest, I almost always forget that last one). Try making your own lunch, and offering to make hers sometimes too. And of course, remember that often, what she really needs is a moment alone to listen to her favorite album or take a walk through the park.

And mothers? It’s time to stop tolerating these manners, because that’s an enormous slot of the problem. I know it brings you pleasure to raise a human being, but you mustn’t forget your own needs. Remember that thing you taught us about self-love? Well, now it’s your turn to apply this notion. Quarantine might just be the perfect moment to practice giving more to yourself.

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Tula Singer

Tula Singer is a 17 year-old Cuban-American recently moved to Brooklyn after spending several years in Havana. She wants her pieces to be a slice of her life — filled with jazz, oceans, identiy crises, and chocolate. She writes because she cannot let it go.