You Got It From Your Mama

by Janelle Harris

A few days ago, me, my neighborhood in DC and most of the other good folks in the Mid-Atlantic region got hit with what feels like—to my back, arms and cabin fever spirit anyway—the 300th stupid snowstorm of the season. It was a heavy, messy, sleety conglomerate that me and my new secret weapon—my lean, mean shovelin’ machine of a daughter—had to go out and tackle before the car was frozen into icy isolation. Not that we were planning on going anywhere. Folks drive like wild people in some snow, especially in SUVs. But that’s a different rant for a different time.

Outside on the I Am Legend-like streets of southeast, one of my neighbors had plopped on some boots and perched a scully atop her mountain of weave to half-heartedly bail her Corolla from a mound of slush. “I’m so mad I have to shovel,” she mumbled to me while she flicked pitiful little spoonfuls of snow. “I need a man to be out here doing this for me.”

I managed a “mmm hmm” in response and chuckled to myself thinking two things: 1) in the amount of time that heffa was spending grumbling, whining and boo hooing her lack of masculine muscle power, she coulda been dug her car out and been slumped right back on her sofa and 2) the fact that she was out there doing the grumbling, whining and boo hooing was probably the very reason she didn’t have a man in the first place. I know I’m in the minority, but I get irked quick, fast and in a hurry by women who believe in “men’s jobs,” prissy, delicate, fragile things who want a guy to rescue them from unpleasantries like carrying heavy bags and taking out smelly garbage and, Lord forbid, shoveling a few inches of snow. I believe in the privileges of being treated like a lady, but that can’t-do-because-I’m-a-woman routine peeves me. That’s just how my mother raised me.

My mama is the hardest working person I know. Period. All of her adult life she’s worked in a factory, standing on her feet from 7 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, lifting, pulling, tugging, bending, doing more physically in one 8-hour day than I probably do in a five-day workweek (and, let’s be honest, probably the weekend too). Ever since I was a chunky little nerd with what looked like the potential to break the cycle of manual labor in my family, she’s always told me that she wanted me to use my mind, not my hands, to make a living. And she made sure that happened: all that hard workin’ helped me become the first person in the Harris tribe to go to college and now I spend my days writing articles and blog posts and editing dangling modifiers and subject-verb disagreements in other people’s projects. I have my mom to thank for that.

But just as importantly, Mommy taught me to do for self. She’s a single mother, though raised in a loving two-parent household where my Granddaddy showed his four daughters as much about the tools in the garage as my Nana taught them about the tools in the kitchen. The end result is this: there ain’t much my mama can’t do. A strong, Black woman, by her definition, is ladylike and feminine by all the run-of-the-mill social standards but she’s also able to handle the challenges—all of the challenges—that come with life. Mommy don’t play that damsel in distress mess. When there’s grass to be mowed or a repair around the house or chicken to be fried or a grandchild’s boo boo to be kissed, she’ll make it do what it do ‘til she gets it done. And I’m so thankful she passed that quality on to me. As her progeny, I can cook a pretty darn good meal but I can also change the oil in my car. I can throw on a pair of stilettos and strut in a cute dress but I can also throw on a pair of Timbs and sweatpants and shovel my car out of five inches of stupid snow. I’m not an androgynous mangirl, I’m not a creampuff prissy chick but I can handle it, whatever it may be.

After being shaped, molded, instructed, groomed, scolded, warned and rewarded by them for more than 18 years, it’s kinda hard not to be mini replicas of our mamas, walking, talking action figures that carry around all of the lessons that they’ve been tattooing on our minds since they popped us out. When you even think about all of the little, indirect, infinitesimal things your mother has taught you, like crossing your legs when you sit down or always keeping a little stash of money for yourself, even if you’re married, you realize how deep her influence runs. Most of the time, they’re pearls of wisdom they imparted to us for the sake of manners or self-preservation or just to keep us from being plain ol’ trifling.

But looking at our lives through our mothers’ lenses can also be restrictive. And shoot, sometimes mom was just wrong (but don’t tell her I said that). Some mothers taught their daughters that it’s OK to let a man smack the fire out of you once in a while so long as he’s maintaining the household and keeping the bills paid. There are mamas out there who have pressed on their daughters’ brains that hard work and integrity aren’t all that necessary if you look real pretty and flirt your way to what you want. Others have passed on their own crazy insecurities and baggage about relationships, religion, education and responsibility to make their girl children prime candidates to become some psychologist’s best paying patients.

Like me, can’t stand me: I’m the woman I am because I’m the product of my mother’s instruction. She did the best she could to prepare me for the never ending array of what the heck? moments she knew life was going to throw me. Even now, as an adult with my own daughter to raise, my own bills to pay, my own path to follow, I’m in awe of her ability to cope, deal and survive, even flourish. Still, there’s some fallout from keeping my mother’s mantra so close to heart. I’ve been blessed with a man who wants to do for me, take care of me and carry my loads, literal and figurative, and I’m having the hardest time letting him do that. I’m supposed to take care of myself, remember? It’s something I’m continually working and praying on to let go, just a little bit. I’m trying to let myself be a little more pampered and a little less bad by myself. He’s patient with me, though. After all, I get it from my mama.

  • serenissima

    i loved this piece. growing up, it was my mom and i against the world, and i watched her change flat tires, change oil, shovel driveways, etc… the same ‘can-do’ attitude has been instilled in me, and for the most part i have received nothing but compliments on my ‘resourcefulness.’ im also trying to master the art of letting others do for me, and, believe me, its haarrddd when youre used to doing things yourself. but im getting better… last week, i even let a passing guy shovel my car for me- but only after he watched me dig it out for 20 minutes by myself first, called me ‘Superwoman,’ and insisted on helping.

    ps. im from dc, too, and i love the phrase ‘quick, fast and in a hurry.’ reminds me of my mama :)

  • ALIG83

    “I know I’m in the minority, but I get irked quick, fast and in a hurry by women who believe in “men’s jobs,” prissy, delicate, fragile things who want a guy to rescue them from unpleasantries like carrying heavy bags and taking out smelly garbage and, Lord forbid, shoveling a few inches of snow. I believe in the privileges of being treated like a lady, but that can’t-do-because-I’m-a-woman routine peeves me. ”

    ….Me too! I usually decline help from men who I do not know. I can appreciate the kindness of a stranger but I don’t like being treated like I have a handicap and can’t do things on my own. I dislike women who have the attitude that they need men to do things. It’s the equivalent to when men say things like “I need a woman who can cook.” or “What girl wants to come over my house and cook for me?” It makes me cringe when I hear women say “I need one of the guys to help lift this.” I’m like, “Well did she at least try to lift it herself?”

    When I was working at a bank I had a male customer tell me “You can’t lift this!” when I had to go out and get his bag of coins. I proved his ass wrong and lifted up those coins like it was nothing. How dare he tell me what I can and cannot do just because I am not the same sex as him!….

  • EmpressDivine

    I really liked this one!! I have a hard time letting other people do things for me too. I think it’s from watching my mom be a superwoman. It’s in our blood!

  • Juste Moi

    Love this article! My mom was exactly the same… and I come from a two parent household. In fact, both parents taught me how to do for myself. They were both hardworking people who did everything to make sure that their kids would soar past them, and I love them for that. So just like my mama taught me, I will teach my future kids. Being able to do things for and by yourself doesn’t take away from being with someone. I learned that it can be a lot more fun to share things/responsibilities with my boo and we have no problem interchanging “manly” and not so “manly” duties! His mama taught him that! :)

  • oknow

    i just shoveled my own car out of all this damn snow, and i do maintenance around the house.. i’m not helpless at all..

  • Jinx Moneypenny

    My mom never entered a relationship with anyone who could stand up as a man next to her, that could match her pride. I had to learn that finding someone who can is what works for me.

  • Xara

    I loved this article, but I have a very different perspective from the author. See, I do believe in letting a man be a man. I grew up in a home where my mother let my father do certain things (and shoveling the snow would fall into it). I don’t think it’s about being prissy, but I do think it’s about letting a guy do certain things. I have a strong, Black mother who is secure enough in her identity as a woman and her own accomplishments, that she is still okay letting her husband pull the weight where he’s supposed to. I guess I had parents that were more like the Cosby’s or the Banks family (i.e. Fresh Prince of Bel Air) or like the Obamas.

    Ladies, you don’t lose anything in terms of your womanhood by letting a man be a man. In fact, I think that’s a big part of why we struggle so much with our men. We’ve been on this “I can do bad by myself” kick for so long that we act like a woman who wants or feels like she needs a man is “weak.” This is the feminist movement gone awry. Men have roles and so do women. For example, only women can deliver children. And I don’t feel like less of a person or a woman saying that.

  • magnetforfoolishness

    I didn’t get it from my mama, but I got it nonetheless. I live in the DMV, too, and I would love to NOT do things like shovel snow. But there is this little thing call necessity. If I didn’t do it (and tons of other things around the house) it wouldn’t get done. So bundle up real good, grab the Ipod, and get err done!!

  • serenissima

    um… delivering children is not the same as shoveling snow or taking out the garbage. so when you didnt (or dont) have a man, who did/does those things? the snow just piles up and the garbage rots? that gets the MAJOR side eye from me, honey…

    i think you missed the point of the article. its not that we should be emasculating to our men but rather that we shouldnt be afraid to do things just because ‘gender roles’ say so. the reverse is true as well; do you feel that a man NEEDS a wife specifically to cook and clean for him? and if he doesnt have a wife/girlfriend, does he starve and live in a dirty home? People should know how to take care of themselves before they enter into any kind of relationship with such gender-driven expectations.

    *sidenote: there was also a bit of a condescending tone to your comment (ie, ‘i guess i had parents that were more like the Cosbys or the Banks,’ which insinuates that the rest of us DIDNT and are worse off for it) that leads me to believe your hetero-normative household may have put you on a high horse. do you also believe females shouldnt join the army or be car mechanics? does that fall under ‘feminist movement gone awry?’ i cringed while reading your comment… that kind of thinking sets feminism back a good little bit, if you ask me

  • Juste Moi

    I have to cosign with serenissima… I’m all for “a man needs to be a man” but what about separation, divorce and if you know that your man will never ever leave you, he could still die… Widows do exist, and need to get things done nonetheless.

    And as far as those TV shows are concerned, I don’t think that Claire or Vivian would have a problem with rolling up their sleeves to get things done when they needed to!

  • Cara

    I love this article! I grew up in a 2 parent household and yes my father did things such as shovel the snow, deal with car maintenance issues but my mama knew how to do them too. And when I was living by myself at school, my father made sure I knew how to do basic car maintenance and other tasks too. It’s funny because one of my friends was just complaining to me how her car needed windshield wiper fluid and how she wish her ex was there. I’m like “why can’t you do it” and she said she didn’t know how. *sideeye* Now she’s complaining because we’re getting a big blizzard (I live in Chicago) and she doesn’t have a snow brush or shovel to dig her car out which in my eyes is just unacceptable especially when you live in Chicago! I think we should let a man be a man but also learn how to do things ourselves as well.

  • Rhonda J. Smith


    You do a good job challenging how we reflect yet want to deflect the strong black woman upbringing many of us black women have had. Congratulations on looking at the good and bad of this upbringing and seeking to find your own way.

  • African Mami

    Great article, but when it comes to winter time, a man with dreads is necessary to shovel the damn snow! I ain’t even ashamed to say that!

  • EclecticFlavor

    wow this article was great

  • zy

    all i have to say is… i’ve been digging my car out of every single snow storm NYC has been hit with since 12/26/10… on my own, with no help. back aching and all, i won’t complain because it’s my car and my responsibility… yes, i get it from my mama. lol!

  • ilovemybabymama

    I’m with Cara. I live in Milwaukee, and not having a snow brush is just totally unacceptable. My mother never married but had on-and-off long-term (oxymoron) relationships. She raised me to take out the trash, rake the leaves, and do whatever else needed to be done because I was the oldest child at home. Never-mind that I was the only girl. I saw my mama shovel snow, and get under the hood of her car if she needed to. I also saw though, that if there was a man around, she did take on that damsel-in-distress attitude, and correspondingly, the man in our life would do the grunt-work. That damsel role never suited me, and I had to learn how to let the man be a man, and I’m still learning. It’s honestly more laziness for me that I would rather my man take the trash out, especially in this snow. I’ve come to appreciate that he’s here and does it. On the flip, if it needed to be done and he wasn’t here, I wouldn’t grumble about taking care of it.

  • whykendra

    “I guess I had parents that were more like the Cosby’s or the Banks family (i.e. Fresh Prince of Bel Air) or like the Obamas.”

    none of those families had a dynamic like you explained.

    cosbys- they shared the responsibilities and didnt ever allude to the man being responsible for x and the women being responsible for y. in one episode, claire went off on melvin for suggesting so.

    banks- jeffrey both shoveled the snow and cooked the dinner. (poor jeffrey)

    obamas- again, neither one of them are shoveling, cooking, cleaning, fixing or any of the such.

  • Lexa

    Kind of agree with Xara, but only to a degree. I think there’s a big difference between being able to do something for oneself (e.g. change a tire, shovel the snow, mow the lawn) and consistently taking it on under one’s assumed responsibilities. I feel confident in my own abilities, and I’m sure that, were it necessary, I could do literally anything for myself. That doesn’t mean, however, that I will consistently try to do everything for myself – that’s where I think that many modern women (and particularly black women) get wires a little bit crossed.

    Women suffer so much stress from the double burden phenomenon (where taking on new fields and new opportunities that were traditionally “men’s work” doesn’t mean a reassignment of “women’s work” – it just means that women ultimately do twice as much work – in particular, working moms), and I don’t see any reason why I should want or pursue that for myself. Why in the heck would I be happy with: I cook, I clean, I sew up the holes in your clothes, I take care of the dog, I put together dinner parties for our friends and parents, I decorate our space, I manage the household budget, I nurture the kids…. and then I come home and change the oil in our cars, mow the lawn, get on the roof and clean out the gutters, shave down that drywall, shovel the snow….while you do what, exactly?

    But I’m sure that no one here is saying that women should do all the work, all the time, right? So what, then, should men do? Is it OK for me to expect a man to go grocery shopping and pick the kids up from soccer practice, but not OK for me to expect him to repave the driveway or hang up the basketball hoop on the garage? Is it only OK for men to take on tasks that are traditionally “women’s work”? How does that kind of restriction NOT emasculate men, and how does it not continue to devalue the tasks that have been traditionally within the domain of women?

    I just think that an aggressive I-can-do-men’s-work/ew-look-at-that-sissy-girl-who-can-only-do-women’s-work attitude ultimately does nothing more than continue to denigrate the value of things for which women have traditionally been responsible for.

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