In almost every African-American family, no matter how successful or how much they are struggling, there’s always one family member, usually a Black woman, who takes on the “superhero” role. We all have that grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, or cousin who is the chosen “superhero” of the family. We go to her for advice, to get a good laugh, and to be nurtured when we need it the most. She teaches us not only the importance of family, but that family is everything.
Tyler Perry’s infamous character, Madea, once told an audience during one of her monologues, “Family is everything. Do the best you can with them.” I felt that instantly. For so long, the women in my life, mainly my mom, have been central to me learning that family is what matters most. But as I grew older, I realized that while it’s important to show up for family during both the good and bad times, it’s even more important to free yourself from those relationships when they become toxic. The latter, however, proved to be much more difficult than I ever imagined.
I grew up in a household where my mother raised damned near my entire family. The earliest recollection of it just being my mother, stepfather, and brother in a home as a family of four is probably up until my brother was born. I was seven years old. Almost immediately after his birth, things changed. My grandmother passed unexpectedly, and the four of us moved into her home since my mom took over her estate. My aunt and three cousins were already living at the house. When we moved in, it was a total of eight in a four-bedroom, one bathroom home.
In my family, our chosen “superhero” was my mother. Except, unlike a superhero, she’s been underappreciated and used for as long as I can remember.
For years, my mother allowed family members to come and go as they pleased. As a child, I didn’t notice the rotating cast of people in the house because it was fun having cousins my age around. But as I got older, I became more aware that these family members were taking advantage of my mom.
At one point, there were over a dozen people, mainly adults, staying at our home. Still, my mom never said no. She “lent” family members money, rarely seeing a dime of it returned. She didn’t charge them rent, no matter how long they stayed. They never felt the need to contribute to utilities or groceries. My mom did it all, even when times were hard—both emotionally and financially.
Eventually, my mom and my stepdad split. He was definitely not a saint, but as an adult, I realize the burden of my mom caring for the family. She and I fought tirelessly. I begged her to stop, but she refused. She couldn’t stop if she tried. It didn’t matter how many people betrayed her, or spoke negatively of her despite her risking her own family’s well-being, she always helped. Our relationship began to grow sour, and I realized in order for us to maintain any semblance of our closeness, I had to be the one to move out. Even though I tried my best to help, it was too hard to sit and watch her continue on with this pattern.
I moved out on my own into an apartment complex, and within a year, my mom moved out of the estate and into the same building as me. To her, she was finally able to let go of the house after realizing she no longer needed to help her family. She was nervous and tired, but ready. She has always had a fear of dying by the age of 50, like her mother, and not living a life she’d chosen because of her dedication to her family. Once she turned 50, it was eye-opening for her to see that it was okay for her to live.
Immediately after she moved, I noticed a change. There were a few instances where family members needed a place to stay, and she said no. That was huge. Even if she didn’t have space in her two-bedroom apartment, not having space was never an issue because we never had space at our home and she always obliged. But she maintained her stance of no.
She started doing things she’d never done before, like traveling, accepting my invitations to hang out, and spending more time with her girlfriends, which was a foreign concept to her prior. She was a new woman. It made me realize that her seeing me move out of the house was the push she may have needed. I felt good about inspiring her decision to finally leave because up until then I’d been carrying guilt.
I didn’t like who my mom was at the estate, and I vowed I would never be like her. But as we all know, behavior is learned. And along the way, I’d learned that the idea of taking care of family no matter the circumstance was more innate than I thought.
I started to notice the patterns of my mom’s behavior when I moved out. I let people “borrow” money more than a few times. If I was hosting an event at my place, I allowed family members who I did not want to be present to still come in order to please my mom. I went to family events that I preferred not to attend and had a horrible time in order to please my mom. And so on and so forth. Each time I did this, I’d get upset with myself because I was giving my time, energy, and attention to people who didn’t deserve it.
The final straw came when I let a family member stay with me. What was supposed to be three months turned into almost two years. I felt uncomfortable in my own home and fearful of speaking up because I didn’t want to lose the relationship. One day, I found myself staring in the mirror and laughing at myself over how I did exactly what I promised I’d never do— become just like my mother. When my lease was ending, once again, I decided to move and start fresh to finally break the chain.
I had to do the work to break the generational mantra and avoid falling into the same traps that it took my mother 50 years to break free from. Now, I stand firm in my decisions about who I want around me. No one enters my home that I don’t have a relationship with. I have family members who were raised in my mother’s home with me that I do not speak to due to their unappreciative treatment toward my mother and myself.
When it comes to the school of thought that “family is everything” and “do the best you can with them,” I’ve realized that also means that I have the power to choose which family to give that honor to. The family who pours into me as I do them, and not those who take from my cup, leaving it half empty for me to refill it alone. Only for them to turn around and drink from it again. That’s not family, that’s toxicity, and its behavior that neither I nor my mom will enable. Through it all, my mom and I took the best parts of each other and learned a valuable lesson.