You and Me Against the World

feature image by Hiroshi Watanabe via Getty Images

I’m five years old and, not for the first time, you’re knocked out in our single-bedroom apartment. You’ve worked all day and studied hard for your nursing exam, and I don’t know anything about your worries about our lives. I’m content to play as you rest for the first time that day.

You sleep, letting the day get away from us. I play in our living room, creating an adventure in which I’m both the princess and the hero. You dream, and I invent. Then, finally, the sun goes down, and you rest still.

I’m not sure how you managed it, being a single mom and going through nursing school, all to make my life better, but I’m grateful for it. You’re stressed, and I know now it wasn’t easy, but you wore it so well.

Months fly by. You graduate and officially become a registered nurse, I get to put your pin on you, and we take a photo, one of my favourite photos of us to this day.

These moments between the two of us have lasted lifetimes. It was me and you against the world.

I don’t know the weight on your shoulders, but sometimes I can feel it settling against mine. I’m too young to understand what it means, but I’ll take the unknown weight if it means making your life easier.

I couldn’t know then what I know now. There’s no way for a five-year-old to heal your pain. Something vast and broad can only be healed through time. A year goes by, and you’re still not okay, but you’ve gotten better at hiding it. I’ve gotten better at being a “good girl”, racing through first grade and trying my best to be good enough for you.

We’re at McDonald’s, just me and you, the way it always is. A little boy calls me “that little Black girl over there”, not knowing you’re my mother and I’m not only Black. It’s the first time you’re faced with the reality that, despite the fact I’m our daughter, I’m also a young Black woman in a world that isn’t designed to see me the way you see me. It’s the first time you’ll realize my life experience will vastly differ from yours. I’m not sure you accept it; too worried about correcting the boy at the moment, not focused on the implication. This is something we’ll both struggle with in the future. For now, you’ve reminded the boy that I, too, have a name and that I am more than whatever his young mind is ready to project onto me. You, my permanent protector, have taken on a task you cannot imagine the importance of.

I’m in second grade, and I’ve lied for the first time. You’re upset, reasonably so; who is this child, and how is she so different from the daughter I’ve raised? For the first time, it’s not just you and me against the world; it’s you, it’s me, experiencing the world for the first time.

I have an independent spirit. Folks at church say I have an “old soul.” This growing independence scares you, but you want to foster it. You want me to be independent, but you also want me to cling to you the way other children cling to their parents. You admire my bold spirit; it shines through even at my young age. You can’t help but wonder at this child you’ve brought into the world. It drives you to worry. For me, it’s another Tuesday afternoon. My curiosity about the world is neverending; I want to know everything. I want you to know I have the answers to all the things that are hurting you. I don’t know yet that it’s not my responsibility to heal you, but I’m trying my best anyway.

I’m starting to develop my own personality. I shine in school, despite being the youngest in my grade. They want me to skip a year, but you worry I won’t gain the necessary skills if I do. You worry about how I’ll do socially, so I stay with my class.

You work more, but you never fail to come to every recital, every game, and every performance. I perform only for you, for my dad when he can come around. It’s winter, and our school break is coming to an end. You’re not sure how you’ll be able to keep me entertained and cared for when you have to work, but you’re trying to do everything you can so we turn out alright.

We’ve just moved into our first house. You are so proud, and I am so nervous. I only understand that the house brings you joy, but I’m not sure about the whole moving thing. I’m only a child; I don’t know what it means for you to buy your first house; I don’t understand the moment’s weight. I just know we’re moving away from our apartment where I’ve spent these first few years of my life, and I have no idea what’s coming next.

And then, you meet him.

It’s spring, and you’re shopping for furniture for our new house. You walk into the store and meet him. Unbeknownst to me, you two begin to talk, to date seriously. Suddenly, there’s a new man in my life, one different from the others. The others were friends; they were men who were in my life for years and who I was comfortable with. But, he brings a darkness to you, something that changes in you and for the first time. I worry that I don’t know you.

It’s the first recital I have that you can’t make. I recite a poem you have heard thousands of times before. I look at the empty pew and pray for a miracle that you’ll be able to show, even though I know you’re at work. You can’t call out of work, and that’s okay. Months pass, and I mostly forget about the incident. Then, one morning I find you and him at our table. You tell me you’ve called out of work to spend time with me. I’m filled with resentment for the first time in my young life. I don’t like him, and for the first time, I don’t like you.

There was so much anger in my little body; I was upset because you could call out of work for him? But not for me? My young mind can’t process everything you’ve already sacrificed for me. My young mind can’t wrap around the idea that you deserve to feel all the love you’ve given me. Because you do, you’ve poured all the love you contain into me and deserve to feel it all. But I’m eight years old, and I don’t know that.

After he proposes, he takes me on a drive. He makes me promise not to tell you about what we talk about on this drive. He tells me he will be my stepfather, and I don’t have to like him, but I will respect him.

I decide from that moment on, I won’t.

You’d be surprised at what a strong grudge an eight-year-old can have, but I am your daughter; maybe it isn’t a surprise to you.

I know I don’t make it easy, but I never did well with change as a child.

And many things changed.

I remember the first time you yelled at me. You’re straightening your hair in the bathroom. You ask if I want to go to your wedding to him. I answer honestly.

You were hurt, I can see that now, but the way your eyes looked when you turned towards me frightened me. I had only ever seen you look at me with love, but it seemed you hated me at that moment. I didn’t understand the context, the implication of my words. I only understood you were angry, you did not like me, and that, for my honesty, I was rewarded with you telling me what a terrible daughter I was.

I realize now that you reacted in the way you were taught how.

This was a new side to you I had never seen before. I wasn’t prepared for it; I never was.

Later, you treat the incident as though it never happened. You don’t apologize, but we move on. I, of course, go to your wedding; it’s an honour to be there. You’re excited by the simple thought of marrying him. Surrounded by our family and friends, I still don’t like him, but you’re smiling, you’re happy, and for that, I would give anything. So I smile and participate as much as I can while staying out of the way as much as I can. Though the yelling has been more frequent and I’ve been left confused, for this one night, everything seems as though it’s okay.

It occurs to me now that this is when I began hiding from you. I never wanted to hurt you, but it seemed as though my honesty would only serve to hurt you.

How can I grow into my identity if the constant fear of wounding you holds me back? How do I grow into the type of person you want me to be if I can’t explore every part of what my personality has? Who am I supposed to be, and what will it take to get there?

The first time I told you I was queer. You didn’t speak to me for 24 hours.

I remember this moment clearly, as anyone who has had to come out to their parents will tell you this memory lives with them forever. We are driving back from dinner, the three of us. The secret has been weighing on me for a while. I’m only twelve, but still, even then, I know there is something different about me. My friends only talk about crushes on boys while I wonder about girls and boys. Being in a private school in the South means I learned early on to keep that kind of talk to myself.

You are upset and trying to communicate with me. You sit in the front seat of his car, texting me as I sit behind you. In a moment, I know I have to tell you. I know you won’t be happy, but I don’t expect the immediate rejection. I don’t expect to read your message “No, you’re not. Don’t say that.” I don’t expect you to rush into the house without a word to me.

Instead, I hear you tell him about it, exposing my secrets so readily, yet never speaking to me about them. You say to him that your daughter is not bisexual. That I don’t yet know what that means. It’s the first night you haven’t told me “Goodnight, I love you” in my twelve years. I cry that night and several nights after. For the first time, I’ve learned that your “unconditional” love can undoubtedly have its conditions.

I had already come out to my friends; they had been so welcoming, so kind. You told me I shouldn’t tell people that.
I know now that you were scared. You were so deathly afraid for me. You never stopped loving me but didn’t know how to operate from fear and still guide me. It’s not your fault. You had an implicit understanding that my skin colour would force me into some difficulties in life, but saying I was queer and bisexual would add hardships you hadn’t prepared me for. It was another division between you and me, and you weren’t sure how to handle it. You said it was your responsibility to prepare me for the world, for the hardships I would face. But all I wanted was a safe space to come home to.

You never talked to me about my admission. Instead, you tell me I can no longer have sleepovers with my girlfriends. I nod to your face but scream and cry into my pillow when the feeling becomes too big.

You lay with him in another room, and I can’t imagine the thoughts racing through your mind. I understand you were trying your best. You did your very best with me, always did. But, unfortunately, there’s no guidebook on what to do when your 12-year-old daughter, who’s never kissed anyone, let alone thought of it, tells you she’s bisexual.

Your reaction taught me not to tell anyone else in our family.

I continue to live as a bisexual adolescent in school, but I come home and learn to play my part perfectly. At 13, I have a crush on a friend in high school, though I’ll never tell you, too scared of what you might think or do. Then, at 15, I start dating a boy I met at camp. It doesn’t last long, maybe a few months, but it teaches me to keep secrets. Then, at 16, I start dating a girl a year younger than me. I’m elated, experiencing something new. I understand, for the first time, that you were wrong.

I knew at 12 what I know to be true now. Though now, at 23, I use the umbrella term of “queer.”

Later, you’ll tell me you’ve always accepted “gay people.” Then, I’ll wonder if you remember your first reaction to me and understand how my heart broke when I realized you could accept everyone else but not me. Then, I will start to wonder if it’s something about me that you can’t accept.

What does it mean if my own mother doesn’t love me?

This thought will haunt me for many years to come.

At 16, I’m applying to colleges. He’s been gone for a while, and it’s just you and me again. You’re nicer now, sweeter, as though the past was not the past but just a figment of my imagination. I apply to every local school you tell me about, but my eyes are set on Southern California. A school I had only just heard of in a city I had never been to.

“Why do you even want to go there?” you ask.

I don’t have a direct answer, something you’ve always disliked. So I tell you about how I want to go to UCLA to direct, to be creative, that it’s something that’s on my heart, and I know I can make it happen.

You tell me there’s no point in going to school for that; it’s just a waste of money, and I’ll never make anything of myself if I do that.

You’re hurt; you see my desire to go to UCLA as a desire to escape from you, from the life you’ve built for us. You don’t see it as an opportunity for me to grow. You see it as 1,500 miles across the country. You’re hurt, and you know how to hurt me so well.

I trade my dreams for ones that would make you proud. I stop writing, focus on school, and tell you less about my theatre performances and our work. I will tell you only about my chemistry classes and my love for forensic science. I tell you, if I go to UCLA, I’ll study chemistry.

You smile and tell our family. You’re proud of how smart I am and what I can do. You’re proud of how you’ve raised me, that this possibility even exists for me.

The spring after I turn 17, my senior year of high school, we’re in a hotel after a cruise with our family. We’re staying one more night and heading home the next day. I let out a small scream from my bed, and you turn over, anxious.


“I got in!”

Your reaction is small. I’ve just gotten into my dream school, and you tell me that’s great and go back to sleep. Try as I might, your lack of reaction hurts me, but I’m so excited. I stay up for a few more hours, texting my friends and to let them know. They’re all so proud of me, and I wish you would’ve been too.

My dad tried to explain it to me a few months later when you shut me out. You’ve just told me you won’t help me pay for anything while I’m in school, that if I go there, I can figure out my own way. He tells me that you’re sad and scared of me leaving. All I can think about is that you hate me, that my biggest dream is just an inconvenience to you, and you can’t find a way to be happy for me. He tells me it’s not true, and I laugh over the phone. I remind him, of course, it’s true, that it’s been over a decade since the two of you divorced, and I’ve known you for longer. So I build a resolve around myself.
If you hate me, so be it.

Of course, he’s right. This is another incident that you will sweep under the rug, unaware of the damage already done. This isn’t as simple as me getting into my dream school. It’s your daughter, walking away from you like her father did all those years ago. It’s the pinnacle of tests for a parent; how well have you prepared me? Finally, at only 17, I’m off to college, off to greet the world.

Have you done the best you could do? Have you taught me everything I need to know? What will happen to me now that I’m not under your care?

You’ll visit California with me and drop me off at school, crying on the way back to your hotel. Then, despite yourself, you let me go.

At 18, I’m a force to be reckoned with. I’m intelligent, but for the first time, I’m outside of Texas, outside of your watchful eyes. I’m alive, and I’m brilliant, and I am struggling. I’ve wrapped up my GEs and am now heavily focused on my major requirements. I cry during every math class and struggle to keep up with my chemistry classes. I vow to switch my major; no longer interested in double majoring, I want to focus solely on psychology. You tell me I can still go into forensics that way. I keep my writing classes secret from you. I don’t tell you about the joy I experience simply by being in these courses. I don’t tell you the freedom in them, the freedom I get from sharing just a tiny bit of who I am with my professors. I don’t tell you they think I’ve “got some talent.”

Instead, I tell you about the church. I tell you about this group I’ve joined and how kind everyone is. I tell you how they’re preparing to go on a missionary trip to Ghana in the summer and that I want to go. I tell you, God’s placed it on my heart, although I’m not sure if that’s true. I just knew I needed the experience. You’re scared. It’s my first time traveling out of the country, and I’m going to a place where I’m told I’ll have no access to a phone for most of my two-month stay. You won’t have any way to contact me except on occasion through email.

I don’t know how, but you find a way to help me.

That summer, I’m teaching kindergarten and third grade. I’m nervous and scared, but you had faith in me, so I have faith in myself. I learn about Ghanaian culture, and even though I’m hesitant about the whole missionary part of the work, I enjoy teaching children and opt not to force any religious teachings out of my mouth. Instead, we focus on reading and writing. My students hand me a dress they’ve made for me at the end of the summer, and I cry, excited to show you they’re proud of me, too. Just like you.

If I was a force to be reckoned with at 18, I’m a storm at 19. I’m doing better in my psychology courses than in my English ones. I’ve gotten myself a highly coveted job as a resident assistant and am in charge of over one hundred kids.

And I’m in love.

Or whatever it is when you meet someone for the first time at 19 and realize you want to be a better person with them.

Of course, love is subjective.

He’s older than me, wiser, and it will never go beyond friendship, but I’m happy just to be in his presence. First, I tell him everything I can’t tell you about. Then, in his wisdom, he offers me words of encouragement and understanding. He’s an excellent teacher, and in the year we know each other, he helps shape me into a much better person than I could have imagined.

I won’t tell you any of this, scared of what you might say. In fact, we’re talking less and less now. I bring up incidents from the past you claim not to remember, and it hurts. You don’t like the person I’m becoming, or so it seems. My politics are too left-leaning, my ideas too big and yet not entirely focused enough to be understood. I’m coming into myself. You can’t fathom the girl you knew now having different experiences of her own. I’m not the girl that left Texas with you. When I return, I’m entirely new, someone you don’t have access to or know how to communicate with. There’s a fathomless distance between us, and neither of us can build a bridge to cross it.

Despite that, when I say I want to study abroad, you drop everything to help me. When I tell you I can get a partial scholarship, but I still won’t be able to cover the whole thing, you pick up extra shifts at work and tell everyone how proud you are of me to be able to do something like this.

I’m stubborn, just like you. Old hurts eventually boil over until there are three weeks when I’m in Europe, and we aren’t talking. You got upset with me over something, something so small now I can’t even name it. I decided we won’t speak; I figured it may be for the best. In those three weeks, something changes inside of me. I meet a boy, expecting a whirlwind of a summer romance. Unfortunately, it turns out to be anything but. As I’m crying in the shower before the sun peeks over the horizon one morning, I want nothing more than to call you, tell you, and let you heal me, as you always seem to know how.

I don’t.

I hold that all in. Instead, I let my dad act as an intermediary between us. I allow him to heal me, to try and fix us. We talk for hours, days on end, until we finally compromise. A slate wiped clean, a new way to communicate. We tentatively test this newfound way of speaking when I come home. But, wouldn’t you know, we’re better for it?

Except there are still things I don’t know how to tell you.

In the first week of my third year at UCLA, I switch my major again. This time to English.

I spent the first few classes of the quarter crying, horrendous tears that made my eyes constantly bloodshot, dark circles gathered under my eyes. I went to my academic counsellor because I was sure I wanted to drop out. I collected all the necessary papers and was ready. But I couldn’t tell you; how could I. How could I tell you I was prepared to throw away everything you had sacrificed for me? How could I tell you that I wasn’t the girl you thought I was, just a poor shadow trying to shine light like she did. My counsellor sat me down and asked me dozens of questions. She wanted to know why. Of course, she did. I didn’t have an answer anymore; I just knew I couldn’t keep going on the path I was on. Finally, she asked me the question no one had asked me before:

“If it was up to you, just you, not your parents, not your professors, not anyone else, just you, what would you want to study?”

The answer was quick and simple: English.

I had dreams of being a writer. Ever since I was a kid. Although you told me there was no money in it, I spent my childhood writing books and winning the Young Authors and Illustrators’ Contests in our district. Then, the summer I turned 14, I wrote three books, back to back.

From there, it’s easy. Within the hour, my major changes, and I have enough credits that, so long as I keep a good pace, I can actually graduate early. I don’t know how to tell you; I knew you would be upset. Worse, I fear you will be disappointed. Here is your daughter, who you constantly pushed to do great things, abandoning it all to follow her dreams. Yet, I’m experiencing a new form of freedom. Elated, I call my dad, and in a rush of giggles, I tell him what I have done. He laughs and tells me it seems more my style than psychology anyways and that I have to chase my dreams; I just have to know what that means.

At that moment, it meant being brave enough to tell you.

You are less mad than I expected but certainly still upset, wondering how I will come up with enough money to survive as an English major. But, for the first time, you seem more supportive than angry. I don’t have to tell you about the tears, the almost failing grades, I just tell you what I want, and you accept it, easy as that.

And then, the pandemic hits.

Lost in a whirlwind of events, I return to my dad’s house. The plan was to move to you after a short time when we realized how long this would be lasting. In a series of events, I receive a new medication prescribed by someone who had no idea what they were doing, and in a rush, I end up in the hospital with my dad by my side, with only the faintest recollection of how I got there. I stay there for three days, trying to put the pieces together. When I do, you are the only person I want to talk to.

After that, things shift between us; our communication becomes more open, and we learn how to navigate the minefield of each other’s emotions. I can tell you things I couldn’t before, but I still don’t know if I could make mistakes around you.

Can one wrong move ruin everything we built?

So I keep some secrets and build side walls where castles once stood around my heart. Still, you, with your relentless love, love me anyways. You show me grace when I deserve none, and through you, I learn to do the same. You are happier now, recently remarried with a glow to you. I like him quite a lot; I like how you smile when you’re with him. How happy he makes you. It gives me hope for a much better future.

I’m still learning and growing. I’m teaching myself how to forgive, love, and be. For the first time, I’ve realized I’m proud of the person I am, the person I’m growing into. I would not have made it this far without you. I’ve learned patience where I had none, which granted me more grace than I imagined. I’m seeing you, for the first time, as you are, not just as my mother, but as a person, with history, with hurts and pains I can’t heal, but I can support you through.

I am who I am solely because you are who you are. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am your daughter, everything you ever wanted, and everything you can’t seem to shake away. I remind you of who you are and reflect everything you’ve taught me onto the world.

The other day, you asked me how I would rate you as a mom. On a scale of one to ten, be honest; you pleaded with me. I’m unsure if it was a serious question or if you were joking around as Mother’s Day was coming up, but I answered as honestly as possible.

“10/10. Best mom ever.”

Because I know. I know some of your sacrifices, although I’m sure that part of motherhood means hiding even more of them. Because while it’s my first time being your daughter, it’s your first time being my mother. You have always done the very best you can, and I’m grateful for that. I’m thankful for the person you moulded me to be; I’m proud of the woman I’ve become. I can only hope you’re proud of me, too.


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Autumn Amara

Autumn Amara is a Chicago-born, Texas raised, Los Angeles transplant. She graduated from UCLA in 2020 with a degree in English Literature.

Autumn has written 1 article for us.


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