"I Hate You!": How I Finally Learned To Understand My Mum

The following is an extract by journalist Kemi Alemoru, from gal-dem's book "I Will Not Be Erased": Our stories about growing up as people of colour.
In the spirit of a diary, I’d like to tell you a secret. One evening, when I was about fourteen, my mum refused to let me go out when I’d already made plans with my friends. I was so angry that I got my blue-inked Parker fountain pen, raced to my parents’ wardrobe, and flicked droplets of ink at Mum’s clothes, as if the pen was a wand and I was a witch seeking revenge. Neither of my parents noticed, so I’ve never had to share this memory before. I know it doesn’t show me in a very good light: I was immature and irrational. But it reveals how difficult I found my relationship with my mum when I was growing up.
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I’m not sure my mum knew just how hard I found things until something happened a few months ago that made my fourteen-year-old self’s feelings only too clear. As I now live in London, away from my family home in Manchester, I asked my mum to look for a piece of writing in an old diary to help with an article I was researching. Rather than post the diaries to me, Mum opened the lilac journal emblazoned with doodled flowers, and began to take a photo of each page. To start with, it was exactly what I expected: my diary was full of soul-baring passages about boys, embellished with idle doodles and plenty of underlining. But as the images came through to my WhatsApp, my face began to feel hot. In some entries I referred to my mum as “stupid”, “thick” and “evil”. Then there was one entry where I called her “decrepit”. And they kept coming.

My mother is unlike any other person I’ve ever encountered.

“I’ve got to tell someone or something,” one entry read. “I hate my mum. Yesterday, I said I wished she would die and I don’t regret it.”
Another: “I HATE HER. I don’t even mean like ‘oh yeah she called me this and she smacked me’. It’s hate like I’d like to throw a lighter at her fat head.”
All I could do was pick up the phone and apologise to Mum over and over again. Even I was shocked. Besides, I certainly don’t feel like that now. For the next few hours, we spoke candidly about those years in a way we never had when I was growing up. Somehow Mum managed to laugh. “You might have hated me sometimes, but I’m not bothered about what you wrote about me,” she said. “I knew I wanted the best for you and I wasn’t going to let you forget that.” This made me wonder if we’d clashed so much because we had very different ideas of what was “best” for me at fourteen.

I could only see her as a barrier to fun, beauty and boys – so it was no surprise we didn’t get on.

My mother is unlike any other person I’ve ever encountered. Her love for me is so deep that if she doesn’t hear from me for a couple of days, she assumes I’ve died. Only recently she managed to get put through to my desk phone at work by disguising herself as a business-related caller in order to check that I was still breathing. I’ve been told my whole life that we look the same: that I’ve inherited her big eyes, the bridge of her nose, her wide smile and her full brows. I share her effervescence, but also her hot temper. We might be mother and daughter, but we still bicker like classmates. Now I live in another city and there is some distance between us; her desire to be the all-seeing eye in my life only causes me mild frustration. As a teen, it was far more intense. Any degree of motherly meddling felt like an outright assault on my human rights. My one aim back then was to fit in, which was made far harder by her policing everything from my social life to my self-image. I could only see her as a barrier to fun, beauty and boys – so it was no surprise we didn’t get on.
I was not allowed to shave my legs, pluck my eyebrows or wear make-up (though I slathered on the Maybelline Dream Matte Mousse in secret). Mum had forbidden me from changing my look, but I was desperately trying to feel less like an eyesore at school. My all-girls’ Catholic grammar, which I nicknamed “the Convent”, was as traditional as they come. You could be seriously punished for rolling your pleated skirt up at the waistband (so it grazed your upper thigh rather than dangling dutifully below the knee); hours were spent doing the rosary or attending Mass; and we could only write with fountain pens. It was also a very white school and I stuck out. I seemed to be the first black person that many of the students and teachers had encountered, so everything about me was new, fascinating and different. I didn’t want to be different. One diary entry, written in a neon pink pen, shows my self-image had hit rock bottom:
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I wish I was pretty like the girls at school, blonde like some actress. Instead I am fat me. Mum even thinks I am ugly. I was trying to get my crap quiff to stay up and didn’t want to take her advice so she said: “Fine, look uglier than you already do!” So I’m getting plastic surgery when I’m older, then I can forget about her and her poison comments.
Diary entry: age 15
In mid-noughties suburban Manchester, the look was to have an impressively tall quiff with bone straight hair. But no matter how much I begged, my mum wouldn’t let me use a chemical straightener. Now I can see we were both trying to navigate the tricky territory of Eurocentric beauty standards. I was picking up on subtle cues that my blackness was less normal, less desirable, than skinny blonde girls with straight hair. (This was before YouTube vloggers made girls feel cute with their own natural hair.) My only frames of reference were black women with chemically processed hair, and white girls with naturally straight or curly manes. I didn’t know it was possible to be proud of my aesthetic, so my actions were motivated by insecurity.
It must have been frustrating for my mum to watch me pick up on society’s toxic cues that girls should are about their looks over anything else. On an undated page in 2007, I describe a war of words Mum and I had which ended in her banning me from going to “my bezzie’s bday party”. This argument arose during an episode of Junior Mastermind. My diaries often skim past crucial details, but I can just about gather that Mum had made a comment that I should aim to be on the show myself and I hadn’t taken it well.
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“It started because she said I’m dumming down,” teen Kemi writes. (Interestingly, given the subject of the argument, I’ve spelled it “dumming” despite the fact my spelling has always been decent because Mum made me do extra spelling tests with her after school.) “She’s stupid as well, thick as hell. Besides Junior Mastermind isn’t for kids it’s for mutants.”

Didn’t Mum want me to be sexy, ditzy and popular?

At this point in my life, I’d decided that it wasn’t cool to be smart. My main aim was to be desired, and that meant not being too clever, but funny and also kind of a bitch, like the girls I watched on reality TV at the time. YouTube has a round-up of Paris Hilton clips which will show you what I mean. Mum telling me that I belonged on a general knowledge show was akin to the scene in Mean Girls when Ms Norbury tells Cady to join the Mathletes. It would be social suicide. Didn’t Mum want me to be sexy, ditzy and popular? Apparently not. It’s kind of mad that I had such a visceral reaction to someone trying to push me to reach my potential, rather than allowing me to aspire to be some idiot boy’s idiot girlfriend. One way Mum tried to stop me becoming an idiot girlfriend was to give me one of the earliest curfew times in my friendship group. I always got picked up at 9.30pm, when the night was still young. Again, this wasn’t something I appreciated.
If I was allowed out until 11 on Friday I could get my friends back – everyone is always talking about what happened on Friday and I can’t join in. It’s knocked my confidence and I feel awkward in social situations. I will never forgive [Mum] for what she’s doing. I hate her.
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Diary entry: age 15
It didn’t seem like it at the time, but those nights were inconsequential. Dozens of us hung out at the park, shopping centre or on the platforms of our local tram station, drinking £3 Cherry Lambrini and “bonding”. An extra hour or two would have just meant I’d have been a little more drunk (which would have been harder to hide), or that I’d have longer to avoid revealing my true feelings to a boy I liked but was too awkward to flirt with. I wasn’t particularly lucky in love.
It would, of course, have been more worrying if Mum showed zero concern about dropping her daughter off to socialise in darkened corners of Manchester’s suburbs or parent-free houses. Small decisions you make as a teenager can steer you on a very different life path. Mum knew only too well that teenage kicks could have a lifetime effect. I suspect that her anxiety about the people I was spending time with was the result of being a teen mother herself. She always made it very clear that she didn’t have any regrets and was happy she started her family early, but she would never recommend her path to her adolescent daughters.
My parents had been together since my mum was seventeen, and they had three daughters by the time my mum was twenty-seven. When I was fourteen, they decided to stop screaming at each other, split up and move into separate houses. They were trying to figure out their own lives, and what they decided moulded ours. Dad moved to Salford, where Manchester’s MediaCity and the new BBC studios were, into a modern flat that had no trace of me in it. I stayed with Mum, whose hobby during this period was constant prayer. She had been approached by a new church while running and she dragged me along too, waking me up early every weekend. Everyone there was so happy – almost too happy – and I thought Mum was becoming distracted by an unfamiliar religious zeal.
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“I think this whole Bible-bashing thing is pathetic,” I wrote. “Dad’s gone, so has my sister to London, rather than be with Mum, and my other sister is planning to go to university far away soon. I have to stay here.”
I can see now that I was terrified of change. I was projecting all of my problems on to Mum, who was my only constant amid the uncertainty. It was easier to blame my insecure friendships on her strict rules and groundings, rather than my terrible friends. And when Dad actually moved out, instead of processing it and looking at both sides, I wrote that Mum didn’t deserve to be happy because I didn’t feel too ecstatic either.

I was projecting all of my problems on to Mum, who was my only constant amid the uncertainty.

But when Dad left I began to see a different side to her. She’d always been quite fierce in arguments and carried that same high energy into every day-to- day task. Now she seemed broken, and one day she suddenly burst into tears in the hallway. I don’t think I had ever seen her cry before. I realised she was the only parent I saw every day, and the one who was always looking out for me. Even when I was in a mood, which must have made it feel like a thankless task, she still made sure I had a place that was a home. Despite her own sadness, she was still trying to put me first.
This dark period marked the beginning of my understanding of Mum as a person who wasn’t only my mum. She had her own issues, insecurities and relationships that were independent of me. What she wanted was for us to reach our full potential. My mum is not the type to carry someone for nine months, be reminded of that fact every day with permanent stretch marks and then allow that person to sell themselves short. She raised three decent human beings in her teens and twenties, making them ambitious and willing them to be smart. With mature eyes, I see that she wanted more for us than we did for ourselves.
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When my parents eventually got back together, it didn’t immediately smooth out my relationship with my mum. What improved it was accepting that we were both trying our best to work out who we were and what we should do about it. Neither of us had the answers. But it’s much easier if you show those who love you some understanding. Learning to see my mother as a person, rather than my “fat head” oppressor, was one of the greatest gifts of my twenties. My steely prison guard became my friend. My only regret is that if we had talked more honestly at the time, before the diary incident, we could have reached an understanding far sooner. We could have done things differently to help pacify the pain we were both experiencing as we tackled the pressures of womanhood – albeit at different stages. Now, we’re both making much more of an effort to talk. And, if I’ve got a problem, my mum is the first person I ask for advice, because I know that even if I don’t agree with her, at least she’s walked my path before, and that experience always counts for something.
I Will Not Be Erased”: Our stories about growing up as people of colour by gal-dem, published by Walker Books is available from 6th June 2019
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