The Bad Mother

For reporters, the bad mother is a staple of feature story writing. I've interviewed some bad mothers in my time: there was the one who prostituted herself in front of her children; one who pimped her own twelve year-old daughter; the one who beat her son so badly that the sheet rock was marked with the impressions from his head hitting the wall. Bad mothers, the iconic story goes, either destroy their children – or create criminals. There was one young criminal I remember well – a gang member who had taken part in drive-bys and had himself been on the receiving end of a bullet or two. Here’s how he described his childhood: “My Mom - every night - Uncle Mike, Uncle Bill, Uncle Bob – I mean, I love her, but fuck her too.” And then he told me how he had shot a neighborhood kid who once made fun of him for being the son of a whore.

He was twenty years younger than I, and packed a sawed off shotgun in his jeans, while I carried only a pen. But I identified with him immediately. I recognized that mixture of anger and love. I understood how he might have felt so compelled to defend an indefensible mother. Because I have spent no small amount of time defending my own indefensible mother.

In my late forties, married; and commuting between Boston and New York as I began a teaching job at Columbia University. I once asked Mom could I stay with her for a week or so. She was wary; her husband, an actor, was just learning his lines for a new Broadway show. I promised I would stay out of the way, stay in the back room. Even so, after eight days she suddenly appeared at my bedroom door, her face a mask of determination. "How much longer are you going to be here?" she wanted to know. I was in the way. It was too hard for her to live with another grown woman in the same house. She said my presence was "disruptive" to the rhythm of their lives.

I went to class, then came home and packed my bags. As I was going out the door, Mom hugged and kissed me, apologizing for not being able to let me stay longer. She had to put her husband first.

That's the way it was, the way it had always been, with my Mom. She hadn’t raised any of her three children – we’d all been farmed out to foster homes, visiting when it was convenient for her. I learned to live under the conditions of her love. Ours was a complicated relationship not just because she was an erratic parent, but because she was white and I, her youngest offspring, was the daughter of a black man, an entertainer named Stump Cross who’d been popular during the forties. I wouldn't meet my dad till I was nearly thirty, and, then, when I made a film about the whole experience, Mom and I made the rounds of the talk shows. I always identified myself as African American, but one caller accused me of being so happy to have a white woman’s love that I would endure anything. Something about that barb struck home. For a long time afterward, I wondered whether I was indeed longed to be accepted by whites so badly that I would put up with anything. Maybe that explained why I was so often the only black person in my workplaces, why I befriended those with whom I disagreed vehemently even while I stuffed feelings of anger and worthlessness that led to depression and drinking binges.

But I don’t think it was because Mom was white that I put up with all this.

It was because she was my Mom.

June Cross makes documentary films and teaches broadcast journalism at Columbia University. June authored her first book, a memoir, "Secret Daughter," after releasing the Emmy Award Wining Documentary of the same title. For more information on the book, and June's story, please visit: Secret

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Over 20 years office work experience, six years completed college coursework, background in print media and communications, recognized for exceptional attendance and received merit increase for past job performance, self-published author and part-time entrepreneur, Internet marketing and social media experience. Interned for non-profit organization, women's group and community service business. Additional experience: teaching/training others, customer service and sales. Learn more at Nicholl McGuire and Nicholl McGuire Media

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