Reflecting on the recent passing of my mother, I wanted to share again a post from a southernisms post some years ago. I would love to hear about ways it brings up your own experiences from mothers or mother figures in your life.
A southernism is a phrase, activity, or ritual common to our southern culture – sometimes amazingly beautiful, sometimes pretty helpful, sometimes uproariously funny. We had the hashtag #listentoyourmomma . “Listen to your momma” is a phrase which every southerner learns as a child to pay attention. You will be up a creek without a paddle once its spoken, unless you perk your ears up and listen. In my house, it was usually said by my daddy when we’d ignored what momma said to do. There was very little worse we could do than to not listen to our momma to daddy. The worst punishments came when we didn’t listen to momma.
I’ve caught myself saying “Listen to your momma” in situations less serious than that, such as when I was with someone whose kid was ignoring their mother when she said to stay in place, sit still, or just not to climb, I don’t know, the produce stand at the grocery store. Or, sometimes, say at church when a kid who likes to play and is friendly with me doesn’t listen when their mom says to come. With my little nephew, it is now paired with another statement. “Listen to your momma. She’s saying what she says so you know how to stay safe”.
I chose to use this hashtag this week in part because of the rich lessons about southern culture and even faith we can glean from thinking about what the phrase, “listen to your momma”, means in southern culture. But, more important to me, is the fact my mother has been having some health problems this past year. One thing my momma always said to me that stays with me to this day is, “Honor the living”. I can still remember when a great aunt passed and family from states away came to the funeral. I believe I was a teenager, and it was a great aunt we saw a few times a year. Momma turned to us and said, “Half of these people have not seen her for years. She was sick for months and they never visited. Now they come to see her body. Don’t do that. Don’t wait until after someone has died to let them know they matter. Remember the living. Honor people while they can appreciate it”.
So this blog post is also a way for me to honor my momma while she is still with me. And I hope it invites you to honor your momma, too.
Well, here are some of the momma-isms I gathered from my own posts, and posts of others:
I remember as I watch my three year nephew sing, dance, & build towers with his food momma saying “don’t play with your food,” “not at the table,” and “clean your plate”. She never mentioned children in China though. “Eating right will help you grow big and strong. That ought to be reason enough. You eating food won’t help kids in China. To do that, you’d need to send food to China”. Very true, mamma. Very true.
Amy Thomas says, “momma taught me how to make a kick-ass potato salad”
I remember my momma always telling me, about my brothers and sisters, ‘Look out for each other. You can pick your friends, and they might come and go. But y’all will be family forever.’ Sometimes this was preceded by statements like ‘don’t put that in your sister’s hair’, ‘no you can’t microwave your big sister’s Barbie doll’, and ‘boys! quit fighting!’”
There was a time period when I remember my momma sewing me hand-made clothes. Using her creativity to deal with times that money was tight was a talent of momma’s growing up. She used, of course, fabric from the store and her handy sewing kit, not rags like the momma in the song below. But as I listen to Dolly’s words I can’t help but think of the clothes my momma would patch and sew growing up:
My momma is the first person who taught me about being green. I remember I’d be her hands to help her in her garden as a wee thing. I loved doing it, largely because it meant I’d get the first bite out of the first juicy tomato. But also I think though I couldn’t have put it into words, it was one of the few places I saw her be creative, which for a woman who was a hobby painter is to be fully alive. There’s something about a garden where you encounter life fully awake. I remember distinctly one day smooshing a ladybug in childhood glee. “Look, momma, I killed a bug”. Momma sat me down, picked up a ladybug in her hands. Holding it on her finger in front of me, she explained to me not to do that. “Ladybugs are good luck,” she said, and explained how with ladybugs near your garden, you didn’t need as much bug spray. “They eat the bugs that eat my tomatoes. They help those tomatoes grow”. I remember, too, how she made a mixture of beer and other herbs to keep the slugs away. And how our dogs got drunk one day gobbling up beer-soaked slugs.
As a teen I remember, when I’d visited churches of different Protestant and Pentecostal denominations, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and a Jewish synagogue with friends, hearing my momma say “I’ll love and support you whatever you believe. You need to search and decide for yourself what you believe, even if its different than us “. Good advice from my southern mamma.
Perhaps the most enduring lesson momma taught me was to value education. I remember distinctly being told, on getting off many a bus ride from school, “Now finish your homework first so you can play”. I remember when I for some reason struggled to learn my letters, my momma sitting down every night for around a week with a book in hand, teaching me to sound out the letters. My favorite book was a little story about a zoo-keeper and his lion. A world of stories and ideas opened up to me. Before I knew it I was reading children’s books about dinosaurs and outer space. And then the Bible. Then I saw momma go back to school to earn a Master’s Degree, becoming a teacher to special needs children. Momma taught me to love learning, a lesson I carry with me.
My baby sister, Alyssa, comments that she thinks the best lessons mom have to teach us are yet to come. I hope so, sis. I hope so.
Momma never gave up. Momma stopped working as a teacher when I was very little, both to take care of us kids and to care for our grandmother, Myrtie Barefoot, who had raised her, following a series of strokes. For some people this might have been the end of pursuing her dreams. Around the time my grandmother died, momma went back to school and got a Master’s degree, ultimately becoming a special education teacher. Also, though she never became a professional artist, even into her retirement, momma continues to do beautiful art work, painting, and creating jewelry. The lesson momma taught me in this is never give up on your dreams. A good lesson, I’d say.
The language of “listen to your momma”, on the one hand, is a statement calling people to respect and honor their mother. In the south, I think its fair to say that this is a part of the larger “chivalry ethic” I posted about last week. And it includes with it the same causes, pitfalls, and possibilities.
On the positive side, it is a way in which a culture with a history of sexism and patriarchy has historically encouraged respect for and support of a woman’s voice. For many of us, the first female voice we hear is our mother’s. Whether her opinions and insights are listened to and respected by the people in our lives teaches a very important lesson about whether or not a woman’s voice is worth listening to, or worth hearing. I can say that having my dad reiterate to me as a child, “listen to your mother,” taught me that her voice was worth hearing, and her words worth listening to.
On the flip side, though, often in southern culture the one saying “listen to your mother” is a male voice. And though there is a way in which this can be empowering, it can also be patronizing.
I experienced this when we were host parents for an international exchange student. I forget the situation that came up, but I distinctly remember my late wife, a California girl by birth, suddenly raising her eyebrow as if to say, “Say what?” She then, after the situation was over, pulled me aside and said, “That was sweet and all, but you know what? I can tell her to listen to me myself. I don’t want this young lady thinking she has to get a man’s approval to speak her mind”.
Kat’s comments were eye-opening for me.
I realized a downside of this southern phrase, “listen to your momma”. Too often it can also be a paternalistic way of reinforcing the message that women need to get their permission to have a voice or have power from men.
In a Psychology Todayarticle , Belle De Paulo calls this “benevolent sexism”. She lists some qualities of benevolent sexism:
“Women should be cherished and protected by men.
Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess.
Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores.
A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.”
However, it is a slippery slope from benevolent sexism to hostile sexism, ” aimed at women who don’t stay in their place …” such as ” women who compete with men ” or women who don’t require men’s permission for their voice.
You can see some of this at work with what psychologists call the domestic violence cycle, in which an abuser is incredibly polite, seemingly sweet, and romantic to their intimate partner to woo them into a relationship or to try and keep them from leaving the abusive relationship in a “honeymoon” or “reconciliation” phase, only to turn toward controlling and abusive behavior later. Both the benevolent sexism and later hostile sexism are used to keep the significant other in a situation where the abuser has power over them, control over their lives.
You can see this back and forth found between honeymooning through benevolent sexism and abusive controlling ways of relating to women by hostile sexism in the back and forth way sometimes southern culture treats women. My friend Gabe Sealey-Morris talks about this in his recent book, The Stubborn Pines, when he describes one man’s relationship to his wife:
“With copious red hair and a body that used to be called ‘child-bearing’ — wide, sensuous hips and proportions that skewed to the fertility idol — Maryann could be maternal one moment and deliriously sexy the next. She had turned Ray’s head around the moment they were introduced … Fortunately the Madonna/whore complex at the heart of the southern psyche was hardly ever submerged in Ray”.
This “Madonna/whore complex” is where the “listen to your momma” message in the south can go wrong. It can be a part of southern culture’s way of saying a woman has to choose between being strong and independent and being maternal or compassionate. It can be a part of saying a woman has to choose between being sensual and creative, and being life-giving and hospitable. Such an approach tends to penalize women for being strong, being independent, and tries to force them to “keep their place”.
When “listen to your momma” is not just honoring a woman’s voice, but is a subtle way of saying her voice, her power, and her value is defined by men, then it can be a way our culture goes wrong. It is where we get the stereotypes that Sheryl St. Germain critiques in the excellent Huffington Post article, “8 Absurd Myths About Southern Women“.
As St. Germain points out in her article, southern women have a long history of refusing to hear that voice in our culture. The greatest female protagonists of southern literature, from the outspoken ladies of Steel Magnolias, to the gender-bending independent protagonists of Fried Green Tomatoes, to Minnie with her “chocolate pie” in The Help, do not fit this quiet as a church mouse image we think of when we hear “southern belle”. Heck, even in her own way Scarlett in Gone With the Wind demonstrates a different southern ideal. The ideal southern woman is not one who simply says “yes dear” to the men in her life, but fiercely independent, with a sharp wit and an ability to speak their mind.
A final thought before I go. As a call to hear women in their own voices, to honor the women in our lives that shaped us, this phrase “listen to your momma” is powerful. As a progressive Christian, I would suggest it also points past our earthly mothers. All strong female role models are icons of the Holy Spirit. In Scripture, the Holy Spirit is pictured as the Divine mother of all living. In Genesis 1, the Holy Spirit is pictured as a mother bird brooding over the chaos of the uncreated world, as a hen would brood over eggs about to hatch. The Psalms picture the Holy Spirit as a mother bird gathering chicks under her wings. And this image is used for the Holy Spirit as a mother dove brooding over Jesus at his baptism in Luke 4. In Proverbs 8 this image of a motherly figure for God is applied to God’s Wisdom, who shows the way of truth and life. Strong mothers and strong women are a beautiful icon, pointing us to the Divine Feminine Christians experience in the Spirit of Wisdom who gave birth to all life, and who we are told in Romans 8 continues to grow as in labor within all things until all life is made new and whole.
I would suggest new images of southern motherhood strengthen this image. Here is a picture like many I saw first-hand while serving as a pastor outside a southern army base:
This picture shows a mother as a soldier. Strong southern women are not just southern belles but also, as my mother, Master’s educated specialists. They are police women and lawyers. They are judges. Like my sister-in-law, they are medical professionals. The strength of the southern mother pictures the strength available to all women who find their voice. And the strength of the undying love of the Holy Spirit for all God’s children, and all who live on God’s earth.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,