Room for Tears

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Smangele Mathebula was raised to be a strong black woman. Her mother, Irene, taught her to be tough in order to survive the difficult challenges of Apartheid. Smangele never learned to be vulnerable. Now she has her own daughter who's seventeen, and Smangele doesn't want her to hold in her emotions like she learned to. So the two sat down to talk about their mother and grandmother, Irene, sharing feelings, and not grabbing a knife by the blade.

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Disclaimer: Radio Workshop is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. The official record for Radio Workshop’s podcast stories is the audio.

Lesedi (host): Just the other day I was preparing for this episode of Radio Workshop and I was thinking a lot about crying, about being vulnerable since that’s what this episode is about, and I was wondering what bell hooks has to say about it. She’s a black feminist author and educator, and she’s written and spoken a lot about expressing emotion, especially in the black community.

bell hooks: I mean, when I was a kid, I had a lot of grief and I cried a lot. And my whole family would shame me and I was called Ms. White Girl and you know, you could imagine like, I just thought, what is wrong with me? I just cry all the time.

Lesedi (host) hooks is talking at the new school in New York City as part of a discussion they titled Moving From Pain to Power and she makes a simple point. What we are taught growing up never leaves us. The adults in our lives are like superheroes. We depend on them, and rightly so, they teach us how to tie our shoelaces and brush our teeth, but most importantly, how to be emotional in the world or too often not to be emotional.

bell hooks: But then I was thinking about how as black people, people of color, we’re told again and again, not to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is seen as, oh no, that will get you killed.

Lesedi (host): That’s the truth. At least for many of us who are black, it certainly is for my friend Smangele Mathebula, who I call Sma because we are close like that. Sma says she’s been thinking a lot about what it means to be vulnerable. With her children in particular. In fact, smart told me she’s having to unlearn what she was taught about vulnerability. Like many of us, Sma was raised to be a strong black woman, someone who takes life’s punches right in the face like that all proverb “Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka bogaleng.” Meaning, a woman grabs a knife by the blade.

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But Sma’s now 36 and has two daughters. She doesn’t want her children to hold in theIR emotions like she learned to. She often nudges her teenage daughter to write in her journal and talk freely about her emotions. Thing is Sma, finds it hard to follow her own advice, to open up to others. It doesn’t come easy, and she often wonders if she’s showing up in the right way.

In this episode, Sma checks in with a 17 year old daughter about expressing emotions, sharing feelings, and yes, crying. I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe, this is Radio Workshop.

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Lesedi (host): Sma was raised in Soweto in the 1990s by working class parents. They left the house early in the morning and came back late, often tired. South Africa was still steeped in the violent throes of Apartheid, and the streets were not a safe place for her and her twin sister, so they stayed home a lot. They learned to be independent and to not ask too much of their parents.

Sma: So we always listened to my dad’s records and stuff, and he had headphones, like two pairs of headphones. Um, and you know, it was those radios where you could put in the headphone and just have this experience by yourself. So that’s what we did a lot. And we did a lot of, writing, a lot of creating. It went as far as making clothes, you know, and we know when you are young, you’re making clothes, you’re making booty shots, turning jeans into mini skirts and things like that. But my mom didn’t really understand it, and she was like, no.

Lesedi (host): When Sms describes her parents, she says her father was the minister of fun. He was available and supportive of their creative flares, which left her mom with the job of cracking the whip as the minister of discipline.

Sma: She wanted us to always see her in that role. I’m your mother. I will fight for you. I will do things for you. I’m cooking for you. I’m cleaning.

Lesedi (host) Sma’s mother, Mme Irene was a strong, no nonsense woman, and even though Sma says she did see her mom cry, it was often for something outside the home. Maybe when someone died or when she heard a song or something on TV that would make her tear up.

Sma: There wasn’t a vulnerability that her and I shared that said, okay, I’m opening up this space. This is our moment. This is about us. Let’s feel together. I don’t think she stopped long enough for any of that, to be honest.

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Sma: In that kind of context, uh, that is deprived. You do long for closeness, you long for nurture and touch. Um, but also you learn not to anymore, which is still something I’m grappling with.

Lesedi (host): By the time Sma was a teenager, she wanted a life outside of home. She wanted to explore and be free. At age 17, she took a first step. Sma went to university, but in that same year, she felt pregnant. Sma then had to go home and face her mom. Sma wanted to keep the baby, but Mme Irene didn’t think it was a good idea. She was concerned about Sma’s future and worried about her being a young mother and not finishing with school. But after some time Mme Irene opened up to the idea and said she would raise Sma’s child, with Sma of course. She encouraged Sma to continue to live her life as a young woman to travel, go out with friends, and even finish her degrees while she took primary responsibility for the baby who Sma named Lesedi.

Lesedi is now 17. The same age Sma was when she had her. During their conversation, Sma told Leseedi she was surprised by how different her mom was with her. More tender. It was a side of her mom she’d never really seen.

Sma: Yeah. Maybe Lesedi, speak about how you remember her.

Lesedi: Um, she was very soft to me. Unlike you and your sisters. Um, I was like her little egg. She took really good care of me. Um, she was, yeah, I don’t know. Let’s see. Oh, I spent more time with her than you, obviously, because you were at work or at school. Um, she was just a continual, solid presence in my life.

Lesedi (host): Sma on the other hand, had become the busy mom. At one point she had three jobs to make sure she could provide for Lesedi.

Sma: What did it mean to be mothered by her? For you? What did it mean or how did it feel like if there’s any, you know, she was your mother.

Lesedi: Okay. Like whenever maybe I come back from school. You know, and then she’d ask like, how is your day? And then I would come, I would explain and go into detail, and then she’d like interact with me like I’m her friend, you know? And she’s like, oh, mang mang.

And then like, my mom doesn’t do that. I just come up to you. And I’m like, this is what happened. And you know what she do? Because you always tired. You like, Okay, you listen to me, but then you cut me off because you’re tired and you’re working. So that’s what I miss about her because she always had an ear for me to come and, um, talk to her about school and anything that’s happening. So she would know every detail of my life, like everything.

Sma: Yeah. I think she was already a mother with a lot of experience. I had never done it and I don’t think I had considered what kind of a mother I would love to be. It was just an intuitive journey. That’s why I I say often to you that she was your mother.

Lesedi (host): Sma says, for the most part, the co-mothering dynamic worked well between her and Mme Irene, but sometimes it didn’t. They’d fight over how to raise Lesedi. Sometimes Sma would say, no, don’t do that, and Mme Irene would step in and say, leave the child alone. Sma felt she owed her mom for everything she’d done for them, so she would only push it so far. She learned to just defer to Mme Irene. She’d tell Lesedi, go talk to your mom. Even when deep down she wanted to have the last word to be the mom. Then Sma had an opportunity to leave Johannesburg for a job in Cape Town. This would be her chance, she thought. Her chance to be Lesedi’s mother full-time.

Sma: So when we finally moved to Cape Town, I was like, freedom. Yeah. It was sad. Very sad for her as well, and for us.

Lesedi: I remember when we were leaving.

Sma: Yeah. You know, all of us were like, oh my God.

Lesedi: I remember very well, I was crying. I’m like, yo, I’m leaving her. And then I’m only gonna see her like a few visits, ‘cause I’m so used to being with her every day. Like, so now that I was gonna be with you, which was also the other upside of it. Like I was gonna have you now every day.

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Sma: In Cape Town, Sma was pregnant with her second child. She was proud to start a family of her own. She and Lesedi were excited for the child that was coming. Even though Lesedi missed her grandmother, Irene a lot, and spoke to her on the phone every day. Lesedi and Sma eventually found their rhythm. They cooked and baked and took long walks on the promenade.

Lesedi (host): They talked a lot. Not always about feelings, even still, they became close and Sma wanted to always be this close with Lesedi, but it only lasted six months. Sma gave birth to her second child and life got hard with little support. They moved back to Joburg, back with Mme Irene and just in time because Mme Irene fell sick.

Sma thinks her mom had been sick for a long time, but didn’t say anything. She just kept going like that old proverb. Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka bogaleng.

Sma: I think it changed my own view as well of mothers and mothering, not becoming, uh, the place where we go die. You know, um, cause she used to push through every imaginable thing, like whether she was sick, she would be cleaning, whether she was tired, she would be cooking, whether she was, you know, it was such a core part of her identity and of her way of being.

That for me, I, I refuse, you know, I refuse to that, to let that kill me.

Lesedi (host): Sma says she wonders if there was more they could have done. If only Mme Irene had opened up sooner about her suffering. Sma remembers getting a call from the hospital around midnight. She rushed there thinking there was some kind of emergency.

When she arrived she was told her mother had passed. Sma was in shock and overcome with heartbreak and sadness. She says her mom died too young at age 53.

Sma: And I really remember just breaking down in that moment, um, because I just couldn’t imagine a world without her in it, you know? Uh, because your mother is your entry into the world. And when that entry sort of like closes, it’s like, who are you now in the world? You know? How did you feel like when you, when you were reconciling that she’s not coming back?

Lesedi: Mm. I remember the morning, it was Wednesday, March 1st and my alarm, um, rang. You actually told me to go back to sleep. And I was like, how? I’m going to school. Why? And then that’s when you were like, okay, you are telling me… I was you in shock. I was like, no ways. Like, no. And then I remember I, I broke down and it was, it was unbelievable. Still kind of is. Um, but yeah, no, that was, that was very, very hard. Um, it was surreal. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Um, I don’t know. What do I say? Um, It’s just all coming back to me. So, you know.

Sma: You’re remembering, uh, remembering. So do you remember a lot or you don’t or you don’t allow yourself to remember?

Lesedi: I don’t think I allow myself

Sma: Why?

Lesedi: I don’t know why it’s so painful. Mm-hmm.

Sma: I think I, I, I don’t block it. I, it’s like I live with it. You know, it’s like another person. So I’m not, like, I think I’ve learned not to be afraid of it because I’ve had to remake myself, you know, like as, um, person with no parents, you know. Uh, and the fact that a year later my dad died from depression and grief and broken heart and everything, um, yeah. Then it was complete. You know, then the making could be complete of this new being.

Lesedi (host): After Mme Irene passed Sma together with her siblings, took over their parents’ home. Sma felt the crushing weight of grief, but she had to get on with it and take care of her two daughters. There was no time to wallow or tend to all the feelings that were coming up for everyone. Sma reverted to being the strong black woman in order to move on but Lesedi turns the tables on sma. She reminds her that things have to change. No more grieving alone.

Lesedi: I only saw your tears at like around the funeral period. That’s it. Like when it was like a week and a half or two max, I saw you cry, but even then it wasn’t every day. You know, so it was like here and there, so I barely, so I feel like you were trying to be like.

Sma: I was busy.

Lesedi: Yeah, you were busy but besides that, but like, I never and barely saw you crying. Only when obviously the moment allowed, like you said you were busy.

Sma: So how do you feel about that?

Lesedi: Um, I feel like you, uh, like I’m saying, you are trying to be, I don’t know, strong. Like even though you didn’t have to be, you could have just allowed yourself to cry, right?

Sma: Really?

Lesedi: Yes, really! Because that’s how I felt then. How, uh, yeah, that’s how I felt about it. So I, I didn’t really see you a lot of times, even after it’s always me who’s crying…

Sma: Which is fine. I mean, in the process of getting her sent off, uh, physically, uh, I became her, you know, I became her. So I did most of the planning and, uh, everything, you know, I grew up. I grew up, so that’s why you probably didn’t see me crying a lot.

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Lesedi: I cry like when you’re sleeping. You know, that’s when everything comes like in the AMs, ‘cause I’m always up. Um, so I don’t, I know I’ll never come and like wake you up and then, so I dunno. You also don’t see me. Maybe you’ll see when I wake up. I don’t know if you notice, like when I have puffy eyes, okay?

Sma: You know if I’m caught up in my own things as well, take me out of those things and say, I need a moment to actually look at this, um, and talk about this, and this is how I’m feeling today. Because also you’re my child. I don’t like the idea of you feeling like you’re alone in the world. You know you’re not in a home that, um, doesn’t make room for you.

And if we need to make more room for you, we can.

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Lesedi (host): Thank you for listening to Radio Workshop and also a big thank you to Smangele Mathebula and Lesedi Mathebula for showing up so courageously in this episode.

This episode was written and produced by me, Lesedi Mogoatlhe, for Radio Workshop. Jo Jackson is our managing producer. Rob Rosenthal edited this podcast, additional Production Assistance by Naomi Grewan. Music by Blue Dot Sessions, Sound Engineering by Mike Rahfaldt and Jo Jackson. Our studio technician is Sims Gula. A big thanks to Katherine Grenfel and Audio Militia in Johannesburg, where we record this podcast.

This episode and the work of the Radio Workshop would not be possible without support from Steven Hendrickson, Pam and Bill Michaelcheck, the Other Foundation, and the Theodore J Forman Charitable Trust and the Emerging Markets Foundation. Visit our website for more information, at radioworkshop.org.

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