Trying to get my mother to open up to me about her past was more of a challenge than I ever expected.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” is maybe the worst thing you can hear as a reporter.
But when you are asking people personal questions, you get used to hearing it. People get nervous and cancel plans for you to meet with them, or they keep putting you off until you give up hope.
In the past few weeks I had been experiencing that with many of the people I tried to interview for journalism projects. I was beginning to think that I would never get any practice interviewing.
And then for my next assignment I wanted to do something about my mother. She was actually a big mystery to me because she never told me anything about her life growing up in Chicago. Because I am a teen, I want to get to know my mom like an adult, and I was getting more and more curious. I also realized that I was learning how to interview strangers, when I didn’t really know my own Mom.
And so I asked her if she would be okay with it, and then she said those words I hate: “I don’t want to talk about that.”
She would say that again and again, but I did get through to her eventually. Here is how I did it.
Sitting in the car, driving to the grocery store, I asked my Mom one day, “What were you like when you were my age?” I had seized a chance when she started talking about my behavior (she said I wasn’t behaving very nicely in the past couple of days.)
“I was…quiet. And thoughtful,” she said. I was already shocked. My mom? Quiet? She can’t be serious.
“Why were you quiet?”
“I don’t know, I had a lot going on in my mind, but I didn’t know how to say it out loud.”
I asked her about what was going on, and she shut down on me. I decided that the only way to do this was one step at a time.
As I continued these talks now and again, when she was making dinner, when we were walking somewhere, in the car most of the time, our talks painted a picture to me of what life had been like for her as a teenager.
She told me about how she grew up with many brothers in a very traditional Puerto Rican household, in a neighborhood with all her family nearby. They were involved in what she dressed like, how she acted, and where she went. She would often say to me something like, “You think I am strict? Imagine what it was like for me.” She had said these things before when punishing me, but I had never understood it.
Until one day she told me she had never been allowed a boyfriend until she was 22. Then that really shocked me. I already have a boyfriend and I am 16, and my mom is okay with it. I couldn’t imagine not being able to even talk to a guy because your family won’t let you.
Then one day I asked her, “So you never had a boyfriend in secret?” she replied, “I don’t want to talk about this.” Of course! But I knew I was on to something. Maybe there was a guy, and I wondered why she wouldn’t tell me about him.
Later on that day, my mom told me she didn’t like me getting into her past business. We had a fight and I was worried that I would not be able to finish my project. And also I wanted to know more than ever about the things she wouldn’t tell me.
We had a long argument, and then something really big happened. She started to cry. She was yelling, and crying all at once, and I had never seen my mom like that before.
Then when she stopped crying for a second, she told me about her first boyfriend, who had attacked her and abused her one day, and left her in an alley for anyone to find her. She told me how my grandma had made her feel so ashamed, and her brothers didn’t understand. After that was when they started controlling her life.
Besides crying from both of us, we didn’t get into it anymore and we haven’t talked about it since. Even though I know what happened now, I don’t know enough. I actually want more answers than before. I feel bad for pushing my mom to talk to me, but I wish she would have talked about it sooner.
“I don’t want to talk” is a really easy thing to say, and if you say it enough you can really convince yourself that it’s true.