University of Baltimore MFA student D. Watkins tells the difficult story of his Somali mother, Tina, who gave birth to him when she was 15, full of big plans other than being a mom.

Tina is a loud-mouthed, club-hopping, plate-snorting, someone-else’s-Mercedes-driving, street-fighting, pink-rollers-under-a-ripped-stocking-cap-wearing, PTA-meeting-missing, new-best-friend-every-day-having, mother of five children with four different fathers–I’m her second oldest.

She hails from two third-world places where murder is as common as nightfall–Somalia and East Baltimore. Tina made me call her “Tina” because people didn’t need to know that she was old enough to have a 10-year-old son­. She was 25 then–we grew up together.

As a kid I waited for her–I always waited for her. Late nights well after the club let out, after the after-hour shut down, when the streets were clear as her skin—I waited.

Some late nights she noticed me stuck to the courtyard benches like chewed gum. I’d grown a frown when she walked past smelling like cocktails mixed with club music. And then there were the nights she’d be beyond wasted–I’d drag her limp body from the gutter, into our lobby, onto the elevator and inside our unit.

The worst nights were the ones where she didn’t bother to show up at all. I would call her friends and then circle my block like beat-cops before redialing the same numbers and circling again.

One of those nights I fell asleep on the park bench while waiting for her. She woke me up the next morning and said, “You’ll understand when you get older baby,” as she waved bye to the maroon Q45 that had dropped her off.


Most of my friends were “mama’s boys,” and I could never get it. I wanted it but could never get it, though I can honestly say I tried to form that connection.

I thought I was a great son. I mean, I stayed out late but she allowed it; I skipped school but that didn’t bother her; and I never talked to my father without clearing it with her and bringing home the cash she would tell me to ask for.

My room was a mess, but so was hers, along with the kitchen, the living room, and the bathroom. I also watched my little brother, Deion, and held down our fort when she was gone for days at a time.


I invited Tina to my basketball games–Project Survival, 10 and under. She would roll up into the gym with neon dresses that stopped at her waist, dark shades, hips wider than Texas, a naked back, and an over-sized Gucci bag covering her left shoulder. Heads rolled when she walked down the sideline.

I played extra hard to get her attention and it worked for a minute: she’d yell, “Kill ’em, baby, kill ’em!” and that’s what I did–I attacked my opponents with crossovers and layups and jump shots and back-to-back steals, checking behind me after each accomplishment to see if she noticed. Sometimes she did. I thought we were on the verge of developing something or at least moving in the right direction­–but I was wrong.

Her hip-length skirts paired with that Disney Princess smile brought attention from all of the coaches, referees, fathers, fans, and every other man in the gym, even my lusty preteen teammates. They’d salivate in thirst and hunger, wondering what she would wear to the next game, as if her dress were more important than my 30-point performances. Shortly after I lost all interest in the sport.

With Tina, it was always about a new guy, or a party, or some new guy’s party with her. That was her 20s. Late nights, white lines, Beamers, handbags, and hangovers. At 12, I got the picture.

I realized that she had her life and I was just an accessory, like a Gucci bag buried in her graveyard of designers. She deserved to have fun every day and connecting with me didn’t fit into that idea–so I just kept my distance.

I think she figured this out when I was 14, a year after my brother Devin and I moved out. I never called, visited, or even acknowledged her. She started leaving messages but I’d never respond. She would stop by our place and I wouldn’t answer the door. The more I ignored her the harder she would try­­.

I think the way I shut her out contributed to her aspiring for more. Tina started making attempts to redefine herself by joining a church and going back to school. I noticed from a distance, but neglected to respond, reach out, or reconnect.

At 30, Tina earned her GED and got a job working as a secretary at Johns Hopkins. I would see her around the neighborhood or in nightclubs, and we would have the funniest little conversations about nothing; she would give me updates on her progress and tell the crazy hood stories. She would ask me to come around more but it was too late. I had reached a point where not connecting with her was my preference.

The years of separation had transformed our relationship from mother and son into that of almost strangers. She really didn’t know how to address me because I was just this tall guy who used to live in her place.


A history of oppression, neglect, abuse, and ignorance created her. She was from the bottom and poverty was her biggest influence. Becoming a teenage mom was normal; little to no education was normal; experimenting with drugs was normal; having a party every day–normal. That’s all she knew. Tina was smart enough to realize that her maternal approach, fostered by her shitty upbringing, was wrong, and she tried to make amends. But I rejected her because it’s my life and I deserve to have fun every day.

Connecting with her doesn’t fit into my idea of fun so I stay distant. I don’t worry about her. Tina will be okay. She’s still a star who receives unlimited amounts of love and attention from everyone–everyone except me.

D. Watkins is an author, filmmaker and native Baltimorean who graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University. He has participated in writing workshops in multiple countries throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa. Watkins teaches at a number of colleges in Baltimore and conducts workshops on social justice at the Baltimore Freedom School. He also mentors students weekly as a member of the Boys to Men program at the Harbor City Academy. Read more here.

60 replies on “Why My Mother Made Me Call Her Tina”

  1. Thank you.
    I was moved by your article. Not merely by your writings but by your doings, your success and your generosity to give yourself to others. I’d love to hear you speak. How can I find out when/where you will be speaking?

  2. Tough story. It’s great! Can’t imagine how you felt, but you did what you had to do, nobody could knock you. Success couldn’t feel any better I’m sure!

  3. Great story Professor I clearly understand your movement of writing down your thoguhts. Great Approach !! Lawrence Iwu

  4. This was a very good story and its true facts stated in this story. I also feel like teen mom and experimenting with drugs is normal these days.
    -Matthew Andrews

  5. At the beginning I didn’t expect for you to be referring to your mother. I can see why you’re the way you are a little. You were out on your own at such a young age, so you had to discover who you were as a person. I really enjoyed reading this story.

  6. Now most of the things that you say in class make since such as “time is precious” & “I deserve to have fun every day.” I think that this is a very sad story because it is opposite from my upbringing. My mother was very loving and close while yours was distant. My girlfriend is exactly like my mother and plenty people say that you choose qualities of your girlfriend in your mom. If I took a guess at the kind of women that you like then I don’t think that my guess would be far off. I am very proud of you to hear your story and see how you overcame your setbacks and graduated with honors from JHU.

  7. Interesting story Professor Watkins! You turned out to to be a successful young man without the presence of your dad and negligence of your mom. This story is very inspiring to others who’ve experienced the same thing or is experiencing the same thing.

  8. I must first say I am truly sorry about your childhood, not having a “good” mother figure and all. I admire you for not letting the fact of not having a “good” mother figure held you back from being successful. A lot of young people use that as a excuse for not being successful, and for doing a lot of illegal and bad things. You are a inspiration!!

  9. That was very touching. I could almost feel your pain as a boy growing up. I hope one day you guys can make amends.

  10. That was a very touching story. I could feel your pain as a child growing up. I hope one day you guys can make amends.

  11. Omg Professor you almost made me cry! I love it, it kinda reminded me of my life. But I’ll tell you about that at in class.
    -Angela Wilder

  12. That explains a lot. When you feel like somebody important to you doesn’t care about you enough to pay you the time of day, yoou may display that attitude onto others.

  13. First of all let me start off by saying I commend you on making such bold decisions, at such a young age. I love the tone you are creating as you write, there’s a sort of hurt and pain. Its heartbreaking that the person you yearned for the most was never there for you like she should have been. In my opinion she wasn’t ready when she had you and it seems like maybe her mother never set an example of how to be a great women/mother. I know she wasn’t there but in my opinion if she tryed to do better for herself and as a mother you should given her a chance. But overall I liked it and truly see your struggle. –Briona Lee

  14. Your struggle if that’s a good word to use is very common amongst the more minority filled areas. It seems quite simple really that most young girls are having babies when in all actuality they are still babies themselves. Most teen moms haven’t been able to grow up with mothers who can teach them how to great women/mothers. In my opuon building up a relationship with your mom should be an essential part of your because everyone makes mistakes. She at least seems to be trying very hard mist people don’t have that at all. I also love the writer tone o pain, hurt, and determination.

  15. You have an amazing way with words. The way you painted a picture for your readers… truly magical! You have allowed me to see such great beauty in this tragedy. I hope the best for Tina and the tall guy

  16. That story touched me and although I was a young teenage mother I couldn’t imagine putting my child through what you experienced. You took the negative and turned it into to positive you should be very proud of your accomplishments.

  17. This story was so interesting.. i think you should develop it into more !! i would read it . Is this a true story ? You’re a very talented writer. This story is a great illustration of how big a part a mother is in a child’s life and how big of an influence it has on the outcome of the child’s life and they will become in adulthood.

  18. Wow, you never know the story behind someone by their presence. I feel like I was telling my story instead you are not ashamed. Today in class you made me speak out. This story is powerful and even though you guys speak, it can be hard because it’s been so long. I love it and will share this story with everyone I come encounter with. Continue to build you experience, because the class is rooting for you! Keep me posted on your writings

  19. Alvin Morris
    Professor Watkins I think your story was very inspiring. The things you experience as child was not pleasant and I understand the way you fett towarrd you mother.Without mother or father activity in your life you turned out to be a sucessful person.

  20. This article was extremely detailed, I never met your mother but know I feel as if have. You started strong and ended strong. The way u described her literally painted a picture for me as the reader. Your story is unfortunate but not unusual. Young teen mom of several children, that never really learned to become a mother, so with that the family dysfunctionally grows up together. You waited for her for so long, how did u disconnect from her so fast? When she started to change her life you didn’t respond, isn’t that why you shut her out for a response? Do you feel that your childhood helped to shape you and push into accomplishing all these great things? This article definitely shinned a lot of light on your background and made me understand you as a person and not just a professor.

  21. I was really moved by your article and I wanted to say that your childhood turned your negative energies into positive energies which brought you humbleness and power as an adult. Your childhood explains why you may be considered heartless to most who never had the pleasure to getting to know you. You could of been a murderer who despise young mothers because you were missing that unconditional mommy love instead you are one of my intellectual professor who achieved many of goals in your walk of life as an young black man in our community. To readers who are just like Tina. Remember you give up the I’s for Us in motherhood and dont believe your child is not paying attention because they are more than you know! Remember what you told me D, it is levels to everything and love what you do and be bless! You symbolized inspiration to all african americans who have a dream. Thank you for sharing your story!

  22. WOW!!!! This is deeeeeeeeeeeep!!!. The beautiful thing in this is the honesty and transparency that you so boldy articulated. I enjoyed it. WRITE MORE!!!!!!! #RESPECT

  23. DOPE!!!!!!! You are very strong to write about this and put it out there…..THE TRUTH is what people need in their lives

  24. I feel for children and people period with parents like Tina. But I enjoy to see people overcome hard situations like this. It takes a strong individual to be sucessful after having a roung backgrounf growing up so I look uo to children who make it through the struggles when lacking love and care in all the areas it’s needed the most.

  25. Wow, this made me cry. I was a very young teenage mother and while I choose to make wise decisions for the sake of my children, I have seen other young mothers around me doing the same things your mother did. Its sad these women dont realize the damage they are doing until its already done and then its too late. I could never imagine putting anything before my children not even at the age of 14. Even though you have been through hell and back the amazing thing is you turned out to be an successful young man.

  26. This was a great story. I can picture and visualize the way you explained “Tina” and the way she was. I Connected to the story in many ways.Excellent Work.

  27. Professor D great work I know how it be at those games man smh its real though DAMN Gucci bagS “I attacked my opponents with crossovers and layups and jump shots and back-to-back steals, checking behind me after each accomplishment to see if she noticed”” I DO THE SAME THING GREAT STORY.

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