Mother Wit

By Tanika E. Simpson
Issue 126, September/October 2004

Tanika and childWhen I hear such phrases as “follow your instinct” or “go with your gut,” I am reminded of many times in grade school when, taking a test, I would change my first answer to a question” only to learn later that my first choice had been correct. My frustration at having been right the first time was almost crippling.  I would beat myself up for days, wondering why I hadn’t let my first answer stand and “gone with my gut.”

I have since graduated into full-fledged adulthood, which, let’s face it, is like one big pop quiz that we never get a chance to study for, but I find that my tendency to doubt my instincts hasn’t much changed. Many times I have caught myself making decisions or taking on tasks that I had to talk myself into because, at my very core, I felt — no, I knew — that they were against my better judgment. Conversely, there have been other times when I have avoided pursuing interests and situations that felt instinctively right because they did not seem practical or predictable enough.

Growing up, I remember my mother telling me stories of how her own mother, a demure, simple woman from the South with little education beyond the ninth grade, had managed to raise four children as a young widow in post-Renaissance Harlem. My mother always said that, despite my grandmother’s lack of sophistication, she always had that “mother wit,” which she successfully used to survive and navigate the myriad complexities of her life. There were things that my grandmother just knew. For example, she told my mother to always save for a rainy day, because “when you have nothing to fall back on, you lose everything.” As a 35-year-old widow with four children ranging in age from 19 months to seven years, my grandmother understood the importance of financial planning and security, even if only at the most rudimentary level.

Nana was also good at reading people. She could tell almost instantly when something about a person “just wasn’t right.” She may not have had the vocabulary or the psychological expertise to articulate their shortcomings, but she trusted her instincts enough to keep her distance. Many of us can probably remember older female relatives in our own families who lived life by their “mother wit”; in those times of racial segregation and injustice, and the limited resources and opportunities available to women of all hues, such wit may have been all they had to rely on.

What I realize, as I approach 30 and become more settled in my own womanhood, is that “mother wit” is what we know as “woman’s intuition.” Yet many women of my generation don’t know how to use their intuition. If intuition”hthat is, following your gut instinct”his supposed to come so naturally to women, why do so many of us ignore those instincts? In the postmodern, postfeminist 21st century, when women hold unprecedented power and independence, why do we doubt ourselves? As I talk with many of my successful, educated girlfriends, I have learned that just about every one of them has failed to listen to her inner voice at one time or another in her life, usually when it really counted.

A very dear girlfriend of mine recently shared with me some troubles she was experiencing in an 18-month-old relationship she was trying to end. Throughout her journey along this bumpy road, I traveled in the passenger seat as her confidant, listener, and spectator. And I could tell you that from the moment she placed her key in the ignition, she was headed for a dead end. As the difficulties with her partner escalated to the point of being intolerable if not just plain dangerous, my friend still grappled with her ambivalence about ending the relationship. So I asked her, “What does your gut tell you?”

How many of us seriously and regularly ask ourselves this question? I’m not necessarily talking about every day, but when it really matters. When everything is on the line, do you go with your gut? Or do you rationalize your way into making decisions and following paths that keep you deaf to your inner voice? So many of us lose out on major opportunities in life because we do not follow our intuition. That promotion you didn’t get because—even though your idea was similar to, if not better than, your promoted colleague’s—you rationalized yourself out of making the pitch to your boss. Or the time and energy you wasted on a relationship that, deep down, you knew was over before it even began.

In my own case, I spent years and thousands of dollars cultivating a career that, deep in my heart, I knew wasn’t right for me. I ignored my talents and my love for another vocation because it wasn’t a part of the plan I had made for myself.

Following your intuition can involve taking a risk. If you go with your gut, you could be wrong, or you could make a mistake. If you don’t follow the career trajectory you’ve carved out for yourself, you might experience failure and
fall flat on your face. If you end that relationship that you know is no good for you, you risk being alone and possibly never marrying or having children. For those of us who truly desire those things, ending any prospective relationship, no matter how dissatisfying, seems a real gamble.

However, I suggest that if you habitually ignore your inner voice, you stand to risk a far greater loss: You stand to lose yourself. A woman’s intuition is about a woman’s spirit and the inclination to do what is right for that spirit. That’s why, when you do go with your gut, it feels so good. Without intuition, you are empty. No matter how educated, rich, powerful, or sophisticated you become, if you doubt your inner voice, particularly in matters that shape your life in the most meaningful and intimate ways, then you have failed in the ways that matter most.

Women listening to their inner voices are performing an exercise in self-love. We must learn to trust that if something feels truly wrong at our core, then it probably is wrong. No excuses. The experiences in life that nourish and awaken our spirit are what make us flourish, especially when they are unexpected or deviate from our carefully drawn road maps.

As for my girlfriend, she decided that her peace of mind was worth the gamble. Despite pressure from friends and family to remain in the relationship because it could be her “last chance” for love and marriage at the ripe old age of 29, my friend courageously followed her intuition. Her gut told her to end the relationship, and she did. Staying in the relationship would have compromised her emotional and spiritual integrity. Anyone who has that “mother wit” knows: When you don’t have your integrity to fall back on, you lose everything. Nothing is worth holding onto without it.

So the next time you get a funny feeling about something, or that little voice inside you starts talking, stop, listen—and go with your gut.


Tanika E. Simpson, a licensed clinical social worker, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with her husband, Rich, and their daughter, Anissa (18 months).

Photo provided by the author.