The Revolution of Black Mothering: Confronting a future that doesn’t always include us
Now that I'm knee-deep in this life, motherhood is the murkiest territory I've ever had to explore.
by Hess Love
belly of boat dissolves you, precipitates you into nonword from which you cry out, generates clamor of your protests, boat is your womb, a matrix, yet it expels you- Edouard Glissant
I always wanted to be a mother. I wanted motherhood’s playfulness, its duty, its imagination and selflessness. Like most people that aren’t mothers, I romanticized and woefully overestimated the work of it. I didn’t consider the possibility that it could drain me.
When people hear that I have three children, work full-time, attend school full-time, and write on the side, they ask me how I do it all. The truth is that I don’t do it all. There’s not enough time.
Most days things fall through the cracks, priorities shift order and sometimes I don’t accomplish or complete anything. In all honesty, motherhood in the 21st century is a perpetual deferment of dreams. The village it takes to raise a child (let alone three) is scattered and burdened by capitalism and fatigue.
We spend the majority of our motherhood isolated. During the first years after becoming a parent, I leaned heavily on online groups. While I was there I came across the stories of many people who felt just as alone as I did. We were all neck deep in the phenomenon of never being alone or getting the chance to be alone, yet feeling extreme loneliness.
With my first child, I felt the effects of not having my mother and grandmother around. No one was there to relate to my struggles, the hormonal challenges, or the body changes. There was no one to go cry to or hug me in a way that melted my worries. I felt overwhelmingly unprepared. And, due to my own trauma of being molested while in my godmother’s “care”, I didn’t trust my kids around people either.
I both wanted to ask for help and knew the dangers of requesting things in order to feel adequately supported. When I would ask for help, people first looked at what they thought I had in order to measure if I was worthy of the effort. And, when I didn’t have much, I was shamed by others for having kids in the first place.
Black mothers combat the perception that we are incompetent. We’re constantly questioned and forced into superhero roles. In our quest to not seem or feel like a burden to people around us, mothers keep a lot of things in.
I didn’t feel safe anywhere, even around other mothers. There was always an explicit or implicit level of performance expected. You were either expected to perform perfection or immediate vulnerability. I was lost until I found Black and brown parenting groups online.
I’ve never seen a version of motherhood that didn’t require transformation. A sort of killing of oneself, then a rebirth of a new self, then a mourning of the old self and finally acceptance. Now that I’m knee-deep in this life, motherhood is the murkiest territory I’ve ever had to explore. Nothing is clear, not even survival.
Atatiana Johnson was murdered on October 12th, 2019 by Fort Worth police after playing video games with her nephew. Atatiana was her mother, Yolanda Carr’s caregiver until she was murdered. Yolanda died a few days ago from cancer and heartbreak. I’ve been thinking a lot about the expectations held over Black mothers’ heads.
Black mothers are and should not have to be war heroes. I am constantly preparing my children for my departure. Whether short-term or long-term, I know that I won’t always be there. The world won’t allow it, that’s clear to me, just as I didn’t have my mother and grandmother around for my own entry point into motherhood. So I give my children tools they can carry to structure a world for themselves with or without me.
I have started to track the ways that Black mothers have sacrificed and loved and freed. Some of us secretly hold seeds in our hair for the journey beyond. Some teach our children that in order to be safe, they have to be quiet and invisible and small. We are constantly investing in future worlds, without requiring that these worlds ensure we are able to live in them.
For some mothers, that is the part about motherhood that helps them wake up everyday. “Knowing that my children can look back on life, know all the obstacles I went through and things I achieved to give them a better lifestyle than I had motivates me,” Shanika Walters, Chain Breaker and Baltimore-based mother coach on breaking generational curses. “I want Black mothers to conquer more than the world actually believes they can.”
Whether we are activists, full time employees or have no paid jobs, we work towards a more possible future. Motherhood is about more than giving life and giving birth is not always synonymous with mothering. People who see themselves as life givers or nurturers like to wear motherhood as a form of intellectual martyrism, especially in the academy.
Motherhood deals in death: the death of yourself, the bargaining with death for you and your child to live, and the death of your time. It does not always feel good. It does not always guarantee life.
As I sit with all this complexity, I’m comforted by the words of Toni Morrison in Beloved:“By and by all trace was gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamour for a kiss. Beloved.”