And I Lived to Tell About It: An Interview with Jennifer Steele, winner of the Lucille Clifton Creative Parent Writing Award
Interviewed By Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton
Yelling at your Black mother and living is an art that very few people have attempted, much less mastered. But on occasion, someone defies the odds. Jennifer Steele, the 35-year-old Columbia College Chicago graduate who works in the Chicago Public Library, and author of “Kite,” is such a survivor. This Louder Than A Bomb Coach has a life that is centered around education. Her work with Chicago youth is inspiring and she is always looking for a moment to give those in her life new space to express themselves. Her recent chapbook, A House and Its Hunger on Central Square Press, shines a light on this need for safe spaces. I sat down with Steele, winner of our first Lucille Clifton Creative Parent Writing Award, to discuss how she survived such a feat and lived to write about it.
What was your first thought after yelling at your mother?
My heart was beating so fast in that moment. I felt like I was five again. She gave me the look. And then she thought, “let me sit back down and respect my daughter as a mother instead of my daughter.” I probably had undiagnosed postpartum.Everyone had something to say, what I should do and how I should do it. I just had to say no I need this for my son.
Why did you feel like you wanted to write about this moment?
It’s a moment that stuck with me for a long time. I often thought about it as the time that I yelled at my mom in public. I was a newly single mom. I was in a place where I was trying to figure things out for myself, heal, and figure out things for my son and I. All my family was living back east. I had to figure out how to navigate this experience being this far away from my family.
It just came to a point where My mom was trying to be helpful in her way, but I knew that approach wasn’t going to be helpful for me in that moment. It was one of those moments where I asserted myself as a woman and another. I had to assert what I wanted for my son. It was a pivotal moment where I had to say this.
The piece very much centers around generational differences in mothering, what do you think is important for the old generation of mothers to understand about this new generation?
I think the most important thing is that we don’t have to live with the way we have been mothered. We can honor and respect the ways they raised us, but we don’t have to take it all. We don’t have to repeat the ways they mothered us. We didn’t talk about feelings, but I found it was really important to tell my son that you can express the feelings that you have inside of you.
Why do you find it is important to hold emotional as well as physical space for your son in the piece?
I work with youth in libraries and we are always talking about safe space and the spaces we create. I have grown to understand how safe spaces are important. I think about how I handle my emotions and mental health. In a world that is still coming to understand and value mental health, my job as a mother is to hold that space. I can say, “you can be upset with me.” My son and I have begun to use language, even at six, to explain. It is my job to model more healthy behaviors we can do that together. It is also a protective thing. There was space I wish was held for me. The way in which we were raised, their was always space to express anger or any kind of negative emotions towards the women who were raising us. I appreciate everything that she has done, but my son is sensitive and I had to explain that he has different needs. She was very understanding. I was so grateful that she understood that.
Do you think your son’s response was a learned or inherent response?
His reaction is definitely a “me” response. My mom would always say if I don’t get it right the first time, it is the end of the world. He wanted the thing to work. He just melted down. He got it straight from me. But what I am grateful about with him, is that he doesn’t hesitate to tell me how he feels. He is already using the phrase “I don’t like it when….” I just have to be careful with my responses. I am trying to figure out the balance between “I hear you” and “I need you to understand this”. I’m still learning how to use my words so we can do that together. I wanted that to be part of his vocabulary even though still working through it.
You mention in “Kite” the subtle line Black women have to walk when it comes to our emotions. What is the difference between crying when you need to and breaking down? Do you think this is only a differentiation for “Davis women” or one you see across black mothers?
I think I heard it from my mom. I have been reading more stories, articles, blogs that have been talking about the expectation of Black women to carry things for other people. We are always looked to; it is a weird dichotomy we are the most ignored and looked to. Black women make things happen. We can hold space. We can carry emotional space. We are the backbone and the nurturers. But the impact is never talked about. I am on a mission to give myself permission to say, “I am not ok” or “I don’t want to do this right now.” I need to take space for myself. I think people have a hard time seeing people they love in distress. People want us to shed some tears and keep it moving, but I needed to share my feelings. I used to think I was an open book, but I am not. I don’t want to feel things. I have had to slow down. I found myself being a person who never said no, just like my mother. And I had to start saying no. My dad was the strong sensitive type and I always loved that part of him in me.
What, if any, are the struggles you think Black mothers face that are different or unique?
Raising Black children and raising a black son means you have to be aware of your world. Even in Chicago now, I think, “What will I do when he is 16 and out walking around?” I have to always be aware of the way the world might look at him. We often try to talk about it, but I don’t think mothers in other cultures don’t always understand. It is an added layer for us.
Where does your parenting style come from?
Probably from all the things I was mad I couldn’t do or say (laughs). Somewhere I always had it in me, but over time… I think I have always known that I didn’t want to be the type of mother who couldn’t express their emotions. Now they can’t just do anything, but I didn’t want them to be passive aggressive. It just isn’t healthy to keep all of those emotions in. I think I was also reclaiming who I wanted to be as a mother. I was coming into a space after so much hurt. I always had this image of the mother I wanted to be. I had to piece together my experiences as a child, observations of other friends and family and how they negotiated space with their mothers, and then decide how can I help him be the best person he can be. The best him he can be. Especially for the spaces I didn’t always have the space to navigate. Sometimes I can hear my mother when I talk. There is a stearness that I inherited that I have learned how to wield it. I am grateful for having that influence. Then, the addition of being an artist and artistic. I hope he will carry qualities that shape the world and talks about the difficult things without shame or embarrassment.
What do you want the next generation of mothers to know or consider about your approach to parenting?
I never believed that children are seen and not heard thing children are human beings. When do they get to be human? Let them be angry in their spaces. We have to give them room to process all of it. My work is really fueled by the need for these spaces and how Black women need to be able to be vulnerable. We are Black girl magic but that can’t be used to say that we don’t need to take care of ourselves. My book dives deeper into this. It gives insight to what it looks like when we can’t stay strong.
Click here to read Kite by Jennifer Steele.
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