Mama's Writing

Dani McClain | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, created by Deesha Philyaw.

How has the experience of raising children shaped your own personal growth as a writer and as an individual?

Being pregnant and having a very young child motivated me. I worked on a piece about the Black maternal health crisis while in my third trimester, and it was published in The Nation when my daughter was about six months old. That article became the basis of the first chapter of my book WE LIVE FOR THE WE, which was published in 2019 when she was nearly 3. It’s a book about parenting and it’s a memoir, so everything I was experiencing in my daughter’s early months and years felt like potential material for the book. 

As she has gotten older, I’ve taken on additional caregiving responsibilities in my family. I’ve also moved more behind the scenes in publishing. I worked as a ghostwriter on a memoir. I’ve served as a developmental editor on some fantastic nonfiction projects, supporting authors who are writing on topics ranging from education policy to private adoption to reactionary forces within Latino communities. I made the transition because in recent years my caregiving duties needed to be a priority. I needed to take on work that was more flexible and less deadline-driven. It’s been gratifying. I’ve realized that over the course of my 25-year-career I’ve become a solid editor and I enjoy coaching reporters and writers. I have this set of skills I’d been taking for granted and using solely to improve my own work. Now I’m in a more collaborative phase.

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a parent, what would it be?

Expect the unexpected. Life is unfolding in ways I never could have imagined.

How do you navigate societal expectations or stereotypes as a Black parent in your writing while staying true to your authentic voice?

Social expectations don’t affect me much these days, maybe because if I’m writing under my own byline I’m typically reporting. The story is less about me and more about the sources I’m interviewing and the events I’m explaining.

What themes or topics do you find yourself drawn to explore in your work since becoming a parent, and why?

I’m increasingly interested in mental health and what works to keep children and teenagers engaged with the world and each other. My daughter is 7 and I am so thankful she has a deep joyfulness and optimism and curiosity about her. I don’t want to see that snuffed out as she gets older and understands more about the challenges we’re facing on this planet. I was recently awarded a Spencer fellowship for education reporting at Columbia’s journalism school, and I’ll be working on a project about how schools can successfully support students’ mental health. This is a story I would have pursued before becoming a parent, but now I’m even more driven to understand what makes children develop and maintain a sense of purpose and hope.

How do you handle creative challenges or setbacks?

I’m typically juggling several things professionally: editing books, maybe editing a story or two for a magazine project I started working with this year. I’m gathering string on the book I want to write next. The filmmaker Lydia Pilcher adapted a speculative fiction story I wrote in 2015 called “Homing Instinct” into a short film, and now we’re collaborating on a film installation based on the material. Sometimes projects pan out and sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, maybe I’m disappointed for a bit and then I move on to whatever else I need to tend to.

How do you navigate the fine line between sharing personal experiences in your writing while respecting the privacy of your family?

This hasn’t come up much since I wrote WE LIVE FOR THE WE. I remember running passages by people I’d written about so they wouldn’t be caught off guard after publication. I don’t write much about my daughter these days. That’s my way of respecting her privacy. I’m sure my thoughts on this will evolve as she grows and can decide for herself how she wants to shape her own identity and public presence. I’m a fairly private person. When in doubt, I pass on exposing much about myself or loved ones.

How do you carve out time for self-care, down time, and creative expression? 

I just do it. My shoulders hurt? I get a massage if I can afford it. I want to take a walk and clear my head? I step outside. I want to lose myself in a novel? I ask my favorite local bookseller to recommend one. And when I need to focus on a deadline or piece of domestic labor or caregiving task, I do that. Then I try to savor the experience when I get to put my attention back on something relaxing or pleasurable.

How has your parenting journey impacted your perspective on your writing career and artistic aspirations?

I used to have more time to waste or to spend being a perfectionist. I also had more time to play and explore, to go down rabbit holes, to research things that may or may not turn into a story I could pitch and sell. Now I’m much more focused on locking in well-paying work, whether it showcases my own creativity or not. I turn elsewhere for some of the rush and validation I used to get through professional pursuits. I value the creativity I express through my relationships, through conversation. I value the meaning we make together on group chats. When I have an idea that feels important I leave myself a long voice note and hope I make use of it somehow, someday. Since becoming a parent, I get that time is finite. I understand effort and the necessity of fair compensation for all kinds of labor in a way I didn’t before.

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

Oh, wow, read WE LIVE FOR THE WE for my chapters-long answer to this question. I am constantly observing and learning from others and accepting good guidance where it’s offered.

What advice would you give to other mothers who aspire to pursue their writing goals while raising a family?

Sometimes you might feel you’re falling behind and neglecting your creative goals. That’s likely because you are, and you shouldn’t berate yourself about it. You’re living your life and helping others live theirs. Caring for other human beings can be righteous, difficult work. We often think we should be able to do it while also engaging in rigorous intellectual work. Maybe some people can manage this, but it’s difficult for me. I am hopeful there will come a time when I can put more intellectual work on the front burner again. Until then, I intend to be present with these people with whom I’m lucky to be moving through life.

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

There are too many to name, and I know I’ll regret not naming someone. The writer Kathy Y. Wilson is on my mind, because her birthday is coming up, April 26th. She was a journalist, essayist, poet, playwright and art collector, among her many other talents. She died way too soon in 2022 at the age of 57. She didn’t birth children of her own but she was a mentor to me and a lot of other Cincinnati writers and artists of a certain generation. She was a kind of den mother to us, making sure we had places to read and publish our work and explore and laugh and love up on ourselves and each other. I miss her.

Dani McClain (she/her) reports on race, parenting and reproductive health and is a contributing writer at The Nation. She has written about play therapy and Black families’ experiences of the pandemic for The New York Times, the complicated legacy of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger for Harper’s BAZAAR, and how to talk to kids about racism and policing for The Atlantic. Her work has been recognized by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and served as a Type Media Center fellow. Earlier in her career, Dani reported on schools while on staff at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and worked as a strategist with organizations including Color of Change and Drug Policy Alliance. Her book We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood was published in 2019 by Bold Type Books and was shortlisted in 2020 for a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She was the Cincinnati public library’s Writer-in-Residence in 2020 and 2021. Follow her on Instagram at @dani_mcclain and on Twitter at @drmcclain.

Filed under: Mama's Writing


Sherisa de Groot (she/her) is a writer, community builder, and founder of Raising Mothers, literary membership community Literary Liberation, and pens A Home Within Myself. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Kindred by Parents, Refinery 29, Mutha Magazine, and Oldster Magazine and she was a contributor to the book ‘100 Diverse Voices on Parenthood’ by A Kid’s Company About. With a focus on intersectionality and social justice, de Groot’s writing explores the nuances of motherhood and the experiences of BIPOC mothers and marginalized genders. Through her work, she aims to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced and create a more equitable world for all. Raising Mothers was the 2021 Romper People’s Choice Iris Award Winner. Originally from Brooklyn New York, she is a first-generation American turned immigrant living in Amsterdam, NL with her husband, two children, and cat.