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Mama’s Writing | Nia Norris

Nia Norris is a journalist in the Chicago area who writes about social justice, public policy, education, and culture. Her publication credits include Catapult, Courier Newsroom, and Antiracism Daily. When she is not writing, Nia is a mother to her three children and a full-time student. Follow her on Twitter @nianorriswrites.

 


 

How has parenting influenced your writing?
Parenting has influenced my writing in a sort of a roundabout way. Although my social media followers often told me I should write for a living after reading my posts that found levity in the ups and downs of parenting, I didn’t start writing professionally until I actually had to take some time away from my children and I turned to writing as a coping mechanism to deal with the grief. I rarely directly write about my children; their father is a very private person and prefers not to have their stories shared widely. However, I have mentioned them in a few pieces, and I did write an essay for Catapult about dealing with postpartum depression and trauma around my son’s very premature delivery. I have been writing more “mommy-related” pieces, but as a reporter and not an essayist. 

I wrote an article about Oregon’s decision in November to decriminalize narcotics, and the impact that will have on families who have been separated by the so-called War on Drugs. I am particularly interested in how we can make parenting easier for parents who are trying to navigate trauma and substance use disorder, because that is who I am. I have done considerable research into the benefits of family-centered treatments and the improvement of outcomes for both parent and child when we make our best efforts to keep families intact. I have also covered racial inequities in education as well as the foster care system. I am currently working on believe it or not a tax guide for parents. I never would have expected to write that. 

What three words describe you as a mother?
I would say resilient, attached, and doting.

What surprised you about motherhood?
Everything about motherhood surprised me. Motherhood was always something that I desired, but didn’t necessarily put into my life plan. I didn’t set out to become a mother, if you know what I mean. However, I was never one of those people who never wanted kids either. It just wasn’t a priority for me. So when I became pregnant and gave birth to my first child, I didn’t really know what to expect. When my daughter was born, I threw myself full on into motherhood. I became obsessed with breastfeeding and learned probably about as much as a lactation consultant. I didn’t even know if I wanted to breastfeed when I was pregnant! 

What surprised me the most about motherhood was the desire to have lots of children. I loved being a mom so much that I got pregnant again when my first was only five months old. Then again when my second was only seven months old. My last pregnancy was life-threatening to both my and the baby, so I got an IUD after Baby #3. I honestly don’t know if I would have stopped having babies if my body hadn’t told me that it was time to shut down the muffin shop. 

What fictional mother gets on your nerves?
I would say that the fictional fathers get on my nerves more than the fictional mothers although perhaps the fictional mothers also irritate me for enabling them. My online mom groups are full of posts of mothers who are complaining about husbands who do not help with the babies. Whether it’s a father who won’t ever get up with the baby or he puts them to bed in their clothes when left home with them for the night or does other things to indicate that he is not willing to help. We have really given fathers permission to do the bare minimum, and it shows in pop culture. My kids’ dad watched Everybody Loves Raymond, and Ray irritated me. He was narcissistic, unhelpful, and did not care to pick up any of the slack. His mother, Marie, really enabled him to be that way. So maybe she’s the fictional mother who gets on my nerves the most. 

What’s the worst motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?
When my youngest was a baby, everyone had something to say about everything if I posted to Facebook about a sleep regression or whatever was going on in her life. It’s hard to say what the absolute worst advice I’ve ever gotten would be without shaming other moms for making different choices than I did. I would say probably the most concerning advice I received would be advice related to nutrition, like suggesting baby food or water before it was developmentally appropriate to offer to my child. 

Knowing that your children will read your work at some point, how does that impact your candor when writing?
I hold back a lot from writing about them. My mother is also a writer, and she wrote a lot of very personal material that embarrassed me sometimes. I remember going through old boxes and finding some newspaper clip about an article that she wrote about me peeing myself and still insisting that I needed to wear the dress I was wearing when I wet myself. I was much younger when I found this article and obviously peeing your pants is a very normal part of childhood, so it doesn’t embarrass me anymore, but I remember being very ashamed when I read it. I don’t want my children to feel bad about anything that I’ve written. 

On the other hand, I am a person in recovery and I have written with a lot of candor about my past history of drug use. And that is my story, and I don’t mind if my children find it someday. What I want them to see is someone who pulled themselves together to provide the best life possible for them. I grew up with a fair amount of privilege, and all I want is for my children to have all of the same opportunities that I did. And I am working towards that right now. 

How has motherhood shaped your relationship with the world?
I think that motherhood has made me a kinder, more helpful, and more understanding person. Moms carry a lot of weight on their shoulders, and I think that becoming a mother gave me some insight into the fact that the majority of mothers are out there doing their best. It also taught me to offer help to other people because I became a person who often needed help. Over the past four years since my daughter was born, I have made some very deep and meaningful friendships with other moms and we all offer each other help whenever we can, perhaps because we don’t get enough of it with ourselves. I went grocery shopping for one family that I’ve gotten close to and at a later date, they ran a few errands for me when my household was under a Covid-19 quarantine. Motherhood has also made me more vulnerable. I try to admit when I’m failing as often as I admit when I’m being a supermom, because sometimes someone else needs to hear it. And it took other mothers showing their own vulnerability to me to get me to a place where I could do that.


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Lost Daughters, Losing Mothers

Justice Involved Mothers is a column developed in partnership with Roots. Wounds. Words.: A Literary Arts Revolution. Devoted to real life, authentic narratives of criminalization, Justice Involved Mothers is curated and edited by Nicole Shawan Junior and penned by the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Brown women who have suffered the white supremacist arm and misogynist fist of law enforcement. Through these creative nonfiction works of literary art, we aim to uplift liberation demands, amplify abolitionist urgings, and cast an even wider spotlight on the vice grip criminalization holds around the necks of women—MOTHERS—of color. Justice Involved Mothers centers Our stories because we are the ones who are most ignored. The ones with the most to tell.


Pulling my charcoal peacoat tighter around me, I trudge the short distance from the train to Ma’s house. January’s cold nips at my bare fingers. I shove my hands into the coat’s pockets, bow my head to the ground, quicken my pace as I near the brick elementary school that shares space with Ma’s housing complex. School has ended for the day, but its resource officer still sits guard in the police cruiser. He watches me approach the beige and green townhouses, a stark contrast to the lemon yellow I grew up in. Nearing the parking lot, I notice Ma’s gray Honda Civic isn’t parked in her usual spot. The breath I don’t realize I’m holding breaks free. Before her empty parking spot came into view, I anticipated Ma greeting me with her trademark scowl and silent treatment. It’s been two days since I was last home. It’s been less than three months since I left a post-prison halfway house, and, already, I’m spending nights with a man I hardly know.

I enter the house quickly, shrug off my coat and toss it across the back of a wooden chair, leaving the cold with it. I climb the stairs to the second floor, racing against the clock, rushing to pretend I’d been home longer than I actually had. That I’d been there waiting for her return instead of her waiting for mine, just as she’d done for the almost three years I’d spent in prison. The house phone begins to ring. Two steps at a time, I get to the second floor, flop across Ma’s queen size bed, and grab the receiver.  

“Hello?” I huff.

“Hello,” the male voice on the other end responds, “this is Norwalk Police Department. May I speak with Heather Stokes?” 

***

It was just past 2 a.m. when a CO escorted me from York Correctional Institution’s intake building to Four South, the medical building where I would be placed until the administration classified me and determined my permanent placement. 

Permanent. Permanent. Permanent. 

I wasn’t going home anytime soon. 

The gray brick building was only 20 feet away, but the weight of time made it feel like 20 miles. I pressed the thin state-issued bedding against my stomach and, shackled at the ankles, shuffled behind the correction officer. 

Four South was quiet and dimly lit. Still, stark, and empty, sort of like how I envisioned the rest of my life would be now that I was a convicted felon. The officer, who never offered me his name, opened the door to a dark cell and barked, “Top bunk, that’s you Stokes!” 

I hurried inside, clumsily navigating my way through the unfamiliar expanse to scramble up narrow stairs leading to a top bunk. I didn’t even bother smoothing the sheets and blanket across the bed. Instead, I curled myself into a ball, used the sheets as a pillow, cried myself to sleep. 

***

“This is the Norwalk Police Department,” he says. I freeze, heart racing, retracing my steps over the last few months. 

Work. Sergio’s. Home. 

Repeat. 

Work. Sergio’s. Home. 

Repeat. 

I’ve been diligent in not making any moves that would jeopardize my newfound freedom. Yet, the Norwalk Police Department is looking for me. My left thumb starts to rub my right wrist, feeling for handcuffs my mind has placed around it. 

“T-t-this is Hea-th-ther,” I stutter, tears well up in my eyes. 

I can’t go back. I can’t go back. I can’t go back. 

“Hi, Ms. Stokes. This is Officer James. We have a minor child by the name of Jaelanie in our custody. Her mother Eileen was arrested today and, uh, Jaelanie was with her. Eileen asked we call you. Can you come get Jaelanie? She’s here at the station.”

“Sh-sure,” I murmur. Still not convinced my freedom is entirely my own, I clench Ma’s comforter like a state-issued blanket. “I’ll be right there,” I say, then slowly loosen my grip.  

I peel myself from Ma’s bed, smooth out my clothes, brush tears of relief or fear from my cheeks. As I wrap my winter coat around my back, wrest a new pair of gloves onto my hands, and pull a hat onto my head, I question if this is a ploy to get me back to prison. I wonder if I can outrun the police. 

Where would I run?

***

“CHOW ON THE DOOR!” startled me awake before the steel door flew open and four trays slid across the floor in quick succession. Swish-swish-swish-swish. Once the door slammed shut, just as quickly as it opened, I got a look at my roommates for the first time. 

A tall, thin blond, barely 21 years old, sat on the top bunk across from me, legs folded like a small child, rubbing her bloodshot eyes while eyeing us nervously. Track marks lined her pale arms. She caught me staring at them and tugged at the sleeves of her maroon t-shirt. Beneath her was a Black girl, who appeared to be about my age. As she trembled, a thin layer of perspiration dotted her forehead despite the air conditioning vent that blew down from directly above her. She clawed at her skin with ragged nails, the corners of her mouth were white with foam. My brother was a crack addict, my uncle, too. I’d spent time in County and being transported to the prison with several other women who suffered the effects of such a sudden withdrawal of drugs from their systems. I knew dope sickness. I knew the Black girl who sat on the bottom bunk across from me suffered from it. 

The tall blond jumped down and distributed our breakfast trays. As I reached to grab mine, I got a look at my bunkmate — a white woman about my age with long brown hair. She sat back in her bunk against the wall, clutching a pillow, as if trying to get as far away from the rest of us as possible. She hesitated for a moment as the young blond reached the tray towards her but eventually threw the pillow aside and inched to the edge of the bed. That’s when I noticed it — a bulging belly strained against the state-issued grey sweatshirt’s minimal stretch, as if it were demanding freedom. 

What the fuck is a pregnant woman doing in jail? I thought to myself. 

I looked down at my tray, an apple was the only thing I could make out from the assortment. I swiped it, climbed down from my bunk and headed toward the door to place the tray back. As I did, the pregnant lady spoke up, “I’ll take that if you’re not going to eat it.” I handed her my tray. She smiled weakly, “Thanks, I’m Michelle.” 

***

I head toward the new Norwalk Police Department, situated in a large brick building on the corner of South Main Street. The heart of South Norwalk, Connecticut. In 2005, the Department relocated here in an effort, Mayor Rilling — our former police chief — said, to better serve the community. My mother says it was to be closer to the people they want to arrest, the large African American and Latino populations of South Norwalk. I shiver as the police station comes into view. 

Once at the station’s entrance, I take a deep breath and swing open the heavy glass doors. A gathering of officers animatedly talk while lounging behind a tall transparent partition. I approach cautiously, ready to bolt when a young Black officer leans forward and presses the intercom button, his smile slowly disappearing. 

“Yes?” he questions, aggravated by my intrusion on the lively conversation. 

“I’m here to pick up Jaelanie. Her mother was arrested today.”

***

After spending a mandatory week of isolation in the medical unit, Michelle and I were transferred to different areas of the prison. I hoped that meeting her meant prison wouldn’t be as horrific as film and TV made it out to be, as I’d been led to believe. 

A few weeks later, I sat on a top bunk in an eight-person dorm. Though no longer in medical, I was as isolated as ever. The bunk beneath me was empty, leaving me bunkie-less. In addition, shortly after I was assigned to the dorm, my things were stolen while I used the bathroom. I complained to the CO on duty, which led to a gathering of corrections officers “tossing” our room. 

My new roommates were pissed. 

Where in medical I had Michelle, here I was alone and prison enemy number one, awaiting whatever retaliation my new roommates planned. 

But a couple days later, after I kept praying that whoever came to occupy the bunk beneath me would be friendlier than the people who surrounded me, I looked up and spotted a familiar face. There was Michelle. She had been transferred from one of the larger, more populated dormitories to my dorm room. 

Her belly had grown even bigger than when I had seen her last, just the month before. She waddled towards the empty bunk, trying to hold up the weight of the baby and her plastic bag. My heart warmed, finally someone familiar! I saw a similar sentiment when Michelle locked eyes on me. Once she settled in, we caught up on our last few weeks. She was almost due and was terrified about having a baby in prison. She let me feel the baby kick, and I fed her Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. One day, though, I returned from a group, and Michelle was nowhere to be found. A bunkmate told me she had gone into labor. 

Two days later, Michelle resurfaced, a shell of the woman who had left. Her tear-worn face looked empty and exhausted. The space that once held her child was deflated. Her full breasts had already begun to leak through her state-issued sweatshirt, the milk trickling down and pooling where her belly used to protrude. I couldn’t think of words to say, so I weakly smiled and waved. Instead of her usual smile, she nodded her head in acknowledgement then laid down on her bunk. Only minutes passed before I heard her sobs, the ones that lasted until she finally fell asleep. 

The next morning when Michelle went to the medical building for a checkup, I slipped off the bunk, went into my bin and slid a Reese’s under her pillow. Hours later when she returned, she found it and popped her head up with a smile — the first she managed to muster since giving birth. 

Michelle told me all about her labor. That it was easier than with her first two babies. The staff was nice, the CO on duty was respectful. All in all, it went as well as a birth in prison could go. She beamed as she told me about her daughter, Alana — born at five pounds, ten ounces. Beautiful with her father’s nose. Big blue eyes like her mother. Michelle’s own eyes welled as she spoke about kissing Alana goodbye, about not knowing when she would get to see her again, about not knowing how she was going to survive without her daughter. 

***

He juts his index finger towards a conference room and goes back to his conversation, giving me not even a second more thought. I enter the room where several uniformed police officers huddle around my brother’s girlfriend’s eighteen-month-old baby, a child who’s not biologically his but whom he has fathered as best he could, considering limitations caused by his addiction. Despite the cops’ coos, funny faces and squeaky voices, Jaelanie is stone-faced as she stares at them. I’ve only met her once or twice before, so I brace for the tears she’ll shed and the screams she’ll sound when I try to pick her up.

What the hell am I supposed to do with this baby once we leave here? Am I supposed to keep her? I think to myself.

My brother’s locked up with her mother, and even if he were free, he’s a crack addict who can’t care for himself, let alone a child. 

My situation isn’t much better than his. 

I’m an unemployed, recently released from prison felon who lives in her mother’s public housing apartment. 

My hands begin to sweat. 

“Hi, I’m Heather. I’m here to pick up Jaelanie,” I work up the courage to whisper. 

At the sound of my voice, Jaelanie turns her head and reaches her hands towards me with a smile. I take a step towards her but a bulldog of an officer intercepts our reunion and requests my ID, “You know, for safety purposes.” 

Once I prove I am who in fact who I say I am, he allows me to pick her up. She jumps into my arms, and I’m surprised at how easily she takes to me. I zip up her brown and pink puff jacket and kiss her caramel cheeks. She giggles. We step out together into the cold winter air, leaving her mother and my brother behind, not knowing what lies ahead for either of us.

***

Michelle did survive without her daughter. We both also managed to survive prison. Even when separated and placed in different dorms, we stayed connected, catching up in groups or in the rec yard. She shared Alana updates and photos with me. She also shared fears that her daughter’s father might try to keep her away. Eventually, we were both released and went back to our lives. 

A couple of years later we reconnected on Facebook. 

Michelle was doing well and was in Alana’s life fulltime. She had met someone and gotten engaged. Because I had been such a good friend to her, she asked me to officiate the wedding. I had done the same for another friend the year before, and I wanted to meet Alana. I happily agreed. 

The day before the wedding, I hopped on an Amtrak to Hartford. As I exited the platform, Michelle and Alana both jumped out of a car and bounded towards me, arms wide open. This child who had never met me in the flesh was as elated to see me as I was her. 

“Mommy told me all about you!” she exclaimed. “She said you took care of us when I was in her belly, and you fed me Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” 

“You’re mommy’s right!” I laughed. Then I reached into my purse and pulled out a Reese’s that I had brought along just for her. 

***

It was nine and a half years ago when I walked out of the police station with Jaelanie. Today, she’s ten years old and has lived with me and Ma ever since. She has lived through DCF’s midnight visit to the house that same night I brought her home, laying stoic as they pulled at her diaper checking for bruising or evidence of abuse. She has lived through Saturday morning visits to the women’s correctional institution to visit her mother, through metal detectors and correctional officers. She has lived through hopes of possibly moving in with her biological mother, promises made by a woman desperate to be with her child. Promises made false by a judge who doesn’t think it is in Jaelanie’s best interest. Not now, maybe not ever. Most recently, she has lived through the unrelenting blow of watching my mother, the woman who raised us both, bleed to death on the kitchen floor. An event that made me her sole guardian. 

I don’t know what is down the road for Jaelanie and I. I don’t know if one day a judge will decide she belongs with her biological mother instead of me. I don’t know if I’ll get to watch her grow into adulthood, fall in love with herself, create the life of her wildest dreams. What I do know is that I was meant to be the only one home for the call that day. I was meant to be the one to save her so that she could in turn save me.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion

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Beautiful Dreams After Tiny Wings

I knew something was amiss. My intense craving for anything covered in tikka masala sauce had disappeared overnight, and my entire body felt…off. I stood in the mirror rubbing my tiny belly whispering, “Please don’t leave me. We can do this. I love you so much.” I was pleading with this little life to stick it out with me, trying my best to hide the panic in my voice from their tiny ears.

After all, tomorrow we would celebrate our first Mother’s Day together. 

That same night, I had a dream that my sweet nugget, who was a warm addition to my body, would leave me soon. I shared that heartbreaking dream with my husband, Jamie, and we began to pray for our baby to live while Jamie also tried his best to comfort me. But receiving comfort felt absolutely impossible. I wanted to believe God would answer our prayers but, in my gut, I knew my dream was, in a sense, God’s grace in preparing my heart for what was to come: an unbearable loss.

Even with the undercurrent of worry I seemed to float on. I jumped headfirst into celebrating being a mother to our sweet baby. We gushed about our coming appointment to see our tiny human on a sonogram and speculated about the combination of potential facial and body features. It was honestly a beautiful day to celebrate becoming a first-time momma. By the afternoon the subtle cramping I’d experienced earlier in the day had intensified to an alarming state. I ran to the restroom in the restaurant where we were planning to have brunch and noticed I’d begun to bleed. 

I called the nurses’ hotline, which was of no real help other than “…take Tylenol and call us in the morning.” If you’ve ever walked this valley, you know how deep the dagger drives when offered this type of “help.” The dark reality of not being able to stop the bleeding was infuriating and filled me with an immense sense of hopelessness.

We ditched our brunch plans and made our way to Target, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot I was in an incredible amount of pain. While Jamie searched the aisles for pain reliever, my sister accompanied me to the restroom just in case I needed her—and loves, I absolutely ended up needing her.

I was in no way prepared mentally or physically for what followed. Before I could process what was actually happening, our baby was too soon part of our world. And I was officially broken.

I remember walking out of that suffocating restroom, numb and moving in slow motion, to find my husband hurriedly purchasing the Tylenol we thought we’d need. 

I remember the look in his eyes when he realized we’d lost our baby.  

I remember the fear in his eyes of seeing his wife hallowed out and shattered. 

I remember my mom getting our baby.

I remember the fear I felt thinking I was losing my mind because I couldn’t get a single word out of my mouth.

I don’t remember the ride to the hospital, getting admitted, talking to nurses or doctors, or any emotions. I do remember the piercing cry of a baby cracking through my mental fog and “coming to,” sitting on the hospital bed and attempting to answer questions. That’s when I began to cry. Not because I was sad, but because I was grateful. I was grateful that God had given us our sweet baby and we had a chance to celebrate his life. I was grateful he was a part of me, a beautiful manifestation of love between me and my husband. I was grateful that one day I’d get to hold and kiss our baby in Heaven.

We decided to give our angel baby a name after the doctors confirmed I’d had a full miscarriage. We both believed we’d had a boy and so we named him Charlie—our sweet Charlie. Sitting on that stiff bed, surrounded by a sterile room, we cried and told Charlie how much we would miss him and how proud mommy and daddy were to call him our son. I don’t know where your faith lies, but God sat with us on that squeaky bed, in that cold room, and held us tightly as grief and joy wrapped themselves around our hearts. 

I can’t say that the days following weren’t full of tears and overwhelming guilt that my body had failed our son and my husband. I was so angry with God for taking our son and breaking our hearts. I was so angry that I still looked pregnant and, at the time, it screamed defective. I was silently angry with the people who made unknowingly insensitive remarks like, “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Or, “What do you think went wrong?”

The experience of miscarriage marks us forever, but it doesn’t mean we have to let our dreams of a family fly away on the wings of our beautiful angel babies. We are warriors. We are vibrant and resilient even when covered in ashes and grief. I can’t guarantee you will never experience miscarriage (again)—we now have two beautiful boys here on earth and a girl angel baby, Ryanne. I can’t guarantee you will always feel brave—we’re trying again and it’s scary to hope for life when loss has been a part of it. Miscarriage is traumatic. I can’t guarantee that the vision you have for the growth of your family will play out exactly the way you see it in your head—life is wonderfully insane that way. 

I can promise you, sis, that the disappointment of self you may feel in this moment will fade away and you will love your body again—give yourself time. If you’re telling yourself, “I’ll-never-be-able-to-do-________-again,” I promise you that someday you will be able to do that thing again if you allow yourself the space to walk forward and dream courageously, even while trembling. I promise you are stronger than you realize and, one day, the most broken part of your heart will become a beacon of strength and encouragement for other women and couples walking in the valley of child loss.


Promises for You is a column that gives voice and space to those who have experienced infertility, miscarriage, and child loss at any age. We need open conversations on a continuous basis to dispel shame, give room to grief, and nurture understanding.

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The Other Side of Town

On weekends, Mẹ and I drive twenty-five  minutes to the Vietnamese grocery store on the other side of town. The lot is chaotic, with no discernible lines to bring order to the few random cars parked on cracked black asphalt. Inside, the store is cramped and cluttered. In a corner, framed black and white photos of someone’s deceased parents anchor a mostly red altar. Beneath the pictures rests a gilded Buddha statue, flanked by a bowl of tangerines and fresh yellow mums. Incense wafts through the air, bridging the human world to our ancestors’ spiritual heaven. 

Mẹ uses metal tongs to fish homemade tofu out of a big bucket and into a tiny bag. I get lost in a small selection of brightly colored Chinese candies wrapped in pink plastic. Mẹ’s broken crimson shopping basket holds dried bean thread noodles, packets of roasted rice powder, and bundles of rau răm and rau muống. The store owner grows the precious herbs on the patio, harvests them into ordinary sandwich bags, and from a beat-up produce case acquired second-hand, sells each bundle for a dollar. A Vietnamese opera plays from a small TV behind the cash register, the undulating voice of a woman singing layered over the quick plucking of a zither. I hear Mẹ hum along. 

The other side of town is where Cô Thanh’s house is. In her damp basement is a makeshift salon where Mẹ gets her hair permed, whenever we can afford it. Cô Thanh, her own permed hair teased into an illusion of volume, does her best to make the space inviting. In the corner sits a black JVC stereo next to a musty smelling brown sofa. I recognize the sad, velvety voice of Khánh Ly, Mẹ’s favorite singer. Gọi em cho nắng, chết trên sông dài, she sings against the rolling notes of a heartbroken guitar. My brother and I take turns on our Gameboy, perm solution stinging our eyes. We tune out the chatter of Mẹ and Cô Thanh gossiping about a friend we don’t know.

Trời đất ơi, tại sao không chịu học cách sống chung với nhau?Mẹ howls, her small frame nestled into a used salon chair. A giant crack in the black vinyl seat is held together with fraying duct tape. Her laugh sounds unfamiliar, younger, more relaxed. At Cô Thanh’s house, Mẹ feels like a stranger. 

My parent’s friends live on that other side of town, near the grocery store. Occasionally, they invite us and a few other families over to nhậu. Accommodating these large gatherings means folding tables and chairs crammed onto patios, living rooms, and basements. If there is something to celebrate, we indulge in bò nhúng dấmone of Mẹ’s favorites. We push the temporary dining tables’ limits on those nights, placing onto them as many dishes as possible. Raw beef cured in lime juice, so thin it falls apart on your chopsticks. Fresh shrimp and squid, next to warm rice noodles and small piles of fragrant tiá tô. Stacks of bánh tráng paired along with saucers of warm water needed to soften them. Small ceramic bowls dot the tablescape, holding pungent mắm nem. At the center of each table, balanced atop a single electric burner, sits a communal pot of steaming broth, spiked with rice vinegar and beer, its scent weaving its way into our clothes and hair. 

As the evening stretches on, a karaoke machine appears, and the men take turns singing sorrowful ballads. In between cigarettes and Heineken cans, they mourn lost lovers in a dialect I can’t understand. Mẹ sits quietly among the other women, nervous about Daddy’s sobriety and the drive back home, back to the side of town where we live. 

On our side of town, the houses do not butt up against each other. Everyone has a yard. My brother and I ride our bikes on the street without needing to look for cars. You are fortunate, Daddy says. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of money to buy a house in a development like this. They don’t expect us to live in this neighborhood, to work as hard as we do. On our side of town, no one looks like us, and we don’t host parties. 

Heatherfield. When my parents say the name of the suburban housing development we live in, their heavily accented English makes it sound luxurious, and foreign. Our home sits at the end of what first seems like a cul-de-sac before you journey far enough to notice the large opening ahead of the bend in the road. Our house is the color of a submarine, a utilitarian grey-blue with bright white shutters. Colonial-style with two floors, a half-finished basement, and a garage where my dad kills chickens, draining their sticky blood into a pail. 

The summer before I begin kindergarten, Mẹ and I are upstairs, sitting on the beige carpeted floor in front of my parents’ bedroom window. Their wallpaper coordinates with the bedspreads and window treatments, everything in her favorite colorsomething she calls “dusty rose.” A breeze rustles the leaves of the young maple tree that shades our front yard. The wind joins the sun, shining through the window, bathing us in bright, warm light. Very rarely, we hear a neighbor’s car drive by. 

Mẹ is in đồ bộ, a worn, matching loungewear set made of printed cotton. Her hair catches the sun, a beautiful deep, dark brown. I lay in front of her, my head cradled in the warmth of her lap. Her bony hands gently tug on my ear as she uses a small gold scoop to scrape flakey, dry wax out of it. The sensation is intensely calming. I close my eyes. 

Americans think we are stupid because of the color of our skin. They are wrong. Vietnamese people are smart. You will have to study hard in school, and show them how smart you are. They will always assume you are slow, she murmurs, sounding lost in the details of my inner ear. In school, you’ll learn to read and write in English. I wish I could know it, too. Come home and teach it to me after you’ve learned it well. 

Dạ mẹ, I mumble. I breathe in deeply, trying to soak Mẹ’s spirit into my own. 

Nearly thirty years later and an ocean away, I still live twenty-five minutes from the nearest Asian grocery store on the other side of town. California highways scare me. I ask my husband to drive us from our home to the El Cerrito store. We leave before lunch. As he weaves through traffic, I distract myself with my phone, adding items onto our shared shopping list. I pretend not to notice us nearly colliding several times. 

As we approach the store’s entrance, the smell of freshly baked Hong-Kong-style egg tarts wafts over us, nearly winning a fight for our attention. “Oh, I want to look for bánh canh. And bột nêm,” I murmur. My husband, tall even for a white guy, towers over a Chinese familythe dad carefully disinfecting a rusty shopping cart. As he grabs a red basket, I charge ahead, quickly losing him between stacks of discounted rice cookers. I pass a large selection of packaged tofu, remembering Mẹ’s delicate hands fisting metal tongs from a plastic bucket, pulling out fresh đậu phụ, placing it into a plastic bag.  

I find myself alone in the produce section with an elderly Chinese grandmother, her wrinkled hands selecting fat, tawny shallots. I run my fingers over fresh longan berries, squeezing one to test its bounciness. I comb through packages of bouncy wood ear mushrooms, dark against white foam trays. Spiky durians, the size of watermelons, spill into a small pile of kabocha squash. Between misted green leaf lettuce and long Chinese scallions, I spot bundles of rau răm and rau muống bundled into ordinary sandwich bags. I amble along, each step bringing me home, each ingredient a reminder of Mẹ.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion

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Motherhood is the Framework: A Conversation with Bassey Ikpi

Bassey Ikpi is a writer, performer, mental health advocate, and author of the instant New York Times-bestselling book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, a debut collection of essays about living with bipolar II disorder and anxiety. Bassey first gained public acclaim as an internationally recognized poet featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. She has been published by The Root, Huffington Post, Essence, and elsewhere. As the founder of The Siwe Project, a mental health organization, Bassey created the global movement #NoShameDay, an initiative that aims to reduce stigma and increase mental health awareness.


RM: Can you talk a bit about the process of writing a memoir and deciding how much or how little to include about your motherhood experience?

BI: I was very clear with my editor and even my first agent about this. The agent thought I should add something about motherhood, and I said, “No, I’m not even going to put it in the proposal because it’s not happening.” So it was a firm decision made on firm ground. I told the story the way that I did and ended it the way that I did, with [a mention] of motherhood in one essay, that was very much still in keeping distance. This was the same way I spoke about others in the book; I didn’t speak about anyone outside of where their story met mine and met the story I was trying to tell.

I’ve seen some reviews of the book referencing the essay where motherhood does come in, and they say, “Where did the baby come from?” Then they speculate that my very gay friend Peter was the father, stuff like that. That wasn’t part of the story. The story is how do you do this when your brain is falling apart? How do you care for someone else when you can’t care for yourself? What is that balance? What does it look like? It wasn’t one of those triumphant stories of how someone does it all. It was really like, I put him in a high chair and then I go cry in the hallway. That was the story.

RM: How do you talk to your son about mental health in general and your mental health in particular?

BI: I don’t talk a lot about it. It’s not his responsibility and that’s something that I have been very clear about. I didn’t want him to ever feel as though his behavior affected my mood outside of the regular I’m disappointed or You made me angry. You know, that’s normal. I didn’t want it to be like, “Mommy can’t get out of bed, and it must have been something I did,” which is how I felt when I was younger.

Part of leaving Brooklyn and coming home back to my home in Maryland means that there are other people in the house, which means that if I can’t get out of bed, it doesn’t mean he is starved of attention. Of course, I’m his mom so there is something missing. But he’s not alone.

He’s surrounded by people.

We have conversations when it comes up. The first time we had a conversation about bipolar disorder was when we were in the car driving to school and Mariah Carey had just said [on the radio] that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That was good for me because the conversation was outside of him talking and being worried about me. I was able to speak to him about it in a lived experienced way, but not an experiencing it live way. Which I think is the best way to do that without instilling fear.

I’ve noticed things and asked him, “Would you be interested in seeing a therapist?” And he said, “Okay.” Now, once a week he has someone to talk to me that’s not me. He wants to process his anxieties, and he’s learned how to stop, take a deep breath, count to ten, and then he’ll go about his business. He’s learning how to manage his emotions. I was someone who might have needed help like that when I was 10, 11, 12 years old, and he’s getting it early.

When school was in session, he would talk to his friends about therapy and teach them breathing techniques. Some of them had their parents call me, asking for his therapist’s number. So he’s doing the work in a way that’s much quieter than if I confronted it with him and made it very scary and big and stuff like that.

RM: That’s such a great gift, from you to him. How have you talked to him about your book?

BI: I’ve just told him he can’t read it. That’s it. He kept asking if he could get it, and, “Can you dedicate a chapter to me?” I’m like, “No.” 

When he was really young, like two or three? My God, this kid is hilarious. So I started a Tumblr; I think I called it, “Things Boggie Says” or something like that. Then one day, I [realized] that people kind of started owning him in a way that made me uncomfortable. It was up for two months, maybe three. I just deleted it and never said another word about it. People said, “Do you know how much money you could have made? You could have sold the book and…” Yeah, he’s a person. And the same way that I would be hesitant to just start posting about some random person, I won’t do that to this kid.

Now, I don’t post anything without asking him first. There are no photos of him on my social media. He has his own social media. He posts what he wants on that. Just because I’ve chosen a public life and I’ve fashioned it this way, doesn’t mean everybody in my life has to also be part of that.

Every once in a while, I’ll post a conversation with him on Facebook, with his permission. The other day he said, “Please don’t put any of my conversations in a book. I’m going to need them for my documentary.” I’m like all right, cool.

RM: That’s fair.

BI: The fact that he knows that if stuff has already been published, it has less value. Listen, sometimes I’ll put something up [on social media], and he’ll say, “Alright, it’s been up for 24 hours. Can you just make it private now?”

RM: Wow. Okay.

BI: Why is he more savvy than most of us?

RM: Right!

BI: He’s going into eighth grade and trying to decide [between three] schools. He chose one, and I was like, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. It’s good for the narrative.” And I’m like, “What?”

He knows he’s going to be a documentary.

RM: I love it. When he was younger, did you connect at all with the glut of motherhood writing that was happening in the early/mid-2000s? Back when it seemed like there were a million mommy memoirs? Momoirs, people called them. For the most part, black women were not invited to the party. So not surprisingly, the genre was heavy on navel-gazing. Did you entertain any of those books?

BI: I didn’t. I never saw my relationship with motherhood reflected in any of those.

RM: Were there other models of writing about the intimacies of motherhood that appealed to you

BI: Very early on, Denene Millner created a blog called My Brown Baby and some of my first consistent public writing was for My Brown Baby. Denene did something really extraordinary, which is that she gave me space to figure out how to write about motherhood, without feeling invasive of my own space and of my son’s space.

Denene really encouraged that because she saw I was hesitant, she saw the value in my perception and perspective and really encouraged me to cultivate that. And that actually helped me cultivate the way that I write about anything; it’s present, it’s there, but it’s not the entire story. It’s not the single story. Motherhood is the framework. It’s the foundation. It’s part of what makes me a whole person. But it’s not the whole thing. It’s not the only thing.


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