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Lori Tharps | Mama’s Writing

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


Are there days when you feel like a mother who writes, and others when you feel like a writer who is a mother? 

I always feel like a writer who is also a mother.

I think it’s funny because my first book and my first baby were born in the same year, 2001. But the book (Hair Story) came first in February and my son was born in June of that year. And while I’ve always known I wanted to be a mother, I claimed my identity as a writer when I was eight years old. 

Who are your writer-mama heroes? 

I remember sitting on a panel talking about this topic and I had two young children at the time. I was completely at a loss for what I could add to the conversation about being a competent writer and a good mother so I Googled “writers with children” or something like that and discovered Jodi Picoult had three kids. At the time that sounded like a lot of kids, considering Jodi Picoult puts out like a book every year, or at least it seemed that way. Anyway, she seemed like a very down-to-earth person who had figured out how to write and mother in a productive way, so she’s a person I often thought of when my kids were younger and I needed inspiration. But I wouldn’t call her a hero of mine; rather, she was an example of what’s possible. 

But in reality, almost all of the women writers I most admire and love are also mothers. Chief among them, Maya Angelou, Isabel Allende and Bernice McFadden. But if I’m not mistaken, these women all only had one child. 

What’s your least favorite thing about being a mother? 

As a writer, particularly, I resent the fact that I can’t claim my own time without feeling guilty. I would love to spend hours and days wrapped up in my writing, but I can’t in good conscience act like it’s okay to ignore my children. My boys are older and I know they’d be okay now if I disappeared into my work, but my daughter, who is only ten, would be devastated. 

What fictional mother do you most admire?

I read so much it’s hard to choose one mother that I most admire, but I will answer this question with a fictional mother who is truly admirable. And that is the main character in Lauren Francis-Sharma’s epic new novel, Book of the Little Axe. We meet Rosa Rendón when she’s still a child in her native Trinidad, but by the end of the book she’s a mother raising her son in the American midwest as the wife of a Native American tribal chief. And the lengths she goes to help her son understand who he is, is beyond admirable. Her sacrifice and strength as a mother gutted me. 

What fictional mother gets on your nerves? 

So, there are probably other fictional mothers who get on my nerves, but the most recent fictional mother who annoyed me to no end was Stella Vignes, from Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Stella was the twin sister who abandoned her family and passed for white, creating a new life for herself in Los Angeles. She was a horrible, selfish mother and a horrible sister and daughter. I wanted to shake her throughout the entire novel. And even though I didn’t like her daughter in the book either, I felt sorry for her because she had Stella for a mother.

What’s the best motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?

You can have it all, just not at the same time. I remember a woman told this to me when I was at a writing conference. She was in her early 50s at the time, I was in my early 30s. She was about to go on a writing retreat for one month to work on her novel. I was so jealous because I knew I couldn’t leave my kids for a whole month to work on the book I was working on at the time.

I tried to argue that my kids would want me to be happy. That they’d understand if I disappeared for a month, but this very wise woman told me that wasn’t true. “Your kids want their mommy at home with them.” But she went on to tell me that one day my kids would be old enough for me to leave them alone for months at a time. At that moment I remember feeling like being a mother meant I had to sacrifice all of my personal dreams, but soon after that conference, I got the opportunity to do a week-long writing retreat and it was just perfect because I missed my kids as much as they missed me.

It’s been almost 20 years since I received that sage advice and in retrospect, I really do feel like I’ve “had it all;” three kids, a career I love, several books published, and most recently, a move abroad. The secret really is to live in the moment you’re in and know your gifts are coming in due time, not all at once. 

What’s the worst motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?

Don’t dress your boys in pink or let them play with dolls. Needless to say, I ignored that advice.


Lori L. Tharps is a storyteller whose work lands at the intersection of race and real life. She is the author of five books of nonfiction including, Hair Story:Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (St. Martin’s) Kinky Gazpacho:Life, Love and Spain (Atria) and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families (Beacon). She is also the author of the novel, Substitute Me (Atria).  Lori is the mother of three children and recently relocated from Philadelphia to the South of Spain. She blogs about her multicultural life at MyAmericanMeltingpot.com. She can be found on Instagram @LoriLTharps

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Akilah Richards | Mama’s Writing

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


Nurturing a healthy relationship with my children requires a lot of me. This is not a complaint, it is an observation, and I’m absolutely up for it, though I’m surely not always clear on what “it” means. I don’t get much clarity in my parenting walk, what I do get are clues and cues, which lead me to recognize, and sometimes change, my old patterns. One pattern I notice is that I sometimes find myself reacting to my own reaction far more than I’d like to admit. Let me explain.

Inspired by true shit in my real life, told vaguely (so as not to put y’all all in my children’s business)…

One of my daughters says something that offends me. 

Part of me knows not to jump to conclusions, and to mind my power, because I know that as Mother, I can change the entire weather in the house with my feelings.

The other part of me is blasting the words “No. She. Didn’t?!” at top volume, and it’s starting to feel like I gotta show somebody that I’m not the one for the bullshit.

I storm out, slam a door, and congratulate myself for not … 

wait, 

that’s not what I wanted to do either! 

If she would’ve stormed out slamming doors, I would have followed her, stopped the door from slamming, and probably started talking about how walking away wasn’t the right move, and that slamming doors is a sign of disrespect, blah, blah…

-Me, reacting to my own reaction. A regular occurence. 

That format I used, the short bursts of words, is found all through my journal pages, too. When I see myself in words like that, I get a chance to give a little attention to the multiple parts of me that showed up when I felt cornered, offended, or otherwise wronged

  • The little-girl-Me who would rather walk away, and take the consequence, than take the “shame” of being “disrespected”…
  • The mother-Me who doesn’t always know what to do when she’s hurt, but knows not to retaliate…
  • The early-twenties-aged-Me who will “be damned if she takes shit from anybody!”…

In that true-story moment, all of those aspects of me showed up, and when I write, it’s more likely that I’ll notice them. Having noticed that pattern several times over, I am learning how to give those aspects of myself some attention. And sometimes I can do that proactively, so that those parts of me can grow, right along with the other aspects of me that know exactly how to move me/us toward healthier, safer ways. 

React. Notice. Write. Examine. 

Having had this react-notice-write-examine experience a million times over, I’m clear af that this journey of motherhood is one of the spaces where writing, for me, is required. Writing is not one of my hobbies, it’s one of my survival skills. I have always written my way through my thoughts. And because much of my parenting work started out very much in my head, writing is how I get to be with it beyond the confines of my mind. 

Before becoming people’s mama, I was very think-y, very logical about most of my choices. My own mama even called me schoolmarmish one time, which I don’t even think I understood, but I felt like it was giving mean, crusty teacher energy, and surely didn’t feel like a compliment. But fast forward to my mid-twenties, when my first child and I birthed each other, and I moved (just a little bit) out of my head, and over into the things that were actually happening in real life. 

Those real-reals included (among many other things) my child’s personality, her assertion of boundaries (even as an infant!), and my budding realizations about how I was mimicking parenting instead of fully deciding how I wanted to parent. 

Uggh! All of that felt like too much sometimes, and that collection of too-muches began to build up, and reckon with my ingrained habits and my strongest fears. Thoughts often collided and conflicted with each other. Still do. Some even learned to co-exist with my old habits, which can be tricky, because that can cause me to feel like however I’m showing up is just how I am, and not something that I can possibly change. Can you start to see (or feel, through your own life examples) how all of this got, and still sometimes gets convoluted for me? So when I get caught up in those nets, writing is one way that I get to detangle and decide what’s what, and what’s for me. It’s a freedom move, albeit sometimes a temporary freedom, and that’s what writing brings me. It is part of my ritual work to do the things that make the free in free people feel real. 

Writing as one means of channeling my freedom. 

One of the main ways writing channels freedom is that it helps me to give voice to the things that I might not even recognize matter to me. Sometimes, as I’m writing something down, the feeling I have from writing it gives me some information, some direction, about what’s going on with me. 

And sometimes it’s a thing I didn’t realize was happening, or affecting me. Whether I’m jotting it down as a note, or whether I’m typing it on my computer, or my phone (or even speaking it into my voice memo app and seeing the words appear), how I feel when I’m writing it, is a big part of what I look, listen, and feel for.

When I take my thoughts out of my unvoiced headspace and into something that I can see, it’s like an invitation to a quiet room where I can question things. Not like a dark, dank interrogation room with the spotlight and the stress! I’m talking about a softly-lit room with cozy seating, herbal aromas, the sound of water, a big mug of ginger-mint tea, and the just-right-for-you temperature fi set up di ting propa! That’s what it can feel like sometimes–space to safely stare at these discoveries, which often invites expansion, not understanding, but still, some level of reprieve. It’s like those feelings that show up as I’m writing help me to notice that my body is working through something, and it might need me to slow down, and get more present, or create necessary-for-now distance. 

It’s not always words though. 

Even with all the ways words and me go together, there is a big caveat with writing. Gotta name it, and it is that words (in the words of the sangin and writin’ his ass off musician called Maxwell) can be demeaning, because they can’t always describe what’s really poppin’. 

You feel that? I’m thinking:

  1. By the time we get to wording a thing, there are already so many things between us and what we want to convey
  2. Words have context; they mean different things to different people
  3. There are all these schoolish, un-do accolades for being able to find the “right” words. So oftentimes that’s what we look out for, both as the listener and the say-er, to the detriment of really being able to just say messily, imperfectly, what we actually mean. 

And so while writing has been such a vessel for me, I am now learning, in the middle of my 40’s, how not to rely so much on writing, but to notice things. To let experiences that I tend to write my way through, just work through me, and me through them in whatever forms.  

I find lately that it is movement, it’s dance, it’s noticing how I’m getting stronger, it’s literally pulling my body up on a pull-up bar, or on a pole. Those are some things that have been far more fueling and nourishing for me than just words. So, while the writing is important, there are other ways that things right me too, and all of that affects how I show up for my daughters, as myself, honoring their right to do the same.


Akilah S. Richards is passionate about mindful partnerships and conscious parenting. She started Raising Free People Network, a digital multimedia platform for education, deep listening, and emergent collaborations within the intersections of privilege, parenting, and power. Her unschooling podcast is called Fare of the Free Child, and her latest book, Raising Free People: Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work is available through PM Press, many local bookstores, and on Amazon.

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Issa Mas | Mama’s Writing

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


What three words describe you as a mother? 

Devoted, self-flagellating, evolving.

What surprised you about motherhood? 

I was surprised by how much work I needed to do on myself, because of my own childhood, in order to be the best mother I can possibly be for my son.

How has parenting influenced your writing?
My best parenting has come out of what I’m able to extract from within the nuance of any given situation, and I find that my best writing comes from doing the same.

Knowing that your children will read your work at some point, how does that impact your candor when writing?

I don’t ever write with my son in mind, so it rarely impacts the writing process. Interestingly enough, I’ve decided to hold a copy of my book for him to read for when he’s older than he is now (14), because I’m not sure if he’s ready to read it just yet.

What fictional mother do you most admire? 

Max’s mother in Where The Wild Things Are. In the beginning of the story, she is thoroughly fed up with her child’s bad behavior, sending him to his room as a disciplinary measure. By the end of the story, Max finds a hot meal waiting for him in his room, because a mother’s love transcends even the worst parental frustrations.

What’s the worst motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten? 

“When you become a mother you cease to exist as a woman — from the moment you become a mother your entire life should be about your children.”

How has motherhood shaped your relationship with the world?

Becoming a mother has broken me wide open to the suffering of all humans, the poor treatment of this planet, and the need to speak up for the highest good of the world my child will inherit. I sometimes feel an enormous amount of guilt, bringing a child into a world that seems to be in decline. I soothe my anxiety with the hope that my son will be one of the many people who will one day turn things around for the better. 


Issa M. Mas lives in New York City with her 14-year-old son, Theodore, and their dog, Jake. She is the author of Grief Thoughts: Brief Anecdotes About Profound Loss. As a 20-year practicing Buddhist she brings a wealth of wisdom and lovingkindness to the lives of others via her offerings in written form, but as an over 40-year native New Yorker her prolific use of profanity will never end. You can find some of her words here: https://linktr.ee/IssaMas.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoy Raising Mothers, please consider becoming a sustaining member to help us remain ad-free. Invest in amplifying the voices of Black, Asian, Latine(x), Indigenous and other parents of color at our many intersections. Tiers start at $5/month and reflect your financial comfort. 

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Aliya King Neil | Mama’s Writing

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


What are three words your kids would use to describe you?

I have three kids, who would all use different words. My oldest would say creative, the middle would say exasperating and the youngest, my brand new stepson, age 8, would say I’m interesting. Then again, he literally says everything is interesting.

What’s the worst motherhood advice you’ve ever gotten?

I don’t think I got specific terrible advice. But what I believed about motherhood in general was just hard to live up to. I still don’t know how my mom worked a full-time job, went to school part-time, raised three children and never missed any events, cooked, cleaned and was present for her spouse. I’ve been comparing myself to her all my adult life, and I’ll never live up to her. As I write this, I’m making boxed mac and cheese for my 14 year old. Quelle Horreur! Oh well. 

Also, while I LOVE my mom, she kept reminding me that children should be potty trained by age 2, no later. When my daughter was THREE. I was still sneaking into the store to buy size 6 diapers cause she was NOT interested in big-girl underwear. I’m happy to report she’s 14 and has got the hang of it. But I was beating myself up a lot when she was three. 

Knowing that your children will read your work at some point, how does that impact your candor when writing?

For my oldest, age 24, I was never worried. She was really young when I started writing fiction, and she seemed to see mom-writing-books from an abstract place. I don’t know if she’s read anything since, but I know she has listened to episodes of the podcast I have with my husband. And that makes me feel SO super cringey. We don’t talk about it. But as for writing, she and I have worked on some really deep writing projects together so there’s not much I wouldn’t share with her. Now, the 14-year-old and the 8-year-old? Oy vey. They don’t impact my candor while I’m writing, but I definitely don’t want them to read some of it. Most of it.

How has motherhood shaped your relationship with the world?

I don’t know that it has… I’ve had a strong sense of self–and my relationship with the world–since long before I became a mother. I was pretty sure of myself and what I would bring to the world at a really young age. If anything, motherhood has made me feel like a member of a superpowered sorority just trying to make it from day to day.

Was there a noticeable shift in your writing before and after parenthood? If yes, how so?

I pretty much grew up as a writer with my oldest. She came into my life at age 3, while I was working at my very first job as a writer at The Source magazine. I went from journalist to author with her perched on my lap at my desktop. So there wasn’t a shift, necessarily.  If anything, I may have turned down assignments that involved a lot of travel. When my youngest daughter was a month old, I had to go to Los Angeles. Breast pump and all. I hated it. But I did bring back a ton of breast milk. I literally worked as a travel writer for a long time. Non-stop travel. My then-husband held down the fort extremely well.

What fictional mother do you most admire

The one and only Clare Huxtable. There’s no number two.

What makes you a bad-ass mother?

I make boxed mac and cheese for my kids when necessary. And don’t feel guilty about it.


Aliya King Neil is a Senior Editor at Gallery Books | Simon & Schuster. Born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, Aliya has held editorial positions at Billboard, The Source and Ebony. As a freelance writer for nearly twenty years, her profiles, news stories and features have appeared in AARP, Elle, Nylon, Ebony, Vibe, Ms, Essence, Black Enterprise and many others. Aliya co-authored the New York Times bestseller, Keep The Faith, with platinum recording artist Faith Evans. She also co-authored Original Gangster with Frank Lucas, on whom the film American Gangster was based. Her first novel, Platinum, and its sequel Diamond Life were published by Simon and Schuster. You can find Aliya everywhere online @aliyasking and @Aliya King Neil.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoy Raising Mothers, please consider becoming a sustaining member to help us remain ad-free. Invest in amplifying the voices of Black, Asian, Latine(x), Indigenous and other parents of color at our many intersections. Tiers start at $5/month and reflect your financial comfort. 

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A woman of color hiking along a trail in the Pacific Northwest. She is surrounded by tall trees and lush vegetation.

Step by Step

It is an early Saturday morning, and I am standing at the bottom of Mount Royal. I don’t think I can climb all the way up the mountain or even make it halfway. Mt. Royal, which is in the city of Montreal, immediately west of Downtown Montreal, Quebec, is only a small mountain with 400 stairs to get to the top.

The stairs are not built in one straight line. They are arranged in such a way that small blocks of stairs spiral at different angles, left to right and back to the left again. Accessing the top of the hill is not clear; the angle of the steps makes my head spin. I am anxious, scared even, but determined to take on the challenge.

I climb Mt. Royal anyway. I take one step then the next step, and just like that, one block of stairs is complete. I keep going up, to the top of the mountain. I am out of breath but very satisfied with my perseverance. Soon, climbing reminds me of motherhood.

***

I began climbing the steps of motherhood the day I knew I was six weeks pregnant. I was fascinated with the idea that another human being was growing inside me. My pregnancy journey was steep and scary. Even though I was married, I felt very alone. Being pregnant gave me hope for the company of my baby, but it also exposed the realities of never having discussed our priorities as a couple. We never conferred to discuss our child raising values, the education system, time dedicated for our family, and so many other important topics.

I became unsure of my footing when I learned that I was having a complicated pregnancy. I can still remember the look on the radiologist’s face as he ran an ultrasound scan on me. He was like Randall Boggs, the lizard in the animated movie Monsters, Inc. Randall would change colors according to his emotions. Well, that was the radiologist’s look as he discovered that I was pregnant with twins. He filled up with joy and excitedly asked if I knew I was carrying twins. That look didn’t last long when he realized that he might have broken the news too fast. The smile and excitement left his face and were replaced with a frown, uncertainty, and puzzlement! The radiologist quickly discovered that only one twin seemed to still be growing and the other….had stopped.

Pregnancy was a climb of pure faith, one where fainting was frequent along with unwelcomed bed rest. At 32 weeks, it was apparent that I could not carry my baby to full term and needed to have a C-section for the safety of the baby and me. After the surgery, I woke up from the anesthesia weak and in pain, but that didn’t matter once I held the little human being, the little miracle, in my arms.

***

Walking up the stairs, I watch the people around me. There are very athletic bodies. Some people casually walk down the stairs while holding hands. There are people of different ethnicities. Some people passing by me mutter encouraging words.

There is this man who seems to be a regular. He is extremely fit and determined. He runs up and down Mt. Royal while I am still at my first attempt. While I am out of breath, keeping my focus on just one step, and avoiding looking further up because of the anxiety that this gives me. I can hear my heart pounding hard inside my chest, playing a song for me to keep going. I do.

I pause every so often to look at where I am coming from.

***

My first bundle of joy grew up into a teenager who would later call for meetings in my bedroom to talk about her crushes. She would then burst into tears over the fear that she might never find love, and I would find ways to gently explain that her heart might feel broken to pieces a few times in her life.

Holding her in my arms as a baby, I felt like the strongest and most achieved hiker of all time, climbing to the tip of the highest mountain. At that moment I would never have imagined that there would ever be other climbs, other children. Well, five years later, I became a mother of two. The second bundle of joy came out very different from her older sister. She was 4.5 kg and ready to take on the world. Ready to create a unique vibe in our home.

Having my two daughters has kept me on a path of reflection, one that takes me down my own journey as a child, as a sister, as a daughter, and as a granddaughter. I find that being a mother to my awesome girls is very joyful when they ask questions and I know the answers. When they ask for treats that I can afford. When we giggle and dance together or when we play tag in the swimming pool. When we hold hands and say grace together. There’s joy when we sit around the dining table to eat and share stories about our days and share our GLADH—what we’re Grateful for, what we Learned, what we Accomplished, what Delighted us, and what we are Hopeful for in the day. Moments like those make me feel like the best mother in the world.

But there are other moments when the euphoria of my motherhood passes and my own demons cloud me. When I yell and scream. When I have “unmet” expectations. When I am consumed by what I believe society requires of me as a mother. When I see fear and terror in the eyes of what I believe has been my greatest achievement: my daughters. I search myself and ask, “Where did I learn to yell this way?”

Some days, motherhood is a mountain that is too steep for me to keep climbing and also very difficult or impossible to come down from because the slope is slippery and I simply have to hold on tight. Hold on tight to the promise that I am not the first mother to not know what to do, that I am not the first mother to have no answers to their numerous questions, and to instead say to my daughters, “I do not know the answers, but I would like to explore and learn the possible answers with you.” I simply have to allow myself permission to be vulnerable and cry and not worry about letting my daughters know that I am human. That I was once a little girl myself, and I was “me” before I was a mother. To not be ashamed to show that the climb of motherhood sometimes causes me to sweat, that it makes my heart beat faster, and to let them know that all these emotions can be confusing and scary, but they fill me with great joy, hope, and achievement.

***

I am hoping to make this climb, these 400 stairs, a weekly tradition. Not only do I enjoy getting to the top of the mountain, but I enjoy feeling my feet move forward, lifting to claim one step after another. Parenting is just like that for me, except there is no destination that I’m trying to reach, like the top of Mount Royal. I choose to enjoy this journey. I am filled with gratitude and the realization that sometimes there is no destination that I ought to be aiming for, but I know that I just need to walk, to take a step.


Kya Mara is the inaugural recipient of Raising Mothers 2022 We Are The House: A Virtual Residency for Early-Career Writers. WATH is a year-long virtual  residency for one BIPOC nonfiction writer dedicated to helping early-career, underrepresented writers who are also parents build their writing portfolio. To learn more about our residency, click here.