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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.

Susan Ito | Mama’s Writing

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

What surprised you about motherhood?

What a lifelong thing it is; ie. It doesn’t magically “end” when children turn 18/reach “adulthood” (hahah). In fact some of the most intensive years of parenting came during [my children’s] young adulthood! It made me understand my mother who worried and fretted about me well into the time I was in my 60s and she was in her 90s. It doesn’t end!

I’ve also been surprised that on the spectrum of motherhood, I’ve been much more inclined to encourage my children’s independence from me. Both of them went to sleepaway camp at age 7 and traveled a lot without me. I’ve gone to 4-8-week writing residencies with the support of my spouse and mother. I’ve been shocked that [some] parents don’t spend any time away from their children until they go to college.

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

That’s an interesting question. I actually took one of my first writing workshops when I was pregnant – it was a workshop about pregnancy, so I didn’t really have a “before.” I feel like my creativity and writing life really took off during that time, like my writing and my motherhood were born at the same time.

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

I was really influenced by Ariel Gore, whose child was in the same preschool as mine. She started the Hip Mama zine early that year (and I was lucky to be in the first issue!), and her perspective on parenting really opened my eyes to the experiences of single mamas, mamas of different socioeconomic situations, queer mamas, mamas of different ages, and more. I think she really helped me to get beyond mainstream approaches and views of parenting, early on, and also to view parenting as the incredibly complex experience that it is.  

I also loved meeting other mothers ((like you, Deesha!!) through Literary Mama  – editors and columnists as well as the many contributors who added to the infinitely diverse experience of motherhood. I was always eager to hear how other writer/mother/artists managed to hold all of these complex and often conflicting desires.

What three words describe you as a mother?

Engaged, complicated, caring.

What are three words your kid(s) would use to describe you?

(I asked). Supportive, empathetic and creative (kid one). Devoted, silly and warm. (kid two).

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

Your writing needs as much love, devotion, time and attention as your other child(ren). I don’t remember who told me this, but I have repeated it often. 

What makes you a bad-ass mother?

Through mothering my children and then mothering my own mother, I’ve learned to juggle a million plates at once and only broken a few.

Susan Ito is the author of The Mouse Room. She co-edited the literary anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. Her work has appeared in The Writer, Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen,The Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a MacDowell colony Fellow, and has also been awarded residencies at The Mesa Refuge, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. She has performed her solo show, The Ice Cream Gene, around the US. Her theatrical adaptation of Untold, stories of reproductive stigma, was produced at Brava Theater in San Francisco. She is a member of the Writers’ Grotto, and teaches at Mills College and Bay Path University. She is one of the co-organizers of Rooted and Written, a writing workshop for writers of color. 

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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Kelly Jo Ford | Mama’s Writing

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

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

My grandmother JoJo is the first person who comes to mind. She raised four girls on her own. Much like Lula in Crooked Hallelujah, my grandmother clawed their way through terrible poverty, telling my mom and aunties to hold their heads high and be proud of who they were, that they could do anything. Through it all, she was writing. She probably has a couple of albums worth of gospel songs she’s written the music and lyrics to. Holiness churches all across the country sing her songs to this day. For many, many years, she wrote a column called Jodie’s Journal in the Sequoyah County Times, her local paper back home in the Cherokee Nation. She’s a very talented woman, one who always insisted on perfect enunciation and proper posture! 

I don’t have to think hard about a literary hero of any sort before I’m talking about Louise Erdrich. In a Paris Review Interview in 2010, she says: 

By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer….it’s not because of hormones or pregnancies. It’s because you’re always fighting sentiment. You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way…But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. 

If I weren’t a mom to an eight-year-old, I would have so much more time to write and go to residencies and really live up that writer life. But I firmly believe that I’m a much better writer and human because I’m a mom to that eight-year-old kid. 

What three words describe you as a mother?

I asked my daughter this question. She said, “Mean!” and then she covered her mouth, started giggling, and said, “I can’t even get that out without laughing. Nice. Smart. Goofy. Can I do four? Kooky.” 

I’ll pay her later. The list I was going to write was something along the lines of goofy, tired, and scattered.

What surprised you about motherhood?

This strange tension that exists between melancholy and joy as I watch my child grow up and become more confident, funny, sharp, compassionate. You know, just witnessing them becoming perfectly themselves. It’s hard not to long for that little three-year-old who needed you so much, even as you delight in the wonderful human standing before you. Thankfully, we can’t stop time. But some days against my better judgement, I probably would if I could, just for a little while. 

What fictional mother do you most admire?

The whole answer is probably the yin and yang of Erdrich’s Lulu Lamartine and Marie Kashpaw from Love Medicine. In the interest of space, I’ll go with just Lulu for now, who looking back on a long, full life says: 

No one ever understood my wild and secret ways. They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that’s not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms. Sometimes I’d look out on my yard and the green leaves would be glowing. I’d see the oil slick on the wing of a grackle. I’d hear the wind rushing, rolling, like the far-off sound of waterfalls. Then I’d open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I’d let everything inside. (272)

We live in a culture that does its best to keep us working constantly and then, when we become parents, to instill that sense of striving busyness into our kids’ lives. It’s easy to get caught up in to-do lists and goals and lose our sense of joy and wonder, to fall out of love with the world. Lulu had many children, and she loved them all, deeply, joyfully. But she refused to live her life according to whatever expectations were thrust upon her as a mother and a woman. 

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

Because I don’t often write nonfiction, I don’t have to worry about it too much. I want to be able to let myself be free in fiction and go where the story takes me. Of course, things are more complicated than that, and we have a responsibility to think about our loved ones and the communities we come from when we create art borne of them. Crooked Hallelujah was heavily inspired by my life growing up in a family of powerful women. I think some day when my daughter is older, we’ll probably need to talk about those stories and where they come from. So I think, for me, it’s a matter of when the time is right. She has already put her foot down about me putting her image on the internet. And it’s tough because, you know, sometimes I want to do it for the gram. ☺ But I respect her wishes. I can imagine as she gets older we’ll have to figure out anew what is comfortable and what isn’t and how that relates to my work.  

How do you balance motherhood and finding the space to write?

I feel like I have a pre-pandemic answer for this question and a pandemic answer for this question. Writing has been really tough during the pandemic, particularly during my debut year, which was filled with promotional events that I’m, of course, so very grateful for. My daughter’s entire school district was virtual for a year and a half. Between all that and super heightened generalized anxiety about safety and the world we are leaving for our children, I’ve been pretty much a wreck, to be honest. There’s been no balance! Generally though, early mornings are my time. Now that the schools here are back in session, I can sometimes carve out space during my workday. I find that self-made mini-residencies at AirBnBs nearby are a good way to focus and get a good chunk of work done. So far, I’ve only done that when I was on deadline and it was way past necessary. I’d love to be able to make them happen every couple of months. 

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

Oh goodness, so many women have helped shape who I am as a person and a parent. Until the fourth grade, I was raised by a single mom. My closest cousins were too. My grandmother was a single mom. I come from a community of powerful women who were also these loving but take-no-shit mother figures who were determined to give their kids’ lives better lives than they had. It worked! Because I’ve been not just surrounded by women like this but also often carried by them, I’ve had so many more opportunities than they ever did. I would be writing forever if I tried to figure out how the mothers in my life influenced my parenting. So I’ll just keep it simple. I learned to love fiercely and to do my best every day to make sure my daughter knows how loved she is and how much I believe in her. 

Along those lines, the mother who’s had the biggest influence on my writing is my own mom. Her belief in me never faltered, no matter how I stumbled. She did everything possible to give me the chance to get the education that was out of reach for her. Although it probably didn’t make a lot of sense for her to see me major in English and then go get an MFA at 30, she supported me and cheered me on. I am certain I wouldn’t be a writer if it hadn’t been for her voice and love from forever ago until now.

Kelli Jo Ford’s debut novel-in-stories Crooked Hallelujah was longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, The Story Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She is the recipient of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, the Everett Southwest Literary Award, a Native Arts & Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, and a Dobie Paisano Fellowship. She teaches writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

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Fashioned to Survive

When a Black woman gets her hair done, it is both ritual and risk. It will require you to sit in a salon chair for hours, or under a dryer. It requires you to be temporarily forgotten with a wet head in a sink, in a chair, in the kitchen. The stylist I trust the most should be dangerous. Her hands, like my mother’s. Hands that have held heads at the nape of necks into sinks, tugged at the roots to braids, and placed fiery combs of steel close to scalps to get new growth to lay down. In retrospect, those hands should be the same ones that have cradled guns and knives to lovers’ throats, beaten children, and, so tenderly, put babies to sleep. 

The garden on my head had grown out of its textured holiness, and into a coiled mess of my mistakes. So, when my sister recommended I go to some girl’s house for my next style, I did not flinch at the address. I did not turn my nose. I was, after all, born in the heat of my mother’s own kitchen.

Upon arriving at her house, I was met by the lazy Ohio sun.

I climbed out of the Uber, unbuckling my daughter’s car seat from the other side. I breathed deep, carrying all five months of her spirit up the steps to the house. “Back here, baby!” the stylist shouted. She was doing another head.

I pushed my daughter in her stroller towards the kitchen. Chicken grease had yellowed the walls. I sat down in the chair furthest from the two women, smelling my daughter’s diaper through the bullying smells of flat iron and hair sheen.

“Hey, don’t I know you?”

I looked at the girl in the chair, long and steady. Yes, she was a girl from my old high school. Facebook had stored her features in my mind and reminded me that she was now married.

“Yes, Bre?”

She nodded.

“Wow, I see you’re expecting,” I said, staring down at her pregnant stomach. It’s smoothness calling my hands to reach and caress her, but I pocketed them, knowing better.

“Yes, any day now.”

Her 9-month belly was twice my size when I was that far. I remembered the way my daughter would stretch her legs; the imprint of her foot would cause my shirt to move whenever she kicked me. At night, she would thrust herself around constantly. It was like having a bird trapped in my belly. 

Bre was glowing with hope. Her hair was blown out into a tamed afro of silky strands. I remembered the rich coils of my hair while I was pregnant. The benefits of carrying life were coming alive. Your hair grows. Your nail bed hardens. Your body becomes a garden. 

“What are you doing here? Don’t you live in New York?”

I looked down when I smiled.

“Not anymore,” I said, “I am back.”

My black heeled sandals were covered in extra strands of hair extensions that were stuck to the kitchen floor. I hurried to bend over to grab my daughter who was fussing about in her car seat. I felt the weight of all her liquids in the ache of my wrists. She needed a diaper change, so I went to change her on the couch in the other room. I overheard the two ladies talking about how small of a city it was, how strange it was that we all could live on separate sides of town, or cities, and find our way to the same hairstylist.

I am grateful for my daughter’s silence, as she stares at the other children rushing by. The little girls stop and say, “Aw, can I see your baby?” I smile and hold her upright so they can see her. She smiles wide, giving them her drool and giggle. They gawk at her skin. Brown like ground coffee. I remember being a little girl around the way and wanting to play with newborn babies like dollies. I remember when I was encouraged to carry around a fake baby doll, one that even peed and had a hole in its mouth for water, to pretend it was mine. Now, that all seemed strange. It was strange that I was encouraged to care for a baby, and never encouraged to stay one.

“So, why are you back?” Bre asked me. I returned to the kitchen, sitting at the table, bouncing my baby on my knee. 

I did not know how to say that I was not entirely back. But that I was just existing here, hiding here, until it was safe enough to return to whatever life I left before I got pregnant. 

I stared into my daughter’s eyes before saying, “I was in an abusive relationship with my babydad.”

That was the first time I had called him that. Babydad. I never liked that name, it always felt like the name you call someone who is a fraction. A step up from being called a sperm donor. In a harassing text message, he had labeled me as his “BM”. This was also a slap in the face. We were no longer lovers. Or parents. Just two people who had a baby.

“Girl, I have a crazy ass baby daddy too, so you don’t have shit to be ashamed of!” The stylist shouted, “That nigga tried to kill me, I had to leave too.”

My neck loosened, and my lips found a curve and smiled. 

I tell them about my child’s father. How we conceived our daughter, after a night of driving silently through Houston. How it felt like we were both looking for something inside the other. Our next adventure. How that purpose dragged me back to Texas in my fourth month of pregnancy, to entertain the idea of being parents. How I had never lived with a man. How I missed solitude. How I became homesick and craved my mother’s hands and her cooking my whole pregnancy. I missed my friends. I missed my old adventures. How unnerved he became from my longings for other people. How he refused to let me out of the apartment. “It’s COVID,” he would say. How he would not allow me to visit my family. How his jealousy became destructive. How he hit me. How he called me a bitch, a hoe, a stupid ass thot.

“It’s the pussy,” the stylist says. “My ex couldn’t handle it either.”

Her lips are dark pink, and her mouth, full of tongue and jewelry. She tells me about her relationship with her babydad. How they started off as lovers, unable to control themselves whenever they were left in a room together. How his insecurity tantrums were slow at first, then volcanic. How he punched her in her face. I searched her for a second, wanting to see it, the dent that time had buffed out from her cheeks.

“I ended up stabbing his ass,” she said. “He tried to kill me, but I wouldn’t let him. I matched his crazy with my own.”

There it was. The courage I lacked, staring me in the face.

Why didn’t I fight?

I showed up to Ohio’s doorstep, like a package that had been lost for so long, had finally been delivered. My baby was a bulletproof vest bound tightly to my torso. She did not cry once on the plane, or, after. A child of war. I was never asked why I did not call the police. We all knew why. In Houston, George Floyd’s body was still warm in the hot earth. I was a new mom. I did not want to fight. I wanted a family.

I looked at my daughter, sleeping in the steamy kitchen. The smell of hair grease and hairspray are layered on her skin by now. 

“Well girl, I am so sorry that happened to you”

She looked down at my daughter. Her chunky legs and feet were bare. I had stripped her from her socks so she would not overheat in the kitchen while I got my hair done.

“I think you are supposed to be back. You know?”

“I know He ain’t finished, sis.” the stylist butted in. “You know how I know He aint done?”

I waited in the river of her brown eyes.

“Cause you survived.”

With my head in the sink, and her hands in my hair, my stylist worked the shampoo through my curls. I felt her warm breasts on my back. I closed my eyes and relaxed then, in the hands of a beautiful woman, who was charging me half the price than that at the hair salon, and let her wash my hair in her dirty sink until it was soft and clean.

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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Rebecca Carroll | Mama’s Writing

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

How has parenting influenced your writing?

It has brought clarity to my writing, and a sense of profound urgency. It didn’t occur to me until I became a parent that my writing is my legacy, and it is for my son. That was a real epiphany that happened for me in 2014, and I write about it in my memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. The day that Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and my then-9-year-old asked if he or I would get shot because we are Black, I knew that in addition to mothering him through my answer, I needed to also commit the truth of my answer, and its legacy — of police profiling and murdering Black boys and men — through writing.  

How has writing influenced your parenting?

Writing for me is a discipline, and a form of expression — by doing that, and I write almost exclusively at the kitchen table in the center of our home, I’m modeling for my son both discipline, and one way to be expressive. 

What three words describe you as a mother?

Openhearted, tender, emphatic.

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

Writer, nice, attentive.

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

Sleep train your baby.

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

Letting go of him as a little boy. Missing the smell of his skin as a baby. 

What makes you a bad-ass mother?

My son is the single most important and magnificent person in the world — fight me. 

Photo credit: Laura Fuchs

Rebecca Carroll is a former cultural critic at WNYC, where she was also host of the podcast Come Through: 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America. A former critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times, Rebecca is currently an editor-at-large for The Meteor, a new media collective. She is creator and host of the award-winning Audible original, Billie Was a Black Woman, a companion podcast to the 2021 film, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, as well as the creator and curator of the live event and audio series, In Love & Struggle, which shares the lives and experiences of Black women in America through monologues, stories, music, and humor. Rebecca is the author of several books about race in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America. Her recently published, critically-acclaimed memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, has been optioned by MGM Studios and Killer Films for a limited TV series with Rebecca attached to write and executive produce. Rebecca lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

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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