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Sydney Valerio | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Starr Davis.

What recent writing accomplishment(s) are you most proud of? Was this accomplishment shared and supported by your children?

There are several key writing accomplishments I secured [last] year for which I am very grateful. First one: I became a writer for Race The Bronx which is a running company that creates races in Bronx parks. I wrote articles and interviews I conducted with runners in our community. Second one: I studied with Mitchell Jackson at the Kenyon Review Workshop in Ohio [last] summer. I engaged with new writers–BOOM, BOOM, BAPS–and returned to my writing practice after a bit of a hiatus. Third one: I launched a Substack account in November after running my second marathon of the season. All of these accomplishments were supported by my college-aged daughters. Whenever I shared the updates they simply replied: Mom, this is so you!

Tell about a time mom-guilt emerged (or emerges) in the midst of your writing process.

Mom guilt emerged when I was in my early years of motherhood. I was establishing a career as a high school English teacher, attempting to make time to write, and balancing being fully present for my two daughters. Sitting still to write for a moment felt like I wasn’t fulfilling my motherly duties. My writing voice was overtaken by academic writing or writing curriculum.

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

Sydney, you got this! Fill those journal pages. Carry those small notebooks. See the world in order to realize that you are ultimately your home.

What topics, artistic channels, or forms have become present that were not there before in your writing since becoming a parent?

There is an urgency now to write about my health journey which wasn’t present before becoming a parent. Running as a person who has chronic anemia or who is navigating a cancer scare has surfaced in my writing since becoming a parent. I didn’t find a writing community until more than a decade of being a mother. The local NYC writing community certainly provided artistic channels I have leaned on and helped build in recent years.

Do you ever find yourself dealing with censorship as a mom-writer? 

I haven’t had to censor myself as a mom-writer. I take risks in my writing and show up as my authentic self. I am a creative non-fiction writer. As such, I center on emotional truths and perspective. My daughters have attended my readings. I know that how they perceive my writing at this stage in life will shift as they mature. The more acquainted they become with my work the more they will understand the socio-cultural history of our backgrounds.

How has parenting bolstered or inhibited your creativity?

Parenting is a motivating force to write but it also prohibits me from having the time to do it. I am a single parent and am the first generation. I work several jobs to afford to live in The Bronx and to support my daughters. The role of mother keeps me busy even while I have bursts of empty nest mode when they are away at college. Parenting means I maintain two lives other than my own. It keeps me busy with survival mode tasks. All the while writing beckons me to make it one of those top tasks. I have found ways to have doses of writing make their way onto the page or a screen. The reality is though that parenting comes first until my daughters are set and out of college.

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

Parenthood provided me with the urgency to write poetry and stories. I became a mother at 19. I have always written since I remember learning how to read and write. However, motherhood compelled me to turn to blank pages from the moment I learned I was pregnant.

How has the internet influenced you as both a writer and parent?

The internet provides access to resources and community. It also is a distraction and presents nudges now and then of how I should do more because I am capable of doing more writing. As a parent, the internet doesn’t play a huge role. I entered motherhood before social media existed on the scale that it does today. As a parent, I chose to shield my daughters from it for the most part. We are very media conscious and may send each other funny videos now and then but at the end of the day we steer away from the internet when it comes to our relationships.

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

I always lean on the women in my community for assurance and support. I have a pair of friends whose children are of similar age to my own. We are all first generation and lean on each other to support the ways we continue traditions, change cycles, and hold each other accountable. My writing hasn’t been influenced by other mother figures in direct ways but when I think of it, the writers in my local community who are also mothers do inspire one another and share resources with one another. There is an unspoken understanding that we all need a nudge from time to time to take the time to write.

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

I balance motherhood/parenting and finding space to write with a mindset that heavily leans on having grace for myself in the times I do and don’t write. I understand there are times of the year that become more busy than others. I also create visual timelines and vision boards for where I am and want to be as a writer. It’s all about patience and trusting the timing of life.

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

My writer-mama heroes are all mothers who write. The ones whose names and work I know and those who I don’t know, yet. It is heroic for each of us to create the time and space for our voices. Thank you for doing so for mine.

Sydney Valerio is a creative non-fiction mixed-genre writer, performer, and marathoner. She daylights as an educator & moonlights as a creative. In 2016 she wrote and performed “Matters” a one-woman show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Her poetry is in several anthologies including the BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: Latinext. She is a 2020 Volcanista and a 2023 Kenyon Review Alumna. A 2019 BRIO Award-winning poet and a NYSEC 2022 Educator of Excellence, Sydney is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at CCNY. She is the project manager for the CCNY MFA Archives as Muse: a Harlem Storytelling project and the creator of the creative digital archive project: Perspective Matters-NYC Kid Who’s Now a NYC Adult.

Raising Mothers Member Drive

Dear Readers,

In 2012, when I was pregnant with my first child, I knew I wanted to create a space where we centered the narratives of parents. Not in the ways we were used to seeing online. I wasn’t interested in the daily documentation of life, of sharing the stories of children without their consent, of selling “stuff” to fill—the parts of you you felt you lost, the parts of you you think you should be, the parts of you left in utter confusion.

I didn’t want to take advantage, which unfortunately is central to so much of new parenthood. You have to buy this and this and this and that otherwise you’re not, something. No. Having children actually deepened my curiosity of what makes us, us. Something I’d been drawn to from a young age, listening to the stories my grandmother shared. Listening to the spaces between those stories. Wishing I had more time with her, with a more mature mind to ask her about those spaces.

I wanted to make a room for those stories from all of us. Parenting can feel like writing a lot of the time. It can be isolating. Only you know what’s happening inside your body, inside your mind. There’s a lot to process in a short amount of time, while each day stands as its own eternity. Then we come from under the fog. We reach for our neighbor, our friend. We remember that we belong to a community. We don’t have to be alone. Some of us are more fortunate than others in that regard. Some of us find our people in this revelatory phase of life online. We meet our people.

As Raising Mothers grew, I became more confident in allowing other parts of myself to come forward. Everything I do centers Blackness, as that is my lived experience. In that, I take the responsibility to center the silenced. Raising Mothers will always be for everyone, but we are speaking to the Global Majority. We are sharing our narratives, divorced from the white gaze, divorced from the centering of patriarchy. We’re more expansive than when we began.

As Raising Mothers moves into its ninth year of existence, we want to encourage everyone to support our work by becoming a member. Share this drive with your friends and family. Raising Mothers is a small outfit of volunteer staff and has been since the start. A lot of work goes into building this indie magazine and cultivating this community.

Our goal this year is to be able to pay all contributors honoraria. We do not receive grant funding or have a private investor. We’re 100% reader-funded. In the future, that may change, but we never want to rely on ads to generate revenue.

Membership funds allow us to:

Pay all of our writers and eventually pay them more.

Partner with organizations who align with our values

Keep our archives alive and un-paywalled

Keep submissions free.

Most importantly, to remain independent!

Membership is a sliding scale from $5-$50 per month, and if you sign up for annual membership, you save 8%.

Our goal for the next 5 months is to increase our membership by AT LEAST 100 MEMBERS each month. That can be as simple as our first 100 people convincing 5 friends to become members.

Sincerely, Sherisa de Groot
Founder, Raising Mothers

Ten Questions for Jessamine Chan

What inspired you to tell this story?

I began writing The School for Good Mothers in February 2014. At that time, I was heading into my late thirties and constantly ruminating about whether or not my partner and I should have a child. The biological clock pressure was intense, as was my ambivalence. The other source of inspiration was a New Yorker article by the journalist Rachel Aviv, “Where Is Your Mother?,” which appeared in the magazine late 2013. That mother’s heartbreaking story made me start thinking about the injustices of the family court system and planted a kernel of rage in my mind. 

What did you edit out of this book?

If you can believe it, the book I sold to my publisher was actually bleeker. Some scenes of death and violence were edited out. I also worked with my editor, Dawn Davis, to streamline the lessons. We cut about 35 pages in total.

Chan signing books at Women and Children’s First Bookstore.

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

Most of my professional experience has been as an editor and I could tinker with individual sentences forever, so I consider something done when I have to turn in approval on final copy edits. I worked on these edits in 2020, so my memories of that time are a bit fuzzy, but I was surprised that it was hard to let go. I’d devoted my life to this book for so many years, so it was a strange transition to no longer spend all my time in Frida’s head.

What was your agenting process like?

I was in touch with a few agents over the years for my short stories, but I waited until I had a full novel manuscript ready before I queried agents in June 2019. I sent query letters to 13 agents, some via blind queries, some via introductions from friends who were represented by those agents. I wound up receiving five offers. My agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, had the clearest, heart and soul vision for the book and was the best match in terms of literary sensibilities. For the past four years, she’s been my agent/editor/therapist/sister/friend/mom. I can’t believe there was ever a time before Meredith in my writing life.

Signed copy at Pilsen Community Books

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

While I have purchased some nice gifts for myself in the past two years, the most necessary spending was on childcare. This book only got done because I had the resources to pay for childcare.  

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

I sometimes go long periods without writing, so I’m not one of those writers who can tell you about a daily practice. When I am writing, I typically write in the morning and try not to spend too much time online before doing so. The number of hours varies greatly. I always write longhand, so writing is a continual process of rewriting as I type up drafts, write on those drafts, start cutting in MS Word, rewrite some more, cut some more. 

Chan at the Center for Fiction First Novel Fete and Awards Gala. L: Chan posing with book. R: Chan posing with finalists at the Fete.

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

1. Read widely. 2. Try writing longhand. 3. Embrace the messy first draft. 

What does literary success look like to you?

The past year and a half have far exceeded my wildest dreams of what publishing my first book would be like. Going forward, I hope to carve out space to play and dream again and get back to the feeling of being able to write whatever I want.  

Chan at P&T Knitwear. L: In conversation with Jia Tolentino. R: Chan posing with Dawn Davis

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

When I was in my twenties, my greatest dream was to be part of a writing community, so to be friends with so many writers now, in my forties, is incredible. To give you a sense of my friend group, my daughter thinks the only job people have is “book writer.” My closest writer pals are Diane Cook and Hilary Leichter (check out their books!), who are old pals from the Columbia MFA program and our post-MFA writing group. They are a huge part of my life and our constant conversation helps me stay excited about writing and creating a life as an artist. We also talk about nitty-gritty business matters and the hustle and remind each other to rest and take care of ourselves.

Translated editions of The School for Good Mothers.

Who are you writing for?

While I’m of course speaking ultimately to readers (and extremely grateful to now have readers!), in my writing practice, when it’s just me with my notebook, I’m writing only for myself. I have to pretend like no one is ever going to read it in order to get my ideas down on the page.

Jessamine Chan is the author of The School for Good Mothers, which was a New York Times bestseller, a Read with Jenna/TODAY Show Book Club pick, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Carnegie Medal, and one of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2022. She lives in Chicago with her family.


This is Unfolding Inheritance, a column by Kristen Gentry exploring mother-daughter relationships, the impact of parental addiction, and the journey of finding and loving yourself through it all.


While thrift shopping with my mother, I found a sweatshirt. Faded red with white block text blaring, “Childless.”

What? I was startled to confusion though the message was clear. The wearer of said sweatshirt had no children. I’m so used to finding t-shirts boasting “Mama Bear” and “Tough as a Mother” that it shocked me to discover this deviation from mommy merch. 

I showed the shirt to Mama. “What do you think?” 

Her face shifted through the initial confusion I’d experienced.  

“It’s a nice sweatshirt,” she finally said, running her hand down a sleeve. “Heavy. Will you wear it?” she asked. 

“I think so.” I knew her question was more than an inquiry about cost per wear.  

I prefer the term “childfree” with its highlight of freedom, lightness, the giving of bougie auntie, I-might-watch-your-kids-while-you-have-a-night-out-or-I-might-not-cuz-you-made-the-choice- to-have-kids-sis-not-me vibes. But “childfree” and “childless” aren’t synonyms. Childlessness is about wanting but not having. It gives lack, loss, sadness, and is, unfortunately, my truth. 


My mother, who has never been on a plane, wants me to see the world. She never wanted me to have kids. She celebrated with me during a recent visit to New York City when I made a solo subway trip from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn without getting lost or mugged. 

“I’m so proud of you!” she said from her kitchen table back in Louisville, Kentucky. “I don’t know where you learned to be so brave.” 

She spends many of the quiet days of her retirement tending to tasks in the yard surrounding the house in the suburbs where she lives alone. 

Mama once had an adoring husband, a well-paying job as a registered nurse, and a house sitting on acres of farmland. With me, my little brother, and our dog, her life was complete with 2.5 kids. All the boxes for a good life were checked. But depression, which my mother has struggled with all of her life, gives no fucks about what looks good on paper or behind a white picket fence. It is rarely appeased by these offerings. 

“I should’ve been happy,” Mama has told me, “but it always felt like something–what? I didn’t know–was missing. I kept thinking the next accomplishment or nice thing I bought would fix it.” 

Her nights were sleepless in spite of busy days. Her search for a solution to insomnia led to an opioid addiction that stretched long and destructive as a serpent over the course of fifteen years. I was twelve and watched my mother shut herself away from the world, away from me, with no plausible explanation. She spent days locked in her room. 

I knew of Mama’s depression but didn’t understand it. Aside from the dark clouds in The Neverending Story, I couldn’t fathom a powerful Nothing that consumes without will or warning. I wondered what happened and searched myself for the wrong I’d done, my sin that had sung to the serpent. I worked hard to be good. I excelled at school, spoke quietly, tried not to ask for too much. I saw ensuring my mother’s happiness and sobriety as my personal responsibilities. 

I flattened myself under the weight of a burden that wasn’t mine to tow.


I’ve always wanted kids and thought I’d be a mom by twenty-four. A decade off-schedule, I was finally in a relationship with a man I was excited to procreate with, but he told me, “I don’t think I can have kids.” He explained that he’d had no formal testing, but he and his ex hadn’t used birth control over the course of their ten year-relationship and she’d never gotten pregnant. 

I was alarmed, though not dismayed. I went off birth control pills and hoped, I’m ashamed to admit, that the problem was hers. A year later, I was slowly, sadly, beginning to believe him and wondered if karma was serving a swift return and the problem could, in fact, be mine. 

A visit to the gynecologist led to another visit for an ultrasound. Lying on the table watching the sonographer apply the cold gel to my flat stomach and scan the black screen of my womb, empty of a baby but full of polyps, almost made me cry. The scene was so far from the joyous moments I’d seen in movies and imagined for myself. I was, indeed, part of the problem. 

I had a hysteroscopy and allowed myself to hope again in the years following the procedure only to receive the same disappointing results.    


The year the pandemic hit, I turned forty. My biological window for having children was closing, and, for the first time, I wasn’t really mad at it. I looked at the dumpster fire of the world and questioned whether I really wanted to bring a child into this clusterfuck of racism, abysmal political leadership, mass shootings, and climate change.

We considered fertility treatment but weren’t willing to spend ourselves into debt producing another mouth to feed. We spoke about adoption, but these conversations weren’t unlike our musings about winning the lottery; we were pretty confident it wouldn’t happen. The process was intimidating, and I was already overwhelmed with work. My job as an associate professor, along with my administrative role as Director of Creative Writing, gobbled my time in and out of the classroom. 

Although I wanted a baby, conceiving wasn’t a concerted effort. I didn’t track my ovulation or schedule sex at optimum points in my cycle. I was perpetually exhausted in all the ways that one can feel exhausted and spent evenings splayed on the couch with my dog in my lap, grateful that she had no homework I had to help her learn, no dinner she needed me to cook. I looked at my colleagues with young children and wondered how they maintained energy, equilibrium. 

Under Rochester’s endless gray sky, I walked my dog and assessed my life. I had a partner who absolutely adored me, a well-paying job. No house yet, but I was saving and renting a duplex apartment with a garden in the backyard. I was on my way to checking the boxes. Although the absence of children was clear, I knew like Mama, that something else I couldn’t identify was missing. I stared at the dark clouds. The Nothing was hovering. And I was grateful I couldn’t bring a child into it.  


I stood before a mirror posing my “Childless” self to see how the sweatshirt fit. 

That word on my chest made me feel exposed, vulnerable, like Roberta Flack when that guy was singing and killing her softly. It stung like that. 

I’d love to rep that childfree life. My truth is hard to admit, but I believe being unable to conceive was a blessing for me and my unborn. I know Mama never meant for me to carry the burdens I did, but I did, and I wouldn’t want my children to do the same for me. Maybe I would have been open with my kids, spoken to them about depression, and made it clear that what I’m feeling is not their fault. Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough. Who knows. Nature has made the choice for me and I’m accepting it.     

I bought the sweatshirt.

Shop Talk with Katherine Morgan of Grand Gesture Books

Katherine Morgan is the founder and owner of Grand Gesture Books, a new, online-only (for now!) bookshop that specializes in romance books. Grand Gesture opened in November 2023 and is based in Portland, Oregon. You can follow Katherine and Grand Gesture’s journey on Instagram.

What led you to open a romance bookstore?

It felt like a natural kind of instinct to do. I’ve been working as a bookseller at Powell’s Books for about four-and-a-half years. I currently still work there, running the romance section, and it’s always been my happy place, especially since I got into romance during the pandemic. There are so many romance bookstores, which is great, but very few of them are in the Pacific Northwest. 

I knew, based on how much traffic the romance section gets, that if there are this many people who are interested in it, there are going to be people who are interested that live in Portland, or Washington, and want to travel down. That’s when I got the idea: I don’t know if [a romance bookstore] is coming soon, but I know that if it does, I want to be the person who runs and owns it.

How did you come to love books enough to get into the business of selling them?

I’ve always loved books. I’m definitely one of those people who grew up using books as more of a coping mechanism, because I had some problems at home and in school. I was a lonely child. And so it was really nice to escape through these books, and make these new friends and not have to travel and do all these things. Over the years, especially from college till now, my reading had died down a lot, and I just wasn’t reading as much. When I got hired [at Powell’s], I was like, “Great, I guess I could start reading more.” And now that I’m four years in, I definitely have found the joy again of reading. 

I’m going to loop back a little bit. Why did you turn to romance during the pandemic?

It gave me joy when I needed it. And even a few years later, running [the romance] section gives me joy. Getting to meet new customers gives me joy.  

Speaking of joy, it’s still early, but what has been the most enjoyable or rewarding aspect of starting Grand Gesture Books in November 2023?

I worried when I started this endeavor that most of the support I was going to get was going to be through just my friends because they were being nice. But I would say the nice thing is that most people I engage with through the Grand Gesture account are people that I actually don’t know, strangers who are willing to share [my] content, or who are very much asking me about merch. Everyone has been so kind about it, and so interested.
What challenges have you had to work through while preparing to launch? 

I have this habit of comparing myself to others, as, you know, many people do. And there are quite a few romance bookstores. One just opened up in Vancouver, WA  [20 minutes from Portland], and they specialize in used books. It’s called The Romance Era, and they’re great! The owner [Ren Rice] is super lovely, and we’re actually friends now. So it’s been a really fun, yet interesting, moment where I have to say, “Okay, you have to stop comparing yourself to these stores that have been open for years. What can you do to make your store special?” I’ve been learning about that, too.

The nice thing about the store that I’m opening and the store in Vancouver is that they’re both Black-owned. And I haven’t had this happen to me, but the owner of that store mentioned that someone had come into [The Romance Era] and was like, “Oh, did you hear that there’s a new romance store opening in Portland that’s also Black-owned?  How do you feel about that?”

When we ended up talking about it, Ren had a really good insight: It’s not a competition. It’s great to have more stores owned by Black people, especially in the PNW, which is very white.

I think, sometimes, especially when you’re a person of color, you get into the mindset that there can only be one. Living in Oregon, and usually being the one Black person around in general, I have to get over that and say, “No. How can I make sure that we both succeed? How do we all work together to make sure that we all survive?”

How, if at all, does the ongoing environment of book banning influence the way that you select books? 

I really want to be able to highlight more diverse titles and diverse situations. The interesting thing to me has been, when I announced that I was selling romance novels, I did have quite a few people reach out who asked, “Are you going to sell LGBTQ romance novels?” It was a privilege of mine, where I told them, “Yeah, I’m going to sell those, but why would I not??” And then I had to take a step back and remember, there are book bans, and there are people who are not accepting of LGBTQ fiction, and fiction of marginalized communities. And I’m sorry, I just think [book bans are] the dumbest thing in the world. People don’t cease to exist because you stopped selling a book about them.

What’s on the horizon for you and Grand Gesture in the coming months or year? 

I’m going to have a conversation with someone about setting up multiple book clubs. We’re working on merch. I just am really excited to see where it all goes. I hope to be in a brick and mortar in six months. I want to hold myself accountable and hold myself to these deadlines, but at the same time, I have to be in the process of [understanding] things aren’t always going to go my way, or the way I think they should go. And I’m interested in seeing how well I can adapt to that as a business owner, but also as a person.

Black and Brown bookstores owners do the important work of curating, amplifying, and preserving the rich throughline of stories that feed us. They are vital members of our local and global communities. Where there is a movement, there are books. But who captures the stories of the booksellers themselves? In this column, SHOP TALK, profiling booksellers, Dara Mathis turns the lens onto Black and Brown bookstores around the world, honoring the journeys that bring them to our neighborhoods.