She sits quietly in the back of the car, looking out the windows, trying to hold back the tears. “What’s wrong?” her mother asks. “Nothing,” she mumbles wishing the car seats would consume her and erase the events of the day. As the car pulls into the driveway, her mother lingers as the other family members file out of the car and into the house. “Ok,” her mother starts, “everyone is gone now, what’s wrong?” “Nothing,” she says, lips trembling, eyes shining with unshed tears. “Honey,” her mother starts. “Someone called me a colored girl today,” she blurts out, almost like the words stung leaving her lips. Her mother pauses and fully turns to face her. Several emotions pass over her mother’s face: anger, fear, frustration, pain. They simply sit in silence, staring out the window at the grey February day. Finally, her mother moves to smooth her hair and lovingly caress her face. “You are beautiful.”
I often reflect on that moment as it was such a turning point for me. My first experience of the ugliness that being different exposes us to. The pain of my mother, unsure of how to help me understand the reality of being me. But also, this story for me illustrates the beauty of mothering. It is a story I tell often as it set me on a path of wanting to understand what it means to be mothered and to be a mother.
Stories of motherhood shape how we come to understand who mothers are and what motherhood means. For me, mothering and motherhood have always taken place in the margins. I was born into a legacy of women with complicated relationships to motherhood. My maternal mother struggled with infertility, loss and the turmoil of an alcoholic husband. My paternal grandmother birthed five children in five years and dealt with the physical and emotional trauma of grand multiparity. It was the telling of stories that helped navigate them through the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
I sat in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen as she fried shrimp and made gumbo, and listened to her explain the importance of knowing how to make a good roux. For her “not burning the roux” was an idiom of life, a caution to pay close attention to tasks at hand and be vigilant about achieving perfection. My maternal grandmother would braid my hair, and while intertwining the strands talk to me about the first time she straightened my mother’s hair. Embedded in this story was again a caution to be aware of the bigger choices we make in what seem like small decisions. As I am now moving into a different stage of my mothering journey, I find myself desperately seeking stories that resonate. Using the backdrop of my own experiences, I am embarking on a mission to unearth the stories of the marginalized, the othered, the excluded and add them to voices working to shape what motherhood means.
My mother was born in 1956 in New Orleans, biologically an only child but raised with a cousin who was like a sister. My mother was raised in a contentious home at a contentious time in a contentious place. By the time she finished college, she had joined the army, gotten married and was preparing to move to Tennessee. It was in Tennessee that my parents started a family, seven daughters raised as the only Black faces in a sea of whiteness. Her stories that helped me understand how to deal with being different, what that meant and how that made me feel. I remember my mother telling me the story of when the schools in New Orleans integrated and she first went to school with white children and had a white teacher. I remember vividly her recalling the poor grade she received in school post-integration and how that made her feel but also how it set a resolve in her. Her stories of working through her own racial pain that helped me make sense of mine. My mother would tell me stories of being the only Black woman in marching band, ROTC, her army unit, and ultimately, her church group. She told me stories of awkward encounters, biting her tongue and when provoked, speaking out against bigotry and hate. My mother’s stories raised me into the mother that I am.
My mother birthed and cared for seven daughters. She did this largely without a familial network and siloed within the confines of racial difference. My mother’s mothering was often lonely and isolated, with the only connections to other mothers being her faith. Watching my mother profoundly impacted my understanding of what it meant to birth and raise children. I was privy to the sacrifice, the pain, and the tears. My own introduction to motherhood was completely different; I was 18 and unmarried with no plan to care for my child. I experienced the isolation, pain, and tears like my mother but in a different context, as my experience was cloaked in shame. My time as a single mother was challenging and contentious but cemented in me a necessary resolve in preparing me to mother seven biracial children in south Louisiana. My mother’s stories and the determination forged in my own story have carried me through demoralizing hospital birth experiences, given me the courage to birth at home, given me the passion to obtain a Ph.D., and given me the patience to homeschool. I do not mention these things to boast or brag, but rather to highlight how the power of stories can provide sustenance and guidance.
As both mother and scholar, I am intimately aware that maternal identities are influenced by stories but are often categorized. These categories are often used to make broad assumptions of what the maternal experience is and means, creating a binary of what is “normal” and “not normal.” My hope for this column is to display, through personal narratives, reflection, and interviews, how counternarratives can challenge maternal norms and empower the “Other.” For me, this is a practice in participant observation in hopes of discovering and sharing the stories of others and using storytelling as a method to contextualize themes and explore our social world. These stories are not meant to explain the mysteries of motherhood, but rather represent the incomplete realness of our mothering journeys as we participate in this community and work to create an inclusive motherhood.
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