'Peanut Butter and Jelly': When Parenting Doesn't Go According to Plan

by Ann Imig
Originally Published: 

In the essay below, “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” writer Taya Dunn Johnson explores what it means to be both a mother and a partner—to be the peanut butter to her husband’s jelly—and what happens when that scenario is no longer reality.

“Peanut Butter and Jelly,” by Taya Dunn Johnson

In my world, motherhood and fatherhood go hand in hand, kind of like peanut butter and jelly. I was raised by my married parents, all my aunts and uncles were married, and marriage was all I knew growing up.

Things in my life proceeded in the way that I felt they should.

I fell in love with my high school sweetheart. We fit together just like peanut butter and jelly.

We dated.

We went to college.

We got married.

We bought a house.

We decided together to start a family.

We had a son.

Then my husband died.

And my perception of motherhood changed.

Back in 2008, the moment that my husband and I found out I was carrying a baby boy, we experienced a set of emotions that we couldn’t voice. Tremendous joy on the surface, but something else was there. I had secretly prayed for a boy, thinking I’d not be able to handle a prissy, frilly, pink, emotional little lady. I had been a tomboy nerd, so I thought that being the mom to a boy would be perfect. Of course, I welcomed whatever child we would be blessed with, but secretly, yep, I wanted a boy. My husband would later say that he was secretly pulling for a boy as well. However, our joy of the moment was tempered by the reality. We, an African American couple, would be bringing a little black boy into the world. The magnitude of that conclusion nearly took our breaths away. Although this was September of 2008, I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. Our eyes locked over the head of my perinatologist and I saw every emotion that I was feeling reflected in his eyes. We didn’t discuss “it” for a couple of weeks. We pushed it to the backs of our minds as we happily attended several baby showers in our honor, tried to agree on a name, and basked in the general happiness.

Late one night, as my husband was rubbing my expanding belly, he began to cry. He spoke to the new responsibility that we were undertaking. Welcoming a child to this world is both beautiful and terrifying. And our fear was doubled, as raising an African American boy presents a unique set of challenges and concerns. Although this country has made great strides in regard to race relations, racism and discrimination still exist. And unfortunately, much of that which bubbles under the surface—anger, fear, ignorance, and hatred, is often directed to and acted upon black boys and men. One saving grace from our conversation was the fact that we were a family and my husband would be present to raise our boy into a man. That gave me great comfort.

Our joy, Marcus, was born January 13, 2009, and he is the spitting image of his father. At the age of two, Marcus was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Parenting our son for three and a half years was amazing. Every day as we watched him grow and develop, we embraced the little moments. We each relished our roles as mother and father. We loved and parented in two very different ways and the partnership worked wonderfully; just like peanut butter and jelly.

Then, on June 9 of 2012, my world shattered and my peace vanished. My husband passed away unexpectedly from a massive heart attack. Peanut butter with no jelly is hard as hell to swallow. Not only was I a widow at the age of thirty-five, but I was left here to parent alone. I am a widowed mother to a little black boy with special needs. Each passing day, I must temper my grief and try to remain gentle with myself while attempting to be as “in the moment” as I can with our son. I am his mother and I must do everything within my power to instill in him the tools he needs to grow, thrive, and flourish.

Motherhood means that I must give of myself unselfishly while putting every ounce of love that I have into our son. Motherhood means that I must surround our son with uncles, cousins, and male family friends so that he will understand the kind of man his father was and the kind of man that we expect him to become. Motherhood means that in this moment, I don’t have a partner or a physical father for our son but I must make sure that Marcus does not suffer from this absence. Motherhood is my charge and I have accepted the call.

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