The Underrated Joy Of Black Motherhood
When I think of Black motherhood, I think of pecans.
This simple fruit masquerading as a nut evokes many of my favorite memories as one of the South’s little Black girls.
The picture is fuzzy, but I recall sitting with a stainless-steel bowl between my legs on my grandmother’s front porch using pliers — which felt like a very grownup tool –- to shell pecans. My mother’s mother, Grandma Vernell — mother to eleven children in rural, upstate South Carolina — knew what an antsy, people-pleasing eight-year-old could handle. We’d sit side by side, watching cars whiz by as she spoke to me like we were old friends, the air punctured by the surgical crack of a pecan’s husk.
Growing up, Black mothers were omnipotent, omniscient beings who supported me in a broad diversity of ways using their hard-earned resources.
There’s my Mom, who made monthly payments on a set of encyclopedias, so we could do our best work.
Tammy, my mother’s neighborhood friend who on 9-11 scooped me and my siblings up in case a terrorist had a plot planned for my high school.
Aunt Kathy, the woman who noticed children nodding off during Sunday School and began serving buttermilk biscuits slathered in jelly to keep us awake.
Carolyn Frye, an academic advisor who made sure I could visit every college I was considering.
“Aunt Karol,” not actually my aunt, but a woman who took me in when I moved to DC with dreams and plans bigger than my bank account could handle.
And on and on.
It was the Black mothers with sweet, leisurely Southern accents that somehow kept pace with their sharp minds that pushed me forward.
But in 2017, I was newly married and in Los Angeles, far from the community that snapped both beans and at teachers who dared to think less of their sun-tanned children. I was about to join their sorority; I was pregnant. I vacillated between excitement (We’re having a baby!!!) and fear (This is going to hurt, isn’t it?).
And then I learned that Black mothers in America were dying in labor at alarming rates, regardless of income or education. Statistically speaking, a white woman who hadn’t earned her high school diploma had a better chance of surviving a delivery than I did, a Black woman with a master’s degree and comfortable income.
Until then, I had considered myself independent of the women who’d raised me. I’d “made it” and phone calls and infrequent holiday visits were enough to sustain me.
Now I wasn’t so sure. I told myself I wanted to give my mother the news of my pregnancy in person for her benefit. The truth is, I needed her to tell me it would be okay.
I flew in, surprising her by crashing a family holiday party. The footage of my big reveal (a postcard with a sonogram) shows her pulling me in for a crushing hug. It looks like I’m making her day. In reality, it was her excitement that gave me permission to be excited too.
Too often, milestones in the lives of Black children which might otherwise be marked with joy are marked with fear for us. A son with peach fuzz coming in makes us worry if they seem intimidating to others. A daughter assertively negotiating her salary makes their mothers worry, “Will they be seen as angry or aggressive?” But my mother, who could barely handle having her eyebrows waxed, knew what it was like to birth three children and her pure joy on my behalf gave me the freedom I needed.
I flew back to California, literally and figuratively feeling lighter even as I grew heavier, and began to proactively focus on what I could do to have a healthy, safe pregnancy.
After extensive research, I decided to give birth with a midwife at a birthing center. My mother-in-law, an immigrant from Ethiopia was alarmed: “I didn’t leave my poor country for my grandchild to be born like a poor person.” My mother was also concerned. “Will those hippies be able to handle an emergency?”
My research taught me a surprising fact. All the way up until the 1970s, when most Americans had shifted to hospital births, it was the midwives, or “granny-midwives” as Black midwives were called, that continued to serve poor and rural women in the South. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask until I myself was with child, but my grandmother had birthed her first seven children with the support of a Black midwife.
I’d thought my plans to deliver with a midwife was the Californian in me. It turns out there are few things more Southern and historically Black than my birth plan. This knowledge made my decision feel less like risk aversion and more like a homecoming.
Prior to giving birth, I typed up affirmation statements to help me get through labor. The statements ranged from Biblical “The Lord will never put more on you than you can bear” to quippy – “We’re strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business.” (from Saint Beyonce).
At the peak of my labor, my husband reached for the printed strips, hoping they could encourage me. They did not.
But I did remember that my grandmother, a woman with less resources but boundless resolve, had done this eleven times, most in a remarkably similar fashion. I focused on that. And then, my son was here.
Oh, what joy!
There are many important conversations about the difficulties of being a Black mother, particularly in this year of reckoning where mothers from around the world heard George Floyd call out for his. That conversation is one we should never stop having.
But we must also embrace and keep talking about the joy. I’m told that when my son arrived, I cried and repeated over and over again, “I love you I love you I love you.” I have no recollection of that, but I remember the bliss.
My son is a toddler now, and we have relocated to North Carolina near my family. When my son waves at every car that drives by, I like to believe that is the Southerner in him. He prefers the R&B remix of “Baby Shark” to the original and I like to believe that’s the Black in him.
Even in life’s most difficult moments, he is a reminder to us that there is always room for more joy. He doesn’t know that the world is raging with a pandemic; he just knows that he gets to hang out at home with mom and dad. He doesn’t have to wonder if the reason no one joins him in the neighborhood kiddie pool might be because we’re the only Black family present; he thinks the pool was created just for him.
Recently, my mother indulged him as grandparents do with some bites of her favorite ice cream –
>butter pecan. A refreshingly cold treat with warm flavors and a nutty crunch. He grinned and asked for more, likely beginning to understand what I’ve known all along.
Black motherhood is more than grief and tribulations; it is also pecans.
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