This feature, exploring the struggles and stories of mothers of color, is the fifth of our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.
For now, though, settle in and get ready for part five: It’s time to dismantle the old and create new paradigms of motherhood.
The process of becoming a mother, which anthropologists call “matrescence,” has been largely unexplored in the medical community. Instead of focusing on the woman’s identity transition, more research is focused on how the baby turns out. But a woman’s story, in addition to how her psychology impacts her parenting, is important to examine, too…
—Alexandra Sacks, M.D.
What not to expect when you’re expecting
It starts the minute a woman announces that she’s pregnant. Her body becomes something that belongs to everyone but herself. People touch her belly without even asking. Strangers and friends alike monitor what she eats, drinks, does: “Are you walking enough? Are you walking too much? Maybe you shouldn’t be eating that? Eat this, not that. Drink this, not that. Your feet are swollen, you’re doing too much. You need to sit.” The pregnant woman is rarely asked what it is she needs, or how she really feels.
At 28, I found myself pregnant, in an abusive relationship, and unhappy in my corporate job. I didn’t have a close relationship with my mother and still don’t, so navigating pregnancy and my entry to motherhood was especially isolating. This was exacerbated when my pregnancy was diagnosed as high risk and I was put on bed rest for six weeks after I nearly miscarried at two months. I later swelled up so badly that my feet looked like two pot roasts. When I talked about how miserable and uncomfortable I was and how I cried every day, my daughter’s father responded: “You’ll be fine. Women have been doing this for millennia.” I stopped complaining and suffered in silence.
Doula and midwife Carmen Mojica, whose work focuses on women of color, says:
There is very little attention given to the emotional and spiritual transformation and challenges that women experience in childbirth. Often, I find myself validating feelings that are everything but happy and joyful. Pregnant women are expected to be excited and happy throughout their whole pregnancies. I ask pregnant women how they are feeling, and many times, they aren’t happy. They are scared, uncomfortable, anxious, indifferent, and/or ambivalent about their pregnancies.
I heard the “pregnant woman in the field” story for the first time when I was pregnant. It goes something like, “During slavery, women working in the fields would just squat, push the baby out, tie the baby to their backs, and keep on working.” When I spoke to women about this, they shared similar stories, ones where the woman was Indigenous and she birthed while hugging a tree, or the field was a rice paddy. No matter the circumstance, the point of the story is to imply that birth is easy and that we should and can just jump back into our regular lives as soon as possible.
I was in labor for 26 hours. The contractions were unrelenting. When I was asked if I needed an epidural, my mother reminded me, “Your sister never needed that.” My aunt said, “Me either.” I turned the meds down.
I had to be induced at hour 16 because I was stuck at three centimeters. Sensing what I was dealing with, my doctor whispered, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you’re having back labor, the worst labor. The pain will get worse once I give you the Pitocin. You are not weak for needing help, Vanessa.” That’s when I finally got the epidural. I had an emergency C-section 10 hours later.
The next day, the staples holding the wound shut snapped in two places. I was told that the wound would not be restapled; instead a visiting nurse would come to my home every day for four weeks to dress the wound at a cost of $30 per visit.
My mother came the first day to prepare a Honduran remedy to induce my production of breast milk. Then she was gone.
My daughter’s father went back to work days later. I don’t remember him ever asking for paternity leave, or whether it was even an option then. Saying we couldn’t afford it, he pushed me to end the nurse services after two weeks. The nurse cautioned against this, but still taught taught me how to dress the wound myself, which was excruciating. She didn’t look at my daughter’s father as she walked out.
Go it alone, and smile
“The culture in the United States, specifically, is not family friendly,” declares Mojica. “There is a lack of understanding about the trial and tribulations of motherhood, and a myth that women are tireless beings that are supposed to bounce back from pregnancy and childbirth intact and unchanged. This is most reflected in the shitty maternity leave that women get, if at all, and the lack of social structures for working mothers, as well as the fact that there is virtually no medical attention in the postpartum period with the exception of a six-week visit in the majority of cases.”
In her essay, “Writing the Wrongs of Identity,” Meri Nana-Ama Danquah writes, “In those lies black women are strong. Strong enough to work two jobs while single-handedly raising twice as many children. Black women can cook, they can clean, they can sew, they can type, they can sweep, they can scrub, they can mop, they can pray…. Black women are always doing. They are always servicing everyone’s needs, except their own. Their doing is what defines their being. And this is supposed to be wellness.”
The expectation to go it alone and not complain crosses racial and ethnic lines, even when mothers had some support in their transition to motherhood. This is especially the case for second-generation immigrant mothers and those whose parents are poor and have limited resources.
Toni, a 60-year-old who raised her 35-year-old daughter as a single mother, reflects:
As a Black woman, I think I was treated with the familiar stereotypes: that I would be superwoman, stoic, when I became a mother. Black women can’t be vulnerable or sick, we are invincible. And if we are sick or raped we should shut up and suck it up, or we are not “real Black women.”
Lisa, a Chinese American mother to a 17-month-old, says:
I felt constantly exhausted and overwhelmed, and I really felt the lack of having my independent life or pursuits. And I didn’t feel that I could voice that to my parents or to my in-laws, because both my mom and my mother-in-law were at-home mothers but had more kids and fewer financial resources and less spousal help. I felt ungrateful if I complained about anything, incapable for not being able to do “better,” pathetic for being so tired. And every time I tried to bring it up with my mom, she was dismissive. She would say things like, “You’re lucky your husband helps at all,” or “We couldn’t afford takeout when you were little,” or “You want a break?! But don’t you love your daughter?”
I was scheduled to return to work six weeks after birth, but I was struggling. The c-section wound was still very painful, and I was having trouble weaning my daughter off breastfeeding. When I told my boss I needed more time, she said if I didn’t return when I was supposed to, she would let me go. And that’s exactly what she did.
These are the inflexible systems and perspectives that don’t allow for community, compassion, or empathy. My daughter’s father left me alone to care for our daughter and tend to a wound from a major surgery. My mother thought her duty ended after she helped feed my daughter. When people visited, it was to see the baby, and I had to smile and play the role of hostess despite the pain and exhaustion. And after all of that, my boss fired me.
You are not weak for needing help
Pregnancy and childcare are not the entirety of parenting, but they are an undeniably enormous part of a mother’s well-being. A report released in May by PL+US: Paid Leave for the United States, a nonprofit that advocates for paid family leave, revealed that millions of Americans aren’t offered a single day off of work following the birth or adoption of a child, and one in four new mothers go back to work 10 days after childbirth. The PL+US report shows many companies are providing these benefits only to top-level employees, despite the report’s finding that “the people who most need paid family leave are the least likely to have it.”
Even when disability leave is offered, it is at 50 percent pay, which often isn’t enough considering the daycare expenses. The newly released Care Index revealed that in 33 states, the cost of infant care is higher than the cost of college tuition: $9,585 a year vs. $9,410.
In the midst of these realities, government benefits for the poor like welfare and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, have been consistently cut over the past 20 years. The Trump administration has proposed more than $190 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years by changing eligibility rules and increasing work requirements, despite reports that have debunked the stereotype that receiving food stamps discourages working. According to a recent report from the USDA, an increasing share of individuals who receive benefits through SNAP live in households where at least one person is working.
These systems are rooted in capitalist, patriarchal, and misogynist systems that seek to limit women’s options and resources, especially those of women of color, so as to control them and “keep them in their place.” These systems do not protect us and do not allow space for us to heal or to transition to our new roles.
Despite being disproportionately affected by poverty and the lack of access to childcare, mothers of color are often left out of conversations on women’s rights. While reproductive rights are essential, so is the ability to parent with dignity while meeting basic personal needs, which includes paid maternity and/or family leave. Studies have found that women who took longer than 12 weeks maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression, and improvement in their overall mental health. But that isn’t the whole story of the transition into motherhood.
Mothers of color also need help that allows time away from children and child-rearing to remember that we are more than our roles as mothers. We have to work on our own pursuits, to walk, to interact with our friends, to live. We need safe new-mom groups to connect with other new mothers where we can not only discuss our child’s development, but also the transition into parenthood. And when necessary, we need access to mental-health services.
Safe new-mom groups means being able to discuss all aspects of motherhood, and being the only new mom of color in the room will not protect you from racism and microaggressions. Safe places to talk about the transition into motherhood should not erase the needs of parents who do not use the same language or parenting labels like “mother,” or who do not identify as a woman, or consider themselves straight or able-bodied, or come from a nuclear family. The parenting margins include queer and gender-nonconforming parents who also need open spaces to discuss their transitions into child-rearing. Discussions on these transitions should bring people out, not push them further into isolation, which is a signature experience for many new parents. Many feel alone. It’s critical to remember that there are all kinds of ways to build family and all of us need community and solidarity.
In her New York Times article, “The Birth of a Mother,” Alexandra Sacks writes, “When people have more insight into their emotions, they can be more in control of their behaviors. So even when the focus remains on the child, understanding the psychology of pregnant and postpartum women can help promote healthier parenting. Mothers with greater awareness of their own psychology may be more empathetic to their children’s emotions.”
Women of color, especially those raised in poverty and second-generation immigrants, have been taught to adopt a grin-and-bear-it attitude that tells us that we just have to “do what you gotta do,” even if that means working multiple jobs and never using sick leave or taking a day off.
I come from a people that didn’t go to therapy. Mental health wasn’t a priority. It wasn’t something we talked about, though I can see now how my mother suffered (and still suffers) from various mental health issues. I don’t blame her for not going to therapy or taking care of herself. She was parroting what she was taught in her homeland of Honduras and reinforced in the Black and Latino communities she’s lived in since she arrived to the United States when she was 15 years old.
The stigma against mental health is very much connected to familial silence. We’re taught not to discuss our family business, and doing so is often seen as a betrayal. When Trinidadian immigrant Cheryl sought therapy after her divorce in 1987:
For the emotional pain of my teen marriage, for the endless silence between my parents, and for the heartbreaking scars of migration, my mother cried, no bawled, like I had just told her I was going to kill myself. She had grown up with familial silence and now she felt betrayed that her beloved daughter was going to spill long held secrets. She accused me of not respecting the job she had done as a good mother, she said I was ungrateful and always wanting more than she could give.
According to the Seleni Institute, African American and Latina women have a higher risk of developing perinatal mood or anxiety disorders (PMAD) when compared to white women. There isn’t enough research on why that is, but stress, particularly poverty and scarce resources, are proven contributors to the development of PMAD. If left untreated, intense stress can trigger mood and anxiety disorders that disrupt the overall health and functioning of mothers of color.
Erica, a married mother of three, shares that after suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) after her second child, she thinks PPD is connected to lack of support and resources:
My son was [born] premature and my husband and mother couldn’t get off work so I was home with a 3-year-old and an infant. The worst moment was when I found myself standing in the hallway with the baby and the thought occurred to me that I didn’t care if either one of us survived the night. The next week was the holidays, and my mother-in-law was coming. She saw me and took the baby and Lauryn… I wanted to die. I wanted to burn the house down with us in it, because there was a pain so terrible in me I couldn’t even explain it. And then the pain was taken over by a nothingness, and emptiness…The only thing that worked was my mother-in-law taking the children, cooking, cleaning the house, making me go to sleep, and making me eat—that saved me.
Access to mental health services is critical, but another piece is the work to deconstruct cultural views that shame mothers seeking out mental-health services. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, and we need to push back against the notion that we’re bad mothers when we seek improve our own emotional well-being.
You shoulda thought about that before you got pregnant
Many women often feel like their dreams die when they become mothers. This doesn’t happen to men in the same way. It’s women who are told that babies come first and our needs come later. Taking care of ourselves is conflated with taking care of our children. Having dreams outside of motherhood doesn’t make us bad mothers. If anything, by fulfilling our dreams we are showing our children that they too can pursue their own.
Connie, a Colombian mother of three, thinks Latinx culture “looks down on mothers that aren’t consumed by motherhood and marriage.” She says:
To seek joy elsewhere is selfish and ungrateful. I also lacked role models in my family and community that did not see children and marriage as a completion of their life. I love my family, and my partner, however, I have other passions that fill me: my teaching career, while exhausting and demanding gives me a sense of accomplishment; exercise; and, of course, writing. I’m learning not to apologize for the latter.
So what can we do? How can we support mothers during the transformation and transition into motherhood and beyond? We can start by dismantling the idea that the sole or primary purpose of women is to become mothers. It isn’t just about having our autonomy, it means understanding that these limiting and gendered ideas offer additional fuel to oppose paid parental leave and subsidized childcare.
The truth is that getting fired from that corporate job was a blessing in many ways though it threw me into a tailspin. But in that tailspin, I started writing my first book. Once while I was writing, my daughter’s father—who was jealous of anything that didn’t involve him—told me, “You think you’re gonna be a writer? You ain’t gonna be shit.” After that my journey became two-pronged: leaving him and finishing the book. I had been miserable in corporate America and knew I couldn’t go back. I wanted to finally own my identity as a writer and pursue it as a career, and along the way, found teaching as another calling. In 2010, after three years working as an editor and teaching on the weekends, I quit my job to pursue writing and teaching full time.
I am living my dreams, fulfilled by my work, and I am a better and more present mom because of it. Still, it was lonely being a single mom, and I felt largely unsupported and uncared for, suffering from bouts of depression and living in poverty for some time. Like I had been taught, I grinned and beared it, but am now dismantling that so I can be more whole for myself, my daughter, and my partner. This essay is part of that journey.
During the process of interviewing 20 women of color for this piece, I learned that the majority felt as I did when I first transitioned into motherhood: lost and utterly alone. The interviewees often said, “No one’s ever asked me these questions.” I realized I wasn’t asked these questions either, and we have to tell our stories so the false ideas of motherhood end with us.
Decolonizing motherhood is a process of shedding behaviors and beliefs about birth, the body, and the female body in particular. I think it involves unlearning the belief that raising a child is a solitary event and returning to practices that are community based. Other countries still observe the cuarentena, or the 40 days after birth; to me, that would be one starting point that as a culture we can provide better support. To decolonize motherhood, it would involve decolonizing the idea of family from nuclear to extended and chosen family. We would have to unlearn that family life occurs in isolation and begin to push back against capitalism and patriarchy.
To decolonize motherhood, I have to start with me, in my home, with my family. So for my daughter’s 13th birthday, I planned a brunch celebrating both her entry into womanhood and me, who mothered so differently and broke a cycle so that my daughter wouldn’t have to flee like I did at 13 and make her way in the world alone. I invited 25 strong and inspiring women of color to remind us how right Maya Angelou was when she wrote:
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
Check in next month for part six in our fragility series, and explore the rest below.