When I was pregnant with my first child three years ago, I fantasized about hosting a “Meet the Baby” celebration—a mashup of that ornate scene in Coming to America where Prince Akeem meets Princess Imani and the ceremony in The Lion King where Rafiki hoists Simba in the air. Family and friends would mill about the venue, decorated with hibiscus flowers and gold candles, indulging in goblets of rum punch and plates of Caribbean hors d’oeuvres while awaiting our entrance. And what an entrance it would be! A chorus of dancers and drummers would burst into the hall, and my husband and I would follow behind, rocking some dazzling outfits while lifting our beautiful baby in the air to welcome her to the fold.
It didn’t pan out the first time around, but as I approach the impending birth of my second child, I’ve been daydreaming about it again. You see, I’m a woman who has seen some highs and lows on this motherhood journey. Making it out of a pregnancy with a healthy baby and a healthy me is cause for celebration, which is why I fiercely defend other moms and moms-to-be—particularly black women—who choose to celebrate as well. All too often, even if you’re as fabulous and fierce as Beyoncé or Serena Williams, others want you to behave the way they think mothers should behave. It’s time we talk about where these judgments come from and why we need to blow up the boxes these stereotypes put us in.
Whether it’s on Facebook or on the playground, I’ve been surprised by both the wealth of knowledge and support and the toxicity of judgment I get from other moms. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many of us subscribe to specific ideals on motherhood. Poor moms, rich moms, single moms, teen moms, queer moms: Certain mothers are “supposed” to look and act a certain way and adhere to socially ascribed hierarchies and stereotypes. If we dare to step out of those bounds, we’re judged.
8 reasons why Serena Williams is going to slay motherhood For many black women, the added racial identity makes those restraints even tighter. And this applies even to celebrities: Beyoncé was called out for being “tacky” and “narcissistic” for her elaborate Instagram portraits, and Williams—one of the greatest athletes of all time—has been the target of racist and sexist comments and tiring critique. (Check out her recent response on Reddit.) The downside of doing things your own way? You open yourself up to a boatload of criticism and judgment.
As most mothers will agree, raising kids is hard enough. For black moms, those challenges are often amplified by historical traumas and other disparities. For instance, as Kimberly Seals Allers points out in her 2017 book, The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, the forced labour of wet-nurse breastfeeding is one of the reasons why black mothers are less likely to breastfeed than moms of other races. Even more alarming is the fact that black mothers have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in North America, regardless of education level and socioeconomic status. Data from the U.S. shows that African American mothers die from complications during pregnancy, delivery and the postpartum stage four times more often than white mothers. Additional stereotypes abound, with images of “mammies,” “crack whores” and “welfare queens.” A 2016 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly looked at how stereotypes affect one’s view of black and white women and found that pregnant black women are perceived as more likely to be single mothers and need public assistance than white women who are described as pregnant. The study found that societal stereotypes have damaging effects and emphasized the importance of “diversifying images of black women and increasing awareness of how stereotypes affect perceptions of black women.”
And those perceptions and assumptions hurt—I know from firsthand experience. I’ve had a co-worker loudly and publicly ask if my pregnancies were “accidents.” When I’ve been out with my daughter without wearing a wedding band, I’ve had strangers voice their opinion on my status as a “baby mama.” (The only thing more frustrating than being in those moments? Thinking of the perfect retort two hours later.) Can we not allow room for moms to exist as they choose? Until we step away from the idea that motherhood is a role with rigid boundaries and wholly embrace the freedom of self-definition, the ability to live and let live will elude us.
Even before I became a mom, I started to shape what my version of motherhood might look like. My earliest guides were my own mother and aunts and, through them, I was able to see what fragments I wanted to recreate (being my child’s fiercest defender and biggest cheerleader, for example) and what I wanted to reject (becoming so absorbed in parenting that I forget my personhood). With the birth of my first child, I started to navigate this new identity and make it something that worked for me and my family, but it wasn’t easy. The first time I played mas (participating in costume as an official part of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival) in the Caribana parade after having my baby, I was asked, “Are you sure you want to do that? You’re a mom now, you know!” When I was accepted to a fellowship program at Yale University and left my husband and two-year-old daughter at home for a week, people were surprised that I still wanted to chase my creative dreams.
In both instances, I did what I always do when faced with judgment: I was steadfast in defending my decision and flipped the script by asking why the person who judged me felt that way. Why can’t a mom enjoy a critical part of her culture and the revelry and sensuality therein? Why can’t a mom chase her personal goals, especially if she is propelled by the support of her family? Asking those questions was less about me needing an answer and more about helping someone else question their assumptions.
I’m intimately aware of the need to teach my children what a full life can look like and let them see that you can be many things in one body. I understand that, no matter what I do, I will face some kind of judgment from people who are set on placing me in a box. I can’t control that, but what I can control is how I’ll choose to live my life in spite of it. If my children can be bolstered by watching me challenge stereotypes, chase goals, celebrate myself and love them wholly, hopefully that will help them go even further in their lives.
To those who may recognize themselves in the mothers who are quick to compare, scrutinize and demean others for their innocuous expressions of motherhood, self-reflection might be just what the doctor ordered. Think about your own definitions and expressions of motherhood. What are they based on? Are you satisfied with them? Why do you feel the need to impose your boundaries on other moms? Since critique is often more rooted in insecurity than we realize, is your outward animosity masking an unconscious admiration for a mom who is doing things differently? If so, is there room to redefine and shift toward something that feels more authentic to you? Turning that lens inward is a much healthier activity than piling on a mom whose motherhood differs from yours.
I don’t share many of the same privileges as Beyoncé and Serena Williams, but one blessing we have in common is the identity of being black mothers who celebrate ourselves and our roles as we choose. Could I have played at the top of my game in the throes of my first trimester like Williams? Will I snap back into Instagram-ready shape like Beyoncé? Probably not. But instead of trying to measure up, they motivate me to find the beauty in making this journey my own. Happy kids thrive with happy moms, so doing this motherhood thing my way—as humbly or as boldly as I choose— is crucial.
For now, I’m off to see if I can find an ornate gown, a lush venue and the perfect entrance music for me and mine at this “Meet the Baby” party. It might be time to take these visions of grandeur from a dream to a fabulous reality, and this mama deserves some indulgent fun. Just remember, before deciding that someone is too audacious or isn’t doing things “properly,” ask yourself first if you’re minding your own business and then ask yourself if maybe—just maybe—the issue is that you just aren’t living enough.