What Black Moms Know
By Ylonda Gault Caviness
I feel sorry for the others. You know those mothers: the highly informed, professionally accomplished — usually white — women who, judging by the mommy blog fodder, daytime TV, and new parenting guides lining store shelves, are apparently panicking all day, every day, over modern child rearing and everything that comes with it. They feel compelled to praise their kids, but fret the dosage. They worry about pesticides; this year’s best birthday-party theme; enrichment summer camps; preparing Johnnie for college admissions in 2025 (it’s never too early); and, of course, the biggie — keeping their kids happy.
Most adults know that happiness, unlike, say, integrity or self-reliance, is elusive and often fleeting. Still, so-called experts have convinced these mothers that their job is to plant joy into their children’s small bodies. Not surprisingly, this overabundance of advice has turned mothering into a hot mess of guilt, confusion and hard labor.
Thankfully, I am a black mom. Like many of my fellow sisters, I don’t have time for all that foolishness. Our charge is to raise — notice I did not say “parent” — our children in a way that prepares them for a world that, at best, may well overlook their awesomeness and, at worst, may seek to destroy it.
One thing that makes it easier for us is that, unlike many white women, most black women in America come from a long line of mothers who worked outside the home, and have long been accustomed to navigating work and family. My mama worked, as did her mama and her mama before that. According to the University of Maryland sociologist Bart Landry, the author of “Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution,” black middle-class wives, long before the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, rejected the cult of domesticity for a threefold commitment to family, career and community. These families “ushered in a more egalitarian era,” and a lifestyle their white counterparts adopted decades later.
When I was growing up during the ’70s in Buffalo, my siblings and I were met after school by Papa, my grandfather who lived with us and cared for us while our mother was at her factory job. If Papa was not around, there were any number of “aunties” and other mothers from the neighborhood available to feed us and taxi us to and fro. Most of these women were also employed, but they did shift work in hospitals or had jobs in retail with varied schedules. No matter. As a black mom on the block, everyone’s kid was your kid.
Mommy wars? “That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” Mama, who’s now 80, would say. Mama lived to sit at the kitchen table — our light blue princess phone nestled in the crook of her neck as she took long drags on her cigarette — gossiping about her girlfriends. But there was a mutual sense of love and respect among the moms of her generation. They were always tired, just like moms now. But never too tired to offer encouragement — words like, “Girl, all you can do is the best you can.”
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Ylonda Gault Caviness is the author of the forthcoming book “Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself.” An independent journalist, focused on family, parenting & relationship topics, she’s a former iVillage senior producer—parenting & pregnancy. Contributor, Essence magazine. Graduate of Northwestern University. New Jersey resident. And mother to three of the coolest human beings on the planet.