The Momference: Black Mom Magic for Millennial Moms of Color

This morning young moms of color gathered at the first Momference in Bethesda, Maryland, to hear from other mothers about their experiences in facing the challenges of raising children while trying to give time to partners and jobs and finding a little bit for themselves, too. The success stories were inspirational. The stories of failures got even more appreciative applause because they reassured the moms in the audience that they are not alone and that tomorrow is another chance to get it right.

“Stay strong and take it one day at a time. It’s always getting better, even if you don’t see it,” Jamilah Lemieux told the crowd. Kelli M. Coleman said that an impulsive text message of support from a friend came at just the right time, and urged other moms to be that for each other. “Let them know that they’re doing an amazing job.” Doctor, mother of six, and inspiration for her namesake character on the hit television series, “black-ish,” Rainbow Edwards-Barris described a conversation she had with one of her sons after he was less than polite to her friend. “I told him to treat a girl like she is treasured and honored and honorable,” she said. “It is important to instill in my boys especially.”

Valerie Ervin, who unexpectedly found herself running for governor of Maryland when her running mate died suddenly, quoted the Biblical Book of Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” She urged the group to vote and to let their children see them vote. “Build the tradition of voting.”

The two keynote speakers were both beauty and fashion editors, Kahlana Barfield Brown (InStyle) and Julee Wilson (Essence), and one of the event’s highlights was when the long-time friends interviewed each other on stage, communicating by example the importance of supporting each other. “We big each other up all the time,” Wilson said. Brown reminded the audience of the importance of making time to take care of herself. “I try not to lose myself in being a mother. When I’m my best self, I can give my best to my family. We are built to do this.”

Some of my favorite speakers at the Momference included:

Rainbow Edwards-Barris, who spoke about her wise and funny new book, Keeping Up With the Johnsons: Bow’s Guide to Black-ish Parenting, which she wrote as her television alter ego, Rainbow Johnson, played by Tracee Ellis Ross. I asked if she ever found herself doing something her mother did that she swore she would never do, and she admitted she had finally resorted to a “Because I said so.” But “I corrected myself. I went back and told him I made a mistake. I said, ‘You’re teaching me as much as I hope I’m teaching you.’” She said that her husband, Kenya Barris, asked how she would feel about a storyline on “black-ish” about the Johnsons having marital problems. “I was very supportive that it show this side of the couple, so people know they’re not alone. No one’s life is perfect. Couples go through tough times but it is not not repairable, not something that can’t be overcome, not something that can’t be a lesson.” The book gives you the episodes you don’t see on television, and it gives you Rainbow’s perspective. Both Rainbows.

David Johns was there to speak about raising children to be leaders. He said that there are three important ways to make sure that children see examples of meaningful achievement: in their families, in the media, and in books. He spoke about the critical importance of “complicatedly compelling representation” of intersectional characters, including people of color who are LGBTQIA, disabled, or struggling with mental illness because in order to imagine all they can be, “kids need to feel heard and engaged. They need to feel loved.”

Erykah St. Louis spoke about wellness and the importance of community. Social media can be helpful and harmful. “When you aren’t near your family, you can find a community of regular people dealing with the same stuff you are.” While some social media can be polished and artificial, “I’m interested in raw and realness.” She urges mothers who feel overwhelmed to journal on paper or voice recording, to try a message, to get therapy, to spend time in nature, and to be very honest with themselves and trusted friends.

Candace Montgomery had advice for busy moms who want to look pulled together and have “a certain level of polish” that shows “comfortability with yourself.” That applies to the children as well. In her house, “we have to make some effort, washing and brushing something.” Most important is setting an example in the way you express yourself and the way you present yourself to the world. “They see us work to present ourselves for the time and place and learn what they should do.”

Essence fashion and beauty editor Julee Wilson stopped on her way to the Momference to check out the royal wedding and was delighted with what she saw. The new Duchess wore a dress that was “simple and elegant. The train was a moment in time.” And her mother’s hair in locks showed a welcome pride in her heritage. Wilson describes her Instagram feed as “an open book,” with images of her four-year-old son peeling off her false eyelashes when she comes home from work. But like some of the other speakers, she had a clear sense of boundaries. She wants to show the world what her real life looks like, the work that goes into her job as well as the glamorous events, the time she was so exhausted she wore the same outfit two days in a row. She does not want her life to “look unattainable.” But “there’s a lot I keep private.”

Shante Williams spoke about helping “mompreneurs” define their brands. Most important: Know your target audience, and find a way to solve their problem. One of her clients is Jillian “JJ” Simmons of Single Moms Rock and the book Without Bruises. She said that being a single mother taught her that “I have a lot in me that I didn’t know I had.” But it is important to know when you need help and get it when you need it. “Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one who is struggling. You need to connect, ask for advice, and give advice to others.”

Beauty, fashion, and lifestyle blogger Dayna Bolden says that it is not about balancing work and life; it is about priorities. I agree. “You’re always going to be a mom. So it’s about prioritizing.” Having to work around her daughter’s schedule made her focus more on structuring her day and being organized.

Nicole Tiovanni Dawkins is a businesswoman and business coach whose Sculpt Body Lounge is a place “for women to feel good about themselves, a sanctuary where they can talk about everything.” She loves to ask, “If you could change anything about your life, what would it be?” and she believes “A lot of women are one conversation away from living their dream.” She spoke about the small acts that make a big difference ins someone’s life, often just a smile or a thank you. “I am testimony to that. It does not matter what the world throws at you. You can recover. And you can change someone’s life.”

All of the speakers and sponsors were there to deliver that message. “You guys are our tribe,” Wilson said. “This is one of the best ideas ever.” It was clear that the audience agreed.