Does Not Being A Mother Make Me A Bad Black Woman?
By Tracey Lloyd
Every year, the men in my neighborhood go out of their way to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. All the men. I suppose they assume that a woman my age would automatically have children. Either that, or they don’t want to miss an opportunity to honor the role of motherhood and all it represents. Yet interestingly, this never happened to me before I moved into a predominantly Black neighborhood.
When this happens, I just say “thank you” and keep on moving — but the well-intentioned pleasantry is hard for me to digest, every time.
One reason is that my own mother died over 20 years ago and I miss her every day; the other is that at 43, I have no children and no plans to procreate. And in the face of the myriad Black men looking to commemorate motherhood every year, I feel like I’m letting down my race.
Like many women my age, I grew up believing that I’d eventually have children. I took care of my baby dolls and rocked them to sleep, dreaming of the day I’d get to do it for real. But when I got older and there were real babies in my family, I was afraid to interact with them. My family, which is quite large, said that I’d get over my fear once I had my own children.
My grandparents had 14 children and raised nine, so the expectation was set that I’d follow in their parental footsteps. We’d talk about how my grandparents were sharecroppers and had children to help work the land, and also about how they were expected to have children to make for them a better life than they had. My grandmother plowed field side by side with her husband, ran the home, and did jobs for white women in order to make a life for her family. That model of womanhood — a woman who supports the home and simultaneously raises children — is a standard in my family, and in Black culture in general.
From the time of slave narratives, Black women have been depicted as stalwart workers and sacrificing mothers who did everything they could to protect their children. These depictions have also made their way into popular culture; in Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved, for instance, the main character makes the ultimate sacrifice of killing her baby to protect her from slavery. The recent TV drama Underground features Ernestine, a female slave who bears the attentions of the master in order to protect her children from hard work and mistreatment. Black mothers who are this bold and this sacrificing are depicted as the pinnacle of womanhood.
I will never have the chance to exhibit these qualities.
By adulthood, I’d absorbed my family’s preference toward parenthood. In my twenties, I’d assumed that I’d marry relatively young and have children thereafter. In my thirties, still single, I’d maintained that although I could be a single mother, I would wait to have kids until I had a husband.
Then I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Managing my disease is its own full-time job. Though I’ve been treating my bipolar since 2009, I’ve been in the hospital three separate times. In between those hospital stays, my bouts of depression have lasted for years on end. In truth, I’ve only recently become a productive and well-adjusted person since my last struggle with depression. I’ll be 44 this year, near the end of my child-bearing years. I’ve considered what it would take to have a baby at this point in my life: either going off my medications (to personally disastrous results), or carrying a baby and exposing it to drugs with effects on pregnant women that are currently unknown. Neither of these options are palatable to me.
Maybe a woman with closer connections to her motherhood potential wouldn’t see those options as too difficult. After all, I did date a man who would’ve been willing to have a baby with me, even while I took four different medications. He reasoned that parenthood meant taking care of a baby regardless of how it turned out. That man turned out to be wrong for me — and not just because I didn’t share his willingness to risk a child’s well-being with psychotropic drugs.
I spend enough time trying to take care of myself, monitoring my symptoms and charting my moods. Preventing bipolar relapse and another trip to the psych ward are at the top of my list of priorities. They have to be. Even if I had a child, I wouldn’t be able to put it ahead of myself because if I’m not well, I can’t take care of anyone else. Being a mother means selflessness, at least the way I understand it, and I need to be selfish.
So childless I’ll remain — and as such, fretful about not being a good Black woman.
My clear decision not to have children is at odds with what I feel I’m supposed to provide to my race. I’m a rare Black person. I grew up with married parents. I went to an Ivy League college. I have a master’s degree. I’ve earned as much as $160,000 a year as a marketing professional. People like me are supposedly a credit to Black people, a shining example of success and a role model for future generations. People like me are supposed to raise smart, well-balanced children to continue a legacy of success and benefit all African-Americans. Instead, I’m keeping my genes from future generations like the selfish woman that I am.
At the same time, the feminist in me is quite okay with not being a mother. I studied women’s studies in college, and I learned that being a feminist was all about wanting women to be whatever we wanted to be. Images of burning bras and marching in support of the ERA resonated well with my personal and professional goals. And the second wave feminism that I grew up on was very grounded in breaking women out of traditional roles, like motherhood. With these theories and role models, I believed I could be a good and appropriate woman no matter what role I chose in life.
The Black Power and Civil Rights Movement images I saw were less kind to my lukewarm feelings toward motherhood. Like good feminists, Black women were marching side-by-side with men in the fight for racial equality. But these Black women were also expected to add motherhood to their list of tools in the struggle. I’ve seen footage of the Black Panther Party in which the women continued to have and raise multiple children, all the while working for the “revolution.” Their motherhood was seen as supporting the movement, growing the community by literally creating a new generation of soldiers to take up the struggle.
Even now, my childlessness flies in the face of the needs of my community to grow and take up the fight for equality. The contemporary Black Lives Matter movement and splinter movements have been spearheaded by mothers; women who have been spurred to action by the death and mistreatment of their children. And while I support that movement, I will never know the deep and meaningful mother-child connection that many of its women experience.
But there’s nothing I can do about my feelings of inadequacy besides hold fast to my well-reasoned decision not to have kids. I’ll have to talk about this decision with every man I date, and keep justifying it to my family that craves a new generation.
I can probably handle all of that more than I could a baby. And to me, that’s really the point.