Black Maternity Leave
by Mernine Ameris
Ever since the 5th grade, I’ve wanted to be the Queen herself, Ms. SERENA WILLIAMS!! Yass, I wanted to be the 3rd Williams sister: there’d be Venus and Serena, then who’s that bringing up the rear but me, ole’ Mercury. But like my Co-star predicted perfectly this morning, my Mercury was a little too “retrograde.” But, there was something about someone in a leather cheetah tennis outfit breaking her racquet in half that spoke to the radical feminist in my 10-year-old soul. She embodied a powerful black woman. Fast forward a decade and I’m sort-of a shrunken adult and Serena’s becoming a mom and she’s widely reported for her views on motherhood, stating “I’m excited! I am about to be a real woman now, you know?” Hold up, Real woman? Because what? You have a child?!! I want you to go tell my Diva cup I’m not a real woman… go ahead, she’s terrifying. Like one of those Howlers from Harry Potter only her red envelope doesn’t just spill notes from your disappointed mom. Unfortunately, Serena’s not the only black woman who feels the need to define her womanhood based on her “motherhood” status. Though mine is measured thoroughly by how many nuggets I can eat hourly, to which you might reply “Mernine...that’s a lot of nuggets” but to quote Jennifer Hudson “I can GO FURTHER!”
But back to motherhood, according to the CDC the average black woman gives birth by age 24, stops aging by 25, and gets kicked off Obamacare by age 26, so the clock’s ticking! So for the sake of black women everywhere and my last holy nerve, let’s first, spill the tea of this expectation, menoPAUSE for causes and solutions to abort this expectation of motherhood, because according to My Momma of Three Seconds Ago, “Your stuff’s packed and on the front lawn, Come back when you have my grandchild”. Daannggg Mamma!
After Serena popped out her kid and dazzled us with some gendered language, I needed a new idol within the community, so after some soul-train searching I stumbled upon OWN 2.0, or rather Oprah’s leafy instagram. She posted a video with 20 or so little black women, looking like the Sigma Alpha Beta probate, calling them all her daughters. My dad didn’t believe me when I told him Oprah didn’t have any kids, just kept her check to herself and babysat her man Stedman’s. If people don’t think Oprah Gail Barack Stedman Martin Luther “Fuck that job” Michelle Winfrey is not the very definition of a real woman knowing her worth without kids, then they just haven’t watched The Color Purple hard enough. That’s okay, she’ll see you at the Tonys.
All my life we’ve had two causes: womanhood versus motherhood and ethnocentric family standards. First, let’s address conflating womanhood with motherhood. Nerisse Bugh has written that after puberty, “society...creates ideals of what being a ‘true mother’ means. Women are forced to take on this identity and are expected to bear children.” Too bad motherhood is not every black woman's final destination. Because that would make a terrible horror movie franchise. In Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, law professor Dorothy Roberts clicked her heels three times and argued, “From the moment they set foot in this country as slaves, black women have fallen outside the American ideal of womanhood, including idealized motherhood.” Now I wish that was a horror movie. Somebody call Jordan Peele! Since our society already conflates womanhood with motherhood in general, this problematic ideology is magnified throughout the black community. Black Twitter can’t let anything go! Proven when they spent all afternoon trying to figure out if Moesha was wearing a wig. Survey says, she was. But, hey. The intersection of being black and a woman is already a hard crossroad. To quote Cookie Lyon: “the streets ain’t for everybody, that’s why they made sidewalks.”
Also, we have let Eurocentric family standards complicate black family dynamics for way too long. Like, whose job was it to take the chicken out of the freezer; that sure complicated my black family dynamic. My mom liked to called us from the driveway, just to see our shadows move. But in the end, seriously, she could have given us a little more of a heads-up. The driveway? Really? How would that have helped her? In a 2017 article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, author Dawn Marie Dow argues that even when “mothers do not personally conform to misogynoir ideologies, [these ideologies] continue to influence mothers.” Why, you may ask? Because literally everyone else conforms. That’s the problem. And according to the aforementioned Wicked Witch of Reproductive Rights, Dorothy Roberts (as summarized by Moira Brennan in Ms. Magazine), “while white women have had to demand freedom from compulsory motherhood, black women have had to fight for their right to procreate at all, let alone on their own terms.” So, to whoever’s keeping score, history has thrown forced sterilization, slavery, and the criminalization of nonwhite mothering practices our way in this sad game of dodgeball and white girls.
So here in the present we have two problems: We exclude black women and we further existing stereotypes along the way.
There are two groups of already marginalized black women that we exclude from important cultural conversations: women who can’t have kids and women who don’t want them. Infertility in the black community is something normally not talked about, and according to the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, “Black women who struggle with fertility are in constant fear of being viewed as lesser in terms of not just womanhood, but in blackness.” Dang, my blackness on welfare too? For women who just don’t want kids, as Char Adams wrote in Bustle, “it is hard to not want children in a society and community that defines me by my decision and ability to do so.” Let me just say, nothing should be able to make you feel stripped of your blackness. Unless you bootlegged Us or Black Panther...otherwise, Girl, it just don’t come off. A lesson Kris Jenner keeps relearning, and then having to teach her 100 grandkids and Kanye. Also, you think we’d still be here if it did? I for one, would be out. Your blackness and your womanhood aren’t located in the womb. Your absorbed twin is. That sounds like a Black Mirror episode in the making, and the day that airs, mark my words, Netflix is gonna have to cut me a check. Let me stop being so loud or Mo’nique gon’ find me like she did Steve Harvey.
We also further pre-existing stereotypes surrounding black moms. And they are killing us. Seriously, between the black maternal mortality rate, the 25 white men Rihanna warned me about haunting my vagina threatening to burn a copy of Roe v. Wade, and the amount of black women in jail giving birth in chains, both black mom and baby are getting stereotyped straight into coffins. In her review of Riché J. Daniel Barnes’ Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood and Community, Elizabeth Higginbotham—also the name of my Hogwarts-professor-themed Diva cup so I trust her—summarizes the book’s argument that women develop mothering skills reflective of their class status. This can be seen by today’s two special guests, brought to us by Lady Higginbotham, The Baby Mama and The Strong Black Woman. It’s kinda like the characters in my new favorite video game: Black Maternal Kombat. Except your only two options are Tyler Perry in a wig with no makeup or Shirley Chisholm! Also you don’t actually get to pick, the game calls your bank and picks for you. Thanks Betsy! Denene Miller explains in NPR’s Code Switch that we perceive young black women as either overqualified or significantly unfit to be mothers and leave no space for a middle ground. So we push motherhood onto black women and then judge them for it no matter what? That’s just not fair. The article is also titled “Beyonce is Not Your Magical Negro Mammy”, and I just wanted to write that sentence out because it is true—she closed Destiny’s Foster Home B.B.I—Before Blue Ivy. That’s how we’re gonna mark time now because Jesus was also a Capricorn.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the Ameris Family Baby Boom will persist. But at least now all the aunties from church and I have a truce when it comes to talking about these kids when I come home from winter break. Which I am glad about because it proves that luckily, there are always solutions: on the administrative and personal level.
The first step is to separate womanhood and motherhood. Below, you’ll find a graphic with a link to the Black Mamas Matter Alliance’s page, designed to deconstruct and unpack the false equivalence surrounding the two. Invite one of their representatives to speak on your college campus or just at your next family baby shower. They have a ton of programs that speak on issues specifically surrounding black motherhood you can find at the website listed at the bottom. And God, let me know if the Elizabeth Warren immortality potions are working. What? I know I promised God I’d never root for another white woman again, but she, St. Peter and the Democratic Party have tried it up there. Only support candidates who not only have a plan for how to tackle the maternal mortality rate, but who are culturally competent enough to have a plan to bridge the racial divide as well. Elizabeth Warren on the federal level works great, but a clear Netflix binge has taught me that we need all hands on deck at every level. If the real life Handmaid’s Tale is coming, at least I’m going out civically engaged. At least then, my mom can stop asking when I think I’m gonna find a boyfriend. Ha! Too bad Oprah already taught me you don’t have to be married to be “a real woman” either.
On a personal level, we need to reframe the concept of motherhood for black women. This solution does not exclude you, non-black people. Everybody: stop asking questions about family planning and children in unsuspecting, regular, everyday conversation with grown black people. Because like we said, yeah, we grown but not all of us want to, should be, or can be mothers. In a time where reproductive rights have become more crucial than ever, we can respect choice and autonomy for all black people with a uterus. And yes, not everyone has to have a uterus to be considered a real woman either. I hope that point has gotten across but just in case it bears repeating, a real woman is a human being, not a standard of living bent at capitalism’s will. it is important to recognize in all seriousness, as a black lady who may suffer from disruptions with my family planning in the future, it is easy to feel like motherhood is an inevitably. So when you define yourself solely by who you are to other people and negative pregnancy tests, all that's left is grief. But always a Plan B. To the lady at the Walgreens counter, I hope you’re reading this. That was for you.
After looking at causes, effects, and solutions, I really hope we can stop reducing black women to their motherhood status. Make no mistake, Serena’s beautiful baby girl and her family are truly blessings. It just so happened that St. Serena had been real woman all along.
Mernine Ameris is an aspiring writer, activist, speaker, and educator. She graduated George a Mason University in 2019 with a Public Administration degree as a decorated public speaker. She is the 2017 American Forensics Association champion of Duo Interpretation and the 2019 National Forensics Association runner up of Rhetorical Criticism. Her favorite foods are calamari, chicken nuggets, cheese and words. Language has been her greatest gift.