Sitting in a café with my daughter, in a wealthy neighborhood in Brooklyn, my (Black) waitress comments on how well-behaved my daughter is. She states, “You look so young, to be a mother.” I give her a half hearted smile, trying to signal to her that she was walking down the wrong path. She follows up with “You look so young for your age.” I sit my water down, prepared to embarrass her, I say “How old do you think I am?” She says “Well, I am 28 and you look my age but I am so young to have a baby so I know you aren’t actually that young. Perhaps you're 33? ” I turn to her, prepared for her to eat her words and say “I’m 28.”
She apologized and offered me free things. I declined.
This has happened to me at least a hundred times, in various forms. And I'm not flattered. I’m not flattered when someone offers to exceptionalize my motherhood. I’m not flattered when someone offers to tell me how proud of me they are that I work so hard and have climbed the career latter in spite of being a parent. I’m not flattered when someone goes on and on about how great it is that I didn’t let young motherhood limit my so-called possibilities.
Let me be clear. I chose to be a young mother. I recognize deeply that many in my age bracket neither chose or have the privilege I have to make that choice. By the time I was the mother of a 3 year old at the age of 25, I was fresh off a 10 day trip to South Africa, a college graduate twice over, married to my college sweetheart, working in the Obama administration with a pension and a 401K, living far from home, in a house so big there were two bathrooms I didn’t use. I recognize the privilege those things afford me in my life and why that seems exceptional.
But I suffered a lot in the workplace for that life because of the conditions placed on me by a society that maligned Black motherhood. If you took a bathroom break, people thought you were calling your child in the stall. If you were lucky enough to have a work from home policy, people thought you were taking advantage of the flexible schedule. If you called in sick, people thought you were calling in sick about your child and therefore felt you were scheming the system. And people always, always questioned your relationship status. People were always interested in your stability and your abilities to provide for your child because of your age. Even socially, people were concerned with why you went to the social gatherings after work rather than tending to your child. People want to sound like that care about work-life balance while making accusations about what you should and shouldn’t spend your time doing.You were rarely offered new tasks, as people hinted that they didn't want to "overwhelm" you. People invited themselves into your personal space, touching your body, examining your weight, critiquing your non-mommy wear. People routinely dismiss your concerns about exclusion. People, may of them women themselves, will micromanage your work in the name of project management to ensure you "get it down." People will want you to negotiate your healthcare benefits, your maternity leave, your personal leave, and any other benefits because now you cost more to the company than when they thought they were hiring a single person with no dependents. People will question your work ethic. Constantly. People will examine your performance, specifically for your motherliness. And you will be called upon, like other marginalized people, to speak on behalf of all mothers. And you will be called "mama." And you will be socially marginalized.
For some of my so-called liberal, progressive sistas (of which I’m left of) that’d like to offer this anxiety as a reason why one should wait until they are more “established” to have a child. That’s fair. Why put yourself through the extra added scrutiny when you know we have a society with deeply entrenched aversion to young motherhood? Why not fit into the ideal? Why “come out of the closet” if you will, as a young mother?
This way of thinking can be seductive.
But you come out because freedom and agency allow for the confrontation of this marginalization. Because like all marginalized groups, silence is dangerous. Because everyone can't chose when to be a mother and when not to. Because I believe that it’s not motherhood in your twenties that need changing, it’s the attitudes that dictate policies that need to change. Because awareness is essential to change. Because the policies effecting mothers, and perpetuated by other women, are further exacerbating generational poverty. Because giving women narrow definitions of motherhood in the workplace is tantamount to economic injustice. Because asking young mothers to not be seen is causing work-family stress. Because the intolerance of young motherhood has racial connotations that are straight from the scenes of a Ronald Reagan-welfare-mom-stereotypying horror movie.
I understand folks’ (I’m talking to my so-called liberal progressive sistas here) formational identity of Black motherhood that is deeply rooted in economics. I get it. For them, and many others Black motherhood’s success is heavily dependent upon economic freedom. I totally understand and believe that to be true in my own life. What I don’t understand is how one’s ideal story for Black motherhood is translated into normalizing. Therefore everything outside of that “normal” or “exceptional” is marginalized. And marginalization is dangerous. Marginalization translates not only into social isolation, stares, and ridicule but it translates into policy. Policy that has marginalized motherhood in the workplace specifically limits women, particularly young women’s right to access the economic freedom to practice Black motherhood with agency. We recreate these smaller normalization practices, often times steamed from white, patriarchal, capitalist normalization practices that have long excluded the larger Black population and our baffled when the people we oppress don’t rise to the challenge.
Let me break it down.
I was a young mother and therefore faced the stares, the groans, and the workplace imbalance. Because my motherhood, while young, was exceptionalized for being respectable. What I hated most was not my own treatment but the treatment of young, black, single mothers with multiple children. They were regarded by the other sistas, some single and many over 30, typically married, as an embarrassment. They were the ones who caught the most hell. We, accept as truth that ideal motherhood is over 30, in a heterosexual married relationship, and therefore because those mothers didn’t live up to that entire narrative, they were vilified. They were called in about their leave hours. They were called in about answering the phone. They were prosecuted for getting pregnant again.
They were seen by some as being privileged because they could be excused early while the single ones were left to the brunt of the work. But they were privileged. It has been well documented that the motherhood gap exists heavily in this country. The majority of women who being are paid at a lower salary than men are mothers. More specifically, the Black women who are paid less than their white women counterparts are more than 3 times as likely to be mothers. Mothers are still heavily discriminated against in this country. And it’s not just men who are doing the discriminating, it’s also other women.
I remember in a White House session when Valerie Jarret, the senior advisor to President Obama, who became a (Black) mother at 19 years old, talked about her experience as a mother in the workplace. She talked about how she was sitting in a board meeting with the intention of leaving at a certain time to make her daughter’s game. The meeting was running overschedule when she, a mother who rarely talked about her daughter in the workplace out of fear of being stigmatized, started to tear up. She was going to miss yet another game. Her boss said, “Go to the game Valerie.”
We need more bosses who will give young mothers the cover and provide a culture of a meritocracy that isn’t heavy on face time but on contribution.
I’m not interested in inoculating so-called feminists from being responsible for perpetuating and propagating the notion that mothers are less committed to careers. If you are not actively seeking to destroy the social myth that women are not responsible enough to choose what’s best for their life, then you are apart of the problem. If you are not actively seeking to advance the cause of all mothers who see wage labor as necessary for their freedom, at any age, then you are part of the problem. If you are not seeking to reframe the conversation around motherhood, especially marginalized, Black/Latino/Native/Trans/Lesbian/Poor motherhood, then you are part of the problem. If you see those forms of motherhood as less than ideal, then you are apart of the problem. If you believe that middle-classness is a prerequisite for great motherhood, then you are apart of the problem.
What I know for sure is that when it comes to what qualifies motherhood as good in society, it often requires making the uncertain certain. Stop it. You don’t know someone else’s story. You don’t know why they chose or didn’t chose motherhood. And that choice doesn’t require your scrutiny. That choice doesn’t require your baggage. That choice doesn’t require your consent to be great. That choice should not be up for discussion in the workplace. That choice should not be used to used as a weapon against a woman's economic survival.