Why you should care
Black motherhood is complicated — but talking about it can help.
When actress Ryan Michelle Bathe became a mother of two rambunctious boys, it felt like her life had been scrambled. Her sons are now age 8 and 4, but while mothering has become easier in some ways, it’s still very much a work in progress for her. “I think I’m going to be a work in progress until the day I’m not progressing,” Bathe told Carlos Watson, cofounder of OZY Media, on the second episode — focused on motherhood — of Black Women OWN the Conversation, a first-of-its-kind television show between OZY Media and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). The episode aired on Aug. 31.
Sitting a few seats over, Daily Show comedian Dulcé Sloan had a slightly different experience to share. “I’m in my mid-30s, and I never thought I wouldn’t be a mother by now,” she said, visibly emotional. “I’m very surprised in my own life.”
That earnest and honest discussion on motherhood was a highlight of the show, part of the four-episode production that airs on OWN in August and September. Focusing on the intimate chats that often happen far away from the camera’s glare, the series brings four celebrities and 100 Black women together in Atlanta for each episode to discuss issues that most matter to them — from beauty and love to the yearnings of the mind, body and soul. The project builds on past OZY television series, from the groundbreaking town hall series Take on America to the provocative debate show Third Rail.
Apart from Bathe and Sloan, the panelists for the motherhood episode included political commentator and lawyer Angela Rye and California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. During a segment on surrogacy, Rye revealed how she froze her eggs while she was going through a breakup with rapper Common. Burke Harris — the first surgeon general of any U.S. state — outlined one of her priorities in office as helping increase awareness of the impact early childhood trauma can have on future health issues in life.
Yet perhaps the most revelatory moments of the evening were when the women in the audience — representing a wide variety of ages, cultures and upbringings — spoke up, telling stories of the oddities and challenges of motherhood.
There was Lisa, for example, who had four children from three fathers across three different decades. Despite divorce and separation, they all remain close, with each parent seeing their children regularly. That unconventional lifestyle has allowed her to have more of her own time. “It’s great because I get to explore things that are important to me,” she said.
And there was April, who was born into a county correctional facility, her mother a criminal and her father killed while she was in the womb. April has had nine babies, having her first at 16 years old. “I didn’t have much to give them,” says the 38-year-old, who had her last child when she was 31. But she has battled against the odds to grow as a mother. Her youngest children have “feelings buckets” at home to place notes in when they want to express their emotions. Regarding her older children, she said, “I was not a mom. I was a 16-year-old who gave birth.”
The conversation got heated too, as the panelists and guests discussed the choice of becoming parents. Danielle, a member of the audience, summed up her predicament succinctly: “I’m a millennial. And I live in Atlanta … This is what they call the belly of the beast,” she said, saying that she often wonders if dates are looking for a sugar mama rather than a true partner. “When I go on dates with men, I’m expected to pay.” When thinking about whether to have a kid, she said she would need to be sure she could raise the child on her own, because “in this day and age, I feel like that’s kind of normal.”
That’s when Rye urged Danielle to know that she didn’t have to settle, unless she truly wanted to. “And definitely don’t pay the bill!” she added, to peals of laughter. But as April tearfully pointed out, many women don’t have options. “I didn’t decide to be a mom at all,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily understand the choices I was getting into.”
The most moving moment of the evening came when Burke Harris teared up while referring to April’s story. “Anybody judging or blaming you, when much of the environment dramatically changes the odds … you don’t deserve to be judged.” Then, she walked over to the mother of nine children and the two women embraced, each sobbing. “We’re always healing … it’s an ongoing journey,” Burke Harris told April.
Another tough topic was spanking. Sloan said she didn’t know if she would spank as a mother. “There were times when I was like, ‘Oooh, I earned this ass-whooping.’”
Burke Harris, who is also a pediatrician, added: “I get it: historically, for African Americans, immediate compliance could be a matter of life or death.” But she continued by saying that, in the end, spanking brings more trouble. “What we know is that it changes brain development, the immune system, hormonal system.” For Bathe, whose grandmother had an abusive husband, the decision to spank or not came down to a fear of perpetuating a cycle of violence. “For me, it was like … that’s not a fire I’m willing to play with.”
How can women be great mothers? There are a number of answers, each particular to one’s circumstance. But one of the most resounding of answers came from Sloan’s mother, Mary Ann Hill, who had her when she was just 21, and who was in the audience. “I was growing up also,” Hill said. “So I had to learn different skill sets.”
She remembered that in order to get her children to be polite, she had to treat them politely as well. “So I started saying ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘yes, sir,’ when they were little people.” The lesson? “Sometimes you have to give for them to reciprocate.” It was just one small moment of wisdom, in a night full of them.