By Shantae Johnson
I never wanted to become a statistic, another young, single black woman with a baby. The same day I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn son at 20 years old, I found out his father was incarcerated and would be for many years after that. I felt doomed and pigeonholed into being labeled unworthy of this new status in womanhood called motherhood. My family did not let me forget either, that I was unworthy of this choice and parenthood was simply not for me. I worked part-time, was a freshman at a community college and living on my own with roommates, barely supporting myself.
Our ideas of who should be a mother and who should not is shaped by what society tells us is right. Many women are haunted by the one prototype of what being a family and mother is supposed to be: a married parental unit, homeowners and careers established. This is so unrealistic and difficult for many families to uphold, let alone me.
As a black woman I did not realize then how much institutionalized racism overlapped into my reproductive rights, but I felt the brunt of judgment constantly being passed. The Atlantic Slave trade has largely shaped how we view black women as mothers. Black women were bred like cattle and separated from their newborn babies, all for the sake of capitalism and the feeling of supremacy. Black women have mothered and wet nursed other women’s babies for generations, but still are deemed unworthy to mother their own. And if you happen to choose not to parent and have an abortion, your choice is labeled as a form of black genocide. When is a black women’s body her own? Reproductive Justice is a family and mamas social movement. It is about the right to parent, adopt, or even have an abortion.
When you carry a womb with you, you carry and give birth to a different personal experience and become a vessel for your mother’s stories all while creating your own. You see, I never knew my story started before me with my mother’s mother and so on. We are shaped by the hands that caress us while at the breast, wipe tears and bandage our wounds.
My parents met through their mothers’ friendship. My Grandmothers both worked at the shipyards in Portland Oregon, one white with 8 children and the other African-American with 14 children. Who knew that their children would come together and become a family of their own?
My father, a young 19-year-old wanting to explore the Northwest, ventured from his Texas roots and came to work alongside his mother and aunt in the Oregon Shipyards. My mother at 16 was the baby of eight siblings and one of the last children in her mother’s home, and she was looking for love in all the wrong places. She was a pretty young lady with long chocolate hair like silk and a slender frame. While my grandmother was on her second marriage and honeymoon in Hawaii, she left my uncle and mother to fend for themselves for a month. During this time, I was conceived, and upon my grandmother’s return she found a pregnant daughter that she decided was grown and kicked her out of the house. My mother was disowned by her father for having a relationship with a black man and getting pregnant by him. She was kicked out of her home and left to work it out with my father. My father was not ready and they had a very treacherous relationship full of domestic violence.
Too often our mother’s stories are not valued and we become so egocentric that we disregard our mothers as human beings who had dreams, disappointments, and experiences that shaped their lives. And then, those same experiences sometimes manifest in our own values of what and who should be called a mother.
Who was your mother as a young woman and what is her story? We often place blame for all the disappointments of life that we experienced as if they are a result of coming through her womb, as opposed to what society says a good mother is or is not. Motherhood is labeled a job undeserving of recognition and praise. I have been guilty of punishing my mother with harsh words and undeserving attitude based upon the stigma of society’s mama.
Today I’m the proud mother of Rico 10, Naimah 6, my stepsons Shakia 7 and Elias 4. I will be birthing my third child at home in July. Being someone’s mama is a part of who I am, but does not define who I be. I have heard the saying many times, ‘you are a mother, it’s not about you anymore and your dreams don’t matter.’ When do they matter? Every mother is not just a mother, she is a human being first. I’m a doula, midwifery student, breastfeeding peer counselor, poet, social activist, and Backline talk line advocate.
I have seen the tears of mothers in the lobbies of prison visiting rooms, wiped the brows of laboring women, been a listening ear to girlfriends in need of support from their partners, heard “I don’t know what to do” when they receive no child support, but keep going to college or working a job they don’t want at all to make a way for them and their babies. I have offered a space for women deciding about whether to parent or not, without judgment.
I have learned that a mother is an advocate, cheerleader, chef, travel agent, counselor, and a healer. I choose to support women in all that I do because I see the value in community capital. I hear the voice of my grandmothers to keep on keepin’ on. I feel that by helping others, I’m only helping myself to push beyond my expectations, grow and learn from life’s experiences. Every woman deserves support wherever she is in her journey. My own journey of motherhood has shaped me and made me into the woman I am today. Dreams are not always deferred because of motherhood, just another path chosen.
Shantae Johnson is a doula, a mama, breastfeeding counselor, and volunteers as a Talk Line Advocate with Backline. Advocates provide unbiased and unconditional support before, during and after your pregnancy experience, no matter which options you are considering or what decisions you make. For more information please visit www.yourbackline.org or call the talk line at 1.888.493.0092.