For Black Women, There's More Than One Way To Be a 'Mother'

I was mothered by women throughout my community, and I became a mother long before I ever gave birth. For us, the legacy of Black motherhood is expansive and cooperative. It's a collective journey.

Family enjoying backyard barbecue
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When I was twenty-one years old, one of my high school best friends had a baby. She, another bestie, and I had been inseparable since 9th grade. Until that moment, we had approached everything as a collective—what we wore, who we dated, how we celebrated our milestones. So it was inconceivable that she would go through parenthood without us. It was simple, we all had a kid now.

We would figure it out, show up for her—babysit, buy diapers— do whatever was lacking. Years before my son ever called me, "mommy," I learned how to mother through the art of kinship, simply because it was needed and also because it had been modeled for me by virtually every Black woman I knew.

Motherhood showed up in my life in many ways through the women who supplemented my own upbringing: I stayed with my aunt every summer through high school, my grandmother took me in so I could finish high school with my friends after my mother had to relocate for work, and my older sister looked out for me as we grew up.

Motherhood is something we have practiced and perfected for generations as a means to survive. For Black women, a huge part of our legacy is rooted in the act of motherhood whether we have given birth or not.

- Ashley Simpo

"Black motherhood, in all its various forms, represents safety, protection, and respite for generations of people who could find it nowhere else."

— - Ashley Simpo

Within Black communities, mothers and caretakers have complicated roles. We have upheld the continuation of family through the seen and unseen devastation of systemic oppression. Black motherhood, in all its various forms, represents safety, protection, and respite for generations of people who could find it nowhere else.

Tap the shoulders of anyone in our community and ask them if they had a "play cousin" who stayed at their house, or an extra "sibling" who always had a place at their table, or an auntie who they can't quite trace biologically. We all have these stories. This, too, is the legacy of Black motherhood.

With this legacy, this great expectation, comes a hard truth. Black women have shouldered so much, that the idea of motherhood has often felt crushing. For Black women, mothering is accompanied by a lack of resources, the strain of patriarchy, the maternal health crisis, and the pressure to be stronger than everyone in the room.

I look around and often see how the words "Black mother" have become associated with pain, struggle, and fear. The idea that women must eventually have their own children simply because it's a societal expectation has begun to be widely dismissed. And, even though birth rates have steadily declined over the last decade or so, the need for community has not.

To every Black woman who may be standing at the threshold of motherhood, wondering how she might fare or even if she wants it, I want to say this: there is more than one way to be a mother, and all of them matter. Each role of motherhood is a vital part of Black history and more importantly, women's history.

I often think about some of the Black women we look up to—like Shirley Chisholm, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison—who may not have marked our history books without support through late nights and long days, without someone caring for their children as a collective effort.

I wonder, if they'd had to truly do it alone, how much we would miss their incredible voices and historical contributions. Their lived experiences are the very reason so many Black women are ceaselessly ambitious today. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to raise a mother, as well. And conversely, it takes a mother to raise a community.

The legacy of motherhood that every Black body carries within itself is one I feel constantly empowered by. It's something I remind every woman I know of, especially those who have not yet found their place in parenthood or who confidently choose not to be parents at all. I want them to know how important they are even if an ignorant society believes their work is not done because they haven't felt the labor of childbirth.

I always ask, "How are you showing up for the children in your life? The mothers that you know?" As Black women, our collective objective is survival not just for the sake of being alive, but for the sake of happiness, health, and emotional wellness. The idea that we are meaningless until we give birth undermines a historical truth— that every Black woman alive is a mother to her community in some way.

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