To Write About the Living: Excerpts from “Mothering”

This piece was offered as a reading / storytelling piece for Mothering, “a program of performances queering the construction of mothering as an action rather than an assigned and gendered role”, organized by artist Amina Ross, hosted by Compound Yellow.  

It is hard to write about the dead. And it is hard to write about the living. To offer a rendering of them that is not solely romanticized, not solely demonized. To tell you that, like everyone else, they were-are complex. To express how the complexity showed up in them… “as told by” me.

My biological mother is alive and has recently discovered emojis.

My “other-mothers” – women who took me to school and picked me up when my mother worked early morning to late in the evening, women who enabled my sweet tooth by teaching me to make strawberry icebox pie & buying cream puffs each Thursday for an after-dinner treat – both dead. Cancer, both times.

For a long time, I have been pondering how to share “mother” with the world, hoping that by providing some kind of access, the world might better understand me. Hoping that I might better understand myself. What you are about to hear are some snippets of things I have written throughout the years and in recent months – perhaps we can connect these pieces, together…

*Names have been changed & in some instances, facts include fiction to protect those living who deserve this protection

I was 13 when I found out that my Mother hates Mother’s’ Day.
“Because who can REALLY say who the day is for, who is a mother & who is not, who qualifies to get a card & who does not? And why should I be asked to choose whom to celebrate: my mother or my mother in law – spending the day with one OR the other? And if I’m spending the day with them, then how shall my children celebrate me?!”


Those who do not know my mother might think this is about the logistics of a holiday. But I know better. There was a critique in the tone of conversation – just missing the words that I use in written posts & during brunch with my friends:
“on capitalism and adding profit to reproductive capability, on policing modes of mothering & leaving out or being forced to choose among with Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘other-mothers’, on the patriarchy my father had internalized – asking her to relinquish her time with her mother (a biological mother of one) so that she could be more present to the celebrations with his mother (a biological mother of 8)”

Years later, when I’d come home from grad school, I would try such words out on my mother and she’d listen if it caught her interest. I would try them with my Grandmother and she’d up from her coffee, slowly, saying, “Jadey Mae, you’re talking so good but I don’t know what you’re talking about”. Needless to say, this changed my public, externally-facing writing style.

At 13, I learned that after presenting Mom with her card, I could go over my friend’s house and eat the slightly under-seasoned food that their barely teen aged children prepared for them. I would place my napkin neatly in my lap and say, “Happy Mothers Day, Mrs. Stevens”, as she opened up the gifts that her children bought her. She opened them slowly, animated, delighted, and tickled to find whatever was resting in the bottom of the bag.

Age 9 – Philadelphia, PA – Sunday Morning – Church Name: Redacted.
As we walked in, the ushers held out one box of white roses and one box of red roses. “If your mother has passed, please take a white rose. If your mother is alive, please take a red rose.” I asked, “Which mother?” They looked at me as if it wasn’t a shared cultural practice to be raised by multiple women, femmes, femme-identified persons, non binary persons…

And how could I take that red rose when my friend Valerie, also 9 years old, was left with the option of the white rose, pinned to her chest – a reminder. I decided that if I ever had a church, a church of misfit mystics looking for the Divine, there would be no red or white rose choices. Take a flower, if you’d like. Leave a flower, if you’d like.

I was still regularly going to church when I was 19. I was trying to find a theology that fit this spiritual eclecticism that I was quickly encountering inside of myself. “On this Sunday, we want to acknowledge all of the mothers.” Let us say that by 19, I’d inherited the side eye of my mother.

The pastor said, “If you are a mother, would you please stand to be acknowledged.”

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck…” I whispered this under my breath… briefly considering whether I should begin speaking in tongues lest Mother Gail hear me cussin’ in the sanctuary. (I didn’t. Some things you just don’t play with).

As much as I tried to block out the voice of my mother in my head, she was there just the same: “Because who can REALLY say who the day is for, who is a mother & who is not, who qualifies to get a card & who does not?”

What about my friend Alicia? She had a baby that year but they shamed her during the pregnancy because she was unmarried. Should she now stand to be acknowledged by the same people? What about Mrs. Dempsey? She asked us to pray that she and her husband conceive this year but if she didn’t stand this year then…

…And my godmother, who didn’t want to be partnered. She called my mother every day with updates on how the adoption process was going. It seemed like all things were moving ahead, but her son just wasn’t here yet. The women who were biological mothers and did not want to be. The persons who mothered past time, space, and even biology.

“WHO APPROVED THIS?”

I thought I said it in my mind but then I heard my friend lean over and say, “Chiiiiiile…”

Now, I am closer to 30 than I am to 19 and it has crystallized in some ways for me, as it did for my mother. Mothering is complex and contextual. There are nuances upon nuances, and nuances beneath those. There are those of us who have had to learn, as Audre Lorde said, “to mother ourselves” (1) – maybe at certain points in our lives and maybe our entire lives (2).

I’ve decided to contact my mother after the dust has settled from reading this piece. Currently, we are struggling to decide who gets to mother me. For there are some moments where I really need her to mother me. And there are other moments where… [redacted]. I believe this is what we have been arguing about lately, even though it typically masquerades as being about faith, spirituality, living arrangements, or a piece of juicy gossip that a stepsister told her regarding one of my post on Facebook.

Yet, I want to know more about my mother because of her life before me, her oldest, and because her face implies that she has stories that she hasn’t told quite yet. When I call her, I think I’m going to say, “I know that you hate this day. But I also know that you appreciate a call on this day.  Life sets up such delicious ironies. And none of them are comfortable with being denied”.

1. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. Berkeley: The Crossing Press, 1984.

2. Gumbs, A.P. (2010). “We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996” (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/