A Pedagogy of Black Mothering: Literally and in Practice

All rights belong to Dr. Kami Fletcher

Take a good long hard look at that picture above.  What do you see?  Do you merely see a mother and child?  Are you gazing upon a woman, smiling, with her infant child lulled to sleep in a carrier?  Eyeing the dry erase board that takes up most of the picture, are you watching someone celebrate the triumph of both teaching and mothering at the same time?  Are you staring at a representation of Black motherhood unbeknownst to some? After careful consideration, of presumably symbolic posturing, do you find yourself studying the dichotomous if not tenuous nature between the workforce and motherhood?  Are you indeed surveying the reason why we need paid maternity leave?  Just what do you see?

I’m asking because when I posted this picture to Facebook (and tagged my lifemate Myron), one of his FB friends (let’s just call her Elizabeth) made the following comment: “You go, mama! (But as an aside: parents in the US need and deserve paid maternity/paternity leave! We need to catch up to the rest of the world.”  Apparently she saw the issue of workforce discrimination against mothers brought to the forefront.  Our society has constructed femininity to oppress and marginalize women within the workforce and constructed motherhood to eradicate us right out of it.  Absolutely! But me…proudly wearing my cutie while imparting knowledge into my students was a symbol of workplace discrimination against mothers and why we need paid maternity leave?  Really?  She saw that in my picture??

But as someone trained in the field of Women’s Studies, I realized that it was not the picture of me wearing my cutie that was in question. By use of the language “You go, mama!” Elizabeth was not even denying my agency and power.  No. Elizabeth had just sought to call out the obvious – the narrative in which I had been inserted.  Although at the micro level, I see me – a professor who routinely takes her children to class to office hours, and campus culturally enriching events, on the macro level the narrative that I am inserted is mothering/motherhood vs. workforce/outside-of-the home labor.

Historically women were relegated to the domestic sphere and men to the public sphere for the very reason that all women were socialized to be mothers – for the primary function of nurturing and raising children.  At the very base of our society’s definition, mothering includes the act of birthing and raising kids which was done in the home and not outside of it and furthermore could not, apparently, be done in conjunction with labor within the workforce. This further reinforced the idea that mothers were to the workforce like oil to water – the two just do not mix.  (Just google the phrase “mothers discriminated against in the workplace” and you will see tons!  My search yielded 157,000 results in 0.47 seconds.)

In this society we give persons who incubate and birth children the term mother.  So for me, mothering is not this socialized notion of innate nurturing whereby as someone sexed female I “instinctively” become a nurturer.  No.  For me, mothering is more of a continued care, a care that is learned over a time – started at conception, takes shape through pregnancy, and continues throughout the child’s life.  In practice this care is illustrated by the time I spent with my sons, which includes my place of work.

It is a privilege for me to do mothering where I am able to combine the home and work sphere at a time when mothers are unsupported by their workplace.  So Elizabeth’s comments rightfully remind me that although I see myself mothering in a very special and unique way, mothering is forever complicated and political.  Although the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 established leave for pregnant and postpartum women, the job is still not guaranteed.  While out on what they thought was secured 6-week maternity leave, both of my sisters-in-law found that they had been replaced in their paid positions.

In academia, many female scholars are told that “serious scholars” are not mothers.  This idea stems from the sexist workplace in which it is planted that still tells mothers they should be home with their babies leaving those unattached from the “emotional worries” and “emotional duties” of motherhood [that will supposedly cloud their judgment (please insert side eye)] to do the intellectual work of higher education.  Not only having my son in my place of work but teaching with him flies in the face of that. I see myself rebelliously mothering in academia, a profession that routinely discourages professors from becoming mothers and shaming professors if they do.

I see myself doing Black mothering – a mothering that is both informed by historical notions and representations of Black motherhood and a result of the Black experience in this country.  Beginning with slavery, Black motherhood has been framed in a way that attempted to isolate and alienate Black women from their own children. We have been labeled breeders in relationship to our own children and therefore exploited and forced to be wet nurses to the children of the slaveholding class.  Doing Black mothering proudly claims the title of motherhood that we were once denied.

Thinking and looking back at the opening picture, within this context of higher education whereby my infant child is soaking up a knowledge of self (literally because I am teaching African American history here), my Black mothering is activism, agency, POWER!

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Comments on “A Pedagogy of Black Mothering: Literally and in Practice

  • I hadn’t thought of it before but unpaid maternity leave and not guaranteeing your job when you come back is discrimination to all mothers. It’s difficult to reform these types of human needs if it’s gonna result in lose of profits to capitalism.

    • I think that many workplaces are on a collision course with the family. Mothers as women face discrimination, and fathers who want to be true partners in parenthood get little support for doing so. In reality, unpaid parental leave is for both parents, yet studies in my field of sociology have shown that fathers who take paternity leave are seen by their coworkers as taking some kind of vacation or lacking in ambition or lazy. Their primary interest is supposed to be their careers even after they have children.

      To me all of this says that in all kinds of work, including academic work, we are still operating under the old model of dichotomous roles for women and men in the family (with the exception of slave families and black families post slavery). It is ironic that the majority of Americans support equal pay for women, yet still do not understand other issues related to parenthood and work. We have a lot of work to do, no pun intended.

  • This is an interesting editorial that explains what many of us have experienced in Academia. As a wife and mother of two daughters, I had an adequate amount of maternity leave. Yet, the challenge for me were the early years of negotiating article and book development, my dissertation defense, and course scheduling. It was ridiculous to remind older women of my challenges, who themselves had walked my path. Out of everything I experienced, the biggest disappointment for me was their indifference. I vowed never to treat a younger woman in that manner. And I am winning, as I haven’t and I won’t.

  • I am a Father. A father who takes pride in knowing that I was present at the births of all my children, 5 to be exact. I am in the military and so they only authorize Fathers a limited amount of time, 10 days, of paternity leave. Anything beyond that you will have to use your accrued time (up to 30 days but it is also Command dependent). and you have to start it within 60 days after the child’s birth. This is the Army’s way of saying they support Soldiers who are mothers. But the amount of pressure placed on women to get back into compliance is unrealistic. We (the U.S.) have a long way to go as it relates to motherhood in the workplace. I believe in the Power of a strong Family unit. That leads to strong communities, strong cities and states, and a Strong Nation… But it all begins with Mothers, the Backbone of our existence.

  • Wow! I had to write in and tell you how much I love this post! Powerful! “Black Mothering is activism, agency, POWER!” I always say ” Every child deserves a happy and healthy mother” Let’s also add employed to that list as well! Thank you for addressing this topic! A mother should never have to compromise her time with her children to care for her children.

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