The Small Spaces that Love us Back: Black Motherhood and our Humanity


Photo by Nicholas Githiri from Pexels

I was thinking recently how sometimes, our children may be the only ones in the world who truly, see, feel, understand and respond to our humanity. And while children always have a unique perspective on their primary caretakers, I can imagine that especially as black women, our children may be the only ones.

“Ok, mom, don’t get tired”

My baby said those words to me as I was leaving the house one day. My child barely comes up to my waist and is only beginning to put full sentences and conversations together, but on that day, when I said “Mommy is leaving, I love you honey” my baby said “I love you too. Don’t get tired.” Those little words. That normalcy of that observation. The tiny little voice caring for me. Brought back all the flashes of how even at this young age my child had seen me with weariness and vulnerability that few ever see, and if they do, even fewer would respond to.

The times my child has seen me fall flat on my face on my bed after battling the world for my and our survival. The times that my child had to be aware of all the tired in me, and be witness to my exhaustion, frequently left with the remaining scraps of myself after so many pieces are scraped out of me every day.

To the rest of the world — especially as a black woman — you are only as good as what you put out, only as valuable and what you provide to others. And only valuable so long as you do not show any cracks. On Plantations people had to find lots of ways of hiding being tired, pushing through the exhaustion, delivering on what was demanded of us, if not we would be punished, traded, discarded or whatever else they felt like doing once we were no longer useful or interesting.

I have grown up knowing that my “weaknesses” are not to be on display. No one sees me tired, and God knows you never let them see you broken. I perk up, I pick up, I do some more, until I get the opportunity to somehow duck away from that soul snatching attention for a moment. To show such weariness out in the world is still dangerous for me. When you are tired, when you are human, you are worthless, you are discarded, you are garbage. I am skilled at denying my own rest for the purposes of labor production and I have layers of mechanisms to hide any evidence of wear and tear.

But with a child, especially a small one, they exist in all your quiet spaces. They are present with you when others would be absent. They absorb you, they know you, they see you, they love you. They are witness to you in ways that you may otherwise shield yourself from others. When my child said “ok don’t be tired” was when I saw something reflected back to me that felt like a deep part of my intimacy and my vulnerability. It pained me to feel that my kid is witness and subject to my “cracks”. It felt sad to me to witness how much the world takes from me and then I come back home and sometimes I only have emptiness and scraps to give back to the ones I love most. I felt loved to see how even this little one still in diapers, had a depth of humanity to care about me and think about me in ways that are all too rare for me in the outside world. And I felt sad that my child would have to learn to carry this too.

“Shhh, lay your head — it’s ok. I’m here”

A related aspect of my child seeing me in rough spots is my child also learning how to respond to them. One night as I lay exhausted, body weary, head pounding, my child watching a show — this little person wrapped their tiny arms around my head, told me to lay my head on their lap, gently patted my face and said “shhh, its ok mommy. It’s ok.”

This moment gave me a double reflection of the type of vulnerable care and loving my child receives from me and how this child is trying to take care of me. Trying to heal me, trying to make me ok. Trying to love me as I love them. And it was powerfully comforting. I saw this child channeling this love into toys and dolls as well. Holding a baby doll and saying “shhh, it’s ok mama’s here” while patting the dolls back. Witnessing that love and tenderness was alarming, and endearing and terrifying. I saw my true love reflected back to me, a love that I tried not to make directly visible to anyone else. A vulnerability I guarded with all of myself so as to not get hurt. But here was this person not only full of that most sacred love, but also giving it out. Giving it back to me and back to other things in their life. That was painfully powerful in ways that touched vulnerable spots in my heart that I am not used to having be seen.

I thought about Diamond Reynolds, and her 4 year old little baby girl when Philando Castile was shot. I thought about how as Diamond was reeling from this and had been inhumanely handcuffed and put in the back of the police car of the policeman who had just murdered her fiancé in cold blood. I thought about how Diamond’s little daughter’s tender voice said to her “It’s ok mommy. I’m here. It’s ok.” I thought about how deeply that little girl was loved by Diamond, I thought about how deeply that little one loved her mama, Diamond, back and how even being a child still fitting into a car seat, how powerfully she wanted to use her love to save, and protect her mother from the monsters in the world, from the monster that had immediately stolen someone they loved from them. I thought about how the only ones being human or showing love to either of them in that utmost inhumane moment was them — this 4 year old child, and her mother Diamond.

I thought about generations of our own mothers coming back to us this way. I thought of my own warrior mother, and the scars on her that I was witness to as a child and how in so many ways I tried to protect her from them. Protect her from the monsters that tried to hurt her as well. I thought of the countless ways that we as black children, and then as a black mother have sometimes been the only witness or only channel of that humanity and love in some of the most difficult times. And it is with grave humanity, connection, beauty, responsibility, joy, honor, that I am recognizing this legacy within myself and my little one.

Protecting the Ones we Love

I’ve also thought about how fiercely some of us have worked to nurture and protect this love. I thought about in the show Underground, every single one of those mothers sacrificed so much, found so much strength, became capable of so much more for the sake of protecting the ones they loved. I saw how their children and families were the only points of humanity in a disastrous world in a hellish landscape. I thought about Korryn Gaines, and how to her last dying breath before the police officers murdered her in her house, she made sure to protect her 5 year old boy. I thought about how fierce this protection is and can be.

And I thought about all the ways they try to take this preciousness, this connection, this love away from us. They make us hyper vigilant, they demonize our babies. They build in a culture where our children are not allowed to be children, they are not allowed to be precious or cherished. And in fact we live in a world where it can be dangerous for our children to be treated so. Recently I’ve seen discussions trying to get people in the black community to stop spanking children. They connect it to slavery legacies, and how black people would beat their children so that the children would not be beaten harder by the slave master or overseers. Trying to prepare children for a cruel world, by getting them accustomed to cruelty and creating strains in our most intimate relationships. And how navigating black motherhood is to constantly walk a tightrope through minefields of judgment.

I’ve thought about the assimilation schools, where they stole indigenous children and put them in missionary schools to strip away their indigeneity, and take them away from their humanity and love connections. How they would steal our children before the age of 2 to settle their own debts or feed animals. How monstrous these beings have been and how they try to take what is most precious, over and over and over again. How when they murdered Charleena Lyles, in her house after she called for help, they first shot her in the heart then immediately fired several shots into her pregnant belly…they wanted to destroy her child. How foster systems are overpopulated with black and brown children, how we are punished for letting our children play in parks while we work, as white families get praised for “free range parenting.”

I thought about the power of the love we can have with us and how terrifying that vulnerability is, how precarious it is, how beautiful it is, and how powerful it is. And I come back to my little child, and know how precious this little one is, and how powerful and beautiful this love is, and how much I would do for this world to be something else for this loved and loving one. I feel the enormity of what this is and I know, I want to protect this love, the sanctity of this humanity and love. I know I want this to be a world where these quiet moments are not the only times that we black women, black mothers, black ones can truly be loved.

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