I Was ‘Black While Mothering’ Today…
My husband and I have three gorgeous children. Our oldest will be six next month. Our youngest just arrived last month. We were married in 2006 after dating for three years. We are college sweethearts. Next spring, we will celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. And, if you did the math, that means that all of our children were born in wedlock. They were planned. They were and are wanted. They are the best things God has ever blessed us with. Ever.
But, everyday, living in Orange County, California, I am reminded that my story, though beautiful and non-unique, will never be what is expected or assumed of me. Every side eye I get, every judgmental stare shames me. Yes, shame works that way. It can be evoked even from people who have nothing to be ashamed of. Why? Well, because I’m black. It’s just that simple. Being black while (insert most things) can result in shame, personal harm, or even death. For me, it’s usually shame. And, sadly, it has become another one of those ‘things’ I have normalized.
From the picture above, you may notice that I am taller than my husband. At six feet four inches tall, I am taller than most people. He and I started as best friends and never thought of dating until our love smacked us each in our respective craniums. Me being taller than him has never been an issue mainly because he is the foinest thing I have ever seen on two legs. I like to think he thinks the same thing about me. But, beyond that, my husband is a brilliant, understated man. He endures my insane ways and manages to do it with a genuine smile. And, he is the absolute best father I could have ever wanted for my children. Everyday he tries to improve himself and our household. We each take our responsibility as parents incredibly seriously. Sometimes too seriously. But, our kids are worth it to us.
We both grew up without our fathers in the household. For different reasons and circumstances, we both struggled for years with having positive relationships with them. And, for me, I have had a long bumpy road with my parents. I am proud to say that, today, all is well for both of us.
But, because we haven’t had the picturesque life everyone hopes for, we have a deep desire to be the best parents possible to our children. We have an incredible appreciation for our mothers (and other single mothers out there) because they worked so hard to make us who we are today. Our parental tenets are our love letters to each other everyday.
So, one would think everything is perfect behind this picket fence? Right? It would be safe to assume that since we did everything the “right” or “conventional” way, we never deal with marginalization or judgment. Right? Wrong. We endure it everyday. Even simple daily chores are intimidating and even scary at times.
Orange County is predominantly white. It has the highest population of Republicans in the country. And, blacks are a tiny minority here. My husband grew up here, just about five minutes from where we bought our home. The city of Orange, in the northern part of the county, is right next to Anaheim – known for its hockey and baseball teams. It is fair to say we are a long way from Kansas (in some alternate universe where Kansas is a utopian society of hipster black folks like us). We knew all this when we chose to put our roots down here. We wanted our kids in good schools and safe neighborhoods. But, we never considered the racialized byproducts of that lifestyle. And, we never thought about what it would be like to be the only black family in our neighborhood.
What’s it like for my family at the local park? Well, the kids always have fun. I usually stroll up to a park filled with children. They are usually white and Asian. And, while all of the parents speak to one another, they rarely speak to me. After living here for almost six years and visiting the park over 100 times, I can count on one hand the number of times someone spoke with me jovially at the park. And, I can count on two hands the number of times other children did the same with my children.
Whenever I take the children to the park alone, without my husband, groups of women never return my glance or smile. Instead, they look at me once and return to their conversation. I have had people glance at my ring finger hoping to disprove their core thesis developed in their mind about me. When they see my gorgeous wedding set, I see the relief flow over their furrowed eyebrows and wrinkled foreheads. “Oh, so she isn’t one of the ‘them’,” I imagine them reciting in their minds.
But, when I’m pregnant, I don’t wear my wedding set. It’s then that I become the welfare mom. I become the uneducated moocher sex-machine only good for procreation. The furrows and wrinkles don’t go away. Instead, they become scowls and whispers. I’ve even had an older white male shake his head at me in disapproval. Truthfully, we aren’t even in the nicest part of Orange County. That part is reserved for millionaires and would-be reality TV stars. So, the judgment seems a little obtuse. But, it permeates nonetheless.
The weirdest thing about our trips to the park (which is a three minute walk from our front door) is the reaction to my children from the other kids. And, maybe I shouldn’t say children. My oldest son is extremely gregarious and people – of all races – are drawn to him. My daughter, on the other hand, is a very tall two year-old who doesn’t have a complete command of the English language yet (as would be expected of her cohort). She is playful, smart, and sweet. And, though she is taller than most two year-olds, we relegate her to the same structure as other kids her age.
Usually, when we arrive, the structure is just busting with 2 to 5 year-olds. On the slides, the stairs, they’re everywhere. But, within about ten minutes of my daughter climbing on, the structure seems to clear out. The eyes from other parents and children are impossible to miss. Its like they are all wondering, “Is she going to play here? Where does she live?” Sometimes I just want to scream, “We are from here too. We live right there. Look, you can see our house. It has four bedrooms. We have two cars. We have good jobs and 401ks. I went to USC for goodness sake!” But, I never say that. I just try to have tunnel vision, staring at my kids to keep the eyes out of my line of sight.
Today was no different than usual. Unwelcoming glances greeted my daughter, my newborn son, and I as we strolled leisurely into the park. Me, clad in an out-of-season sun dress, side bun, and caplet. Baby girl in a turquoise ensemble and purple furry jacket and hat. We certainly didn’t look low brow or suspicious. Before we left home, I made sure to put on my wedding bands. And, it seemed like it might actually be a good visit because an Asian man with his small child and stroller waved at us on our pre-park walk.
But, as we entered the park, the stares started – mainly from the white moms. They watched us walk-in never returning my smile. And, as my daughter played, they slowly cleared their children away and moved toward the swings. I endured it for fifteen minutes before making up an excuse to get my baby girl to get back in the stroller to go home. That was when things got a little different than usual. As I walked along the walkway to exit the park, the two unwelcoming young women from before watched me leave. I glanced back to see if we had left anything to find them both surveying us as we walked past their diaper bags on a nearby bench.
I wondered what they were looking at. I thought, “Maybe I just caught them looking at their own bags.” But, I knew better. They were looking at the black mom. They were watching to see if I was walking to the nearby homes or getting in a car to drive to some “other” neighborhood. They were watching to make sure I left their place of solace and sanctity. They were just watching. Cause people like me need to be watched.
I have learned to just wait until my husband comes home to take the kids to the park just so we will all have an enjoyable experience. But, I don’t think I will ever shake the feeling that I just don’t belong here even though, for all intents and purposes, I do. I pay my mortgage and exorbitant property taxes. I have wonderful neighbors (who are white and Asian) who are welcoming, jovial, friendly, and downright pleasant. But, 100 of them will never outweigh the scorn of a few.
Mothering while black in Orange County is one of the hardest things I do everyday. I find myself apologizing for things I have never done, explaining away offenses I am guiltless of, and running down my list of accolades to prove I am a fit mom. Going to the grocery store sometimes feels like standing before a platoon of soldiers waiting to knock me down to size. I feel shame all the time.
This, like many things, is something that whites may never understand. These underlying judgments are of the same ilk as those responsible for Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Russell Davis. They make it so that I never want my husband to grab the mail after dark. They make it so that I avoid malls and parks without the protection of my boo. I never mean for my children’s playtime, or our running errands to become social experiments. It just happens that way. These are the ‘things’ I’m talking about. These are the things.
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