The Black Mothering Body, Fortified
In creating new life, Black mothers must overcome medical malpractice and social unsafety together.
Something strange happens to time when you become pregnant. Suddenly you understand how long a week really is. How short it is.
I faithfully kept time as the weeks progressed: “Our baby is the size of a grapefruit!” “Their fingernails are fully developed!” You count time up and down, willing it to both slow and quicken. Even your heart beats faster, keeping yours and this new life on and in time. Prior to becoming pregnant, immersed in my successful communications and marketing career, with a flourishing freelance writing hustle, I decided to begin doula studies. The topic has always felt close to me, and I’ve long wanted to care for someone who came from me.
Back home in Ethiopia, my grandmother was the local midwife, and she taught me much about birthing babies and mothers. I was struck by a passage in my required reading: “Postpartum is forever.” Society puts so much focus on recovering after birth, but can you ever really recover? Stitches will dissolve, tears will heal, and in due time, it won’t feel like you’ve run three consecutive marathons. The hormonal acne will (hopefully) clear, the postpartum hair loss will ease, and your body will eventually reach its new homeostasis.
In creating new life, you are made new. You’re initiated into a long line of life-givers, of people trying to make sense of their own bodies and souls while caring for the newest among us. But how do we separate the husk of Motherhood from the grain of our own respective interiorities? “There isn’t really any ‘going back,’” says Bee Quammie, a culture writer and mother of two daughters. “You enter a new physical and mental space, and that lasts forever.”
My son, now 14 months old, is proudly planted in the toddler phase, and I still refer to myself as a new mom. My own mothering body feels like an ancient collision of the old and new, a magical tragedy that has repeated itself billions of times. Since becoming pregnant and giving birth, my body has been a source of near constant internal dialogue. I am in awe of its ability to sustain and nourish us both, and I mourn feeling at home in my own flesh and blood. Our bones move differently, our skin feels different, our blood has been made thicker by the weighty fact that we have produced the next link in history.
“There’s a duality to my existence,” says Yamri Taddese, a CBC Radio producer whose son is 2. “I am forever attached to someone else.” I now look at the mothers around me through a different, more knowing lens—seeing and wanting to be seen. The mother guides I have been bestowed offer me different facets of the prism I now recognize Black motherhood to be. Being a Black woman raising a son in this world, I know that Black motherhood is itself a body. We share a language that can’t be captured by the Instagram “momfluencers” who don’t look like us or share our fears. They hope their children get into the best prep schools. We hope our children make it home safely each day.
Our language is filled with footnotes and asterisks and choruses of our ancestors whispering in our ears, “It’s different for us.”
I’ve been regaled with countless stories from other mothers about our bodies being forgotten, mistreated, and ignored. Uncare and malpractice feast upon the Black mothering body. So how do we fortify it? Our mothering bodies may feel new, but motherhood isn’t. Our model for Black motherhood in community has existed for as long as we have. “Physically, the Black mothering body is a place of inherent safety, comfort, and refuge,” Quammie says. “I remember being upset as a child and feeling my heartbeat slow down in the arms of my mother. I know now how it feels when I hold my own children and feel their heartbeat slow into calmness as well. There’s magic within that.”
Being a mother is the most intimate and sacred thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve found it difficult to describe the polarities I now exist between: new and old, confident and afraid, resistant and accepting, longing and looking forward. “Mothers or not, our bodies are so politicized—simultaneously made invisible and hyper-visible,” Taddese says. “I had my first baby in a pandemic and have spent so much time at home. In this bubble, I feel safe and able to be who I am. Being out of that external gaze has been a balm in many ways.”
Even outside of a pandemic, much of Black communal motherhood has taken place not so much in secret but in quiet. Quammie says the multigenerational moms that surround her “provide knowledge and wisdom, but also hold up a mirror to me to see myself as a mother and a child, and decide how I want to move forward.” All of motherhood is an altar, our bodies the offering. We say goodbye to what we knew to make way for all there is to come. We shed old fears for new, sharper ones that extend beyond our own skin and blood. We pray to the Mother, to ourselves, and to each other—and the response is a realization that we are the answer.
“Black mothers stand in the gap for each other in so many bold and quiet ways,” Quammie says. “I think of the phrase ‘We all we got.’” Black communal motherhood is being a witness to each other’s journeys. It’s a promise we’ll be a village not only for your children, but for you as well. We will protect your body with the same vigor and tenderness that we would our own. Because it is our own. Our cells dance around each other in joyful recognition of themselves.
If postpartum is forever, then so are we.