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I know there’s never been a better time to be a Black mother, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.
I often reflect on how small things, like my children playing loudly in our backyard, would be impossible in a different time or place. My heart aches knowing I experience a level of freedom and agency the mothers in my lineage couldn’t visualize, let alone exercise. Still, the artifacts of injustice don’t feel distant. I see the afterimage of “whites only” signs every time I blink. I lose my breath calculating how I’d explain such an explicit color line to my children, though today’s covert line is equally overwhelming. And while so many things are better, so much feels the same.
I found the thread that helped me make sense of this feeling during graduate school. The exact moment I learned of partus sequitur ventrem, an English legal doctrine passed in 1662 that loosely translates to “the status of the child follows the mother,” escapes me now. But I remember feeling something shift. I felt like I had learned the answer to a question I hadn’t known to ask. I recognized this revelation as a through line, equally past and present, and sensed I’d encountered the most crucial mothering lesson of my life.
Enslavers created the principle to enshrine the relationship between race and slavery. It solidified enslaved women as capable of giving birth but never truly mothers and created a binary between white and Black wombs: The former held an unborn human; the latter was a queue for chattel.
I wanted to parent in resistance. But I found mothering in anticipation of harm made me tired.
Partus sequitur ventrem explained why the Black mothering experience felt inseparable from narratives of hypervigilance and trauma. The doctrine captivated and taunted me with reminders of why I wasn’t carefree like the white moms I found community with. But it also offered direction in my mothering: I could fight wholeheartedly to free my children. But if I was unfree, my efforts would be futile. Partus sequitur ventrem revealed that my foremothers and I share the goal of raising free Black children despite contextual differences.
Ana’Neicia Williams, a licensed clinical social worker certified in perinatal mental health, says that historical circumstances limited Black mothers’ agency in parenting in every area—from conception to caring for our children. Often, that involved hard choices. Williams says this history can leave Black mothers with a feeling of powerlessness and the pressure of knowing: I have to keep my children safe, especially when I know the systems are not keeping my children safe.
“And still, today, we have so many different reminders and events that the system is not supporting our care and well-being,” says Williams. “That pressure on us as Black mothers to wonder: If I don’t choose my kids, am I also dismissing them like the system is?”
Black infants and birthing people today face death-rate disparities comparable to rates during enslavement. Black families are trying to make ends meet as layoffs disproportionately impact Black employees. We are grateful they’re not the identical stressors our ancestors experienced. But painful headlines like those describing the Texas Child Protective Services removing newborn Mila Jackson from her parents’ care and 16-year-old Ralph Yarl being shot after going to the wrong house reveal that family separation and the dehumanization of Black youth hasn’t ended. “A lot of us are carrying things that our ancestors and grandmothers didn’t get to resolve,” says Williams.
It hurts to read the heritability of nonfreedom. Enslavement has ended, but this doesn’t feel like freedom. Generations of Black women have tried to pass an inheritance we never held. I wanted to parent in resistance. But I found mothering in anticipation of harm made me tired. It impacted my relationship with myself and my children; I was anxious, irritable, and often depressed.
Dr. Angel Montfort, a licensed clinical psychologist, says putting your mothering identity first is natural. But the pressure to be a “good mother” can lead to negative emotions, including exhaustion and social isolation. Similarly, parents can experience guilt and shame when they don’t meet their own parenting goals and expectations: “This can lead to depression, anxiety, or even obsessive-compulsive tendencies, because even though we know perfection does not exist, we continue to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and judge ourselves harshly when we are unable to meet them.”
I know I’m the best mother when I start from the inside out.
I found this especially true for marginalized parents. I felt guilty that I wasn’t more grateful to mother with new stressors instead of those my grandmother had. Shame told me it was my job to give my children the world because I had unprecedented access. I went through the motions of gentle parenting—and the guilt, rage, and shame when I “failed.” I grew resentful that I wasn’t giving my children the soft landing they deserved. But with reflection, I realized that gentle parenting wasn’t the problem: I had to start with myself. I needed something that met me where I was. So I built it.
I created a framework called #FreeBlackMotherhood to actively challenge the lineage of partus sequitur ventrem. But I realized perspectives on motherhood disparage all caretakers, albeit to varying degrees. “Intensive mothering” is the expectation that mothers sacrifice themselves at the altar of motherhood and be judged by their capacity to mother based on race, class, and other parts of identity. This version of mothering weaponizes old harm in new ways. Like the dehumanizing English law of partus sequitur ventrem, intensive mothering reinforces a binary of valid and invalid mothers based on standardized expectations, when, in reality, mothering is subjective.
Williams notes a myriad of personal and familial factors—including whether a parenting journey was planned—impact how we show up as caretakers. She says we need “individualized mothering plans” in the same way we have individualized education plans for our children. Intensive mothering affirms motherhood, especially Black motherhood, as a site of suffering. It creates a racist, heteronormative, class-based definition of mothering where mothers carry a disproportionate share of the burden. The model also upholds individualized solutions to systemic issues and emphasizes responsibility over joy.
Black motherhood is often seen as a site of crisis, leaving little room for freedom, authenticity, and joy. Once I abandoned binaries, I realized my views didn’t conflict with gentle parenting: They conflict with standardized mothering that is rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy. But I know I’m the best mother when I start from the inside out.
Montfort affirms that child-centric models, like gentle parenting, are a wonderful way to build secure attachments with our children. But they can’t be done at the cost of supporting the self. Placing my needs at the center reminded me it’s OK to pause and have days I don’t feel like mothering. Montfort says scheduling time alone, communicating with your child-rearing support team, and having a therapist can help during rough times.
Like Williams, Montfort supports abandoning a standardized image of mothering. She encourages caretakers to define—or redefine—their values for themselves instead of basing them on prescribed models. This starts by asking who you want to be and what qualities you want to embody as a parent and taking small steps to get there.
My journey is still unfolding. But I’m grateful I’ve created a personal mothering practice that resonates with caretakers of diverse identities.
My framework helps me break the binary that racism and intensive mothering created and helps me hold my love for myself and my children simultaneously. It encourages me to abandon the weight of mothering perfectly to reduce systemic harm. But it also reminds all of us that we deserve motherhood rooted in shared responsibility and joy.
The best way to transmit freedom to my children is to hold it myself.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. In addition to YES! her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fast Company, and a host of other publications. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackMotherhood movement. She can be reached at amfcontent.com for business inquiries and on social media for social connections.