What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small.
I always imagined I would have children, but less as a deeply ingrained maternal desire and more as part of a childhood fantasy about how I would escape myself. While the outline of my childhood was being sketched by the alienation of immigration and the dysfunction of divorce, I began to idolize the white families I saw on television. Their lives stood in such stark contrast to my own, it was hard not to be at first agonized and then mesmerized by their wholesome routines, their double incomes and their simple lives untouched by racism, poverty, violence and instability. I became especially envious and enamoured of the mothers, women who were unfazed and unrattled by the cruelty of life. Like Maggie Seaver, whose easy laugh was never betrayed by the sinking sobriety of unpaid bills, or Angela Bower, whose conversations about sex or dating were free from the stifling shadow of cultural shame. They were women whose freedom was always underscored by the lightness of their presence and the precision with which their domestic problems resolved themselves in a half hour.
And most importantly, they were so completely different from my own mother, whose heaviness could fill a room. Who struggled to make marriage and motherhood work, worlds away from her own mother and anything that resembled familiarity or stability. As immigrants, we seemed to live just out of frame. There was nobody on TV who looked like me and definitely nobody on TV who looked like my mother.
Instead of glistening white Nancy Meyers kitchens that served as the familial centerpiece of large detached homes, our cramped kitchens tended to be situated in a funny corner in the kind of purpose-built apartments that are manufactured in bulk. There were no bake sales or PTA meetings or heart-to-hearts set to treacly elevator music and resolved with a hug. My childhood was loud and chaotic and messy. It seemed like the only way out of my problems was through a middle-class family of my own, one that at least mimicked the class and race of the ones I’d been escaping with on television.
Now, two decades later, I am a mother myself, grasping for time and money, alienated by the oppressive barriers of my once escapist fantasy. And asking why the lens of modern motherhood is still so pointedly white-washed.
When maternal outcomes for women of colour are three times more dire than for white women, should we not be talking more openly about the desperate need for black and brown mothers to be centred in the conversation about what motherhood looks like in 2018? Even as we redefine representation, even as social media has democratized who gets to be seen and heard, why do none of the mothers on TV look like me? Why are the popular Facebook groups and Instagram accounts like Milky Mommas, CupofJo, Dooce or MommyShorts—modern outlets for connection between millennial mothers—still overwhelmingly run by and representing middle-class white women?
Where the matriarchs of outdated television shows once represented the ideals of suburban motherhood, these new digital outlets embrace a neo-liberal “Lean In” mentality. A girlboss motherhood that prides itself on the type of natural, organic, stress-free, Pinterested parenting that can be easily and quantifiably commodified.
In every conceivable way, your first pregnancy is an act of complete surrender to the unknown. Nearly every day brings an alien emotion or sensation that you simply have to give in to. And you shoulder those seemingly endless new feelings knowing it’s all leading up to this monumental moment that you only vaguely understand. Towards the end of my pregnancy the most pressing and urgent question I had for my obstetrician was, what does labour feel like? It’s an act so specific and yet so completely indescribable that the best way my own doctor could sum it up was by telling me, “When you’re in labour, trust me, you’ll know.” And, of course, she was right. When it hit, and hit is really the best way to describe that initial wave, it hit hard and fast.
My water broke prematurely, so the first time we went into the hospital I described my contractions as manageable. I remember the intake nursing laughing at me and telling us to come back when I was in tears. Two hours later we returned and my face was damp not from crying, but from howling in agony. I felt completely feral and out of control. My body did not feel like my own. The waves of crushing pain erased time and space and even though I knew I was physically in the room I felt like I had fallen away from myself.
Yet those first few hours are seared in my memory as traumatic not because of the pain, but because I felt I had been robbed of my agency. Rather than focusing on bringing this baby into the world, I had been reminded that empathy is not something women of colour can take for granted and humanity is something we’re always fighting for.
I had to plead and beg with my stoic white nurse, a blonde who echoed the glossy teens I envied in my TV-obsessed youth, while enduring that pain. As I bellowed for an epidural while hopelessly bouncing on a yoga ball with my husband rubbing the small of back so hard that a small friction burn was starting to form, she smugly coached me to “breathe through it.” In the end, a shift change was my salvation. Within 30 minutes of receiving a new nurse, a young black woman miraculously named Angel, I had my epidural and, finally, someone who I knew would be an advocate. Angel immediately centred my comfort and put me at ease and it felt so important and meaningful to me that my new nurse was a woman of colour, someone to whom the language of my pain was not foreign.
It’s a small example of a larger problem of women’s self-advocacy in labour and delivery, starkly articulated by Serena Williams in an interview earlier this year with Vogue. In the piece, her traumatic post-natal experience. Shortly after giving birth to her daughter, the tennis player, who has a history of blood clots and was off her anticoagulants at the time, was left gasping for breath. She immediately felt something was wrong and raised the alarm about a potential pulmonary embolism. Williams knew exactly what medical tests she needed. She is one of the most famous athletes in the world, able to afford the best possible healthcare. But still, a nurse disregarded Williams’s initial outcry, delaying her access to the care she required. The close margins of her survival illustrate the betrayals of women still happening in the healthcare system in 2018.
Most maternal deaths are preventable, and yet the rates of maternal death in the US continue to rise. Roughly 700 women die as a result of childbirth every year and the vast majority of those women are black. According to one report, blood clots are one of the leading causes of maternal death for black women. And yet here was Serena Williams, just narrowly avoiding becoming a deadly statistic. She was able to successfully advocate for her life, but why was it such a fight? Racial bias in the medical industry leaves women’s pain chronically undertreated, rendering us, in our most vulnerable moments, without a voice.
So where are our voices being heard? Social media, meant to be the great equalizer of stories, has been a boon for the commercialization of motherhood, creating an instantly recognizable mom brand. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry with conferences headlined by celebrities such as Kristen Bell, multi-day affairs that promise to show women how to connect their marketing to motherhood to maximize engagement and guarantee sponsors. Only a handful of the speakers at this year’s Mom 2.0 conference are women of colour.
“We’re missing the voices of moms of colour in general, and we’re missing an opportunity to change perceptions and stereotypes around moms of colour,” says Bee Quammie who, feeling a glaring lack of voices that reflected her own mothering experience as a black woman, started her own blog. She’s not alone: there are upwards of four million mommy blogs in North America. But despite this statistic, in an Onalytica ranking of the top 25 US mom blogs, only four are written by women of colour, and none by non-binary or trans parents. The story of motherhood is still being overwhelmingly told, and represented, by cisgender white women.
On Facebook, mom groups promise a safer space, a welcoming and communal approach to child-rearing. But even here, it’s mostly middle-class white women who gather, wondering aloud how to offer their urban spawn a “diverse” experience, describing exposure to other cultures with the same lexicon you would use to place an Amazon order. These spaces aren’t structured to facilitate intersectional conversations that reflect the reality of women of colour. When conversations in these groups turn to subjects like race and class they inevitably become polarized, pushing women who have differing experiences out of the larger online community. I’ve seen questions about what to pay for childcare turn into class-based lectures that shame and silence women who don’t fit the middle-class mould. Conversations about diversity inevitably centre white women and portray people of colour as learning opportunities for their privileged children rather than as human beings. We become otherized even in spaces that attempt community and alleyship. The alternative is to seek out specific groups that speak to our experiences as women of colour, but that can lead to narrow and solipsistic conversations that don’t foster a true exchange.
When I was lying awake night after night, breastfeeding my newborn into the twilight hours, I would aimlessly scroll through my Instagram’s explore feed to keep my shrinking brain occupied. Because, during my pregnancy, I had followed a bunch of pregnancy bloggers and accounts, my explore feed was almost exclusively baby and mom-to-be content. At first it was comforting, but then it was sharply alienating.
These women didn’t reflect my reality, in their glossy kitchens, with perfectly prepped organic meals and designer baby clothes and immaculately maintained post-baby bodies. They were the Mom 2.0 version of the Maggie Seavers and the Cindy Walshes. I had managed to escape the poverty of my childhood, but I no longer wanted to escape myself or the reality of parenting offered up by own mother.
Suddenly an immigrant again, having recently moved to the UK with my husband and baby, I find myself leaning on the lessons in motherhood I learned from my mom. I’ve embraced the ragged parts of my reality that have shaped the type of mother I’ve become. One who can summon resilience in the face of isolation and struggle, and patience in the midst of chaos. And like my own mother, one who manages to find light amongst the heaviness of everyday life.
Now those perfect TV and social media moms don’t seem so ideal, bound to the false narratives they’ve crafted for themselves. But I finally feel free.