Nefertiti Austin is an author and mother. In her memoir, "Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America," she writes about the erasure of diverse voices in motherhood.
As a former Certified PS-MAPP Trainer, she co-led classes for participants wanting to attain a license to foster and/or adopt children from the foster care system.
Photographer: Bobby Quillard | Makeup and Hair: Lawrence Ray Parker and Lawrence Ray Concepts
You open your book, Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, by recounting a conversation you had with your son about Trayvon Martin. How old was he at the time, and as he’s gotten older, how have your conversations with him about the Black Lives Matter movement changed?
My son was five years old when I began talking to him about race. I really had no choice and it hurt to steal his innocence with talk about how he is negatively stereotyped in the world. As he has gotten older, I tend to go into more detail about racism and how Black people have been impacted and overcome segregation, mass incarceration, subpar educational institutions. I highlight the winners like Ruby Bridges and remind him he comes from people who will not be denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We talk about how Black lives have always mattered to Black people and hope that white people will take steps to dismantle systemic racism in housing, business, healthcare, etc. Everyone wins when we acknowledge the humanity in each other.
What was the transition to motherhood like for you? How did your own view of yourself and the way others perceived you change?
Intellectually, becoming a mother was seamless, but physically, emotionally and spiritually, it was like my life changed overnight. I woke up single and went to bed a mom. Though I knew my children were coming, it was still a shock when my son was placed with me. I felt vulnerable and tender. I wanted to love and protect my child at all costs and turned into super mom, which was a mistake. I thought I had to meet his every need without complaining. I believed that asking for help meant that I wasn’t ready to be a mom. No one told me that and it took years to get out of the super mom role. Six years later when my daughter came along, I was much more relaxed. I enlisted help early and often. Now I know that there is strength is asking for support and think others see me as a relatable mom friend who succeeds and fails like everyone else.
In a recent piece you wrote for the New York Times, you wrote that a quarter of the children in the U.S. foster care system are Black despite only representing 14% of the broader population. What are the implications of placing Black children in foster care at such disproportionately high rates?
The statistics suggest that Black families are not important therefore their children are not either. Thus, the high rates of loss, trauma, mental illness, depression, acting out, cognitive delays and behavioral issues among Black kids in out-of-home care. When every option is not exhausted to keep them with their family or within the family network, Black children are set up for failure by a system that is purportedly designed to help them.
How do you think the U.S. foster care system can be changed to better support Black children?
That’s a big question and I don’t pretend to have an answer, however, I do have a suggestion. Child welfare agencies need to re-evaluate the high rate at which Black children are detained in the foster care system. The numbers suggest that parental rights of Black parents are tenuous and that breaking up Black families does not detrimentally impact children and communities. An emphasis on locating relatives and fictive kin (play cousins, close family friends, church members with close ties to the child) supports kids and communicates that they are worthy of the effort to be raised in familiar, loving environments. This is already happening in states like California, but there should be a federal mandate to keep Black kids with their families for as long as possible.
Also, birth parents with addictions, felonies, mental health issues and/or histories of incarceration should not be disqualified from being parents. Quality intervention programs, parenting classes, and compassionate monitoring, could help them turn their lives around. If none of these interventions work, then the child welfare system should seek out-of-home care for children in need of forever homes.
What should a person know to prepare themselves to adopt through the foster care system?
In preparation for adopting/fostering through the foster care system, a person should do a lot of self-reflection. Are you open to emotionally, physically and financially support a child who has experienced the loss and trauma of not being with his/her biological family? If the answer is yes, ask yourself the following:
In another recent New York Times article about “mom rage”, you talked about how a mother’s anger is perceived differently based on the color of her skin. Postpartum anger carries a stigma and places a mother’s abilities as a mother in doubt. In what ways are the stakes even higher for Black mothers?
Black moms are already at or near the bottom of the racial hierarchy within motherhood and to be described as “angry” substantiates her marginalization as proof that she is less loving, less kind and less worthy. Economics is also a key factor in who is willing to publicly admit to having mom rage though we all experience a range of emotions as mothers. Black women from lower socio-economic demographics fear that if they tell a white doctor or nurse that they feel like hurting their child or that they are going crazy, they have basically signed their child over to the foster care system. So they don’t say anything and suffer in quiet desperation. Unfortunately, those intense feelings come anyway and some Black mothers lose their children because she did not get support.
What is needed is culturally sensitive training to understand nuanced messages of hopelessness and despair. So, if a Black mother says, “I don’t feel right”, she is communicating that she is depressed or angry and needs help. That is the moment for her care provider to send her to therapy, otherwise, her postpartum anger will be missed or ignored.
What would you tell a mother who is struggling with postpartum anger?
Tell somebody how you feel. There is no shame in admitting that motherhood isn’t what you thought it would be. Ask your doctor for a referral for therapy or medicinal intervention to get you back on the road to feeling like yourself. People want to help.