Hadiya Roderique is a writer, speaker and consultant living in Toronto.
Motherhood was always a vague concept that floated, untethered, in the back of my mind. I knew it was a possibility, a thing that many women did somewhere along the path of life. But the desire to be a mother was not something that called from deep inside me, the way it did for some of my friends. I dated and had relationships with men, but never one that I could seriously consider having a child with. Still, I imagined that I would one day meet a man who might give voice to those maternal whisperings.
I knew what could await me, as a mother: My PhD research focused on the experiences of mothers in professional organizations – how parenthood affected their workplace relationships, as compared to fathers. My own time spent in Reddit’s child-free and motherhood forums made it clear if I were to have a child with a man, three things were a must. First, he had to be secure enough in himself to handle my career and the fact that I would likely be the primary breadwinner. He had to be prepared, willing and able to shoulder an equal or greater load of the parenting. Finally, he had to commit to taking a year of parental leave. I thought this would be nigh impossible to find. I resigned myself to being Auntie Diya to the children of my sisters and friends.
And then I met my partner. He meets all of the conditions and more. I could see his potential for parenting greatness in so much of who he is and what he does. In his kindness and his wry smile. In his relationships with his parents and the model of parenting he had, where his father took care of him in the evenings as a child while his mother attended night school. In his ability to find and celebrate joy in everyday moments and small, seemingly mundane things. He supports my wildest dreams, ideas and plans and brings out the best in me. He is doing the work of learning and practising anti-racism. He openly and fiercely loves me, flaws and all. He is a straight white cis-male merman in an ocean of mediocre patriarchal nonsense.
And so, finally faced with a person that could and would step up in the way that I would need in order to feel supported as a mother, supported as a creator, and to feel part of a team, I had to confront the other, deeper fears I had about motherhood. I am Black. And if I chose motherhood, in my family, I would be the sole Black parent to a Black child in the world. In this world.
My maternal reckoning has happened at a time, this time, when the fears confronting the mother of a Black child are inescapable. I always knew these fears, but now I see stories of Black children held in jail for not doing their homework. I watch videos where they are arrested at school for being rambunctious. I read stories of Black mothers and their higher rates of maternal mortality. I see the police shoot and lock up Black people with impunity. I see and hear George Floyd call out for his mama. I hear this and see this and read this every damn day and I am afraid.
I remember reading Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood in a book club with three of my white writer friends. While she has certainly developed a unique writing style, imbuing her work with a personal vulnerability, I found it hard to relate to the concerns she raised. They were worries that centred around the impact on the narrator and her life. In the words of my compatriot, writer Vicky Mochama, they were “the Pinterest pressures of white moms.” Sure, I worry about myself, but beyond my career or my time, my friendships, I worry about things such as my death. My child’s survival. As I read Motherhood, I wished that her problems and fears could be my only ones.
Before my child is even a fully formed person, I worry about being a Black woman in a medical system and a world that does not value Black bodies. All of my degrees and education and money can’t help me if something goes wrong and I am lying unconscious, open and vulnerable on an operating table, without the ability to advocate for myself. Black women die at a higher rate from pregnancy-related complications in the United States and Britain, regardless of socioeconomic status. In the U.S., the figure is three to four times higher. In the UK, it is five times higher. I can’t tell you what the numbers are in Canada, because we don’t bother collecting these statistics, but I would bet they are similar. One study from McGill University found that Black women have a significantly higher rate of preterm births – up to two times higher – than white women.
Why do we fear finding a problem more than we fear preventable death? I see this in many organizations – afraid to look at the data on race, because they know they will find an issue, and will have to actually take time and effort and resources to address it. Sticking our collective heads in the sand about the social determinants of health does nothing but soothe egos as it kills people. Almost every time we gather the data, we find what we knew we would find, what Black people knew the whole time – just look at the racial disparities of COVID-19 in Toronto that so many tried to ignore for so long. Black people make up 9 per cent of Toronto, and, as of late July, made up 23 per cent of COVID-19 cases.
A recent survey of white medical residents in the United States found that 40 per cent of those in first year thought that Black people’s skin was thicker than white skin. Approximately 21 per cent thought we had a stronger immune system and that we aged more slowly than white people. Half of them endorsed one or more myths about Black health. Those that endorsed myths, when reading a vignette about Black and white patients and their pain, rated the Black patient’s pain as lower, and their treatment recommendations were less accurate. This is what we are up against. Our pain, our complaints discounted. Our lives not fought for in the same way. It means that if I am screaming during or after labour that something is wrong, and really hurts, I am less likely to be believed than the white woman in the next room.
It is thought that up to 60 per cent of maternal mortality in the U.S. could have been prevented with earlier intervention. Sha-Asia Washington died in Brooklyn after she checked in with dangerously high blood pressure and was given no medication to control it over two days. In Los Angeles’s Cedar Sinai Hospital, where their website boasts that they are “honoured to be 7th in the nation,” Kira Johnson complained of abdominal pain after birth and was told she was “not a priority.” She died during emergency surgery 10 hours later, her abdomen full of three litres of blood from internal bleeding. Serena Williams, one of the most famous Black women in the entire world, almost died of an embolism because medical staff didn’t listen to her concerns after she had given birth.
I don’t want to die. I am full of hope and ideas and promise. I still have things I want to do, policies to change, goals to achieve, words to write. My Black life matters, too.
For now, if I do choose motherhood, I will go in search of a Black, female OBGYN. A Black doula. I will come armed with statistics and data. I will go to a hospital where my friends are on staff, being privileged enough to have friends who are doctors. I will do all the work I can to keep myself safe, alive. Care and safety should be the norm, the birthright of every pregnant woman. It is not work I should have to do. But it is my reality.
Getting through pregnancy and birth is just the start. If I survive, I am left holding a squirmy, small slip of a thing. My worries about my health will continue, for a while – maternal death can also happen in the year after childbirth. But the worries and fears for my future child will take hold and grow.
I’ve seen my white friends prepare for motherhood. They read up on stroller reviews and baby yoga classes, sleep training and co-sleeping. These are not my primary concerns. I seek out stories of survival. I read stories of Black motherhood in an effort to understand what to expect, the feelings I may feel in the regular work of keeping my child safe and healthy. I find stories of more grief, more stress and more work for Black mothers compared with their white counterparts. The work of protecting and advocating in a tangibly different way than white parents. And work for your child, the added work of existing and trying to thrive in a world that does not want them to.
It is work that carries with it palpable grief and a risk to one’s health. A recent study from the Ohio State University found that mothers of children who reported higher levels of discrimination had a greater decline in their self-reports of health between the ages of 40 and 50. According to the researchers, Black and Hispanic mothers experienced a state of “high alert to the possibility that their child will encounter unfair treatment,” a state that can contribute to inflammation, poor sleep and other negative health effects. This unfair treatment starts the day they are born – in the U.S., Black newborns die at a rate three times those of white ones, a penalty that is halved if they are cared for by a Black doctor.
My parents did that work and experienced that worry – they moved to Canada from the Caribbean in the 1970s to afford themselves and their future progeny better opportunities than were available in Grenada. While I may lack the capital and generational wealth of my friends who grew up in the middle to upper classes, I will have more than the generation before me, and the generation before that. I have several degrees, including a PhD and a law degree; I am the first in my family to earn either. I have a well-paying job with opportunity for growth and security. I have a partner who is similarly credentialed.
But my degrees and my job can’t protect my son when he is pulled over by the police for driving a nice car that they don’t think he should have, the car I bought him when he graduated from university. When he is handcuffed, face down on the ground, none of that matters. But I will still have to raise him like it does, won’t I? Teach him that he can have both everything and nothing. I will be able to provide for my child in some of the ways that my parents couldn’t. We had love and imagination and encouragement, but not a lot of money. My child will not need to take out loans to attend university, giving them an early boost that my sisters and I didn’t have. They will have the swimming lessons that I had and the soccer camps that I didn’t. A room full of musical instruments and a mother who not-so-secretly wants them to be a rock star. Like my parents, I will encourage imagination, science experiments and exploration. I will give them access to music and books – but they will be mostly bought, instead of borrowed. They will have a crucial economic head start in the game of life.
But I will still be afraid. Always afraid.
My parents weren’t really Black, with a capital B, until they moved to Canada. It is qualitatively different, I think, to spend your formative years in a primarily Black environment. My parents know what it was like to watch their children grow up in a primarily white environment. I know what it was like to live it.
The main part of their work was in protecting us from the educational system. They had to be prepared to fight a school system that systematically tries to tear down Black children from the minute they step in the door.
And they had to fight. The system tried it early with me, my junior kindergarten teacher trying to assert that I was mentally challenged in my first month of school, my father countering that I was gifted; educational testing proved that he was right. To my mind, the most hurtful part of the story was not the negligible impact on me – I was and would be fine. I was undeniably gifted and preferred the imaginary worlds of books and calm adults to the rambunctiousness and lack of logic of children. But if my teacher was treating me, a child identified as gifted, like this, what did she do to every other Black child who had passed through her class? How were their abilities, skills, gifts, actions and quirks categorized and belittled by this woman? She was transferred out of my class, but was she just transferred into another school where she could do more damage? How would she have treated an inquisitive Black child? A perfectly ordinary child? A rambunctious Black boy? A Black child with challenges? Or one whose parents, like my uncle who only finished junior high, would treat the teacher like an authority? Who didn’t have parents who could advocate the way mine could?
I will have to be prepared to fight, too. Robyn Maynard sums this up powerfully in her book, Policing Black Lives: “Because Black youth are so often not seen or treated as children, schools too often become their first encounter with the organized and systemic devaluation of Blackness present in society at large. … Black students are not only treated as if they are inferior but they are also frequently treated as if they are a threat inside education settings. The presence of Black children and youth remains unwelcome and undesirable in many public schools, and their movements are closely monitored and subject to correction.”
Black children receive harsher punishments and discipline than white children – more suspensions and expulsions. They are seen as older, rougher, more dangerous. In the Toronto Star, I read the story of a six-year-old in Mississauga, my hometown, handcuffed by police officers for acting out in school, her hands and ankles shackled together, and placed on her stomach for 28 minutes. A teacher called the police on a 48-pound six-year-old child for misbehaving. Police, with no training in dealing with children in crisis, police who are trained in enacting violence, who were certainly not more equipped than the teacher or school to do anything about the situation. Their mission was to “control” the child. The police claimed they had no alternative but to restrain, to shackle. I know, in my heart of hearts, they did not see this child, this baby girl, as a child. When we are children, we are not children. The Human Rights Tribunal seemingly agreed. Earlier this year, I watched a bodycam video of another six-year-old Black girl from Orlando, sitting calmly in the administrator’s office, who starts weeping as officers place zip ties around her wrist and arrest her – arrest her! – for the crime of acting like a child while being Black. I had to turn off the video when she sobbed “Help me, help me, please!” as the adults in her school watched and did nothing. How can I stop this from happening to my child? How do I get the teacher not to pick up the phone? How do I get the teacher, the police officers, the administrators to see my child’s humanity? To see that he or she is not a threat, but a child?
In the U.S., Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white ones. A recent study, conducted by Yale University, asked Black and white teachers to watch 12 short video clips of students in a classroom, their mission to look for challenging behaviour. The teachers were equipped with eye-tracking devices. Each clip had four students: a white boy, a white girl, a Black boy and a Black girl. The trick: There was no actual challenging behaviour in the videos. The teachers, however, spent more of their time watching the Black children, and one in particular: the Black boy. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a phrase that exists for a reason.
If you go looking for trouble, your confirmation bias will lead you to it. Actions will be interpreted to fit a pre-existing narrative. In my case, choosing not to play with blocks and eight-piece puzzles, instead sitting and reading in the corner to other children, was interpreted as me being slow. The teacher didn’t even bother to listen to me. In the meeting with my father, she stated that I was “pretending to read.” I in fact was reading, as I had been doing since the age of two. Had I been white, would she have praised me for being so advanced? Held me up as an example to be emulated? What will happen to my own child in this place that is supposed to be a haven?
These expectations and this tendency of white people to want to look for the worst instead of the best follows us from the time that we are children. Literal babies. And they stick. It’s why in an experiment, the same memo, with a Black lawyer’s name and a white lawyer’s name interchanged, gets radically different ratings of quality. It’s why a résumé with Jamal Jenkins gets shown the door, but Brad Marshall gets put into the interview pile. It’s why Black boys have the lowest postsecondary attendance opportunities, as they are disproportionately screened into the “applied” educational stream. It’s why students below me on the honour roll were encouraged to write the SATs and apply to Ivy league schools, while I was not. It is the treatment that Ms. Maynard describes, being seen as a threat, being seen as inferior. While the Ford government in Ontario has recently announced their intention to do away with streaming, these perceptions will still remain. While I have the fight of my father in me, I can’t be there every day. If I could build a dam to protect my kids from the river of white supremacy, I would. But I can only hold and place down so many bricks. Dams are not built by one person. They are collective, and so, too, must this effort be. It is the work of all of us to stem this tide.
This is just school, just one example of where I must be vigilant, ready to protect and fight, but it is emblematic. There are the other fears that come after, before, during. It doesn’t take much – one suspension, one teacher, one bigot whose decided you’ve looked at them the wrong way – to change the trajectory of a Black life. I can’t follow my children around, insulating them from the cracks and schisms of the world. From the hypersexualization of Black girls. From the time, which comes earlier for them than for others, that my Black son will go from being a cute boy to a dangerous man. When I picture a child, I always picture a daughter. In part because I feel like I have some familiarity – I am the oldest of three girls, the summer caretaker from the age of 12 to 18. But in part because I am terrified to have a son. I have fears about girlhood – my daughter is more likely to be sexually assaulted than my son. As a Black woman, she is less likely to be believed. But my son is more likely to die – 20 times more likely to be shot by police in Toronto than a white man, according to the Human Rights Commission of Ontario. He is less likely to come home when he walks out the door.
I will have to work in other ways. I will work when I walk into many places and spaces and rooms with my child. I will work in the conversations I will have to have with my children, at home and out in the world. While I won’t have the ability, like Beyoncé, to make a visual album where I am a Queen and my children are royalty, to imbue them with pride in the legacy of survival that is our history, I will teach them Black history, about their Caribbean culture. They will have fishcakes and bakes on Sundays, shaping the round dough in their hands with their Grenadian grandmother, but also go hiking in the Alps with their German grandfather. Like my parents, I will do my best to teach them to be strong in the face of doubt and to be resilient, confident and proud.
But I am still afraid. And this is coming from a prospective mother whose children will have it easier in this world than many Black children in many ways. My children will likely benefit from some measure of light-skin privilege, given that my partner is white and given my own background. I am Black, but like many Black people, have white ancestors – my great-grandfather was Portuguese, my great-grandmother Mary the result of the rape of my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth by a white Scottish man, a former slave owner whose sense of entitlement to her body did not end when slavery did. My maternal grandfather is East Indian. My paternal grandfather was light-skinned enough to pass as white. All of my aunts, uncles and cousins range wildly in their skin colour.
I want my child to be Black, phenomenally Black, proudly Black, beautifully melanated, like their mama. I want to see myself in their eyes and hair and skin, their faces and chubby outstretched hands. I want to be assumed to be their mother at first glance, not their nanny. But I also want their life to be easier, easier than mine. And it hurts to know that the less they seem of me, physically, the easier their life will be. The safer they will be. No parent should have to think this of their baby.
I will not, cannot let this be the thing that stops me, these fears I have for my prospective children. I am better equipped than many to push against them, financially and mentally. Many of the stories I read about mothers raising multiracial children are of white women who have to adjust their world view, to reckon with their new reality of race mattering now that they are confronted with it in their home, in their family and in their child. I came across a 30-day course for white women raising Black children, titled “Stop Abusing Your Children With Anti-Blackness.” They have to learn, while my entire life has been an education. This isn’t new for me, and my children won’t have to suffer as I slowly unpack white supremacy while I raise them, doing damage along the way. Recent research by sociologist Kate Choi at the University of Western Ontario and her colleague compared four sets of children – those with white parents, those with a Black mother and a white father, those with a white mother and a Black father, those with Black parents. The health outcomes for the children of Black mothers and white fathers tend to mirror those of children of white parents. I wonder how much of that stems from having a mother, more often the primary parent in straight relationships, who could understand racism, teach them their history, and help assert their sense of self and identity. A benefit of the Black matriarchy.
Though my life is made harder than it should be by whiteness, I am glad to be here, on this earth, the beloved eldest daughter of Judith and Joseph, the granddaughter of Lera and Samuel, Elsie and Egbert. And let’s be clear. It is not being Black that makes my life hard. Being Black, being born of triumph and struggle, resilience and bravery, is a gift. It is white supremacy that makes my life and the life of my fellow Black people harder. If I choose to have a child, it will be in spite of these additional challenges foisted upon me. It will be, in some sense, to spite these forces that try to keep Black people down, burdened, in the wisps, remnants and ghosts of chains. I just hope to god that we both survive the ordeal.
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