Published on April 11th, 2016 | by Sherisa de Groot0
We are Here to Raise One Another Up: RAISING MOTHERS Talks to MATER MEA!
Raising Mothers and mater mea are two gorgeous spaces online that celebrate Black motherhood and families—and other mothers of color. They are vibrant with portraits, stories, interviews, inspiration. As I found and fell in love with these pages, I instantly wanted to know more about the women behind them, who invest huge amounts of time in their missions. This takes so much work (seriously), fueled by passion and persistence and hope to make a difference.
But rather than have me chat at these ladies individually, I wondered if they might like to interview each other… I figured they could dive more quickly into the real talk. Coincidentally, they had just met each other online as well, and were looking for a reason to get into conversation. I’m so grateful they shared this with MUTHA—it sure was true they went deep. So check out this incredible dialogue, as Sherisa de Groot inteviewed Tomi Akitunde, then Tomi interviewed Sherisa, in turn, over email and a couple weeks, ideas flying from Amsterdam to Queens and back again.
“We are here as a collective voice to raise one another up,” as Sherisa de Groot writes on Raising Mothers.
Raising Mothers: I read that the conversation around work/life balance and the lack of attention to women of color was one of the major catalysts behind creating mater mea. How did you first decide which subjects to interview?
mater mea: In a lot of ways, it was me trying to talk to women I had huge girl / career crushes on to learn how they became such enviable women who not only have amazing jobs, but great kids and partners as well. I was at the point in my life where you’re supposed to start looking for the partner to have the children, along with making the moves in your career that will get you from entry level to something more senior. I wanted role models who could talk about how they’d made those decisions in their own lives.
One of the biggest things I noticed—besides the lack of diversity—in profiles or articles about working moms was that the challenges from getting from point A to point B were largely glossed over, or not mentioned at all. Many profiles tend to focus on the very glamorous parts of their career and lives. And while I think there’s nothing wrong with presenting an aspirational view of someone’s life, I think there’s something more powerful and instructive in finding out the real how of someone’s success. Like, “Yes, this brownstone and your outfits and your family are everything, but how did you get here? What sacrifices did you have to make? What choices did you make to get you this covetable life?”
So with that in mind, I created a list of Black women in the New York area who I wanted to talk to about those very things. It was initially hard—sometimes professional Black women don’t really discuss the fact that they’re mothers, and there was a lot of Googling to find a mention or photo to confirm they were in fact moms—but once we got going, we started getting nominations from those moms as well as our readers for women who aligned with our mission in New York and eventually all over the world.
mater mea: I think, for the both of us, we were looking out at the media landscape and found it to be sorely lacking in what we needed at the time. We were both following that adage of creating what we didn’t see. What did it mean for you as a new mom to not see a community of mothers of color online, and how did that inform the direction of Raising Mothers?
Raising Mothers: I found it tiresome to feel so invisible. I’ve always been hyper aware of the general online landscape since I’ve been an avid reader of too many blogs to make sense and I’ve also had my own blog in various iterations over the years. In the past few years, there have been some really great sites like My Brown Baby, MommyNoire and Baby and Blog catering to Black mothers, but I still didn’t see myself. I am more pulled to reading long essays rather than articles. I literally couldn’t find me so I made a place for women like me. I’m a Black mother in an interracial marriage living in a foreign country raising a multiracial child on our own. I know we exist because I have the friends to prove it, but I couldn’t find our stories. I also couldn’t find the voices of other non-Black mothers of color in large supply.
I wanted a place that you visit and you get comfortable. You hear your stories and more importantly, you see your family represented. I view Raising Mothers as more of a literary magazine and I don’t restrict myself to only mothers of color. Motherhood is universal. I open it to anyone interested in writing an essay, but I interview mothers of color to make sure that visually, we are present.
Raising Mothers: I remember exclaiming, “YES!” when I saw mater mea for the first time. What was the initial public reaction to mater mea, both positive and negative? Did your expectations for the first year match your results?
mater mea: That’s so nice of you to say, thank you so much! I think for many that was definitely the initial reaction. I received a lot of “thank yous” and “where has this been all my life?” emails that were definitely heartwarming and affirming of our mission. I went into mater mea thinking of it as a passion project more than a company, so I think my expectations were so low (“I just want people besides my friends and family to see it!”) that everything extra that first year was a cherry on top!
I work really hard to show a variety of Black women and families to show that 1- we’re not all the same and 2- there are very many different ways to have a career and family. We’ve had moms with c-suite jobs to entrepreneurs to musicians and artists, single / married moms, adoptive moms, lesbian moms, stay-at-home moms… I think that variety—along with the striking photos and in-depth stories—really resonated with our audience.
We very rarely get negative comments, but when we do, I try to take it as constructive criticism. A common critique is that the women aren’t accessible—that they’re too fabulous. I think that’s just a response to the strength of the photography and writing on the site. There have been women featured who, with not a trace of false modesty, will say, “Why are you featuring me? I’m not special!”
mater mea: The worst response that I have received though has been about an interracial family we profiled. I love that Raising Mothers is a space for all mothers, but takes particular care to represent moms in interracial relationships in a way that’s not fetishistic. As a Black woman engaged to and planning a family with a white man, it’s great to see those relationships presented in a way that’s not negative or over-the-top congratulatory. What are your thoughts about the way Black women with interracial families are seen online and what has your own experience been like?
Raising Mothers: Whew. Let me start by saying there isn’t one way to experience Black love. That’s one thing I’ve learned to own publicly over the years. I’ve been in a relationship with my husband for 10 years this year. I think the most unsolicited response I’ve had on our coupling has come from the states. My husband is from The Netherlands and when we got married I moved to Amsterdam, NL from Brooklyn, NY to live with him.
I don’t believe in fetishizing my relationship. We are just like many other relationships, only we don’t look similar. We each come with our own histories and we are extremely open and discuss race daily. I’ve always taken issue with congratulatory interracial relationships—you aren’t superior because you’ve chosen to make a life with someone of a different race and the same rings true if you’re of the same race.
I remember years ago when I would mention my partner to friends who hadn’t met or seen him previously that he is both Asian and white. I would get the looks of shock and the “but you’re so woke” comments. I’m so woke that I will deny myself love and happiness to make choices that certain pockets of society will only approve of. I have no time for it.
Online, I feel that interracial families are almost always white women with Black men, which is problematic on a variety of fronts. There almost seems to be no real space for us as women of color or we aren’t allowed to speak because our relationships hold no merit. We aren’t buying into the notion that we have upgraded because we’re coupled outside of our race, but I think our overall collective silence might suggest that.
Particularly as a Black mother with a multiracial child, I want to make sure that our voices are heard and we are comfortable to be our normal selves without talking about “swirl” love. The women that I have interviewed are just like me: normal humans that don’t get a kick out of being in an interracial relationship. I don’t view our relationships as exceptional. We aren’t trying to make a statement other than we exist. There’s a lot of discomfort in the Black community when it comes to interracial relationships, but like I said in the start, it isn’t an affront to Black love. My love is mine and theirs is theirs. We can coexist and still all rally for the same things, unabbreviated.
Raising Mothers: Lets talk about motherhood and media. I’m happy and relieved to know I live in a time where there’s easy access to our stories as mothers and as Black women, even if most times they are separate entities. It’s extra special when those topics are married. I know you’re working on a podcast and I think that’s great and necessary. What are your thoughts on all the new ways we can consume our stories and what should we do to help speed up the normalcy of women of color doing regular things and not being seen as the exception?
mater mea: It’s really exciting to see that there are so many different outlets and expressions of Blackness these days. If you’re a fashionista, you have these outlets to go to; if you’re “alternative,” you have these spaces to go to; if you’re “woke,” you can go here and there. It’s awesome.
Something that I’m still coming to terms with is that it’s ok if we’re existing for ourselves in our own spaces. “Normal” to me means “mainstream” and mainstream invariably means white, because whiteness is often considered the default that everyone else is judged against. I think people know that we’re right here next to them living, loving, working, and existing—but there’s this pathology attached to Blackness that is so ingrained in our culture, I don’t know how many photos or stories or videos or podcasts of us just being human and awesome will change that for racists. Maybe it works for those who want to be allies, but I don’t think it sways hateful people.
So living for ourselves and creating spaces where our community can find us is more important to me than convincing others who don’t want to be convinced that our existence is normal.
That said, I think mainstream media companies do see what’s happening in our corners of the Internet, and are trying to jump on the bandwagon by featuring a wider array of people on their pages, or making diversity a part of their hiring practices.
mater mea: But what do you think? And what does “normalizing” women of color’s lives mean and look like to you?
Raising Mothers: I totally agree. I never work or love or exist within a white gaze. What I meant as far as normalizing us is normalizing our existence for ourselves. We are still very much in great need of doing that work for ourselves, because of our external experience in this world, which is mostly beyond our control. I definitely don’t see this as a distinctly unique American experience. The expressions might be different in other parts of the world, but it definitely exists elsewhere. I feel it here in different iterations. It’s a condition.
We are still in desperate need to have these separate spaces online. But we also need to be able to have them come together sometimes. I want to see women of color feel comfortable being multidimensional. We already are, but I am more concerned with all of us having a reflection; especially younger girls. Man, these children today are so fortunate to have so many different types of Black to aspire to. Not just the professional and “successful” went-to-college Black elite. We aren’t all that. I thought that’s what I had to be and denied myself of myself for years. I wish I had real examples of people just a few years older than me that weren’t only musicians being amazing in their own right.
I think a lot of people of color still consider folks online as the exception. Obviously, not the people actually using these mediums or consuming them. This is accessible to us all and it needs to be embraced by us all. I can easily think of 20 people that fill this profile: they listen to the radio and all traditional forms of media but don’t use any apps properly on their phones and think that having a YouTube channel or a blog is weird or “white.” That’s the part I want to see change. Too many adults my age that think like this.
Raising Mothers: What do you think is missing in regards to writing on motherhood? Specifically, what do you think needs special attention in this genre? That could be for mothers of color and/or in motherhood in general.
mater mea: Hmmm… I used to think it was speaking about how hard mothering is, but that’s changed since I’ve started paying attention to motherhood. Online writing in general has become super confessional in a way that sometimes feels a little exploitative—”will bare my soul for clicks”—but I think it’s more common to be really honest and not present this very polished version of motherhood in writing… Instagram however is another story, lol.
I think there does need to be more writing from and for moms who have children with special needs that aren’t just created for personal websites, subject-specific websites, or mainstream sites during awareness focused months. Especially from women of color—those spaces tend to be incredibly white, from what I’ve seen.
mater mea: How has your understanding of motherhood and Blackness altered or stayed the same now that you live in Amsterdam?
Raising Mothers: That’s an interesting question because my understanding of both haven’t been directly informed by my living in Amsterdam to an extent where I would make mention of it. As far as Blackness and race goes, I can relate to the issues here since I am a first generation American myself, so I grew up more Caribbean than American. The history here is layered and different to American history, obviously. There is plenty of overt and more dangerously, subtle racism, but people are speaking up and change is happening at its own pace.
As far as my place in that, I think out of respect for those living here for generations my position should be one of supportive observance. I don’t need to force myself into their change because I don’t want to ever change the discourse into it being an “American” movement. When I moved here, I went through a series of emotions over the first 18 months. I would say they varied from rejecting being called an expat to finally accepting that this is life for now. I don’t come from a family of expats and I want to be aligned with my family, so I proudly and more comfortably refer to myself as an immigrant. Here, I am seen first as American, which is something I have struggled with a great deal (especially since I’m a dual citizen).
Not everyone that moves to a new country does so under contract with a fancy job and renting a split-level house with a backyard. Especially in Amsterdam. The disparity between classes is very stark here and being American usually denotes things I do not relate to. I’ve recognized that Blackness in other parts of the world are as I’ve always known it to be: multi-layered, not monolithic, arrested and free.
When it comes to my understanding of motherhood, I think I desperately cling to my own memory of what it means to grow up in my childhood home and community. That aspect is the polar opposite here; I miss having a Jamaican and West Indian community around me. I sometimes miss living in and appreciate coming from a multi-generational household. I’ve never lived as a nucleus before becoming a parent. I love some parts of it very much and treasure that I am the true final say in how my son is raised and I think it’s emboldened me to find and assert my voice on our behalf on a much faster pace. But what I wouldn’t give for a day off while his grandma takes him out or plays with him. I’ve come to terms with it now, but for the first 14 months (before our first visit back home), I couldn’t even think about my mother without tearing up that she doesn’t get to have the relationship with her grand baby that I had with her mother. I want that so much for us both.
Raising Mothers: Going back to you mentioning Instagram, one of the things that originally bummed me out online but on IG in particular (it’s where I live mostly online) was the lack of representation of mothers, both SAHM and WAHM that had ordinary lives. IG is always a tricky place because there’s so much editing of one’s life even when we’re told otherwise. I struggled to connect with WOC that weren’t from privileged backgrounds or part of elite crews and therefore obviously felt “special.” Since having my son, though, IG communities have made a bit of a shift. What do you think of the representation of motherhood on Instagram?
mater mea: I think it definitely depends on who you follow. On mater mea’s account, I have a mix of people I follow. There are the professional bloggers and lifestyle photographers whose bread and butter is in sharing these super gorgeous photos of their family that spark some sort of aspirational longing in the viewer. But then I also follow a number of “everyday” ladies whose photos are captured in the moment, and aren’t professionally done or as concerned with the rule of thirds or natural lighting.
Because Instagram is really just another marketing tool for many, I do think it presents motherhood at its most beautiful or covetable. But at the same time, to your point about normalizing imagery for ourselves, it is great to see that it’s not just white women sharing photos of foam latte art or fiddle leaf plants, or gorgeously shot photos of themselves and their families.
mater mea: You’ve talked to so many different, inspiring women. What have been some of the interviews that have resonated the most with you and your audience, and why?
Raising Mothers: Each interview I’ve done has been affirming to me on my own path of marriage or motherhood or womanhood. One of my most eye opening interviews was my latest one with interior designer and stylist, Justina Blakeney. Her interview really made me broadly reevaluate how race is viewed on the east coast vs. the west coast. I see it in my friendships with west coasters, but I never understood what exactly was so different. I think the east coast will always be plagued by how very Black and white (pun unintended) it can be. There can be a melting pot of culture, but it’s still very segregated. It’s also very segregated in our collective minds. Her phrasing opened my eyes to the unconscious language I use and I’m working to improve that.
One of my new favorite questions to ask interviewees is “How do you feel as a mother?” That’s been a very open question that has yielded a lot of brutally honest responses. It is a daily honor to be able to read, resonate and present those responses to a larger audience. I spend a particular amount of time interviewing mothers in interracial and trying to dispel that the definition is strictly black/white. My interview with my good friend Radhika Prout talks about her East Indian and Black American marriage and raising her daughters in the states. Another personal favorite interview was with Rachelle Chapman, whose life on the surface mirrors mine: Black mother in interracial marriage that has relocated to her husband’s homeland, France, and is raising her biracial child in this new environment.
I’ve published far more essays by brilliant writers than interviews, though. The common thread that runs through pieces on Raising Mothers is the internal struggles we face from things oft times outside of our control affecting us uniquely as both mothers and as women. I personally might not be in these situations, but I can empathize with Stacia Brown’s essay, “This is Co-Parenting” or Julie Hart’s essay on personal worth and being a stay at home mother in “Waiting on Pascal” or Andrea Ross’ powerful essay “Slapped” on reconnecting with her mother who gave her up for adoption.
Raising Mothers: What have been some of your favorite interviews and why?
mater mea: We’ve had more than 50 interviews on the site, and each one of them has been a favorite for one reason or another! But if I had to pick a few to call out, I would start with our interview with poet and activist Staceyann Chin, because she’s just as dynamic in person as she is on stage or on the page. Our profile of educator Takiema Bunche-Smith was one of the first times I cried during an interview. We were in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and she was weeping for her first child, who was a stillborn. It was maybe the first time I was really struck by the power of having created a platform where women can share their stories and draw strength from it—it’s therapeutic for the storyteller and the people who are reading their stories. It was also a reminder that loss is often a part of starting a family, something I didn’t really know until I started the site.
I also loved talking to Geraldine Moriba of CNN who is just the epitome of what I want to be when I’m a mom. She’s a journalist with this amazing family and beautiful home, who is just so strong and compassionate and lovely and good at her job. She’s just #goals as they say. And our conversation with psychologist Elmeka Henderson, who decided to raise her son abroad to avoid police brutality, inspired a whole series talking to Black women who are living and raising their children abroad.
mater mea: Let’s do some not-so-shameless plugging of our sites. How about you tell people why you think they should check out mater mea, and I can tell everyone why they need to visit Raising Mothers?
Raising Mothers: Ha ha, yes. Shameless indeed. Well, reader, if you’ve come this far you’re obviously in love with us.
You should check out mater mea not only for the beautiful intimate photographs, but also for the rich and heartfelt profiles of these powerful women. We get to experience these women in a way society doesn’t often allow us to: as women, as mothers, as Black professionals. These incredibly inspiring ladies reveal a side that even we often take for granted. They unveil the sacrifice they many make for the positions they hold and that motherhood is never cut and dry within the lens of the Black female experience.
Mater mea: Thank you! And you should visit Raising Mothers because it provides a space for mothers of color to share their thoughts on the joys and struggles of being a woman and a mother and a person of color. Most sites ask you to suspend a part of yourself to engage in the content—either you’re concerned about being a woman or you’re just focused on being a parent or you’re concerned about being a Black woman.
I also love that the essays and interviews are accessible in how universal the topics and issues are—you’ll find yourself or your concerns in each piece. Raising Mothers presents moms of color having interiority and grace that isn’t typically afforded them in other sites, and allows its writers and interviewees to just be.
Sherisa de Groot is a mother and writer specializing in personal narratives. Being a woman and mother of color, first generation American and living in a culture and country alien to her own, she enjoys writing about these social intersections. She is the founding editor of Raising Mothers. Originally from Brooklyn, NY she currently lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands with her husband and toddler son.
Tomi Akitunde is the founder of mater mea, a website that celebrates Black women at the intersection of career and family. She lives in Queens with her fiancé and several books.