How dare you? The story of Kelley Williams-Bolar

For the vast majority of women bringing a child into the world triggers something so deep and so primal within that until we take our last breath we will forever be conditioned to put the health and welfare of our child first. (Obviously there are exceptions) I saw this clearly in my mother’s last weeks and days, after having brain surgery to remove a fast growing tumor, when she finally became conscious she was not the same person she was prior to the surgery. But she never forgot she was a mother, the last conversations she was clearly able to articulate centered on my brother and I, telling my father to remember our birthdays, etc. One of the last conversations she had with me was by phone and she was so weak…yet when the nurse put her on the phone, she whispered daughter.  So weak that she could not utter my given name yet she knew I was her child.  It was at that moment I realized that mothering never stops; it simply changes shape even when our children become adults as I am now learning with my own son.

That said, no matter what our financial circumstances we all want the best for our children. In today’s world we are seeing a revolution in mothering which we see clearly being played out within social media, on television and books. Many women in my generation (Gen X) are refashioning our lives to be the best mothers we can be for our children as evidenced in the rise of stay at home mothers. Yet for women with meager financial resources, doing one’s best can take many forms, going to school so that we can eventually get better paying jobs, etc.

This brings me to Kelley Williams Bolar, a Black mother currently serving a 10 day sentence in Ohio. Her crime? Sending her children to an out of district school as her local school was neither safe nor adequate. Ms. Williams-Bolar made the choice to do the best for her kids by sending her kids to an out of district suburban school that incidentally her father, the kid’s grandfather resides in. However this is a crime. The reality though is that this sort of thing has been going on forever, perhaps if schools were not funded so unfairly in our nation a parent would not have to make the decision to break the law in order to make sure that their kids receive an adequate education.

I won’t say that Williams-Bolar didn’t break the law but her punishment for a crime that if we are honest is victimless is 10 days in jail, probation and community service. More importantly because she was convicted of a felony, she now risks being disqualified to teach. See, Williams-Bolar is a senior in college looking to pursue a career in education; she currently works as a teacher’s aide. Apparently the judge wanted to make an example out of Williams-Bolar and deter others from skirting the law. Now as you can guess, the area Williams-Bolar resides in is predominantly Black and poor and the schools she sent her kids to was predominantly white and middle class.

There are some who are saying that race should not be an issue, but let’s be honest. Do you think this would have happened had Williams-Bolar been white? Of course not! Oh, she may have been caught and there may have been repercussions but a felony? Not likely.

While mothering and motherhood is simply not valued in this culture, I think it’s even less valued when the mother is a woman of color. Historically Black women were not allowed to mother our own kids; instead we were forced to mother other’s kids. It’s why the image of the Mammy still exists, we are seen as mothers of others but not our own kids. I think this is why it’s shocking to some when we see a Black mother fighting to mother her own kids and give the best we can to our kids. It’s why Black stay at home Moms are still perceived as oddities even in solidly middle class neighborhoods. It’s why when a Black mom shows up to be a class helper or accompany the class to the field trip we are looked at with skepticism. Its why even in the blogosphere there are literally only a handful of mothers of color whose blogs are highly rated and last time I checked while there are plenty of Mamas who have turned mothering into a money making venture with blogs that are producing real income and book deals. I have yet to see a Black or Latina mother receive these same accolades and rewards. Our mothering is simply not valued. This along with classism and racism is why Kelly Williams-Bolar is sitting in a jail cell as I type this separated from her kids with her future looking not too bright.

The only real crime in my eyes that Kelley is guilty of is wanting a better life for her kids yet doing that in a system that does not value her as a mother, a woman and most certainly a poor person.

Because your mental health is important too

As 2010 draws to a close I find myself in a rather introspective state, there has been a lot of meditation and reading and plain old trying to figure out my place in this world and in my life. This year has brought a lot of changes for me personally, seeing my eldest child turn 18 and head off to college has most certainly been one of the bigger milestones. Since the laws state that at 18 a person is an adult I have been grappling with redefining my relationship to him and what that means. I am always going to be Momma and he is always going to be my baby yet I know he needs space to find his place in the world.

This year has also seen me take a more active role in the life of my own Dad who is my remaining parental unit and who we will be presumably welcoming into our daily life in a matter of days. I have also seen the organization that I run grow by leaps and bounds, our annual budget has doubled yet we are still a small grass roots organization and it means that even though I have a fancy sounding title, I still deal with much of the minutia.

My marriage this year has experienced some shifts, mostly good but at times painful as we both seek to find ourselves in middle age and adjust our new selves to the larger union of our family. Then there is my body, I am at the age my mother was when she started a cycle of regular doctor visits and an ever growing arsenal of pills to manage conditions. Thankfully the shifts in my body have not necessitated medical interventions but I am officially at a point where the body I reside in has informed me that it is no longer the body of a young woman.

Needless to say in juggling a year of change it is easy to overlook one’s mental state yet coming from a line of women who never paid attention to their mental state and in my opinion reaped the disastrous effects of that decision in their body, I seek to break with that tradition. Yet I was reading this piece that once again reminded me as a Black woman, I am not alone in when it comes to how I treat my mental health.

Let me be clear, all women regardless of race or ethnicity carry heavy burdens; it’s the legacy of a patriarchal society. But for women of color specifically for Black women frankly most of us are just not used to addressing our mental health, I think about how many years ago I sought therapy to learn how to deal with my family…yes, I did. I love em but they were driving me crazy. However at that time in my life I was ashamed that I was in therapy because as a Black woman I felt I should have been strong enough to deal with these issues on my own. Though over the years I have noticed with my white friends they have no problem admitting they are in therapy and or using medications to address depression, anxiety, etc.

So much of what holds Black women back from addressing mental health is frankly half baked stereotypes that only “crazy” folks need that stuff and frankly it’s killing us. This year I saw many of my Black peers lose parents but what is crazy that for friends in their 30’s or early 40’s they are losing their parents at ridiculously young ages like 57, 58 or maybe 60. Of course I lost my Mom when she barely 50, so I know all too well how hard this life is on us as a people yet the idea of checking out early scares me so I strive to take care of myself despite the fact that it’s hard.

Sistas, just as we take care of our hair, the kids, our man, and others…we have got to start taking care of ourselves. It’s really that simple. You and I both know it’s not normal to walk around with a continuous pit in our stomachs, headaches, panic attacks…yet we do. Why? In many cases fear. I admit there is a shortage of culturally aware clinicians to work with us, fact is in addressing our issues culture is an issue. I know I have had many white friends tell me that perhaps my family of origin is toxic and I need to cut em off. They probably are toxic but they are the only family I got so I need to learn to live my life and deal with them but at the same time preserve my mental health. I was lucky that when I was in therapy I found a therapist that got it, she understood the dynamics of Black families and knew that cutting them off was not going to work instead giving me tools to work with them and allowing me to preserve my sanity.

So as we bring 2010 to a close I invite you to join me in my quest to take my mental health as seriously as I take my physical health.

Raising Black and Brown Babies

As much as I love the exchange of information and communities that can form online I have to say that there are areas where I feel it’s very limited. No matter who we are and how open minded we see ourselves the fact is we bring our lens to how we interpret information. In the US, our race, class and gender greatly inform our views even down to the politics of how we parent our children. In the past 24 hours I have read two pieces and the resulting comments that really bring home the point for me as a Black woman raising brown kids that no matter what parenting philosophy I choose my experiences as a Black woman in America shape my views. In this first piece we have Erica Jong discussing the parenting style known as attachment parenting and in this second piece we have a great blogger who happens to be Black dealing with her brown boy asking for a white doll. I realize they are both lengthy but I encourage you to read them.

I not going to get into specifics but I will say that what I was struck by in reading these pieces was how much as a Black woman that shapes how I raise my kids. To be honest I feel I live (and most Black/Brown folks) in a world that requires no matter how progressive I am as a parent that I instill in my kids some things that white folks will never have to worry about when it comes to raising their kids. In order to do that I must start early in childhood, I believe I have moved far away from the harsh manner in which my parents raised me. I don’t spank, I don’t yell, I allow my kids a voice but at the same time I understand that black and brown children if they are caught out in the world expressing themselves no matter how cute and articulate that as they grow older the stakes get higher. What am I trying to say? Well as the mother of an 18 year old brown boy, I will always worry will my son become a victim of police brutality? I can’t imagine my white friends have that worry but I know that every Black and Brown mother I know raising boys has that fear. All it takes is a simple traffic stop for my son’s life to end.

This reality was brought home recently when speaking to my former mother in law who happen to be an attorney and she was telling me about this story. Apparently I missed it in the news but you have a young Black man whose life was ended too early. Sadly these things are all too common in Black and brown communities. My former mother in law was talking about how this story made her fear for my son, her only grandchild. I almost laughed but simply said I understand. See, since my son hit that stage at about 14 or so when his height exceeded mine and he looked less like a boy and more like a man, I have feared for his life. Oh, I know he is a level headed kid who while he will make mistakes often will try to do the right thing but may fall short. We all do, no one is perfect. Problem is we live in a world that does not give black and brown bodies the benefit of the doubt.

I fear that my son could at any minute become a victim of someone else’s stupidity. I fear that as my girl grows up she will internalize the images that say black and brown are not beautiful yet she will be a prime candidate for the boys and men that will be eager to use and abuse her.

I realize some might say gee…you live a grim existence. Nope, I live the life the cards dealt and understand in ways my parents never did when they tried to raise me in a color blind (to some degree hippy fashion) that the world is not kind to black and brown bodies. I understand that as a Black woman, shit happens to brown and black bodies at a greater rate than it happen to white bodies. I understand that sadly the political is not just a discussion I have online but my reality. Black and brown bodies in this society break down faster than white bodies; we are bombarded by stresses on every side…as bell hooks said in Sisters of the Yam “Life threatening stress has become the normal psychological state for many black women (and men). Much of the stress black people experience is directly related to the way in which systems of domination-racism, sexism, and capitalism in particular disrupt out capabilities to fully exercise self determination.” It’s why as a Black woman raising brown kids, my children know how to breathe deeply and my son started taking yoga. It’s probably why whenever I go to the doctor they seem amazed that my blood pressure is good, it pisses me off yet I know I am the same age my mother was when she had to start taking the blood pressure medicine. It’s why in the late 30’s Black and Brown bodies slowly start breaking down almost certainly insuring we will leave this planet earlier than our white counterparts.

I share this all to say that if we as a culture want to have a true discussion on parenting and motherhood in this society that first thing we must be willing to look at is the differences that impact us as mothers. Yes, we all want the same thing for our babies but the means by which we get there may different. It’s why in Black and Brown communities the need for a village from my perspective is stronger than in the white community. I know I cannot parent alone, I have tried. Yet for my white sisters many are okay without that village yet they often have greater supports, partners who often can earn enough to provide. While my white sisters also deal with the fact that as women in this society they are still not valued as much as men the fact is with whiteness comes a level of privilege that is harder to access if you are Black or Brown.  While most certainly lower income whites face many of the same struggles that low income and even middle class Blacks face the fact is whiteness is at times less stressful.

To come together as mothers concerned about the world and raising kids, I need my white sisters to understand that while my methods of raising kids may differ from you, it’s only because our reality is different.  Once there is that acknowledgment then I think as women and mothers we can come together to address the inequities that face us all.