Intensive Motherwork: Racism and Black Women’s Mothering
As I chatted with Asia over a video call, it was evident how much she loved being a mother. Her face lit up as she described the accomplishments of her 17-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter; both were excelling in school, and her son had just started a new job. However, as we transitioned to discuss how race shaped the experience of mothering, her shoulders dropped and I could see the sadness in her eyes. It became abundantly clear to me that race—and more specifically, anti-Black racism—significantly shaped Asia’s experience of motherhood. When I asked explicitly how she thought the anticipation of Black children experiencing racism impacted Black mothers, Asia responded: “Honestly, I think it makes our mothering—” she paused, eventually finishing the sentence, “our motherhood experience to be less fulfilling.”
Although both popular and scholarly discourse often construes motherhood as a universal experience, Black feminist scholars challenge this claim, asserting that Black women’s experience of motherhood is unique. Grounded in this Black feminist perspective, my research investigates how Black mothers protect and empower their children and themselves in the face of anti-Black racism.In a recently published paper, I draw on the stories of 35 predominantly middle-class Black mothers to reveal how anti-Black racism affects the lives of Black families in insidious and unrelenting ways. The mothers I talked to were living in the continental United States and were raising at least one child between the ages of 10-24. Through talking with these Black mothers, I discovered that they engaged in a set of mothering practices that I collectively term intensive motherwork, encompassing their exhaustive efforts to protect and empower their children and themselves amid pervasive anti-Black racism. This intensive motherwork is necessary for the physical, mental, and emotional survival of Black mothers and their families.
The mothers in my study discussed three primary aspects of intensive motherwork. First, they engaged in protective mothering, which involved practices to assist their children in navigating and/or mitigating anticipated experiences of racism. Mothers’ protective strategies included delaying or restricting milestones (particularly for sons) and teaching and encouraging agency (particularly for daughters). For example, one mother described how she delayed taking her son to get his driver’s license due to concerns over his physical safety, while another discussed instilling the importance of speaking up for yourself in her daughters to mitigate the emotional toll of and lack of control experienced within racially hostile environments.
Second, mothers engaged in resistance mothering as they educated their children about Black American culture to help them develop a positive racial identity. In doing so, mothers also experienced personal empowerment and fulfillment. Resistance mothering is exemplified by the words of one mother who stated that her children’s awareness of anti-Blackness came “specifically from my mothering.” This mother explained that she tries to counteract harmful narratives about Blackness by teaching her children “self-love, self-promotion, and Black excellence.”
Finally, I use the term encumbered mothering to describe how the constant need to be aware of anti-Blackness, and its impact on their families, limits Black mothers’ experience of motherhood. In short, combatting racism becomes a part of mothering. This unique aspect of Black women’s mothering constrains their capacity to experience the joys of motherhood.
Intensive motherwork helps illuminate how the experience of Black mothering intersects with anti-Black racism and impacts both Black mothers and their children. It underscores that Black mothers’ intensive parenting practices are not solely concerned with children’s achievements, but with their basic safety and well-being. In solely centering the experiences of Black women in motherhood discourse, I illustrate the destructiveness of anti-Black racism and its potential consequences for Black maternal well-being.
Mia Brantley is in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University. She studies race, family, and health.