Illustration by Narrative Initiative
Illustration by Narrative Initiative

Maternal healing as a path to community wellness for Black mothers

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez offers a powerful personal reflection on mothering as a mode of resistance and healing.



A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez


21 May, 2024

I expected both too much and too little of motherhood before having children.

The mothers in my family set the pace. The confidence and certainty of their opinions and sense of self outweighed the disadvantages of their responsibility and sacrifice. In contrast, I felt weak and indecisive. Naively, I imagined I’d grow that self-assuredness and strength through mothering. The Black mothers in my family abandoned youthful impulsiveness and used multigenerational wisdom to ensure I was cared for. But when I started a family with the man I loved and moved across the country, the culture of care felt more like entrapment than growth. 

Through a traumatic birth ending with a retained placenta, I learned mothers weren’t revered in the larger world as they were in my heart. The pressure to bond and mother my child conflicted with the pain I felt. Years later, I’d understand a series of inflexible social pressures to surrender my growth for the kid’s wellbeing.  

Systems Shaping Mothering

“Even the most aware parents must actively learn and unlearn how to engage with their children in a nourishing way,” says Shenee Johnson, Healing Coordinator & Licensed Professional Counselor at I Deserve Mental Wellness Services. She says the impact of systemic violence can easily infiltrate our parenting practices. “The main harm I see is the way that we dehumanize our children.”

The expectation of parenting our children in alignment with the structures that govern our lives brings countless disadvantages. It encourages parents to raise children in the silos of the nuclear family while fathers and other nonbirthing parents are devalued. It leaves mothers to carry most of the weight of raising children who are seen, not heard, and prepared to thrive in customs that deny all of our humanity. 

“When our children are moving or talking ‘too much’—especially in public—we are failing as parents,” Johnson says, noting that these expectations ignore our children’s developmental milestones and the importance of socialization and boundary-pushing for healthy development.  

“Systemic oppression needs us to believe that time is scarce and that we only have time to work and to raise our children to be workers,” she says, describing how dominant culture—capitalism, individualism, and neoliberalism—shapes parenting expectations. “There is no time just to be, only time to do more.”

That pressure created cycles of violence in my mothering. My husband worked 40+ hours, so our needs were met. I labored to adapt to the expectations of mothering. I knew the risks of harm would be slightly lower if I prepared my children for an authoritarian world filled with restriction. Years later, I’d learn I struggled under what motherhood scholar Adrienne Rich calls “The institution of motherhood.” This institution was created to raise children in alignment with an individualist, property-based, racially hierarchical perspective of family and parenting. Under this model, mothers were the martyrs doing all the work with none of the glory. It didn’t align with the communal nurturing mode of mothering I’d witnessed in my family. I knew If I could heal, I could help my loved ones.

Mothering ourselves is the antidote, but that doesn’t happen in isolation"

Mothering in a bind

“To survive in the mouth of this dragon, we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson– that we were never meant to survive,” Cecilia Caballero, PhD., a poet, writer, and co-editor of The Chicana Motherwork Anthology, says quoting Black feminist writer and theorist Audre Lorde.  

“Parenting at the mouth of the dragon is what distinguishes us from the ‘normative’ or ‘white mothering,’” she says. “We have to contend with fearing police brutality, disproportionate rates of family separation in CPS families at the border, and an ongoing genocide in Palestine, where generations of families are being murdered.”

Movement toward liberatory mothering models requires honoring this, the additional challenges, and the potential to further harm as we “contend with racial capitalism, scarcity, and fear on an everyday basis.”

I often felt crushed under the awareness of the world that awaited my children. Though partnered, I internalized the pressure to parent perfectly. I held an unrealistic share of responsibility for my children’s future and by helicoptering over them to protect them from the traumas I’d experienced. A 17th-century English legal principle—Partus Sequitur Ventrem, “the child status follows the mother,” showed me my children would follow me in freedom or trauma.  

Despite oppressive patriarchal systems, I would be the one to lead our family toward freedom. The justice movements around me suggested the same. 

“We’ve always led the way,” says Caballero. “When mothers’ needs are met in movements, we gain visionaries, strategists, and life-givers.” She says motherwork, a term coined by Patricia Hill Collins, has been minimized, erased, and even criminalized, especially for those of us raising black and brown children. However, without respect for the knowledge and labors of mothers, communities can’t respond to lived realities. 

She continues, noting that mothering is more than just a biological identifier; it’s a nongender restrictive act of care. “I believe in that vision and possibility, time and time again, in the face of genocide, war, disaster, capitalism, all of the things that we’re experiencing, that mothering is the antidote.”

She notes that many of us are breaking intergenerational trauma and harm and struggling to maintain our complex humanity under the pressure of “prescribed roles of motherhood. “We’re not above reproach—sometimes, we do make mistakes,” she says—but mothers consistently lead efforts to challenge social systems and end patterns of generational trauma.

Mothering toward healing

Today, Black and other mothers of color are parenting their children intentionally and embracing more authoritative parenting models with humanizing, autonomy-based shared decision-making. Still, these movements rarely directly address mothers’ needs and add to our overwhelm. Like Partus Sequirt Ventrim, my children can’t learn autonomy, grace, and healing if they don’t see me model it.  

Caballero says resistance requires individual, interpersonal, and institutional shifts.

“Mothering ourselves is the antidote, but that doesn’t happen in isolation,” says Caballero, describing the importance of community. She notes that community offers the connection and accountability required to end systems of harm in our parenting. These words led me to a revelation. The women in my family weren’t less susceptible to the demands of mothering while Black. They had each other to fill in the gaps and hold each other in comfort and accountability when things were hard. In other words, they mothered each other.

Using “mother” as a fixed role where one person provides care is an underutilization of power. When we embrace the fluidity of the term, we acknowledge that we never stop needing care. Further, dynamic and reciprocal models of care inspire us to care for ourselves and receive care as we raise children. It also poses the unexpected possibility that our children have care to offer. 

“Our children come into the world looking like granny. Could it be possible that they also have her wisdom?” Johnson challenges. If we could lean into this possibility and treat our children like reincarnated ancestors, we could respect their humanity even more.”

Collaborative, shared mothering is revolutionary in a society that expects us to parent in isolation, hints Johnson.

Caballero says this reciprocal element of mothering, often practiced by Black and Brown people, makes it revolutionary. It’s visible in movements rooted in a community, like reproductive justice.

Both experts note mothers are uniquely equipped to revolutionize social norms and community care through mothering. My journey is just starting. But the more I humanize myself, the easier it is to humanize my children. 

Caballero’s words remind me of the duplicity of mothering while marginalized. 

“We’re parenting from a place of survival. But we’re also parenting from a place of being visionaries,” she says. This vision work is what will set us free.” 

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a storyteller, public speaker, facilitator, and motherhood scholar with nearly a decade of shedding light on the demands of motherhood and a lifetime of expressing what others feel but fear saying.