The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did I really need a mom’s group?

(Elizabeth von Oehsen /Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post)
7 min

The following is an excerpt from “The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class and Race from Moms Not Like Me,” to be released by Crown on Aug. 23.

It sounds so self-helpy, right? Mom group. So desperate. So fluorescent overhead lighting. So awkward folding-chair circles in Baptist church basements, with Styrofoam-flavored coffee. Women taking polite turns speaking their “truths” about cracked nipples, nutty grandmas, [poopy] babies. I mean, in the end that’s pretty much it. A bunch of strangers banding together to struggle through their shared obsession. Group as a verb. How super lame. How very uncool or urban or whatever random adjective got snipped from an old copy of the Oprah Magazine and glued to my mom vision board. There are so many stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we’re supposed to be, and who we should be with. To me “mom group” always sounded like something for white women, period. But why? Are Black women not moms? Do we not love a good group?

To get to the bottom of those questions I asked my Black friends who happen to be moms and who also happen to live all over the country to weigh in via a completely unscientific Google survey, because I was tired of texting. The responses sent from these women who unfortunately don’t live down the street, and therefore can’t be in my day-to-day mom clique, were equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. One mom called her local group a “nice sanity check” and repeated the African proverb, “It takes a village.” She had intentionally joined a group specifically designed “for Black mommas.”

Another mom, who knit together an informal Black mom group, still said the very term was like nails on a chalkboard — “sounds like a bunch of white women doing stuff to make the world in the shape they want it for their specific kid.” When asked who exactly “mom groups” were for, one mother answered, “Stay-at-home/gently employed white women who make Goldfish crackers from scratch and decorate their front porches for every season.” This same mom admitted that “it would be nice to have women to get advice from and vent with” but her “wack” schedule wouldn’t allow it, plus she didn’t feel like being “judged by type A women.”

That was the general perception of the women who populate the 21st-century baby bee. When I mentioned maybe possibly joining my friendly neighborhood mom group, my day ones scoffed — like literally scoffed — at the idea. “For what?” But for real, wasn’t I too, ummm, Black for this? Is that a thing? Didn’t I know my own kind of people with babies? What would 11-year-old Helena, who vowed never to let the sixth grade Stepford-wives-in-training make her feel small again, say about all this? Would she high-five me or slap some sense into me?

It began innocently enough.

After I got pregnant with my first daughter, Sally, one of my colleagues at The Washington Post told me about this Facebook group I had to join: Bloomingdale Mamas. It was for all the ladies “in our hood,” a Zip code that was basically gentrification ground zero. We had been living in a cute condo in Bloomingdale for three years, and three-quarters of my take-home pay. Then two lines on a pregnancy test meant we needed more room, and Rob and I managed to find a former party house to rent. It felt like the kind of place parents would live.

So, the Bloomingdale Mamas, the online chrysalis from which I would emerge transformed. Because if it was all about the mothers of the neighborhood — the perfect backdrop to the family photos of the future — then I was all in. I had to be. Wasn’t this my identity now? Helena, soon-to-be mother. Helena, in charge of vacuuming a three-story house and looking out onto our malaria swamp of a backyard and envisioning children therein. Helena, the grown. I joined the Mamas a full five months before my firstborn arrived. The Facebook group was still a nut that needed cracking into.

There was even another spin-off Facebook group aimed at “new moms” who wanted to “meet up” once the weather got nice and an additional email list for the same. Workouts in the park for the shrinking of post-baby bodies. Library story time you had to get tickets for in advance. There was also a new language to learn-FS (for sale), FFPU (free for porch pick up), and ISO (in search of) — because the baby-crap black market is booming among folks who could definitely afford to click “buy now.” Plus, loads of advice (all fervently solicited) to comb through about sleep training, pumping, and “school lottery-ing.” There were hundreds of members, more moms than I knew existed in our two-by-13-block wedge of Washington, and hardly any of them Black, which was eerie considering we lived within walking distance of Howard University. The Facebook group was like an alternative dimension where the realities of the world outside rarely made an appearance, except in the annual Fourth of July posts entitled “Fireworks or Gunshots?”

Once Sally landed on solid ground, lurking online became my favorite maternity-leave pastime aside from, you know, taking care of her. I’d logged on from the maternity ward right after my daughter was born, despite my best efforts to stay off the internet for six weeks in accordance with my “confinement” — Chinese postpartum practice I learned about on the internet. But there I was in my hospital bed, thumbing through post after post as if they were puzzle pieces that, collected together, might make this whole motherhood thing make sense. And there I was at home on our hand-me-down couch with a tiny Sally nestled in the crook of one arm while I stared at the palm-sized idiot box cradled in my other hand. This wasn’t neglect, okay. This was me learning — as vital as the baby books stacked in a totem pole by my side of the bed.

But as much as I craved my daily (fine, hourly) peeks into the lives of women who looked nothing like me but were living near parallel lives to mine (married, working, crashing), I also resented their freedom. I don’t know what else to call it. Here was a forum for all things big and small — clothing swaps, home-renovation advice, wake times — that was clearly so necessary, a ray of light for creepo postpartum Gollums like myself. But it was also so blindingly white, and so unaware or unconcerned or even to blame for that fact. What was I doing caring so much about these thumbnails? Was I buying into the lily-white version of motherhood or disrupting the feed with my presence? Oh, the internal conflict!

Like these women, I had briefly imagined myself better than I was and considered cloth diapers. Emily Oster, the economist turned “you can drink wine while pregnant” evangelist, was also my spiritual guide. I was dutifully steaming and blending organic vegetables that painted pretty pictures on our dining room wall at dinner time. Being Black didn’t inoculate me from being a maniac. There wasn’t some latent mammy gene that made me an expert on child-rearing and therefore not prone to poking my kid 10 times in as many minutes to make sure she was still breathing. I needed this space as much as they did.

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