(50) Motherhood So White with Nefertiti

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Author, Nefertiti Austin, stops by to discuss Black motherhood, adoption, single parenting, and why white motherhood is the default reflected in the media. We also talk about her book, how she healed her own mother wound, the discrepancy between white and Black adoptions, and how Black women and mothers are dehumanized (which was not on my radar). Lots of important stuff here.

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Brandy:            Hello, Adult Conversation Podcast listeners. In this episode, I’m talking with author, Nefertiti Austin, about Black motherhood, adoption, single parenting, and why white motherhood is the default reflected in the media. We also discuss how she healed her own mother wound, the discrepancy between white and Black adoptions, and how white people unknowingly dehumanize Black women and mothers which, honestly, was not even on my radar. Lots of important stuff to chew on in this one.

Brandy:            Somehow, I’ve made it to my 50th episode without any lapse these past almost two years. When I realized I was hitting this milestone, I sat there for a moment and was a little bit blown away that somehow with all the things going on — you know, mothering two kids, my chronic health stuff, writing and then marketing a book (Adult Conversation: A Novel, available everywhere), and then a pandemic and managing my kids distance learning — somehow, this podcast has been one of the most consistent things in my life the past couple of years. I really think it’s a testament to how much I value these meaningful discussions and connections with amazing people. So, thank you for being on this ride with me whether you’ve been one of my guests or whether you’re a listener. I value you guys so much. Thank you, thank you! Also, when I started the podcast, I felt pressure to make it a weekly show like most other successful podcasts. People kept talking about how listeners want consistency and constancy, but I knew that if I did it weekly, it wouldn’t last. I wouldn’t last. It would be too much. There is so much work that goes into these shows, and I’m happy I trusted my gut and did what was feasible for me rather than what I “should do” or what experts, who didn’t have kids of course, were suggesting. That’s been such a valuable lesson for me that I often pass on in podcasting groups, but it applies to many things. Doing something that works for your schedule, even if it’s not the norm, is better than not doing the thing at all. On to the show —

Brandy:            Joining us on the podcast today is Nefertiti Austin who is a mother of two, a former certified educator in the foster and adoption world, and author of the book Motherhood So White which is about her fight to create the family she always knew she was meant to have along with exploring the erasure of diverse voices in motherhood. Welcome to the podcast, Nefertiti.

Nefertiti:          Thank you so much, Brandy. Pleasure to be here.

Brandy:            I’m so excited to talk to you today. It’s such an amazing feeling to read someone’s book while knowing that I get to interview them when I’m done. I’m reading your book, and I’m making notes like, “I can’t wait to ask her about this,” or, “No way! Our sons have the same name,” which is true, by the way.

Nefertiti:          {laughter} Yeah.

Brandy:            I had this extra warm heart while I was reading this just seeing your son’s name in there. I just feel so, so grateful to get to do this work. I mean, I’m laying in bed reading a book, and like I get to talk to this person. It’s just amazing. I want to dig into your story and your book’s message which is so important and definitely opened my eyes, but first, what do you think the listeners need to know about you?

Nefertiti:          That’s a really, really good question. I think readers should know that my goal in writing Motherhood So White was to highlight all of the ways in which mothers want the same exact thing regardless of race or sexuality or identity. We want to raise compassionate, empathetic, happy children, and that is a goal that is universal. Now, the way in which we approach that goal is a little different, and that has everything to do with history and even where we are in this moment. I think what people should know about me is that my goal is twofold and is definitely to shine a beam on Black mothers, especially since we have been erased from the motherhood canon and just not even there, and to know that I am about the uplift of children. Whatever that looks like, I support that.

Brandy:            Yes, thank you for that. I think a common blind spot for us white mothers that you crack wide open in your book is that we are always included in the motherhood narrative without any question. Our white experience is the default, and you showed this by moments in the book where you’re talking about going to the library and asking for books and the librarian being like, “Sorry, we don’t have anything for you.”

Nefertiti:           Yes.

Brandy:            You have a line in there that says, “I thought information for mothers would be race neutral, but it wasn’t.” So again, I think this is hard for a lot of white moms to even see because we’ve never experienced life any other way, but there’s a passage in your book that really, really speaks to this. That one says, “So, I turned to the media hoping to catch a glimpse of myself in movies like Knocked Up, Baby Mama, and Step Mom, among others, but they all featured white women. These mainstream images of white single motherhood celebrated ‘oops’ pregnancies, surrogates, sperm banks, and stepmoms, and empowered white women to choose their own path to parenthood. I didn’t bother going to see these films. I did not need another reminder of what white motherhood looked like.” {sighs}

Nefertiti:          Exactly.  

Brandy:            That right there is like all the movies that I would imagine many of the readers and listeners are like, “Oh, yeah. Those movies are great,” and then, being like, “Oh, wait a minute. Those movies leave out demographics – people and diversity.” Like you said in the beginning, this was the impetus for this book. That’s where you saw the need for it, correct?

Nefertiti:          Right. Exactly. I set out like most women and most people who want to parent. I wanted to parent. I wanted to be a mother, and I definitely didn’t expect that looking for literature, movies, magazine covers, or whatever the case may be that I wouldn’t see myself. That was definitely a shocker. Although, perhaps it shouldn’t have been, but it definitely was. Those are funny movies. Even the books that were out, the Mommy Wars and all that stuff — I like to read. It’s not just me. It’s a whole bunch of us who love to read, go to the movies, and we sit and have the same conversations, and yet we’re having them amongst ourselves because it felt like and it feels like we are the ones who are listening to each other because we’ve been told that our experience is marginal. Therefore, it will not be in the public sphere.

Brandy:            Oh, goodness. It’s so wonderful that you wrote this book. I know that there’s the quote out there, “Write the book that you wish that you had,” and this seems like another one of those instances. I felt like the book that I wrote was from the same sort of vibe. I’m curious, will you give us an overview of your story so that the listeners know what your journey was and what you ended up doing? And also, I’d love to hear more about your background and your upbringing because it was really interesting in that it seemed like you were raised with a variety of messages about how to be in the world as a Black girl and as a Black woman. Can you speak to all of those things?

Nefertiti:           Sure. I’ll start with the background. I was raised by my grandparents. My brother and I were raised by our maternal grandparents. Our parents got together young. They were 20 or 21. This is late 60’s, and they’re both very much involved in the Black power movement and very politically conscious. Unfortunately, they both developed drug habits and addictions, and they both veered off into a life of crime (in different ways but still criminal behavior), and so that left my brother and I. My grandparents intervened, and they took us in. There was quite a bit of back and forth in my younger years, like four or five through about nine. After that, we went to stay permanently with our maternal grandparents, and we were super fortunate that they had the space to do it. Financially, they could provide for us, and they wanted to. They more than made up for our parents not being there. They definitely were our parents, but we still had relationships with our mother and with our father. Even though we were loved and cared for, it was still a different upbringing than my friends who lived with both of their parents.

Brandy:            Right.

Nefertiti:          That definitely shaped a lot of ideas for me. I always thought I’d grow up and get married and have 1,000 bridesmaids and all of that good stuff. {laughter}

Brandy:            {laughter}

Nefertiti:          I still believe in that. I think that that’s awesome. I really wasn’t ready to become a mother until my mid-30’s. It wasn’t until I was writing my memoir that it even occurred to me that having been raised by grandparents had already kind of set the stage for me to pursue adoption, so I pursued adoption first because I wanted to adopt first. I had a plan that I was going to adopt a Black baby boy, and then I’d get married and have biological children. That’s not how it all panned out. I adopted one child, and then I got another one. {laughter} That was not part of the plan, but it ended up being the sweetest part of the plan at the end.

Brandy:            Yeah.

Nefertiti:          For Black girls and Black women, we certainly are raised like I think a lot of girls my age, coming of age in the 80s, “You can be anything you want. You could do anything you want,” and definitely raised with a very strong sense of independence. “Make sure you’re able to provide for yourself and take care of yourself,” and so, “Check, check, check,” certainly checked all of those boxes. As far as having a family and creating a family, even though I was not raised by my parents, you would have thought my grandparents and everyone else would have seen my pursuit of adoption coming, but they did not. Even though they had done it informally but still they had done it, they were not necessarily in favor of my choice because it went against the norm. The norm, because I grew up in a conservative middle-class family, was that you get married and you have a family.

Brandy:            Right.

Nefertiti:          I kept breaking all the rules because that’s what I do sometimes. {laughter}

Brandy:            {laughter} I remember in the book, you said that I think it was your father was involved in even like a step up from the Black Panthers. Is that correct?

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            Even your name, Nefertiti — by the way, my daughter has seen your book around the house, and she was looking at it. She said, “What is that name?” And I said, “It’s Nefertiti.” She looked at me, and she was like, “Ah (in amazement).” She’s seven, and she thought I was interviewing the Egyptian queen.

Nefertiti:          Aww, she’s sweet. {laughter}

Brandy:            She was just like, “Mom, you get to interview her?” I was like, “Well, let me explain.”

Nefertiti:          {laughter}

Brandy:            Like, “I’m not interviewing an Egyptian Queen, but…” {laughter} Even when you were explaining about your name, it sounded like you came from this background where your parents were very into Black power and really feeling into all of that, but then your grandparents were more like middle of the road.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            How was that to have competing messages, or did you feel like you dipped into both places? How did you rectify that?

Nefertiti:          I think because I wanted to fit in as a kid and I wanted people to not pay a lot of attention to the fact that we have a different last name from our grandparents and that I have an Egyptian name and my brother’s got an Arabic name, I did not want to stand out for that reason. Even though everyone accepted my grandparents as my parents and it didn’t necessarily come up for discussion, it was something I felt a little different. In third grade, I changed my name to “Tina” because I did not like having an Egyptian name. While my parents had a lot of information, they didn’t have enough information for me. It was always, “We named you after a queen of Egypt,” but that was it. “Is there any more to the story?” I was like, “What else?” {laughter}

Brandy:            {laughter}

Nefertiti:          “We named you because we were into Miles Davis,” and that sort of thing. They had some information. They just didn’t have enough information. That’s a very big name to carry as a little kid, and I really had to grow into it.

Brandy:            Right. Yes.

Nefertiti:          Like most things, it took some boy in the 11th grade to tell me it was pretty for me to decide, “Oh, I can own this now.” Like, “Yes, that’s who I am.” So, yeah, took some time. I had to really grow into it.

Brandy:            When was that? In that moment, do you think? When was it that you felt finally comfortable in that name and like you could own it? How old were you?

Nefertiti:          Probably in the 11th grade, so maybe, like 16. I definitely seriously embrace the conservative values of my grandparents, and then somewhere around 11th grade, I think I began to loosen up just a little bit. Then, in undergrad, as my uncle pointed out, he said, “You didn’t necessarily rebel,” but I did. I was more quiet in my rebellion than everyone else in the family had been. Probably from like mid to late high school through, maybe, graduate school was around the time where I really felt like I stepped into at least the beginning of who I wanted to become and comfortable with, “I’m not going to be a lawyer.” I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Thank God I got kicked out of law school because that put me a step closer to really getting on the path to being the person I wanted to become. I just didn’t know who she was.

Brandy:            For you, going to law school, when you say, “Now, I’m so glad that I got kicked out.” — by the way, do I remember right that you were kicked out because you were spending all your time writing novels?

Nefertiti:          Yes, I wrote my very first book. Yes. {laughter}

Brandy:            {laughter} When you went to law school, why did you go? Was that just like you thought, “This is what my family wants me to do,” or, “This is what I should do?”  What was the reason that you chose law school even though it turned out that that wasn’t actually what you wanted to do?

Nefertiti:          Well, in Black families, there’s a lot of doctor, teacher, lawyer because those are very safe job and safe careers. At the end of 30 years, you get a pension, and you get lifetime health insurance and that sort of thing. I was raised by people who were very stable, who believe that education was the key, and I wanted to be a lawyer at 12 and 13. I did a mock trial. I was on the debate team and all of that stuff, but I also wanted to be a writer. As I got closer to the time to apply to law school, I felt myself backpedaling a little bit, but there was so, so much family expectation that was already in place. At 21 or 22, I didn’t have language. I didn’t know how to say, “I know all these years, I’ve said I wanted to be a lawyer and a writer, but I really, really want to pursue writing.” I didn’t know any writers. I knew names of people I read, but I didn’t personally know any writers. I didn’t really know how to go about it. Even when I wrote my first book, I’m self-taught. I taught myself how to write. I mean, the seeds were there. My dad used to write, and my grandfather was a big reader. I finally just taught myself how to do it. I knew lawyers, so that was something tangible. We could reach and touch that. It was just too many things in place, and I just didn’t know how to put the brakes on that. I went along with it, and I had to work hard to get kicked out.

Brandy:            {laughter}

Nefertiti:          Even when I transferred to another law school, I was playing games. I kept telling people, “Oh, I’m going to defer semester, and I’ll come next year,” when the truth was that isn’t anything that I really wanted. I’m grateful for that time in my life. I obviously needed that one year, but I’m even more grateful that the school decided that I was playing, and I needed to go on. {laughter}

Brandy:            {laughter} Yes, and you know, sometimes, I think it’s so right what you’re saying about how at that age, do we even know how to say what we want or need? I mean, our hope is that we, as this generation, will teach our kids to be able to do that.

Nefertiti:          Right.

Brandy:            Don’t you think about when your kids are at a college age, especially since you’ve been in a position where you’ve chosen something that really wasn’t what you wanted, don’t you think that your conversation with your kids will be completely different than how it was with your grandparents and your parents? I imagine myself having the conversation with my kids and being like, “Is this really what you want to do? What does your heart say?” But then also, “Let’s talk about providing for yourself,” and, “What is your learning style?” In a way, I’m kind of cringing in that sounds like overparenting, but I think when I look back on people in our generation, we weren’t having these conversations. We didn’t even know that that was a thing that you could say or even what we would say. It’s just a feeling of like, “Oh, I don’t like this.”

Nefertiti:          Exactly.

Brandy:            I don’t know that we were given the given the tools to be able to say exactly why and where we felt the pressure and where we felt like we should go. I think many of us find ourselves in a position where sometimes we have to do the thing that we didn’t want to do to know that we didn’t want to do it.

Nefertiti:          Right. Absolutely.

Brandy:            We have to pay all the money. We have to have gone through the admission process. We have to move to the apartment.

Nefertiti:          Yes! {laughter}

Brandy:            Like, full on in it before we’re like, “Oh.”

Nefertiti:          That’s true, and I don’t think we have to wait until our kids get to college. Perfect example, my son played baseball for six years, and he retired at the tender age of 11.

Brandy:            Aww. {laughter}

Nefertiti:          I really like baseball. When he said, “Okay, Mom. I’m done. I don’t want to play anymore.” The first thing I said was, “Okay, sure. No problem.” But later, I found myself thinking about, “Hmm…” I had to remember that this was his choice. It was not mine, and I had to let that ride. Every now and then, I check in with him, and I say, “Hey, do you miss playing baseball?” And he’s like, “No.” So, I’m like, “Okay. Well, there it is.” Any other activity he’s involved in, I do check in. I mean, some things I have to insist upon, but if it’s not necessarily that serious. I will ask him and say, “Do you want to do this? I don’t want you to do it because you think that this is what I want you to do because that’s a waste of time and it’s a waste of money. Then, we’re playing games because we’re being dishonest because you’re going along with something that you don’t want to.” And I’ll ask my daughter too.

Brandy:            Right. I wonder, too, (I mean, this is my overthinking brain) because we’re having these conversations with our kids, will they have less of a chance of going through things that they find out later, like, “I didn’t really want to do that,” because we’re having so many conversations with them like, “Is the path that we had to go through of going through what you don’t want to figure out what you do want?” Are our kids not going to have that because they’re able to really make choices and have consent in things that maybe we weren’t able to? I just kind of wonder the way that we parent now with being really communicative and very respectful which obviously I subscribe to, but there’s a part of me that’s like, “Dude, are they not having certain experiences that were really imperative for us to grow as people because they won’t be having as many of those?” I don’t know the answer to that.

Nefertiti:          Yeah, that’s a good point. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. Some years ago, I was talking with friends in the bleachers during baseball practice, and one woman, her oldest is a couple of years ahead of mine, was saying, “We’ve been so careful.” And now she’s telling him, “Go climb a tree so I can yell at you and tell you you’re climbing up too high, and you need to get down.” Her older child was a little more careful in the things that he did, so she was worrying like, “Wow, we’ve almost made it too safe.” She’s worried about his ability and his desire to take risk. You want your child to be a risk taker within reason, of course.

Brandy:             A safe risk taker, which is actually not a risk taker, right? {laughter}

Nefertiti:          Well, yeah. There’s that. I don’t know. It’s hard. There’s no right or wrong answer. I have no idea.

Brandy:            I know, I’m with you. My son is super careful about things. Whereas other parents are like, “Get down from there. Don’t do that,” I’m always like, “Honey, go do that. Oh, the rules are this? What if you didn’t want follow the rules?”

Nefertiti:          {laughter}

Brandy:            Because he’s always such a rule follower. I feel like every podcast episode, we come back to this balance of a healthy amount of both.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            You want a healthy amount of safety, and you want a healthy amount of risk. You kind of drive yourself nuts trying to figure out the perfect balance of it, and it never gets there. I feel like that’s kind of what we strive for in this generation that likes to think about everything a million times. I’m definitely extreme on that. In the book, you were talking about when your grandparents adopted you, that was called a “Black adoption,” so will you explain a little bit about that? And then, tell us more about your journey to adopting your son, and then eventually your daughter?

Nefertiti:          Oh, sure. My grandparents didn’t call it anything. I call it “Black adoption” because, basically, it is circumventing the judicial system to create a family. Typically, what happens in the Black community (immigrant communities and other communities do this as well, but in our community, it certainly has its roots in Africa), as a community, a child will get raised. If there are children in the family, who like in my case had drug addicts for parents, we needed parents, so they stepped in. Typically, it’s grandparents. Sometimes, it’s aunts and uncles or distant relatives. We also consider close friends as family. I wrote this article for the New York Times about grandparents and play cousins and kin because it could be a neighbor, it could be a church member, or it can be a friend of the family. It is essentially the elders in the family stating, “There is a child or children who need a home,” and deciding who will then support that child, and that keeps the child connected directly with their community and connected with their family. I have one form that my dad signed that gave my grandparents legal guardianship, but that was it. There was no need for us to be formally adopted. The Black community has a very tenuous relationship with the judicial system and a long history of our kids being detained in the foster care system for real and imagined reasons. Just to keep the kids in the family, in the neighborhood, in the community that is basically what a Black adoption is. To my adoption with my son and my family when I was ready to become a mom, all of the children were spoken for. There was no opportunity to repeat the cycle which is actually a good thing because everyone had parents.

Brandy:            Yes.

Nefertiti:          That meant that I had to go outside of my known environment and adopt. I chose the public foster care system because my best friend is adopted, and she’s an adoption social worker. She gave me lots of information and guided me through the process. Plus, I thought it was important to help in my neighborhood. All of these children in foster care in Los Angeles County, I didn’t see a reason to go outside my backyard to help a child in need.

Brandy:            That’s amazing. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about with this was in your book, you talk about it, but can you tell us here why Black boys in California were least likely to get adopted and some of the misconceptions about Black boys in the system and outside of it, too?

Nefertiti:          Right. Nationally, Black boys are least likely to be adopted because there’s still so much negative stereotype attached to Black boys. Black boys grow up to become Black men, and so there is a fear around Black boys and Black men who will grow up to rob or hurt or they become gangbangers and in school, they are incorrigible. There’s all this negativity around the boys. I felt that that was not fair and not true because the Black men I knew were not gang members. My parents had their issues, but I knew enough Black men who had gone to college and gainfully employed and were taking care of their families and were very positive people, and that was definitely a wrong that I wanted to right in my own little way. I could do a child at a time, and that was sort of my contribution to putting that rumor and that myth to bed. Now, when you think about what happened in the spring with Ahmaud Arbery, Brian, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, it plays out for us over and over in every month or a couple of times a month, it’s the same thing. I think, “Well, that man was someone’s little boy, and somewhere along the way, he got vilified. Even if he was in the wrong, he didn’t deserve that.”

Brandy:            No, never. In the book, you had talked about how Black boys are treated as if they’re older, their innocence is not just a given, and that people think that they’re hyper masculine or aggressive. You had this story in there about a Black boy in a classroom who’s not raising his hand before he speaks. That will be looked at as aggressive, but if you’ve got a white boy who’s not raising his hand before he speaks, that is eagerness. Just the difference in how we view that, of course, you see that with the kids, but then obviously, the things that you’re talking about, too, it just goes all the way up. It’s like it never stops. It’s like this poison that keeps going. It’s awful.

Nefertiti:          Yes. I got my son at six months old. That’s when we met. He’s 13, going on 14, and I’m looking at him change before my eyes. He just applied for high school and just had an interview, and I’m so proud of him. He’s looking sharp in his bow tie and his plaid shirt and his sweater for his interview. I still see a little boy. He looks 13 to me, but I know that outside of our home, our safe space, and the bubble that I’ve created for him, he is not seen that way. That’s a conversation I still have to have with him, especially as he gets older, just reminding him that while this is who you are, this is how you present to other people. In keeping you safe, there are certain do’s and don’ts that you have to abide by when you are out in the world. It’s the same for little girls too. Black girls are sexualized at an early earlier age and thought to be older and sassier. Same thing, a lot of negative stereotypes and a lot of mis-stereotypes about Black girls as well.

Brandy:            It’s so interesting how there are these negative stereotypes and these connotations, but then there was this part of your book that hit me in a total blind spot. It was towards the end. I was really grateful for your words. You were explaining about Serena Williams and the news stories about her being a superhero for being a mom and a tennis star and how she was this superhero. Granted, she’s awesome, but what you said I thought was really profound. You said, “Racism, as veiled compliments for Black folks, was nothing new. Society could not imagine us as disciplined, hard workers committed to perfecting our craft. Rather, strong Black women must be super negros with mythical powers who white people could safely cheer for because they were rare enough to be threatening.” I think that this falls under the intention versus impact category which is maybe the intention of acknowledging the accomplishments of Black women is a positive one, but the impact is actually dehumanizing.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            It’s like what we’re saying about the stereotypes of Black girls that are negative, but then on the other hand, it’s like, “Okay, so either Black girls are a total problem or they’re superheroes?” Where’s the humanity in the middle of just actual people? People that are flawed, amazing, all the things. I think that’s an interesting dichotomy that’s happening.

Nefertiti:          Well, thank you. I mean, it’s true. I loved How to Get Away with Murder. I’m not sure if you watched it. One of the things I loved about Annalise’s character, and same thing with Scandal, is that you had a woman who’s brilliant. On paper, she looks amazing, but she’s flawed. Her flaws are what made the character so rich and so relatable. For us, it’s the same thing. We end up pushing ourselves to perfection and to high heights because we want to be above reproach, but that’s exhausting. It’s a lot of work.

Brandy:            Yeah.

Nefertiti:          Then, to be complimented because it’s the first, the first, the first, the first, the first, but what about the person who maybe was not the first? Maybe, they were the 100th, but they’re still out there trying. They’re doing their best. It makes it tricky, even for us, to even receive the praise because we feel like, “If she were just regular old Serena, no one would pay her any mind. She would have died because no one would have interceded for her.”

Brandy:            Right. Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of this sort of thing, part of your book and one of its important messages, I thought, was the discrepancy between how we see white adoptions and how we see Black adoptions. Not Black adoptions like how you were terming them, but actual Black people adopting versus white people adopting through the system. In the book, you say, “Foster mothers in LA County tended to be Black women, and the media reinforced the image of the scheming Black welfare mother who preyed on poor and neglected children to get out of working a real job. On the other end of the spectrum were featured stories covering the devoutly white Christian couples who took in every child on the block. Now that I was on the path to adoption, these stories irritated me.” Rightfully so. Can you tell us a little bit more about the stereotypes and how you experienced them?

Nefertiti:          I’m sure it’s not just LA, but because I live here, I can tell you that the Los Angeles Times has a hit piece on the Department of Children and Family Services at least quarterly. I’m not saying that there aren’t some terrible social workers or foster parents out there, but most of those stories are aimed at and about some horrible, terrible Black woman, and it just casts such a negative sheen on all of us as opposed to it being one individual was a terrible, horrible individual. As a result of this hidden group, again, marginalized, this invisible group who sign up to be foster parents, the people I know who are middle to upper middle class, perhaps they’re single, or if they are married, maybe no children or maybe they’re empty nesters, they’re not reaching back to foster these children. You’ve got women — usually, it’s middle aged, a little older, Black women who sign up to take care of these children. I just don’t think they get enough praise and enough support. It’s a tough job. Almost every single child who comes out of the foster care system is going to present with something — something super mild, something super major — and these women get extra training to have to deal with physical issues, medical issues, emotional stuff, and so forth. Yet, none of that is recognized unless something terrible goes wrong. Again, it’s like the white Christians are just the best, and the Black people who’ve been doing it and who continue to do it, they are just out trying to get a check. You do get a stipend, but it’s really not that much money. Nobody is getting rich because of a foster child. That’s not even close to happening.

Brandy:            The journey that you talk about in your book, I mean, it seems like it’s just weeding people out every meeting, like, “Can you handle this? Can you handle this?” It seems like, and of course, there are anomalies anywhere, but it seems like to stick with it, you really have to have the heart for this, and you have to have the resiliency for it because it sounded like from the experience in what you showed in the book, there are so many things that are thrown at you. These are big things. You’re going to fall in love with this child who you may not get to keep. I know because I’ve had a close friend go through an adoption process that at the last minute did not go through because a grandma came forward.

Nefertiti:          Oh, it’s heartbreaking.

Brandy:            It was so heartbreaking. It’s amazing, my friend who was going through it, she had such an open mind about it. I didn’t know like how people can do this. I don’t know that I would be able to. She held the space for this child like really, truly being one of her own, and then also held the space that the best thing for this child is if her family could pull it together to welcome her back.

Nefertiti:          Absolutely.

Brandy:            That’s profound.

Nefertiti:          That’s a gift, and that really takes a special person to be able to do that.

Brandy:            Yes.

Nefertiti:          I don’t know that I’m strong enough. In fact, I know when I started, I was not that person. I’m a different person now. Maybe, I can do it. I have no desire to.

Brandy:            But you did do it with that risk.

Nefertiti:          I took the risk. That’s true.

Brandy:            Even the second time around, as I was reading your book, I was like, “Oh, please tell me this goes well.” I sort of read between the lines that it did go well. Maybe, it’s just because of my friend’s experience and having seen that happen that I was so worried about it. That’s the thing that I’m saying is that these hit pieces and looking at the negative does not shine the light on the kind of heart and spirit and resiliency that it seems like most of the foster parents and adoptive parents have to have to get through it.

Nefertiti:          Yes, I agree. I think that if the narrative around fostering and foster parents were changed to more accurately reflect that level of resilience and dedication and faith that there would be more people who would step up to be foster parents, and I believe foster parents would certainly get more support.

Brandy:            Yes.

Nefertiti:          That helps the kids. I mean, because at the end of the day, that’s what we all say we are about is to help the kids.

Brandy:            Absolutely. The story that I also liked that was layered in here was the experience with your mom, the relationship with your mom, and her being an addict and being in and out of your life. It seemed like she came in when was comfortable for her but never in the way that you needed her. On my podcast, we’ve talked a lot about mother wounds and how rough those are and how those seem to be things that we chase for a lot of our life. I really liked your exploration and your vulnerability in telling us about what that was like with your mom. One of the parts of your book that I thought was really healing was when you were talking about having to find some forgiveness for your own mother as you learned more about the circumstances of mothers who put their children up for adoption. One of the things you say is, “The more I learned, the more my assumptions and beliefs about parents, mothers in particular, who abandon their children were disrupted. The first day of training became my reckoning with my judgment of my own unfit and absent mother. I had a limited understanding of how birth parents felt and intended to empathize with the children who had been abandoned because I had been one of them. I had no empathy for parents who left their children for someone else to feed, clothe, and comfort.” Then, you go on to say, “In order to become the mother I wanted to be, I had to develop true compassion for the parents I’d had.” That is so big. We don’t realize that this is the only way we let ourselves off the hook as parents. We have to let our own parents off the hook too. I mean, it’s not an easy thing. It’s not something that just happens overnight. I think it’s a constant work in progress, and I think different personality types have an easier time or a harder time. What did that feel like to forgive your mother? I know there’s a part at the end of the book where you truly forgive her, and it brought me to tears.

Nefertiti:          Aww. I struggled for a really long time. Where I was winning was, I always had a mother, and that was my grandmother. Back to that year of law school, going to therapy and having a therapist tell me that was super helpful because I was already treating my mother like a sibling, but I didn’t realize that. It was good to have someone say, “Think of her in these terms,” because I needed to find a place to put her. That was the biggest issue. I didn’t know where to put her. Though my grandparents stepped up, we never had a formal conversation or even a casual conversation about why my brother and I went to live with them and what was happening with our parents. I think my grandparents thought they were doing the right thing because they never said anything bad about them, but they didn’t say anything. {laughter}

Brandy:            Yes.

Nefertiti:          That was just as harmful, but they didn’t know that. I definitely learned to not talk about stuff. I learned to throw up a wall because that was what I needed to do for self-preservation. That’s how I had to take care of myself. Once the therapist said, “Okay, you’re waiting for her to come and comfort that little girl. You have to do that yourself.” It still took about six years for me to figure out how to do that, but once I was able to do that, then I didn’t have to dwell so much on what I didn’t have, what did happen, and what didn’t happen. When I was taking those parenting classes before I adopted, it was really, really great to kind of see my own stuff and to tease out and make sure I wasn’t about to be a hypocrite.

Brandy:            Yes.

Nefertiti:          It helped me to not blame the biological parents of my kids for their situation. Because my grandparents didn’t talk bad about my parents, I already knew that’s a “no, no.” You don’t do that. I wasn’t worried about that, but I needed to also make sure that as my kids got older and it became developmentally appropriate to discuss, “Okay, I adopted you. You chose me. We are a family,” and they ask, “Well, why,” that I could give a response that didn’t lend itself to how I felt growing up. I felt that I was abandoned, and therefore I could put this this distance between us. When my mother’s cancer returned and when she decided she didn’t want to have surgery or what have you, it was just a very natural opportunity to just say, “Okay, all is forgiven.” We were so past all of that. I didn’t want to be one of those people who was holding on to stuff. She’s dead. She’s gone, so that’s me not wanting to be left holding the bag.

Brandy:            Right and having the regrets of what you could have said or done. When you said that it took you a lot of years to be able to forgive her, if you could boil it down, what was the most helpful thing that you did that helped you give that to yourself, to your inner child, that you didn’t need it from your mom? I’m just wondering for other listeners out there who are like, “Yes, I’m never going to get that from my parent, how do I give that to myself?” What would you tell them?

Nefertiti:          I think I took her off the pedestal because she was never on it. Society puts moms on a pedestal, and it exalts mothers. There’s so much pressure to, “Oh, my God. You’ve got to do this for your mom. Oh, it’s Mother’s Day or Christmas, or it’s this or that.” There was so much pressure. People will say, “Well, you only have one mother.” It’s hard to get people to understand that if you don’t have the best relationship with your mother, you don’t feel the same way. I think when I stopped feeling a need to justify why I wasn’t bending over backwards for Mother’s Day or for a birthday or  that I didn’t do anything for her, I think once I made peace with my truth: my grandmother was my mother. I had a mother, and my mother would have done better if she could have. I don’t have to justify this to anyone. I believe that’s where at the time that I began to feel free from feeling beholden to my mother, if that makes sense.

Brandy:            Yes. That feels big. That feels really big.

Nefertiti:          People make you feel bad if you say something negative about your mother because they’re putting their stuff on you. It’s like, “No, this is my experience. I get to have it.”

Brandy:            Right. It’s like your own dose of realism. What’s real for you is different than what’s real for somebody else. They can’t tell you what’s real for you.

Nefertiti:          Exactly. Exactly.

Brandy:            Related to this, in your book, you say, “White people put all of their business in the street. Black people did not.” This kind of relates to that in that you didn’t really talk about some of these things. I’m curious, how has this lack of open dialogue affected the Black mothers’ experience with motherhood and the reality of it? I can imagine not being able to talk about the hardships or being brought up in a culture that is like, “No, we don’t air this,” can be a challenge where you find yourself maybe wanting to ask for help but feeling like you can’t. Then bumping into another part of it which is the stereotype that Black women have to be strong. There was another quote that you had that was, “Being a Black parent was nerve racking and scary at times. Danger seemed to lurk around every corner, and yet I had to appear calm and in charge.” So, it’s like, “Okay, you’re not allowed to talk about it. You’re not allowed to air it. When it’s hard, you got to be strong.” How do you shoulder all of that? That sounds overwhelming and exhausting.

Nefertiti:          It is overwhelming. It is exhausting. It has led to high rates of suicide and high rates of depression. That’s another area of mental health. We have lots of problems with mental illness in our community. A lot of it is just stress related. It’s too much. It’s being talked about way more now, and I hope that becomes like a huge, very big regular conversation within our community because I believe Black people are suffering from PTSD. I mean, from enslavement, segregation, mass incarceration, you name it, there are so many things that we have dealt with. Then, we pass fear down, and we pass down a lot of stuff. We hold so much stuff in. With regards to relationships with moms, we have very complicated feelings about our mothers. On the one hand, you can catch a beat down talking about someone’s mom, but you might be looking at them like, “Well, but they’re not taking care of you. They didn’t do anything for you except give you life.” It’s still a very tricky space to be in and to stand in. That’s something that because we don’t talk about a lot of stuff, and we don’t trust white people. We don’t want to air all of our dirty laundry, but what we need to be doing is airing it with each other with whomever has the best tools to culturally support us through the journey because of depression among Black women is high.

Brandy:            Yeah, I can imagine why because, like you said, the not trusting of white people – it makes total sense why you would not want to air your laundry in front of a group of people who have historically oppressed you.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            That just logically makes sense. These personal things, shortcomings, drama, and things that people would label as family gossip or whatever, it’s got a different tone. It hits differently when you’re trying not to make yourself a target of something that you already are the target of.

Nefertiti:          Exactly.

Brandy:            That, I feel like — I’m sorry, but what a fucked up situation to be in.

Nefertiti:          Yeah, it’s tough. Okay, I’m a modern parent, and I’m a millennial parent. It’s tricky. It’s like having conversations with my children and with my friends. We talk about parenting constantly because we’re in this together and trying to figure it out. When the kids are acting out or when they’re great, you know, checking each other and making sure, “Okay. Well, that’s your stuff. You’re putting your stuff on there.” “Okay, thank you. Let me back up,” or, “No, you need to.” It’s hard to navigate because we want what was promised to us. We want our 40 acres and a mule. We’re still fighting for that outside of the house. Then, within our community and in addition to that stuff, we still have all these personal things that need attention. I mean, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Brandy:            Yeah.

Nefertiti:          And on top of it, you know, still raising children and loving children and loving each other and becoming vice president elect. We’re still doing our thing. {laughter}

Brandy:            Yeah, and also in a pandemic. {laughter} Just throw a pandemic in there. Whatever.

Nefertiti:          Yeah, sure. Sure.

Brandy:            In your book, you were talking about near the end about having this group of white friends at your kids’ school who you speak so fondly of. I’m curious, what qualities do those white friends have that make friendship with them valuable to you? How do these white women show up for you in ways that genuinely earn your trust?

Nefertiti:          One, by being honest and being authentic and just being themselves and being willing to reciprocate. Not only do they do a great job of, “Hey, come to our home,” or, “Let’s do this.” They come when we say, “Hey, come by.” They come through. They come on over. They sit down. We have dinner together.

Brandy:            Yeah.

Nefertiti:          I have one friend in particular, their son has spent the night with my son at our house, and he has spent the night at their house. I feel like we have a very honest, regular friendship. Regular friends, we can talk about anything, and I don’t feel like I have to hide a part of myself because I don’t want her to see how maybe this particular Black family really lives. I can just let it all out, and we have a safe space. That’s what it is. It’s knowing that. Probably, we were raised similarly. Background has a lot to do with it. We were both raised in middle class backgrounds. I think the non-Black women I’m friends with, not all of them but most of them, had a very similar upbringing. We speak the same language.

Brandy:            Got it. Right.

Nefertiti:          Everyone, of course, wants the same thing for their kids, but it’s nice to be able to speak the same language. We all grew up listening to the same music whether they were in New York or the Valley or what have you.

Brandy:            Yeah. {laughter} Right.

Nefertiti:          And their sincere desire to be not just an ally or a co-conspirator but just to be real.

Brandy:            I think you’re so right about how we all have this universal desire for our kids, but how we get there is different. I think that’s what you’re saying, too, is that having friends who think that the way that we get cared for and empathetic and smart and well taken care of kids is, when you find people who have a similar path as you do to how you get there. I think that is such a key.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            Gosh, when you were talking about the safeness, in my mind, I’m thinking about listeners who are going, “I want to try to be more safe. I want to earn the trust of my Black friends.” I’m wondering what you would say to them if there are specifics about that without getting too much — like, there’s not like a recipe for how to do it.

Nefertiti:          Right, of course.

Brandy:            But your point of view is so valuable. I’m just wondering what do you think we, as white mothers, can do to help Black mothers. I’m only asking you this because I’m interviewing you here, and I value your take on it. I realize that this labor to tell us how to do better is not yours to bear and there are tons of resources out there, some of which I’ve talked about on my podcast before, but do you have a personal answer to this?

Nefertiti:          Like you said, there’s no recipe. I think it really is truly showing up for each other and sharing information. If something comes up that I think, “She might be interested in that,” I’ll shoot her a text. It’s the little things like that. It’s like, “Hey, how you doing? What are you watching? Have you seen such and such?” Every single conversation isn’t race based. We’re talking about what we’re binge watching, what we’re drinking, “Where’d you go on vacation,” and that sort of thing. I think also knowing that they take our relationship serious and they’re passing that down to their child. This is an example I’ve given a bunch of times. If they’re walking to your home together and your child normally takes a shortcut through the neighbor’s yard, and on that day, you tell your son, “You may not take a shortcut.” You teach your son and your daughter that if a person of authority says something because you guys are goofing off, please understand that your Black friend is going to be the one who will be singled out. Your child won’t necessarily talk back to the authority, but you need to tell me. Or, if at school, you notice that you guys are doing the same thing and it’s your friend who’s getting in trouble, speak up. Say, “No, I did that.” If you don’t feel comfortable, tell your parents. I know that if my child or my children are at my non-Black friends’ homes, I feel very comfortable knowing that they are going to prep their kids on the front end. No risky behavior. Take care of your friend. That makes all the difference in the world.

Brandy:            That is huge. This is so important. I haven’t heard it articulated like this, and it wasn’t even something that was totally on my radar. I mean, I probably could have gotten around to thinking if somebody had said, “Brandy, write out a list of ways that you can be a good ally or a good friend to the Black families in your community,” I think I could have come to this on my own eventually. This is so important because this is like what you’re saying about that people who are raising their kids in this way to be thoughtful about your child’s specific challenges in the world and how important that is. That’s different than being colorblind and “we love everybody” because that doesn’t actually feel safe. Safe can feel like, “We can have a conversation, and I feel safe to share,” but safe can also mean actually safe in the moment – you’ve taught your child that the challenges that my child experiences means that you can’t take the shortcut with them, and we need to protect them in this way. If we see anything happening that is not cool, we don’t stay silent. We say something about it.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            Thank you. I think that that’s amazing, and if I were in your position, that would be the world to me. Gosh, this is gonna be a terrible analogy, and I’m probably gonna end up cutting it because it’s gonna sound so stupid. I have a kid with nut allergies, and if I send him to a house where the people seem like they get it, and they’re like, “Oh, we know the importance of this. We know that there are also repercussions of this, and it can be life or death. Your child is safe with us.” I would have my son go to that house way more than somebody who’s just like, “Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s fine. We don’t really have nuts, I don’t think.” I mean, it’s just like being nonchalant about it. So yeah, thank you. That’s hugely helpful.

Nefertiti:          That’s a good analogy. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but that’s absolutely right because being colorblind is disingenuous. It helps no one just like saying, “Oh, the nuts won’t bother you.” Some people are bothered by them. {laughter}

Brandy:            Right. Exactly. When you were saying about the different parts of a friend or a friendship that are meaningful to you that help earn trust and everything and the things that you were saying were very, to me, basic in that like, “Well, you text me, and you care about what’s going on in my life. We do things together.” When you said, “Because not all of our conversations are race based,” in my mind, I’m thinking have you had people who just want to talk to you about race all the time and that’s the thing. Is this the thing that happens or are most people just genuinely wanting friendship that’s based around two people not necessarily always having talks about race or something of that nature?

Nefertiti:          I think at my kids’ school, it’s people seeking genuine relationships which is excellent. However, we still have a lot of parents that we are sort of, “Come on. You can do it,” who are afraid to have a race-based conversation because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. That’s fine. I mean, you don’t know what you don’t know. I think your average Black person appreciates — at least if you say it and if it’s stated incorrectly, we can talk to each other, and we can work through what the language should be. We can communicate, when you say x, this is how it makes me feel or this is how my child feels. Even if you didn’t mean that, this was our takeaway, but you can’t get to any of that if you aren’t willing to have a courageous conversation around race, gentrification, sexuality, or whatever the case may be.

Brandy:            Yes, and that is definitely a wall or a stumbling block for authentic relationship. There are things, an elephant in the room, or things that can’t be talked about. If there are eggshells at all, then that’s not comfortable. Two people are uncomfortable. That sounds bad.

Nefertiti:          Yeah.

Brandy:            You talk about and your book is based on not finding books about marginalization that are by Black authors. Have you seen an uptick in books like this? And if so, what are some of your favorite books now?

Nefertiti:          Let’s see, I started writing about this in 2009. In the last 11 years, I think maybe 12 titles have come out. So, that’s progress.

Brandy:            Wow.

Nefertiti:          That’s nothing, but it is progress.

Brandy:            Yeah, I was like, “Yes, that is progress. That’s also one title a year.”

Nefertiti:          That’s still a huge problem and a huge gap in parenting in nonfiction. I know there are a couple of books out about like co-parenting and one person, they have a child, they adopted a child, and then they divorce and coparented. Desha Filliya she has a book that talks about adoption. It’s not the focus of her book, though. Otherwise, I think so far, my book is the only one that is talking about single motherhood and adoption. There are definitely way more books than when I first started. Again, that’s a good thing, but we don’t have the level of exposure that Tiger Mom got. Everyone knows Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, and even if you haven’t read her book, if someone says Tiger Mom, everyone knows what that means. While there have been some great books out about Black girls and how they’re criminalized in school and other professors writing about being a single mom, Imani Perry, I think she’s a professor at Princeton, maybe. Her book did well, but she’s not a household name. Thus far, none of our books have been turned into movies either for streaming or for the big screen, so Black motherhood, diverse motherhood still hasn’t hit the mainstream.

Brandy:            Wow.

Nefertiti:          Yeah, people know about being an anti-racist because that’s the buzz right now: anti-racist, anti-racist parenting, and so on and so forth. But as far as mothers, motherhood, and raising children, no.

Brandy:            Damn.

Brandy:             One of the things that I have to tell you that made me laugh out loud was your line that said, “Newborns scared me. Their scaly skin and unfocused eyes gave me the willies.”

Nefertiti:          Yes. {laughter}

Brandy:            I laughed so hard at that. I just had to let you know that line was amazing because people don’t like to admit the things that they don’t like about babies or children and I’m always here for it when somebody wants to admit those things. {laughter}

Nefertiti:          Yes, it’s true. I don’t want to hold other people’s kids. I run from them.

Brandy:            {laughter} I definitely think that babies look like they have shark eyes which is just a little bit unnerving. So, yeah, you’re not wrong.

Nefertiti:          Yes. They like me. They come find me. Six months and on, I’m ready for you, but before that, I’m like, “No way.” {laughter}

Brandy:            {laughter} That’s like me. I want to tap out at like 18-months to three years. I like the mostly newborn phase, but I feel like we all have this tap out stage. Where can people find you and your book?

Nefertiti:          I’m on Twitter at @nefertitiaustin, and I am on Instagram at @iamnefertitiaustin, and Facebook at Nefertiti Austin. It’s funny, I just got on Instagram about a year and a half ago. That seems to be where my audience is. I like Twitter because I don’t like small talk, and I love that you’re limited to what you can say. {laughter}

Brandy:            Yes. No room for niceties. {laughter}

Nefertiti:          No. I find myself hovering when I’m posting for Instagram because I’m like, “Dang, I gotta come up with something.” I’ll post something, and then I have to edit because I have to say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I didn’t tag anyone.” That’s a job.

Brandy:            I mean, I definitely get a lot from it, but it’s a lot of unseen work. I mean, not to make it out dramatic, but it is.

Nefertiti:          Yes.

Brandy:            To remind people, the name of your book is called Motherhood So White, and it’s a memoir of race, gender, and parenting in America. I absolutely loved it. Thank you so much, Nefertiti. Thank you for your time here and your labor here today and for writing the book that you wish you’d had and that white women need to add to their reading list – and Black women and all women and mothers. So, thank you so much for your time.

Nefertiti:          Thank you so much for having me and for giving me an opportunity to continue to elevate all mothers, especially Black mothers. Thank you.

Brandy:            Again, another guest whom I was so thrilled said “yes” to coming on the show. Well, I will see you on the other side of the holidays. I didn’t do any special holiday episodes this year because I honestly didn’t have the bandwidth to plan ahead. I also feel like there are no rules this year. I don’t know if I’m the only one, but this year, I have felt like I know so much less than ever before. There’s been so much upheaval and so many unprecedented things that have required us to hold opposing truths at the same time, like a virus that kills people but also doesn’t. Most of us will be safe except those who aren’t. It’s humbling to be in the unknown, and I have felt that a lot this year. I’ve been feeling quieter and also less sure of myself. I’ve stuck to what I know and what I love and what interests me. In any case, however your holidays look, I hope there is much joy and health for you and yours and the least amount of kid meltdowns as possible. Here’s hoping.

Brandy:             One last thing, I want to say a special thank you and give a deep bow to all my awesome supporters on Patreon who have helped make this podcast possible this year. I so appreciate you. If you’d like to join these heroes in supporting me and this podcast, you can go to http://www.patreon.com/adultconversation. It’s a super cheap way to help a mom with her side gig in a meaningful way. That’s me, I’m the mom. As always, thanks for listening.

** As always, thank you to Scott Weigel and his band, Seahorse Moon, for providing me with that jaunty intro and outro music. You guy are awesome. Check ’em out on iTunes.