The Meaning of ‘Motherwork’

Why journalist Dani McClain wrote a book about the politics of black motherhood—and what it means to both raise your own children and connect with the needs of other families.

In July 2016, reporter Dani McClain watched as the Mothers of the Movement—black women who have lost children to gun violence—took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to support candidate Hillary Clinton.

Eight months pregnant at the time, McClain was inspired to begin writing a book about the politics of black mothering and the hard work that black mothers have provided to other families throughout the centuries—but that often goes unrecognized in their own.

In this extended interview for Topic’s May 2019 Monologue video, McClain discusses what it felt like to bring her daughter into the world during the last gasp of the Obama presidency, how she’s had to unplug from the news cycle, and the world she wants her daughter to develop and thrive within. Her book, We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, was published in April 2019.

How have you changed since becoming a mother?

So many ways. I’ve slowed down a whole lot. I think this process started with my pregnancy. My job is to follow the news, to be very focused on what’s happening in the world at large, and to process a lot of information very quickly.


What I learned during my pregnancy was that I really needed to take better care of myself, and part of that meant slowing down and stepping away.

There were a lot of things happening in the summer of 2016 when I was pregnant: Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge; Philando Castile was killed by police in the Twin Cities in Minnesota while his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter sat there in the car with him.

I was at the start of the third trimester of my pregnancy when I realized I had to tap out. I just was like, “OK, I’m finished reporting for a while.”

I became much more focused on what was happening in my home, what was happening with my own body, what was happening in my family relationships, and a lot less interested or able to keep up with what was happening in the broader world.

When was your daughter born?

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She was born in August of 2016.

Right before the election? It sounds like that would have been an intense time for you, becoming a new mother toward the end of Obama’s presidency, and then a few months later Trump gets elected. Did you see it this way at the time?

My daughter was just a few months old, and I remember putting her in her little chair and placing the chair on the coffee table in front of the TV. I was like, “You’re going to watch our president. This is Obama. You’re not going to remember this, and you’re not going to experience having him as your president. But I want you to have his image emblazoned into your mind.”

I thought, “Wow, I have this child, we are at the end of this historic presidency, and who knows what’s going to come next?”

I was finishing the book over the summer of 2018 when the news broke around family separations at the border. I was trying to write about the experience of learning about these families being torn apart and seeing these photographs. I don’t know if you remember that iconic image of that toddler? She was probably two—the same age my daughter was at the time—clinging to her mom’s leg while her mom was being handcuffed.

It just made me sick. I couldn’t even write clearly about it. I gave that chapter to my editor, and we both agreed it didn’t make any sense. It was because I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I was so emotionally caught up in projecting my own family onto every news story that I read about that I just kind of spun out.

Black women have been both heralded for their talent at “motherwork”—as domestic-care workers for white children, for example—and castigated for the ways in which they supposedly don’t mother well, like the stereotype of the lazy welfare mom. How do you explain this contradiction?

If we’re doing work that benefits someone else—cooking or nursing someone’s child or cleaning a house—then I think it’s easy for people to see the benefit in our abilities. There is less appreciation for our desire to turn our care and our attention toward our own families.

We’ve had to fight for our ability to take on those roles in our own homes. I think that there’s something about the way that our families look to the outside eye that makes the love and care for our families seem a little bit less legitimate.

Black women haven’t necessarily only formed family within a nuclear structure—a mom and a dad and two kids—because we’ve had kind of a more expansive understanding of what constitutes family. I think that we do mothering in a different way, and that can sometimes be illegible to those who have a very narrow understanding of what family looks like.

I also think that our ability to balance work with parenting is also something that, for white women, has only become common in the last 50 years or so. For black women, this has been a part of how we do family since we’ve been in this country.

“Motherwork” is a phrase you use often in your book. How would you define it?

The phrase that I borrow and amplify is originally from the work of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. She talks about how black women have traditionally taken care of our children and our families, but very quickly turns to discussing how the needs of our own families connect with those of other families.

My job as a mother is not just to think that I can speak out on behalf of my individual child. Once black mothers understand, “Well, it’s not just my child who is being thrown out of the classroom at school and being labeled with behavioral problems,” or “It’s not just my child who the police are harassing on the block, but it’s all my kids’ friends as well,” they can figure out how to join forces so that we can create better environments for all of our children.

I think that black mothers have really been leaders in that, which I talk about in a chapter of my book. That’s where you have Cat Brooks talking about dragging her 12-year-old along with her to rallies on behalf of families that have lost a loved one to police violence. And Margaret Prescod talking about the organizing that she’s done on behalf of sex workers and welfare mothers who are labeled as “lazy.”

I think that a lot of that political power has been overlooked. And my effort with this book was to give voice to the women who are doing that organizing work, and to let them say for themselves how and why they find meaning in it.

Do you see your identity as a black woman as having a direct influence on who you are as a parent, as a mother?

Do I see my racial identity as being central to my parenting?

In your book you talk about how the aspects of your identity as a black female will shape how you guide your daughter.

There are some chapters in the book that read like a straight parenting book, like when I’m in the kitchen cooking for my daughter and we’re reading board books or when we’re dancing to Beyoncé. And it made me think … a lot of people are gonna read this and be like, “What does this have to do with the political power of black motherhood?”

It made me think about the fact that while it is important to talk about mothers like Lucy McBath—who lost her child to gun violence, ran for office, and took the House seat that used to belong to Newt Gingrich—I also was trying to make a point that there is a politics of joy and a politics of survival that feels really important to me as I grow into my mothering.

It’s part of my job to acknowledge that my daughter is growing into this experience as a black girl and to walk that path with her. Part of that is about helping her feel confident and helping her have fun, celebrating with her and being silly with her.

Does experiencing the world through your daughter’s eyes give you an optimism about the future that you think you might not have access to if you were not a mom?

I don’t necessarily feel any more optimistic. I just moved back to Cincinnati from Oakland, which is where I lived for a long time, and I often feel drawn back there. I thought, “Maybe we should ... I want her to experience California’s beaches now while they’re still so beautiful.”

I’m always drawing her attention to the sky, the night sky: “Look at the beautiful stars, look at how the moon is changing, now the moon is waning. Now it’s waxing. Take a breath. Do you smell that? That’s the smell of snow.” Or I just want her to experience natural beauty, because I feel so unsure about if we’ll have it in the same way when she’s an adult.

So I don’t feel more optimistic. But having her has really grounded me in so much of what is beautiful about life, because I want to help her see it and experience it.

You talk in your book about generations of black women rejecting ideas that patriarchal family is normal. What does it mean to be a black mother without a black father or partner present?

My mom was an unmarried mother. And I’m an only child, so my mom raised just me. I didn’t have siblings, but I did have a whole bunch of first cousins who were in many ways like my siblings. My maternal aunt Pam also lived in our house. And that was family to me.

Now that I’m a mom and I am unmarried, my daughter’s dad is very much in the picture, but he and I don’t have a romantic relationship [anymore]. Because of the culture I grew up in, I don’t have like a lot of shame around thinking, “Oh, I’m not married to my daughter’s dad.”

I never felt that same set of expectations around what family life should necessarily look like. I think that mothers set the culture of the home, and that that becomes what’s normalized to a child.

You also talk in the book about guarding against “parenting becoming one more place I practice perfectionism.”

This is one area that crosses lines of race for sure. I think we’re constantly bombarded with questions. It’s time to enroll your child in preschool. Do you know about the Waldorf philosophy? Do you know about Montessori? Do you know about Reggio Emilia? Which is going to be the best that prepares your child for his or her academic career and gives them enough opportunities to play? Are you feeding your child the right things so that they are being nourished in a way that sets them on the right path for growth and health? Your child just started brushing her own teeth. Are you monitoring her teeth brushing closely enough so that she’s learning how to do it, but also doesn’t get cavities?

I really like research because that’s what I do for a living, so I kind of enjoy going down the rabbit hole on these things and learning a bunch about educational philosophy. But I also have to check myself because I can begin to run myself ragged. That extra hour that I just spent researching on the internet about this or that preschool, I could have spent that hour at the gym taking a walk.

What is the difference between motherwork and motherhood?

I think of motherwork in terms of understanding that our responsibility is not just to what’s happening inside the walls of our home, but that we need to connect our own family’s needs and our own children’s needs to the needs of other young people in the community. Not just on behalf of our own small family unit, but on behalf of community needs and demands.

In your book, you touch on the political power of black women—particularly black mothers—and how this has shaped American history, culture, and politics.

Someone asked me recently about the origin story of the book. The summer of 2016 at the Democratic National Convention, I don’t know if you remember, but the Mothers of the Movement took the stage to endorse Hillary Clinton. These are black women who had lost their children to either police violence, vigilante violence, or whose children had died in police custody.

I remember thinking, “Here’s a really powerful display of what it means to be a black mom or a black parent.” You have to continue to make a case for your child’s humanity, even after they’ve been killed, in some cases, by state violence. This is one expression of black motherhood that is very unique. These mothers face this personal tragedy, and they’re figuring out how to tell their stories in a way that can lead to policy change.

But I also felt that there’s a story to be told about black motherhood and that is not just about tragedy. I wanted to acknowledge these women’s important motherwork, but also to lift up the work that black moms are engaged in every day that can make us feel a little bit more hopeful and optimistic.

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