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On motherhood: “I know so much, I know so little”
© 2016 by Binahkaye Joy
I am always making an inventory of what skills I’ve gained along my mothering work journey. I run through the most obvious ones first. Breastfeeding, check. Co-sleeping, check. Babywearing, check. Tandem nursing, check. Nursing while pregnant, double check.
But then I also like to make an opposite list, a list of the things I don’t know so well, or not even at all. Like bottlefeeding, no experience. Pumping, very very very little experience. Leaving my infant in another’s care, no experience. And the list goes on.
I wanted to write this dual reflection piece to illuminate the ways in which motherhood teaches us all to be experts in different ways. For everything I know, there’s just as much and maybe even more that I don’t know. I’m also very intentional about identifying the many strands and forms of mothering work and the specific intelligences we engage everyday as mothers— essential, life-saving intelligences that mostly go unnamed and unhonored— so that we might collectively build a sustainable knowledge resource between us as mothers and mothering hearts. It has been shown to us again and again that we have to be the architects of our own vital memories. This work, this labor we do can not go unremembered by us.
It amazes me that so many other types of work have been so extensively documented. American football, for instance, has volumes of material written, photographed, orally recorded, filmed, and catalogued about it. You can look up the greatest so-and-so of all times who ran this many yards in this many seconds with a few simple search terms. But if you wanted to know how many mothers have given birth to healthy babies during times of genocide, famine, or war, could you find that number? Could you find their names? Look at the disparity of celebration in our world. How is it that a winning touchdown gets all the glory, but a mother in crisis who is able to bring life through her own body is seemingly unremarkable and easily forgotten?
I also think it’s critical to personally acknowledge the inevitable gaps in our mothering skills base. It is through such illumination that we are able to attract other mothers and kindred spirits into our sacred village who bring with them new knowledges. I don’t need to know it all. I can’t know it all. None of us can. But the more I know about what I don’t know, the more readily I can appreciate someone else for being advanced in that thing I don’t know. Through this intentional visibility and practice of interconnectivity, we constantly reinforce the reality that many of us will learn over time: Mothers need other mothers to survive.
Even still, this list is inherently partial. I couldn’t list all I know and all I don’t know even if I wanted to. Our mothering work is too vast for any one person to capture. That’s why we need all of us to document these labors. I encourage everyone to look closely into their mothering paths and call everything out. Mothering while single. Mothering while partnered. Mothering while away from your 6-week old baby because you don’t have paid maternity leave. Mothering while in financial peril. Mothering while grieving the loss of your own mother, while grieving the loss of your own child. Mothering in Aleppo. Mothering in Ferguson. Mothering in solitude in a place away from family and friends. Mothering while facing a terminal illness. Mothering a child or children with special needs. Mothering while heartbroken. Mothering older babies while pregnant with new babies.
Our work as mothers is infinite, dense, and nuanced. The more we claim, the more the next generation of mothers will have to anchor their own experiences, and the more from which they can root their own necessary innovations in the sacred work of sustaining humanity’s possibility to exist.
So in no particular order or groupings, here is some of what I know and some of what I don’t know from my first 174 weeks of mothering.
I know a lot about breastfeeding on demand. I have been nursing everyday since my first son was born. He is now 3 years and 4 months old. I know a lot about tandem nursing too. My second born is almost 19 months old and I have been tandem nursing—primarily on demand for both of them— since baby brother’s birth too.
I know about co-sleeping and bed sharing with first one, and now two children. I know about nursing both children through the night. I know nothing of cribs, baby monitors, or children sleeping in a separate bed or in another room. I know about checking for the rise and fall of a sleeping child’s chest with my palm. I know about placing pillows strategically on the floor in case someone rolls out of the bed.
I don’t have experience sleeping through the night since becoming a mother. For the past three years I have slept in what can best be described as intervals of time. There is a period of every day when I am lying in the dark, and sometimes even having dreams, but I am a full time, nighttime-parenting mother. I know about being alert and responsive to everyone’s needs at all times.
I know about fevers. I know about bringing them down with bathwater. I know about carefully inserting a thermometer between the butt cheeks of a squirming, fussy baby and getting an accurate temperature. I know about alternating over-the-counter medicines to manage a fever. I know about trips to the ER and what the doctors look for and about being sent home because in the rest of the world a fever with mild cold symptoms is not so alarming. I know how to judge the severity of cries in a sick child. I know how to breastfeed even more frequently to support hydration and recovery. I know about herbs and natural supplements. I know about taking large amounts of garlic and ginger and apple cider vinegar and elderberry and making my body my children’s own pharmacy.
I don’t know anything about antibiotics. I don’t know much about ear infections. I don’t know much about healing a child who is not breastfeeding.
I know very little about getting a child to sleep without the breast. I’ve been successful a handful of times, but it’s sporadic and a mystery at best. Weaning is a slow learning for me. Most days it’s hit or miss with the three-year old. I call this mash up of success and failure “hybrid weaning.” I know about making up terminology to explain my experience as a mother if there’s no other suitable language.
I don’t know anything about being or living far away from my children. The longest I’ve ever been separated from one or both of them is probably about 8 hours, and even then I was still in the metropolitan area.
I know about babywearing and nursing while babywearing. I know about doing a lot of cooking and cleaning and writing and other tasks with my children in my space, and with them close to me or literally attached to my body. I know about attending meetings and being in professional work spaces with my children. I know about being multi-minded at all times, about following several streams of conversations at once and being—for the most part, barring any wild tantrums—able to meaningfully participate in everything in real time.
I know about mothering while partnered with the father of my children. I know about all the extra paternity paperwork that has to be signed if you are not married and trying to get a birth certificate. I know about having to negotiate (read: argue passionately) important decisions about your children with their father. I know about navigating the complex and messy parts of being partnered with a black man in America who has his own traumas and burdens and hopes and dreams as a father. I know about the space of a marriage being at times too small for all our needs and about needing to cultivate intentional, sustainable forms of emotional, mental, and physical support systems outside of this union we share.
I don’t know about mothering as a single parent. I don’t know about having the freedom to make all the choices about my children on my own. I don’t know about being unchallenged by another adult who legally has equal rights to my children. I don’t know much about managing the financial labors of sustaining a family all by myself. I have never had to fight for custody of my child or prove to a court that I am a fit parent. I don’t know about co-parenting from different homes or different states or different countries.
I don’t know about daycare and immunizations. I don’t know about having to be on a specific schedule and getting out of the house at a certain time with children. I don’t know about having to commute to multiple drop-offs in rush hour with children. I don’t know about having a daily routine.
I know about creating a learning lab at home. I’m exploring and researching different homeschool practices. I know about language and literacy development and how siblings close in age support each other’s development. I know about having more than one child. I know about being pregnant when the older sibling is only one year old. I know about having two under two. I know about having two toddlers. I know about frequent, tandem tantrums. I know about managing a two-day migraine with screaming children. I know about being uncomfortable, and alone, and hungry, and tired, and your children are hollering and fighting and wanting your full attention. I know about doing all this while suffering through postpartum hemorrhoids.
I know about spending long days with my children as their primary caregiver. I know about going days, weeks, months without any separation or break from being a caregiver. I know about being On all the time. I know about being unpaid for all my labor. I know about being told I’m doing nothing and that my work is not worth the same as it would be if I was a childcare provider being paid to care for another mother’s child while she went to work.
I know about skirting poverty, and about hovering dangerously at and below the poverty line for prolonged periods of time. I know about seeking and being denied social services to help ends meet. I know about having family near by who are willing and able to fill in the gaps. I know about the shame being projected onto me by others who think it’s disgraceful to need any help. I know about fighting for my right to mother my children closely in this beast of capitalism. I know about the value I add to my family even though I have no W2 to show for all my hours.
I know a lot about having my mother around to help me in the process of being a mother. I know about having plenty of aunts, godmothers, older women, and grand mothers who are accessible and give gifts, money, advice, support, and encouragement. I know about having a village of mothers who are peers and live close to me. I know about crying on other mothers’ laps and being told I’m not crazy and I’m not alone. I know about feeling left behind as the rest of the world moves on while I’m at home mothering radically and slowly.
I know about being a business owner and CEO and mommy. I know about starting a family business in the depths of a family financial and housing crisis. I know about getting other mothers together. I know about insisting on the village even when we don’t feel like it. I know about claiming my art in all its forms and founding a spiritual community for black women mothering creatives. I know about embarking on a spiritual evolution led by intuitive guides and following the light of the unknowns because every other option is not pulsing with vitality. I know about having to make a way for my future children to be born even when so many around me think I’m too poor to birth any more human lives.
I know about being displaced by violence and poverty. I know about snatching my children up from their legos and rushing away from the front door in case the man coming to collect the drug money from my neighbor’s boyfriend makes good on his promise to go and get his gun from the car. I know about couples beating the shit out of each other in the hallway or in the unit above us while my children nurse peacefully in their sleep. I know about eviction papers and reaching a settlement in court with pro bono legal aid.
I don’t know about living in a shelter with my children. I don’t know about being homeless. I know about always having a key to somewhere where me and my kids are welcome.
I don’t know about contraception. I don’t know about IUDs or the pill or the patch or the shots. I know about tracking ovulation. I know about observing cervical mucous. I know about checking the basal body temperature every morning. I know about assessing the color of menstrual blood to determine hormonal imbalance.
I know about multiple, successive miscarriages. I know about transvaginal ultrasounds. I know about missing heartbeats. I know about doctors asking me what’s wrong with me. I don’t know about fibroids. I don’t know about hysterectomies. I don’t know about not wanting to be a mother.
I know about getting pregnant with a man’s penis ejaculating in my vagina. I don’t know about IVF or intrauterine insemination. I don’t know about adoption. I don’t know about surrogacy. I know about progesterone supplements. I know about vitamin D deficiencies. I know about loss. I know about miracles.
I don’t know about the NICU. I don’t know about mothering a hospitalized child. I don’t know about stillbirth. I don’t know about burying a child.
I don’t know much about driving a car while mothering. I know about babywearing on public transportation and pushing strollers through crowds of unsmiling commuters who may or may not give their seat up for a mother with small children.
I don’t know about being a teen mother. I don’t know about navigating the complexities of motherhood while juggling high school drama and parental judgements and classmates’ speculating behind your back about who is the father. I don’t know about having a child but still being legally regarded as a minor by the state.
I know about midwives and homebirths. I know about non-emergency, hospital transfers and unexpected c-sections. I know about homebirth VBACs. I know about consuming raw placenta hours after birth in the most delicious smoothie ever. I know about delivering healthy, full term babies. I know about instant skin-to-skin. I don’t know about being induced or getting epidurals. I don’t know Pitocin, but I do know Percocet. I don’t know about premies. I don’t know about having to leave my newborn in the hospital. I do know about kind nurses who made my first painful days of motherhood and recovery from surgery still sweet. I do know about getting massive blood transfusions a day after giving birth to my firstborn.
I know about dancing as a mother. I know about breaking a sweat and dancing to intense booty-shaking, heart-pounding music. I know about dancing hard with a baby in the belly, or at the back, or at the breast. I know about dancing with children climbing all over me. I know about dancing ringshouts and saying prayers with my body. I know about moving and swaying and rocking with them until they stop crying or until their eyelids close.
I don’t know about conceiving a child through sexual assault. I don’t know about mothering while surviving sexual slavery. I don’t know about auction blocks or having my children sold away from me. I don’t know about raising other people’s kids because their mothers have died or been stolen from them. I don’t know about addiction or losing my child to the system because of being incarcerated.
I know about being a mother who is a descendant of slaves in a country where they are still lynching black people and black children. I know about having freedoms and privileges my ancestors were denied. I know about being free to say what I want as a mother without the threat of persecution.
So far I know about having sons and growing a community of brothers. I don’t yet know about having daughters and birthing the sisterhood.
I could go on. There’s so much to document on both sides of the knowing. I want to also admit that I’ve had this piece on my heart for a while but was hesitant to release it because I didn’t want it to be misinterpreted as a judgment on anyone else’s mothering work. But then I remembered that this calling is beyond my personal fear space and that deep down I think most of you will connect with the spiritual imperative giving rise to my voice and my work as a fertility juju priestess.
I hope you are feeling inspired to look more lovingly and consciously at your own mothering process if you haven’t been already doing so. We need all of us to be taking up more space with our mothering work in the world, spending more time identifying and archiving our individual and communal genius, and being more visible about all this labor we are doing and have been doing since forever.
Binahkaye Joy is a mother of three and a fertility juju priestess. She supports mothers and women in activating their wildest mothering dreams. Binahkaye lives in Washington, DC with her family. She is available for in-person and virtual workshops, speaking engagements, and private sessions. For bookings, writing and performance commissions, and programming information send inquiries to email@example.com.