Giving birth is a biological function. It’s an evolutionary necessity. It’s a painful process.
And for black women, one author argues, it’s a political act.
I’ll let Dani McClain explain. She penned “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood.”
“This book sets out to broaden a conversation established by the current wave of writing on motherhood, which has tended to focus on white, middle-class women’s experiences,” McClain writes in her book’s introduction.
While she can relate to some mainstream anecdotes about exhaustion and thwarted sex lives, “these articles and books rarely address the politics of mothering — namely, issues of power, position, and protection.”
In many respects, pregnancy and parenting is an uphill battle if you’re a black woman. As McClain points out, black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
Once children are born, many black parents fear losing them to violence.
“The mothers of those killed by police or vigilante violence embody every black mother’s deepest fears: that we will not be able to adequately protect our children from or prepare them for a world that has to be convinced of their worth.”
In this well-researched and heavily reported book — the author is a journalist by trade — she outlines inequities built into the institutions that shape American society, and the added responsibilities and worries shouldered by black parents. She interviews mothers connected to movements for political, cultural and social change and asks them how they approach raising a human in our world.
Yet “We Live for the We” isn’t simply a reporter’s deep dive into the knots of race and child-rearing; it’s an account of a woman seeking answers.
“This book is about my quest as a new mother to help my daughter understand as early as possible who she is and what she came to do on this beleaguered planet,” McClain writes.
“On a very selfish basis,” she says in an interview, the beauty of this book is that she “got to ask the hard questions of all of these people who I admire and who I’m curious about and really get down to brass tacks about how to be the kind of parent that I want to be.”
Here’s a slice of what she’s learned, and what she can teach us.
When her daughter, Isobel, was born, McClain slowed down professionally. She poured hours into researching nutrition and carefully preparing her daughter’s food — “putting in the time it takes to avoid the processed, the poisoned, the unpronounceable,” she writes. She read Isobel book after book, “switching up pronouns where necessary to create equal opportunities for women, girls, and nongendered protagonists,” she notes.
From the outset of the book, she reminds us of her privilege, acknowledging that she is an Ivy League graduate and hails from a middle-class background. (“I don’t claim to speak on behalf of all black families,” she says. “I have a very particular experience.”)
“I know that my ability to focus so squarely on my daughter is a luxury afforded to few. Is’s health and happiness are my priority, and when I am feeling guilty or wondering what’s happened to my ambition, I tell myself that I am claiming this time with my daughter as something bigger, something historically meaningful and due me and black women as a whole,” McClain writes. She adds: “I am taking the time that so many black women before me could not, because they were caring for someone else’s child or cooking someone else’s food or toiling away in someone else’s field.”
It’s almost a rite of passage, McClain says, for a black comedian to write jokes about “getting a beating from a parent as a child.” It’s a surefire way to elicit laughs, she adds, “because it’s such a common experience we can all identify with.”
McClain’s mom employed corporal punishment at times. “I was spanked occasionally as a kid and it was fine,” she writes. She doesn’t feel traumatized. She was spanked only by her mom, who did so “halfheartedly.”
And yet, while she respects others’ decisions, McClain is committed to correcting her child’s misbehavior without employing physical punishment.
“I choose to use the word ‘violence’ to describe the use of physical discipline, though it feels a little dramatic,” she writes. “As a black mother, framing it in this way is a political choice. It’s a reminder that I want my daughter to know that her body is her own, that pain at others’ hands is not a natural part of life, and that no authority figure — whether it’s me now or some teacher or police officer later in her life — has the right to hurt her as a way to force obedience.”
McClain weaves in quotes and ideas from “Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America,” a 2017 book by journalist Stacey Patton. The book details how tough love in black families often grew out of fear during slavery and the Jim Crow era: “If, as a black parent, you did not go to great lengths to teach your child his or her place, then some white person would someday do so with much more violence and far more serious consequences,” McClain writes.
She talks with women who still take that stance, and others, like herself, who’ve chosen to discipline differently. She spoke with Aya de Leon, a Berkeley writer and scholar who’s raising a preteen daughter, who said a “rule-by-fear” approach could backfire. If children reared this way grow up to join gangs or enter relationships with domineering partners, de Leon told McClain, parents often proclaim they didn’t raise they children that way. In the book, McClain writes: “‘Well, in some ways you did,’ de Leon says. ‘You raised them to respect authoritarian structures.’”
On everyday activism, and everyday joy
Parenting is hard. Parenting while black, McClain writes, is particularly nuanced.
“Black mothers advocate for our children everywhere, from the playground to the schoolhouse to the doctor’s office,” she writes. “There is always a campaign to wage. There is always a need to make our children’s humanity more visible and to convince, cajole, or pressure someone who’s making our lives more difficult because of their own blind spots or racist impulses. Activism is woven into the fabric of our daily lives.”
She’s unflinching in her look at implicit bias, outright discrimination, unequal resources. However, when asked about the enduring lessons she derived from writing this book, McClain says:
Several parents she spoke with homed in on the necessity of joyful practices, of play, of letting black children inhabit their innocence for as long as possible.
“We have to help them understand the importance of pleasure and joy and play and creativity and celebration,” she says. “You have to be silly with them,” she adds, because “this country will so often not grant them the opportunity to be a child.”