Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Playground Politics: A 20-Something Black Mom Negotiates Strollers and Stereotypes


The judgmental stares start as soon as I pull up into the parking lot of the neighborhood playground.

Among the rows and rows of gleaming silver and gold Honda Odysseys, I pop the trunk of my 1997 Buick LaSabre, grab the stroller and head to one side of the car to unbuckle my 2-year-old daughter. Her hand in mine, we head to the other side to get her younger brother. I plop him in the stroller and take the kids to the maze of swings and slides.

The other mothers look up casually when they see me. Then they do a double take.

A young 20-something mom.

With two kids.

And I’m black.

I know what they're thinking. I live in an area where if I see another black person, I stop and make conversation. We are that rare. So our presence in our predominately-white town is almost always met with questioning looks.

As my babies and I move to the different areas of the park, my daughter jumping from swing to swing, the other moms and kids scatter as we approach. Honestly, I don’t mind, because I like my privacy and don’t care for chit-chat when trying to keep up with two kids under age two. But it just feels awkward, and that awkwardness continues when it’s time to go home and I get the disapproving stares as I load my kids into my car with the high mileage and loud engine.

True, I don’t have the 2009 minivan of the year as I schlep my kids here and there. But you know what? I love my car just the same.

My husband (then boyfriend) purchased the car for me shortly after we discovered I was pregnant with our first. At the time, I had no car and no easy way to get to my doctor’s appointments. That man emptied his savings account to get me that car to make sure we (me and our unborn child) were okay. For me, that car is a big honking symbol of our love, even more so than my wedding ring.

But they wouldn’t possibly know that. Couldn’t know it. When I get questions like, “so, is their dad in the picture?” I’m also sure they don’t care.

To be a young mom is one thing. To be a young black mom? That’s just asking for judgment.

I first noticed it with my first child, when I was in the hospital recovering after my C-section. Every doctor, nurse, janitor, even the lady that comes around to take the newborn photos, glanced slyly at my ring finger and casually made conversation like I was a single mom, even though my husband was sitting next to me and we were both wearing wedding rings.

People ask, “Are you the babysitter?” when I’m out with my crew.

Perfect strangers inquire about my salary and my ability to provide for my kids.

I’ve even been verbally accosted by two elderly women for, wait for it... sitting in my car with my daughter outside of the drugstore. They looked in my car, wrinkled their noses, and I heard one mutter, “Babies having babies,” as they walked away.

Deep sigh.

It seems like motherhood only comes in two forms: the confident/advanced in her career/30-something mom or the downtrodden/why-didn’t-she-just-keep-her-legs-closed teen mom.

I fit neither of those categories. And I’m glad I don’t.

I’ve learned more about myself, my values, my goals, my ambitions, my husband, and my friends in the past three years than I would have otherwise. I became a mother before I was ready, but who is ever 100 percent ready for the job?

Lots of people spend their 20s learning who they are. I’m spending my 20s learning who I can be, with my kids there to witness. I love that they will be there every step of the way with me. They’ve had a front row seat to every accomplishment I’ve had thus far. I took my final exams six days after giving birth to my daughter, my stomach throbbing from the stitches. I breastfed my daughter, then shrugged on my graduation gown and walked across the stage to grab my diploma. I got my first raise a few months after returning from maternity leave with my son.

They’re here to see it all, from beginning to end. When it’s all said and done, I will look back at my career and say, “We did this together.”

So when the other moms shun me on the playground, I don’t let it bother me. I hop in my trusty, reliable boat of a car, and throw a glance at the angels in the backseat. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Or a new minivan.

About our MyBrownBaby contributor:
Tara Pringle Jefferson is an Ohio-based freelance writer. A wife and mom of two, she pens the blog, The Young Mommy Life, where she discusses the joys and challenges of being a 20-something mom. She is writing a book about the young mom experience, set to be completed whenever she gets a solid chunk of quiet time.

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  1. i can totally relate.

    i often feel like an outsider when i go to the park. i'm young (well, sorta LOL) and there are RARELY any other black families/women in the park with their kids. sometimes i wonder WHERE ARE WE? then i realize many of my sistas are probably at work. hmph.

    you have the right attitude though! don't let them get you down.

  2. Great job Tara...I am a newbie to your blog but I loved it. Keep up the good work...from one young mommy to another.

  3. I feel you as well. I am not as young as you (30 in Oct.) but I've had people tell me I look as young as 18 (thank you people...LOL). I have a 2yr. old and I am currently pregnant with my second and when I'm without my husband people give me the side eye (white & black). Sometimes I want to scream, "Hey, I'm married and almost 30!", but I don't. I will admit that I personally have my own issues with this as well, because I DON'T want to be looked at as another YBSM (Young Black Single Mother) because there are way too many as there are. I want people to know I did this the old fashioned way, marriage and then kids (not to knock anyone who didn't). I don't want people to see me and see what they think is a statistic or the validation of what they already believe about the black community.

    Like, the prisoner's wife mentioned I also hate that there are so few of US at the playground and gymboree and the zoo, that we are gawked at like we're part of the scene.

  4. tara...you are awesome! i love you! i am a white momma with a brown girlie and 3 white girlies....and we live in the same neighborhood you talked about...and drive a "hooptie" as we lovingly refer to it, our 03 escalade...it's not new, but we love it.

    anyway, i always get the questions of am i babysitting...and which ones are your kids. that one racks me up...no one asks my b, who is white and adopted too, if she's my daughter. annoying!

    ok, so anyway, i jsut want to say that you rock my socks off and i would play at the playground with you anyday...and your car, well, it just makes me smile from ear to ear thinking of the love and devotion your hubs has for you.

    as for other peeps, my only thing is what my little baby girl will have to go thru when she's older. she is brown and beautiful...and well, i'm tired of having to explain it. and is it really any of their business anyway??? seriously people!

  5. Loved reading this Tara! You have the right attitude. When you know that you're doing what makes you feel whole and happy, then no one else's opinions matter! Thanks for expressing your feelings.

  6. i feel that way all the time, tara, except i don't have the wedding ring, so i just build up my "i-dont-care-what-these-ppl-think-of-me immunity. i love your ability to be so open and honest - but you knew that already :)

  7. I also live in a town where you rarely see another black person. The questions I have been asked over the years are all to see, where I fit in the neighbor. Like "So, what does your husband do". I guess that's to see if I'm on welfare or not. Or "Where do you live in West Side", and when I tell them where they nearly fall over cause it's not the Ghetto. Side. I've been here now for 15 years and our faces are well known and so is our family. But it amazes me that the stereotyping is still out. It's a matter of BIA. Black in America

  8. As 20 something twin moms ourselves, we have decided against being a part of statistics even if people want to group us there. If you don't claim it no one can make it be. What's most important when you are a young mother - married or single - is what you do for your children and yourself. Graduating fresh after birth is what makes being a 20 something mom mean more than the 30 something mom who has gone through college without birth or babies to juggle. You are younger so you have the strength to endure all things. Look at the bright side, we'll have the opportunity to be around a lot longer in our kids lives :) Proud to be 20 something moms!

  9. The irony is that it is perfectly okay, and even encouraged for white women to get married and have babies in their early twenties. I remember hearing the phrase "Getting my MRS," and wondering what the hell they were talking about.

    I think, though, even worse than when other people judge my life choices are when my own people judge them. I am 23 and had my son during my first year of law school. Ten days before I took my spring finals, to be exact! I got married when I was 21, 6 months after graduating from undergrad. Our community teaches us to wait until we get our degree(s), buy a house, get settled before we start a family. And I don't think that's such a bad idea.

    But I also don't think it's a bad idea to do (or go through) those things with someone else. And I don't appreciate being judged for making that decision.

    I think the lesson that other communities as well as our own can learn is to refrain from making assumptions and/or judgments about other people's life choices. Even if they are vastly different from your own.

  10. You are so right on! When I was pregnant there was the older woman that would try to constantly make comments about how young (I look) and being pregnant. She actually said babies having babies. I simply ignored her. When is the right time to have children. I have received my college degree for quite some time and I'm married so just because I'm in my mid to late twenties means I'm way too young. I have traveled places most people would never go. Oh and when I had to start wearing my wedding ring around my neck I certainly received the looks. Why are we so judgmental. Oh and get this I live in the Maryland, DC, area so plenty of black people there. I'm getting frowned on by my own.

  11. Great post! I remember getting those stares and comments back when my first was born. I was 24 then.

    Now I get looks simply because we're black and people assume our children will act one way. I love the shock when they find out both of my girls have stayed home with me.

    I love hearing how well mannered, and intelligent they are from complete strangers.

    I also know what it's like to see other kids scatter when yours come around. It makes me sad for my kids, but so glad they are innocent enough not to notice why.

    So it does get better as time goes on. Keep doing what your doing.

  12. I had my first when I was 27, and married for three years. However, I looked 19 and I was still in college. I lived in Inman Park, Atlanta GA. I experienced all the same things you are writing about. 13 years later, I'd forgotten. Just keep doing what you are doing, it's all good.

  13. So glad you shared this, Tara! Great article!!! I get the stares and what-the-hell looks too when I take the girls to the park in the middle of the day. As if I'm not entitled to have a life that allows me to do just that?!

  14. I love this post.

    Although 28 now, I too experienced some of the same looks from people of another race. I am sure it had more to do with my status more than my color, but it does not justify it either way.

    I had my son when I was 20 years old. I am with his father, but we are not married.

    It kills me how people think their marriage, or lack of, is an indication of the type of parent they are. I believe I am a great SINGLE mother.

    I know I will continue to struggle with the weighted issue of the ring finger, but until my partner and I decide what works best for us, my parenting will be intact.

  15. I am not black but I am a 20 something mom of two and can totally relate, I often feel like a second class citizen when out and about in our suburban neighborhood. Even in regards to fashion I feel even more like a leper if I dress my age meaning not sacrificing my taste for the trendy whenever I go out. I have tried in vain to make myself look like I am older what a joke! However now I get satisfaction from not fitting in thanks for the article


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