As a single Black woman who adopted her children from the foster care system, Nefertiti Austin writes about the erasure of voices of color in media and public discourse about motherhood. Her work has been shortlisted for literary awards and featured in outlets including MUTHA, mater mea, Essence.com, Adoptive Families magazine, and PBS Parents. She holds degrees in U.S. History and African-American Studies and has trained others seeking a license to foster and/or adopt children from foster care. Austin’s first two novels, Eternity and Abandon, helped launch the Black Romance genre in the mid-90s. Her latest book, Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, explores the history of adoption in the Black community and chronicles her parenting journey. She spoke with former Literary Mama columnist Deesha Philyaw about Motherhood So White, taking parenting advice from men, and the importance of putting Black women’s motherhood experiences on the page.
Deesha Philyaw: In addition to being a powerful memoir, Motherhood So White is part history book, part sociology book and part how-to guide. What advice do you have for single Black women who are considering adoption from foster care but have concerns?
Nefertiti Austin: They should take the mandated classes. Because if you just sit and intellectualize who the children are, who their parents are, then you either end up with a negative judgment about the kids or about their parents, or you’re just overly compassionate for both groups, but still take no action. Taking the classes is a very small investment in the grand scheme of things. It’s a three-hour a week, three-week orientation, and then six weeks of classes. And you know, I understand folks are busy, but the best way to go about it is to take the class. There’s no obligation. You get the most information, and you have an opportunity to ask questions of social workers directly. You can ask them anything you want.
And typically, there are foster parents or adoptive parents in the room. It’s very rare that you have an entire class with people who have no experience with fostering. You can ask people, honestly, “Okay, what has been your experience?” Because everyone’s experience is different. I know some folks who’ve had some really challenging situations, and every now and then put myself in their shoes and wonder, “Could I have done that?”
And I’ve been told, “Well, if my adoption looked like yours, I’d do it.” Yeah, but you don’t know our day-to-day challenges. And only a really small part of our challenges are related to adoption. Part of the challenge is just: they’re kids, I’m a parent, and this is our relationship.
So, take the classes. Ask questions.
DP: Among the many things that I appreciate about your book was the nuance and the balance; you present your motherhood experiences, warts and all. I see you as the hero in your family story, advocating for your children, investing in their futures with this really keen awareness about what it means to raise Black children in this country. You also write about understanding your limitations and how you’ve created an intentional community of loving and supportive Black men for your son. But you don’t always see eye-to-eye with these men. So how do you know when to defer to them and when to hold firm?
NA: My son is 12, and he’s like me, on the reserved side. He’s definitely a thinker. He reads a lot. He’s also athletic and all those stereotypically male characteristics, but he doesn’t have what one of my male friends calls that dog in him that some boys do. This friend said some boys are born with it, and then other boys, you have to bring it out in them. This is why he put his son in kajukenbo at five, so that his son would get that dog and be able to carry himself in the world and not let people bother him. And he put his son in tackle football. My son has that proverbial dog, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. And that’s okay.
I also thought, I’m behind. I’ve got a 12 year old and I’ve messed up because I should have put him in karate or something, where he’d be forced to fight once a week to have that edge about him so that when he goes around in the world, people won’t bother him. I draw the line at tackle football—I’m okay with flag football—for health reasons.
So when it comes to listening to this male community, it’s more intuitive. In this particular case, I was open to this kajukenbo thing. I ran it past my son, who, of course did not want to do it; his concern was, “I’m going to get beat up if I do this.” Because it isn’t how he’s been raised. [Ultimately], it was just a timing issue that it didn’t work out for him to take that particular class.
I do think about it sometimes, and I am certainly open to what my male community has to say. I go on instinct. As my son gets older, I’m letting him make those decisions. He’ll be going to high school in a couple of years, and [I’m considering] an all-boys school. He went to an all-boys high school for a couple of summer classes, and I saw the way he responded to the male teacher, in a way that he doesn’t necessarily respond to me. I mean, I’m mom; I’m clear on that. But I saw that and I thought, “Okay, this is going to be the place where I’m really going to have to let the male community take over. And I’m going to have to fall back. Because in a minute, he’s going to be grown, and there are things that he needs to have in his arsenal that I can’t provide for him.” Not the silly stuff [mentioned in the book] about the haircuts and how he’s dressed. That’s foolishness! But I do see the value in there being lots of things about men’s conversations and their habits that he’s going to have to pick up just for his own emotional survival as a Black man in America that I absolutely cannot give him, despite my best efforts. So I have yielded more and more to that community of men. It won’t be 100 percent, but I will do more yielding as he gets older.
DP: Who are your motherhood heroes?
NA: My grandmother was a role model, but she was older and from a different era. So we had similar but different concerns. My most immediate role models really are my friends. I’ve been able to watch them when we were all in our 20s. They were married and beginning their families back when I wasn’t interested in that. As I matured and my needs changed, I really took a hard look at what they were doing as parents. For those of my friends who have adult children, I could see over time the sacrifices they made, but also the time they reserved for themselves. I cherry-pick the best of what I see my friends doing.
And I have no shame in my game. I will call or send a text like, “We’re not gonna make it. I need some help. Come get him. Come get her. Please. They will be outside on the porch ready.”
DP: Been there!
What do you hope readers will have a better understanding of after reading Motherhood So White?
NA: I hope that readers really feel our diversity. I wrote about my experience, and I don’t want anyone to assume that my experience covers every single Black adoptive mom in the country. This is one woman’s journey, and within our community, our culture, we are very diverse. I really want Black women who already know how diverse we are to really see themselves. That was my big thing: I did not see myself on the page [in motherhood literature]. So I want Black women to see themselves, even if their experiences are different from mine.
I want white mothers to see us on the page and recognize their own prejudices with regard to what they think about us. I want them to use their privilege to help us. This is an opportunity for all of us to come together, especially politically, over stuff that impacts every single one of us: quality childcare, paid family leave for mothers and fathers, reproductive justice.
DP: Motherhood So White is the book I wish I’d had at the beginning of my motherhood journey, and it’s the book that so many Black parents need in order to see our experiences and needs reflected and affirmed. I found it to be a thorough examination of the endless considerations and concerns and fears that parents of Black children have to contend with in order for our kids to not just survive, but thrive. And as I read, I kept thinking about how parents of white children don’t have to think about this stuff. That’s a huge privilege for them. What kind of feedback have you gotten from white readers, and from readers, in general, about the book?
NA: The feedback that I have gotten from nonblack mothers has been just what you said. One mother at the school where my kids attend said, “There were so many things I just did not know. It really opened my eyes.” So that tells me that I’ve done my job. That’s what I’ve heard consistently from white mothers. Consistently, I hear from Black women saying, “Now they know how we think and how we feel.” Now what they do with it, we’ll see.
Latinx moms have thanked me and told me that we have similar mothering experiences, similar struggles and issues.
And I’ve got a couple of notes from single Black women who’ve said, “I’ve been thinking about adoption for a while, and now I’m going to do it. Thank you.”
It’s also been very gratifying to hear from Black women who are not adoptive mothers who have said, “You’ve made us look good. You’ve painted us in a good light. Thank you for talking about Black motherhood and for telling our story.”