On Monday, Medium’s Working Parents series published my essay on juggling the demands of parenting and freelance writing. It’s risky to write with candor about things like this when your employment prospects are constantly in flux. I’m never sure, when I’m at my most publicly honest, how it’ll affect any future hiring — and I’m not naive enough to believe that it won’t. But I also don’t know how to bottle anything up without it seeping its way into writing (ask my family or my exes). Whenever I feel especially alienated in a relationship or isolated in a situation, every word at my disposal grows a tentacle. I gather them and push them out toward anyone onto whom they might latch. And when I hear back from someone who says, “Yes, this has also been my experience,” or, “Now I understand your experience of our interaction,” every tensed nerve relaxes. The tentacles retract and words, at least in those moments of peace, simply become words again.
I also just think it benefits people to know what they’re getting when they get you. Sometimes I write to announce myself to strangers. In daily interaction, we don’t reveal even a fraction of what we’re thinking, feeling, fearing, or hoping. And we probably shouldn’t. But I’ve always felt that, when or if anyone ever wishes to know, there should be a manual for them, some shorter way to troubleshoot than the interminable, unaided process of trial and error.
I’ve heard back from several mothers this week about that piece and I’ve appreciated every exchange. We could all stand to have less pressure to hide essential parts of who we are. I’ve also gotten some very thoughtful leads from readers for flex work, remote work, and part-time work, and that’s been very touching. Every lead like that feels like encouragement to keeping finding ways to spend time with my little girl and, in a culture where I’ve seen unmarried black mothers harshly lambasted — and criminalized — for making these kinds of choices at the expense of their highest earning potential, I’m exceedingly grateful for that form of support.
Regardless of what happens, whether I take a full-time office job or continue working from home, I won’t forget those of you who validated my decision to freelance in my daughter’s first five years.
Every week has its own anatomy for the work-from-home single parent. Monday was chill and Tueday started out the same way, until I got an email offering me a labor-intensive project with a quick turnaround that I’m slated to begin this weekend. Wednesday and Thursday also brought new work responsibilities. I’m glad, then, that while my daughter was at school Tuesday morning, I decided to take these photos. I’m glad that when she got home from school, she joined me.
In the Working Parents essay, I focused on how difficult it is to juggle work and mothering. I centered the demands. But I didn’t talk about the lulls, the gaps between assignments, the ways in which the unexpectedly long waits for overdue checks can confine you to home (because you’re afraid to spend the money you have left and every time leaving home, it seems, involves an expenditure), and the ways you have to get inventive to avoid being listless or afraid or frustrated.
We take photos together and separately for countless reasons: to kill time, to bond, to giggle, to record this rare era — one that will draw to a close, for better or worse, before other of us is ready to let it go. Our self-portraits are also another way to shift our narrative. We create our story, add glamour in the places bleakness is poised to fester, add cheer when we’re feeling sort of down, add purpose to a day that is light on duty.
Most parents and their children do this. We fill our cell phones with moments. My family’s are intentionally artsy because we have time to make them that way. If these moments are merely our highlight reels, as so many have observed about what makes its way to social media or blogs, then what we choose to share says everything about who we think we are, who we aspire to be, and how we hope others perceive us.
I hope I’m perceived as thoughtful. Creative. Dramatic. Daring. Whimsical. Optimistic. Protective of my daughter’s wonder. Protective of my own. I hope I appear to be aiming toward an elsewhere, while relishing life right where I stand.
1. “Carefree” is a crossroads, the center of four paths: parent and lover, artist and merchant. You dance in the dirt with hydrangea in your hair and you are wild when you’re expected to be tame. This is where people see you, where sun rays collect in the gold of your skin, so that even in the dark you’ll be swathed in phosphorescent spotlight. And dark it will be when you leave here and venture down each of the roads, where destinations are dim and the underbrush, unwieldy.
The road where you mother: The gravel cuts your feet as you carry your sons and your daughters.
The road you create: You dig until your fingertips bleed for art that feels rich and raw, as untapped as underground oil.
The road that may lead you to love: This is the longest most dubious walk and even when you’ll want to travel it solo, you will not often be alone. Here, you mustn’t forget that your child will become your lover’s cargo. He must carry him as carefully as you do. He must accept that when he joins you on the path where you parent, his own feet will also be cut.
You should watch what you are paving. Turn back to the clearing as soon as you can; your love and your art and your mothering find their greatest sustenance and purest ambition there.
You should marry at the crossroads, where you child and your art and your industry swirl up from the earth and make a sparkling white column of dust. Bask in how high it rises and in the way it all settles again.
2.Everything is inspiration, and when you are working toward something that inspires you, the sweat of your brow is someone’s aphrodisiac. God bless a working mother. God bless the passionate woman.
3. And sometimes your sister’s sacrifices earn you your freedom. Her years of hiding under an industry’s expectations and artifice allow you to be your truest self out in the open. Then, you coax her authenticity out from the shadows in return. When the world demands your inferiority and calls you a mere facsimile of sun, you keep your light and refuse to be eclipsed.
4. Other lives simply aren’t enviable.
5. We unmarried mothers who have been so afraid have been told to be afraid. We were told we wouldn’t find love, or that the love we might attract would not be worth finding. We were told that missteps preclude forward motion. But there is no shame in having lived through a moment unwisely. Neither mothering after divorce nor having had no husband at all is cause for resignation or shame. The demise of our difficult relationships are no cause to deny ourselves new love.
6. No decision a black mother makes will diminish the Maatkare markers in her blood. We are queens, even us, be we ever so bowed or broken or humbled. We are regal — whether burdened with low-income or beset with incomparable wealth. We are regal when we choose to be, and the choice is all that matters.
7.Hair, in its natural state, is a halo. But you are well within your rights not to behave as angelically as you appear.
8. Hurt cannot be hidden. It will seep out in the notes and on the page, will be seen in the set of your jaw on the subway. So bare it bravely in the public square, where someone well-equipped to soothe you may see it.
9. When you are young and you’ve found a boy your age and whatever combusts between you feels like a kind of love, it is fine for that love not last. Even if it results in a pregnancy, even when the baby propels you both toward the altar, it is okay to flee. Marriage borne mostly of obligation flings you forward in ways that will disappoint you; the union itself is a stop so short of what you’d imagined for adult life to be that it may be best to run before it feels far too late. Keep running, with your child’s hand in yours, toward hope, toward extended family, toward your older wiser self, toward the kind of love that acts as a reincarnation.
10. Single mothers who wish to marry greatly benefit from seeing other single mothers marry. Wearing white and frolicking, with gold bands ‘round their wrists, reveling with the same village that’s helped to raise their children, enacting intimate, in-joking customs as nontraditional as their their premarital lives, dancing silly choreography with their children, who appear quite secure and supportive and happy. It happens, the nuptials seem to testify. It happens far more often than we’re told to believe. It can happen for you.
I don’t belong in Icing by Claire’s*. The other shoppers browsing beside me wouldn’t be able to sit legally at a restaurant’s bar. They wouldn’t be able to rent a car at the considerable discount adults over 25 are offered. Their faces are unlined, their hair devoid of even a single silvery strand. They are still girls, really; crow’s feet will not alight on their faces for several years to come.
This is my second trip. The cashier has natural hair. The first time she rang up my purchases, her afro was pushed away from her forehead with a plain black band. Now her hair is a garden of two-strand twists. It looks like the kind of work I don’t yet want. I smile at her and recommit to my TWA. The TWA, after all, is why I’m here. Cutting my hair was one thing; feeling elegant and feminine with this cut will, as it turns out, take quite a bit of accessorizing. I know nothing about accessorizing.
We are closer in age than the customers around us. When I approach the counter this time, she doesn’t let on that she remembers me. Maybe she doesn’t. Either way, I’m grateful as I empty the mesh shopping basket of its contents. She rings up the molehill of trinkets between us: earrings fashioned of plastic and tin, shaped like peonies and roses; cheap garlands of synthetic florals; gilded Grecian headbands, bound to tarnish if worn more than a few times this summer.
I am probably too old for this. I am mother to a girl who will be starting pre-K in the fall. In November, I will be closer to 40 than 30. For six years, I have taught college students, every semester widening the chasm between their sartorial sensibility and my own. As someone trying to make her living as a writer, being taken seriously has always felt like an Everest climb, a consumption by quicksand, a swim upstream. I am at an age where it is necessary to pinch the bridge of my nose while hunching over bills, at an age where my elders wonder aloud when the work that I do will afford me a lifestyle commensurate with grown-womanhood. (Whither the mortgage, the marriage, the retirement plan?)
And here I am buying flimsy floral baubles at the very accessory chain that interviewed (but didn’t hire) me for my first job at 17.
The cashier tells me the total.
“That’s almost, to the cent, what I spent here last time.”
She courtesy-smiles, waits silently for the debit system to approve my transaction, then hands me the bag. “Here’s a frequent shopper’s card.”
I accept it with thanks but hope I’ll never make enough purchases to redeem it. Two teen girls compare tubes of glittery fruit-flavored lip gloss as I walk out.
At revival, the visiting evangelist descended from the pulpit into the congregation. He was illustrating a point about the importance of vision by asking children what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was 8 and the third kid he asked.
Self-serious little person that I was, my answer was immediate. “I want to be an author.”
Mine was the first response he’d gotten that wasn’t, “I don’t know.” So he riffed on it for a while. “Will y’all excuse me for a minute,” he said, pulling up a chair near my aisle. “I gotta sit and talk to this young person.”
He began to tell me my future. “You’ll read a lot, write a lot of books. You won’t be like all the other children.” His voice took on a wistful, kindly tone. “You’ll never have a day of lack.”
This is all I remember, but he spoke to me for a good five minutes: a monologue amplified by microphone. In the end, we bowed our heads as he prayed that the things he’d just said would come to pass. I kept the cassette recording of the sermon and listened to it once every few years until college. That was when I lost it.
My church calls this sort of thing a prophecy and the man delivering it a prophet — even when the foretelling is fairly straightforward (Voracious reading is a requisite for quality writing, for instance). Though mostly taken with a grain of salt, my faith still regards prophetic words as sacred.
We are no strangers to mysticism. We believe that the spirit of God might manifest itself during a church service as an indoor fog, the effect like a supernatural smoke machine. We believe that speaking in tongues communicates something to our God that English can’t. We believe that through mere touch — hand to forehead, hand-to-hand, hand-to-shoulder — a minister can confer the spirit of God upon us in ways that make us swoon, faint, convulse, or sprint. We call this being “slain in the spirit.”
For all this trust in experiences that would seem, to anyone who lives outside them, illogical, loopy, or unsound, it’s hard to believe that pursuing a life in the arts would not be accepted as a natural progression.
But being a writer — particularly of fiction — often felt like an unnatural desire. To write fiction was to lie. To lie was sin. Writing nonfiction, if not self-help or testimonial, also felt like the wrong kind of work, for honesty about one’s deepest flaws or exposure of the cracks in other folks’ facades, was regarded as a very real betrayal.
There is little left to write — and even less to write well — whenever these are the guardrails.
In my teens and early 20s, I sometimes came to church wearing a sarong as a skirt with a macrame brooch of a black, Afro-puffed angel holding it in place at the hip: a tiny reclamation of the fanciful. Sometimes I wanted to wear glittered wings and frolic like a fairy, to create a worship experience that felt like the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel or Angela Bofill music sounds. Otherworldly. But I always suppressed the real questions I wanted to ask in prayer. I wrote trite, implausible stories of Christian conversion. I kept my longing for purple hair and hennaed palms to myself.
What do you want from me? I should’ve asked at a much younger age.
I know now what God would’ve told me: Not this.
I have always had muses — none of whom were acceptable choices for teenage churchgoing me.
Wear what you want. Love who you want. Give birth when you want. Find ways to live freely. I am drawn to an artsy woman whose look belies her life’s philosophy, because life philosophies — genuine, personal ones — are not easy to form.
You cannot take stock of present-day Lisa Bonet and not know with all certainty, you’re beholding a woman who — to borrow from Langston Hughes — stands on top of the mountain free within herself. I don’t think that confidence came at low cost, but we purveyors of pop culture have always been drawn to Bonet because we sensed that she saw no trail ahead yet continued, somehow, to set one ablaze.
That kind of freedom can feel like it’s at odds with a few of my faith’s tenets. For us, submission to God’s word and will are the only real freedoms. As Christians, we do not live to please ourselves — and this runs counter to everything I know of myself as a writer. A writer must create to please herself; it is that very self-assurance that earns her reader’s confidence.
For a few months in college, I tried to grow out my perm. I lived alone and if my hair looked too unruly, I’d wrap fabric around it (usually an old t-shirt) and pretend that it meant something regal. I’d stand taller, jaw set against stares or uninvited comment and, for the first time in life, I felt in control of the image I was projecting to the world.
I still wonder what it should mean for our daily lives that we were made in the image of God with the intent that we should behave as though we are reflections of God.
But for years, it meant treating my body and whatever adorned it as an afterthought. It meant treating my appearance as inconsequential rather than as a point of particular pride. I wore neutrals: denim, earth tones, cotton tees, department-store, factory-outlet dresses. I am still uncertain which colors best complement my skin. (Am I a winter or what?) And this belief that reflecting God meant being conservative in attire and carriage has also meant decades of long hair. Hair long enough to draw a curtain. Hair that doesn’t out the wildness underneath.
The wildness I wanted then seems more permissible now. Churches have factored arts and entertainment into their Sunday rituals. Spoken word, drama, pantomime, liturgical dance. It’s all there. But I am a different brand of feral these days.
My mother convinced me to perm my hair again in college by insisting I couldn’t attend church back home in a headwrap. “It’s Easter!” she’d said. “Easter!”
It took fourteen years to go natural again. Fourteen years and here I am leaving Icing, eager to embrace the sprightliness I denied myself so often as a teen. Here I am writing about my faith’s messy intersections with my chosen vocation. Here I am being as weird as I’ve always suspected I could be.
But am I too old for it? At 34, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an overgrown child whenever I place a crown of fake flowers on my head. It seems that, by now, I should have my personal aesthetic figured out. If nothing else, I should know what stores don’t make me feel like the old chick at the club.
(When did I become this self-conscious?)
We talk about reinvention as though it’s a very mature and high-brow process. But so much of it is playing dress-up and making yourself okay with prancing around in new personas till you find the next one that’s a natural fit.
The Jesus who keeps me Christian roamed and ruminated and attended riotous parties. He heard disembodied voices, battled demons, drank good wine and was led by a calling higher than himself. That Jesus gets me. He gets why I don’t find nudity particularly offensive, since according to our own sacred text, nudity isn’t the sin; shame is. He preferred a complicated story and understood that not every tale worth telling ended with profession of faith in him. He didn’t recoil from the grotesque, and he was irrepressible. The Jesus who cursed fig trees wouldn’t care one wit if I ring my hair in fake foliage. He didn’t conform. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be disgusted with anyone who’d ask me to.
How I long to be more like him.
*I found out Icing has a shop online option while writing this piece. Guess where I’ll be copping hair garlands instead of in-store now?