I wrote this essay for THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE about the 2 year process of creating a show called THE MOTHER PROJECT: A COLLABORATION TO HONOR BLACK MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN. I learned a lot. Including that many of my friends, the mainstream theatre going public, and a lot of theatre press don’t pay attention to the work of black women like they do other things. If I didn’t realize how invisible black women feel before, I can see it now.
TEXT IS HERE:
Essay: I didn’t respect motherhood as a choice until working on this show
“In his last breaths, he cried out for his mother.” Those were the words that stuck with me on May 26, 2020, when the murder of George Floyd dominated the headlines.
While I was reading this news, a cup of coffee in hand, my own mother called me. That day happens to be my birthday, and she was calling to wish me a happy one. I don’t call her, she often complains, but my brother does, and she’d just talked to him. He was having some troubles, again, and he needed her. From the time he was a teenager, she’s been bailing him out of crisis after crisis, often at great expense to herself. When I tell her to stop sacrificing everything to jump to his aid, she cries, “You don’t understand. I am his mother! He will never stop being my child!”
She’s right. I can’t possibly understand. I’m not a mother, and I’ve never wanted to be one. I grew up in Houston watching my mother struggle against the world just to keep her kids alive. To me, motherhood always looked like heartache and sacrifice and losing your own identity in the process. Unless you had money and family support, nobody was going to help you with it, either.
But that morning I was inspired to attempt to understand the woman who raised me. For the past two years, through my work in theater, I’ve taken a journey that began in personal inspiration, through race and class, bringing me to a new outlook on what it means to be a mother. I have learned how deep is the mother’s well of heartbreak, and joy.
My mother didn’t always choose the punishing path she found herself navigating. There was an abusive and often violent stepfather, followed by poverty when they divorced, leaving her suddenly without financial support when he disappeared in order to avoid paying child support for my younger siblings. My mother was suddenly plunged into single motherhood and, despite having little prior work experience, worked two jobs to keep the rent paid. One missed paycheck would have left us homeless.
Nobody was traumatized more by these experiences than my brother. The popular, seemingly happy boy stormed furiously into adolescence as a “troubled teen.” It was the late ‘80s and my mother knew little about mental illness; nobody else seemed to know much, either. Kids who acted out were labeled “problem kids” and thrown into a place where they could be contained. At least that’s how it happened in our world, where there wasn’t any money to do anything else about it. I watched my mother fight to save him in a society that does not help unless you can pay. I stood by, helpless as she burned her few hours of spare time every week to visit her son in a juvenile jail or attend meetings at a rehabilitation center, desperately trying to learn what to do to help a child who probably needed therapy, instead of just one cage after another.
I found motherhood a terrifying prospect after what I’d seen my own mother go through. I didn’t think I had the capacity for the kind of self-sacrifice or unconditional love that motherhood required. I’m also ashamed to say now that there was a time when I didn’t even respect it as a choice.
Instead of pursuing motherhood, I’ve poured all my time and energy into a theater company I founded called Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, whose mission is to focus on the theatrical work of women. We produce plays by female writers, and often those plays involve issues of specific concern to women. That morning in May 2020, as the world grappled with the video of Derek Chauvin killing Floyd, I decided to focus on single mothers by creating a performance piece using real experiences of different women whose children had been failed by the same systems in America that were supposed to protect them.
I sketched out a basic idea for how to gather material to create a script, and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to help make it happen. But I knew I couldn’t create this alone. First of all, I’m a director and producer, but I am not a playwright. Second, I am a white, Gen X woman with no children. A play about the experience of motherhood couldn’t be told only from my point of view. So I brought together a small group of Black, Latina and white female theater artists into the conversation.
When we started planning the actual show, the energy was strong, powerful and feminine. Everyone had plenty of ideas for mothers we could ask to be part of the interview process. I fully imagined my mother would be one of them, since she was the one who inspired the idea in the first place, but theater is a collaborative process, and as we collaboratively worked, our conversations moved away from single motherhood in general, to the experiences of mothers of color specifically. The consensus was that children of Black mothers are the ones who are most consistently failed by the American system. Black mothers are roughly three times more likely than white mothers to die in or just after pregnancy. Doctors are more likely to undertreat them for pain. The differences continue after birth. To cite only one example, researchers at Children’s National Hospital found that Black children are far more likely than their white peers to die in gun violence, including police encounters.
I let the vision evolve away from my own story. It was uncomfortable for a short while, and it even hurt a little to do so, but I realized it was the right choice. As hard as my mother had to work, often at jobs with crappy pay, nobody would have ever decided not to hire her because of her race. She was not, as far as I know, treated as subhuman by hospital staff or looked at with suspicion when she was shopping, even though she was pretty much broke at times. It’s easy to forget your privilege when you know that you did suffer, but listening to other people can often put a sharper perspective on that suffering.
These Black mothers had a different experience where race was concerned, but they still had a lot in common with my mother. We set out to highlight the joys and heartbreaks of American motherhood and that’s exactly what we were doing. In fact, the process that followed helped to make my original idea even clearer.
Every mother we interviewed was eager to tell her story to people who wanted to hear it. It was heartbreaking to discover that some of them seemed surprised that anyone even cared. One mother said that she was used to feeling invisible. Her son was the best thing she’d done in her life, and she sometimes questioned her own purpose, now that he’d been taken from her.
“I raised him to be a kind, generous man,” she remembered, “And he was. He lived to help others.” Her voice shook as she tearfully told us the story of her only son being gunned down by a police officer. “How can someone just kill your child?” she cried, bringing us to tears with her.
A single mother of five, a full-time nurse, was exhausted with guilt over missing the signs that her beautiful, artistic son was suffering before he killed himself at age 13. “He put on a brave face for me,” she said, looking at the photos of her son and his art that graced the walls of her living room. “He didn’t like to burden me with his troubles.” She was angry that the staff at her son’s school had failed to protect him from the bullying that drove him to desperation, but after his death, she turned her anger into activism and was spending her energy to help others. Her young daughter sat beside her as she spoke, studying the pain on her mother’s face in a way that dragged me back many years, as I watched my own mother unravel, clinging to my brother in a desperate attempt to keep him from a similar fate.
Along with the pain, all of the mothers also recalled ecstatic joy. Even the mothers who had lost their children beamed when asked about the experience of giving birth and meeting their children for the first time. “I looked around, seeing everyone else with theirs, and I could now say, ‘This one is mine,’” one of them remembered. “What a beautiful thing that God has created for me.”
They each proudly related tales of triumph where their children had done something extraordinary, whether it was a major gift or accomplishment, or simply a touching act of kindness. One son had given his mother a single, perfect rose every Valentine’s and Mother’s day, from the time he was a small boy until his death in his 30s. “He never forgot,” she said, smiling at the memory. The youngest mother we interviewed, a new mother with a toddler and another on the way, was excited to give her girls the life she never had herself. Her dearest hope is for “each to have their own identity and be confident.” She never wanted them to feel unseen.
Not one of those women regretted her choice to have children. Whether they had stumbled into motherhood as a teen, or struggled to conceive for years before it happened, they all fiercely defended their identity as mothers. My own mother sometimes laments lost opportunities, and I certainly see that it would have been much easier to navigate some of the obstacles she was forced to encounter if she hadn’t had three children clinging to her the entire time, but she never expresses anything but joy about her choice to be a mother.
When she called me that morning on May 26, 2020, she said to me, “The day you were born was one of the best days of my life. I am so proud to be your mother.” I realized I needed to do better to deserve her devotion. I should definitely call her more.
I don’t regret my own choice, but I have changed my judgment about motherhood. For some, it is a choice, and for others it is something that happened to them, but to be a good mother takes incredible strength. Mothers are superheroes. There is no shame in calling on them when you need them, and we should also remember to call them when we don’t.
Jennifer Decker is the founder and artistic director for Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company and English faculty at Houston Community College. “The Mother Project: A Collaboration to Honor Black Mothers and Their Children” will run May 19-28, 2022 at the DeLuxe Theatre in the Fifth Ward. The show is “pay as you can,” which hopefully will make it accessible to everyone who wants to see it.