I stay up late most nights thinking about the girls that I work with. I wonder whether they rub their bellies and hum quiet prayers meant for God to hear and answer. I did these things when I carried my babies. I marveled as my belly wriggled into humps and moved toward my touch. My babies and I knew each other well before we made our in-person acquaintance!
I wonder whether the girls that I work with worry about whether they will have enough. Enough love to keep them happy; enough energy to keep them going; enough time to get the things that they want, right.
I worry, I worry and then I worry some more.
I look at their smiling brown faces and imagine my mother. Like them, she once wedged a protruding belly into a desk meant for teen girls that scrawled the football stars name on their sneakers and had no reason to worry about hard-bottom shoes. She was 16 in 1969 when she gave birth to my brother, and I quickly followed 13 months later. Today, I tease her reminding her that I’m that dreaded and pesky too soon subsequent birth. My mother is far removed from the day when she was pushed out of school and into a marriage that in the last 36 years has resulted in four children and nine grandchildren. Nowadays, she’s a registered nurse. I look at my girls tangling their arms around young boys on the brink of fatherhood – nervous, sly smiles turning up the corners of their mouths when they greet one another. They have so much work to do. These boys’ lives will not be like my father’s as there are no auto factories brimming with jobs paying a wage high enough to head a household. But, they see me and know that for my girls I want what my mother got from my father, my grandmothers and our extended community. She had love, support and guidance.
Two years ago, I started the Brooklyn Childcare Collective to provide legal information and social services support to pregnant and parenting girls after working as an attorney at Legal Aid Society. I mostly enjoyed the experience of trying to use my law degree to positively impact the lives of children but as I grew older, I watched the parents flowing into the courthouse to answer charges appear younger. Mostly, they were black and brown girls with their mothers, other female relatives or friends. Being hurried toward the table where decisions would be made about their family’s life, they always tried to figure me out – bewildered, afraid and very much in love with their children they often thought that the law guardian was the person that literally took their children in. Explaining my role often added another confusing layer of disruption to their lives. I wanted to be something different in relationship to them, not just be their child’s attorney. I broke rules. Did things lawyers aren’t supposed to do. I held hands with these young mothers, listened to them, gave comforting smiles and encouraged them in their mothering.
I knew that I had to move on so I started the Collective believing that I could use the best tools I learned in the courtroom and wed them to my organizing experiences to create a dynamic community-based program. I started small with my own child strapped to my chest. I talked things up in Brooklyn Family Court and in the schools, and then was given an opportunity to launch a school-based program. The young mothers that I met at Brooklyn’s P932K, helped me deepen my vision and together we questioned everything. Through questioning we are making personal and environmental changes. We are doing work in our schools, we are working in the courthouse, we birth in ways that honor our personal choices and ancestors. We are rearing our children in a woman-centered circle. We hold our babies to our breasts. We do our homework. We share our love in a way that affirms our dignity. We celebrate multi-ethnic and intergenerational friendships. We search for ways to get enough.
As young mothers on the verge, juggling school while trying to find good, safe childcare is a major challenge. While the New York City Department of Education provides childcare placements for student/parents often these slots are not convenient or situated in a good education setting. Moreover, young mothers often report that because there are so few slots, many quickly fill up. We struggle around this issue of trying to create enough slots because we know that childcare is a critical component to ensuring that these young women have the time and mental energy needed to explore their own academic and personal possibilities.
While we expect that the school system and local government respond to the needs of young mothers – we also seek out the support and guidance of our elders. We know that healthy mothering never happens in isolation. We consciously develop relationships that broaden our understanding of our experiences as women. We never can get enough of these types of relationship and as young mothers these relationships are critical, especially when we talk about baby-making…. When a 13-year-old mother in foster care asked me to define ovulation, I needed to connect to women more knowledgeable. When two 17-year-old expectant mothers said with a level of authority that shocked me that if you jump up and down following intercourse you can get all of the sperm out of your body and prevent pregnancy, we –girls and women– huddled around a blackboard and quickly did our best to dispel this myth. Outside of the rudiments of academia, my girls need knowledge that will literally save their lives. One can never get enough of these types of connections.
I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of their love. Love for their children. Love for their partners. Love for themselves and each other. Often, the force of this love is lost to anger, frustration, envy and lack of understanding. We make an effort to strengthen these bonds for the benefit of the babies and for the sustenance of the girls. They need to be touched, they need smiles, and they need to be told that they are amazing. I tell them these things, I touch them. I know that this telling and touching matters because over time I see them do it with each other.
A few Sundays ago, my baby girl burned with fever and we were stuck indoors. I stared out of the window at Brooklyn (my adopted home, I’m a Detroiter) and listened to the cold wind whip against the concrete. I felt alone. I had work piled on my desk but it went untouched as I instead cradled my daughter I was deep in thought about my girls. I thought about those waiting for babies to arrive. I thought about those struggling through math problems, fighting with boyfriends, or simply feeling overwhelmed. I wanted them in my living room with me. I wanted to talk and share. I wanted to listen to them plan their lives. I needed to connect to someone that would understand my yearning and I reached out to a sister/mentor in Detroit. She’s been doing this work as a school principal for quite awhile. I wanted her to tell me that I was right and that the work I had chosen was worthwhile. Even before I asked, she moored me, told me stories – reminded me that this is my life’s work. And it is a worthy cause, preparing young mothers for lives we can only imagine.
You can read about Our Beginning here. Also read about Winter Warmth.