Black. Female. Childfree.
Black. She/Her. Cis. Hetero. College-educated. Cancer survivor. Blissfully married. 30.
That list of identities will never contain the word mother.
It’s the pandemic, you’re tempted to rationalize. It’s climate change, you muse.
Ah, it makes sense now; it’s all that racialized trauma.
You’d be right. But this decision transcends the external and lies deep within.
From the word Black, you’ll bring expectations to this piece by association. I expected that.
Black. Woman. American. If you can, strip your eyes of the film of caste, of indoctrination, or association. Shed that burden. This isn’t a commentary on the political. This is personal, and it is my story.
It’s one I’ve been creating for all of my existence.
That I would be thirty, college-educated, married, and happy is not an outcome I ever thought I would compromise on.
I am not surprised by my life. That I would be thirty, college-educated, married, and happy is not an outcome I ever thought I would compromise on. The threads of this tapestry were handed to me gently on random weeknight evenings after homework; at the finish line of relays run at national championships; in the pew of churches with brown Jesus adorning stained glass windows in northern New Jersey. This weaving of my future was an unapologetic endeavor, a process started by the strong hands who adeptly wove their own without a blueprint. It didn’t feel like destiny then. Those whispered reminders, dinner-time encouragements, and sweet affirmations given freely to a first-generation daughter of Caribbean immigrants. No more, no less.
It could have been the biracial couples on our block; the LQBTQ+ parents and caretakers; the breadwinning wives, and stay-at-home dads that lived on my little street in South Orange… but the idea that I could enjoy a kind, beautiful life was never inaccessible. The dream was as tangible at my public school as my private, single-sex college preparatory high school, then PWI college. It simply was. The woman who writes to you was deeply loved by two Guyanese parents now married for 32 years, well-versed in eating bagels and New York slices shoulder-to-shoulder with myriad strangers on the New York subway. I never questioned my place in the world, nor did I question the experiences of those around me. I assumed we were all weaving our tapestries, and that the presence of my loom wouldn’t disturb the unique creators around me.
I grew up, moved to Durham, North Carolina, and made a happy home with a white midwestern man I met on Plenty of Fish. Nearly six years into marriage and his threads have woven beautifully into mine, the colors and pattern entirely complimentary.
For some reason, though, society has begun to apply pressure — not at all without hostility — in asking whether we plan to learn an entirely different pattern of stitching to accommodate something new. No one asks at all if we are content. No one seems to care if children are part of the art we intended to create.
I am my mother’s wildest dreams. I can choose the life I want because she lived into the blueprint of a woman I won’t grow up to be.
Our tapestry is beautiful as is. The admiration of the piece we’re creating together is lovely, too. But just because we can weave doesn’t mean we must, and doesn’t mean we must with other collaborators in mind. Our hands and hearts are doing just fine, thank you.
I envision a world where our tapestry is welcome, as are the tapestries of parents. I understand and value their desire to create something entirely new.
I could stop here, with a statement of mutual respect for souls with different desires to coexist. That, of course, should be enough. But take a moment. Did your expectations creep in again?
If the perfectly lovely, rosy portrait of a Black girl growing up in America that I painted above rattled you a bit, I get it. I’m with you. Until recently, I have been steeped in the comfortable waters of naivety in the assumption that my life is orthodox, that my choices are my own, and that I am completely in control of my future. I took for granted that all parents of color no matter their origin are supported in their quest to support their children. I took as fact that an American dream exists, that Black girls everywhere can do whatever they want, and that I’m not even remotely an anomaly.
Where the *@#! have I been, right? Turns out Black women can enjoy privilege too.
It’s been a long four years. A harsh, terrifying awakening. A process of waking up and honoring the stories of folks whose melanin I share but whose experiences I do not. Soul wrestling with the tortured history of this country, devastated by my blindness, aghast at the utter disregard and violence done to Black and Brown bodies. The discovery of a deliberate, insidious, evil caste system in our very midst.
And people are asking me if I want to do what? Bring children into this?
It seems obvious that to whom much is given, much is required. And it is. I am awake, and will not soon slumber in this new knowledge. But my response will not be to bring an innocent child into this war; to fold inward and make my life smaller to protect it, as one would be expected to. There are far too many already here to care for, and I am now making the conscious choice, not just to not have children because I don’t want to, but to not have children because the cost is too high. For them, and for me.
I haven’t thought much about a formative experience I had when I was 15 and an occasional babysitter for a baby girl of color in an affluent northern New Jersey neighborhood. While walking with her in a stroller, I vividly remember the looks I received from passersby. Mothers admonishing their daughters behind windshields while looking angrily at me. Looks of disgust and shame and hooded stares that said, “I told you so.”
I don’t think Black women ever outgrow those looks of disgust.
No matter our money or our status, we will strive to avoid that gaze. The one that suggests we have not risen to the occasion, that we have failed, that we have confirmed the lowest expectation, that something is not right with us. That we are not right. And I guess at some level, especially as a child of immigrants, I have spent decades in fear of being wrong.
Children are yet another way that Black women toil and work tirelessly, thanklessly, and society judges their life’s work harshly. Our Black boys and brothers are still murdered as if we didn’t do all we could to keep them alive. Our girls are fetishized, assaulted, and bullied despite our efforts to keep them safe. Why would I wade into that? Why would I invite more opportunities in this life to feel pain?
Somehow, I emerged (mostly unscathed). There is no guarantee of a future for my child like the present I enjoy.
That is the Black tax.
That the melanin I’m in could so fundamentally change my ability to think objectively about this fundamental choice.
Yet, somehow, my parents found a way to shield me and allow me the space to create unburdened. That is a miracle by most circumstances. What I’ve just realized is how much of a miracle this is for a Black family in this country, or for a Black woman whose intersectionality renders her nearly mute due to oppression on the world’s stage. My life is the exception, not the rule. In admitting that, I honor the brute force, commitment, and sheer fortitude it took to get me here. I am no accident.
I am my mother’s wildest dreams. She sacrificed the deepening of her education, a formal career in healthcare that she enjoyed, and so much more to pour herself into us. I can choose the life I want because she lived into the blueprint of a woman I won’t grow up to be — not because I shame her path, but because it’s not my soul’s calling. That’s privilege. And I think she knows this; she smiles upon me and encourages me to pursue a childfree life as though she has settled into a sweet knowing… that she granted me a freedom she could have had but now enjoys through my endeavors.
I look forward to a beautiful future with my husband, and further, one where I get to take care of my parents with the beautiful love they so painstakingly gave to me. My eyes well when I think about their retirement; our time together, our future travels, a time where their financial lives are worry-free; because that’s what I think children should do for their parents. Maybe this is all full circle. Not a figure eight, with me trapped in the middle, roped into a passing down of inheritance. Maybe I was made to hold that inheritance for just a while, and then pass it back to its original owners. Perhaps my life is just a growing, a learning, and a coming home to my parents as their child: to finish my art alongside those who first taught me to create.
Ashley Strahm is a content strategist, activist, and writer in Durham, NC. A Guyanese-American tri-state transplant, she is committed to justice, enthralled by stories, and inspired by the prospect of an equitable future for all.