Creating a Community for My Black Daughter

After the exhilaration of finding out I was pregnant died down, I was left feeling pretty lonely (and nauseous). This is not to say my child-free friends abandoned me, because that was not the case: They gave me rides, baked me cookies, and checked in regularly, brimming with questions. And while I could understand their delighted bewilderment — I certainly had never experienced any of this either — my role as Pregnant Friend, Exhibit A, started to wear. So I turned to Meetup.com.

I thought it would be simple to find the kind of group I was looking for. It was not. The pregnancy or motherhood groups either met too far away, came off overly corporate (why should I have pay to attend a meeting? why were there raffle prizes?), or seemed abandoned and in need of a new organizer.

Most important, if I was being honest with myself: All the group photos I scrolled through featured white faces. I felt too uncomfortable and vulnerable to want to surround myself with anybody other than people I could immediately relate to. After complaining to my husband, I realized there was only one way to be a part of my dream group.

At meetups, I was usually the person in the corner, taking in everyone else’s opinions and outfits with the hawkish attention of a mute anthropologist. I’d prompt myself to make comments and ask questions, only to hear other people voice my ideas before I could summon the courage. I’ve always resented my own shyness and forced myself to continue exercising my social muscle, despite how unnatural it feels. I thought maybe organizing a group of my own would help.

The looming reality of becoming a parent was an even more effective motivator: I knew I wanted to be more intentional in modeling openness and generosity. For my own sake, but mostly for her, my future daughter.

I titled my group “First Time Moms of Color in Brooklyn” to avoid any confusion over exactly who I wanted to join. There was a flicker of guilt, but I reminded myself that in a white-supremacist society, singling out marginalized groups for purposes like this is necessary, not exclusionary. Once they started coming in, it was thrilling to receive new membership requests from women in my neighborhood, women who looked like me, women at varying stages of their pregnancies, some already with children. I set a date for our first meet-up — brunch at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants — then vacillated between blind panic and excitement.

The neighborhood where I grew up was small and suburban: quiet, winding streets, front doors we rarely locked, sprawling yards with glistening grass and tall, climbable trees. Most of our neighbors were white, but a fair amount of black and Indian families lived in our area as well. My family attended a local Baptist church regularly, along with the requisite supplementaries: Sunday school, Bible study, choir rehearsal, vacation Bible school. Our cookouts and Super Bowl parties were populated by the same familiar faces, a blend of nearby family and church friends who came together over fellowship, potato salad, and Monopoly.

I remember being dropped off at my parents’ friends’ houses for hours on end, being shut away with a playmate close to my age and eavesdropping on the adults joking and guffawing elsewhere in the house. I remember listening in shock and horror as my mother immediately called her best friend, my best friend’s mom, to inform her that I had just gotten my period. I remember countless sleepovers culminating in our parents talking for at least an hour, two if we were lucky. I remember calling all of my parents’ friends Aunt or Uncle, and occasionally forgetting that we weren’t actually related.

Despite my parents’ robust network of friends and family, I struggled with feelings of isolation. Being naturally quiet, terrified of conflict, and a child with early-onset RBF, I was often asked questions like “Why don’t you talk more?” and “Are you okay?” Unsettling for a child, infuriating for a teenager. I never understood why I couldn’t feel as comfortable with easy laughter and conversation as everyone around me, or why I so preferred to retreat to a quiet corner with a book than stand in a group and socialize.

Soon after we learned that I was pregnant, I realized we lacked a close-knit group of fellow parents resembling my parents’. Our family was expanding, and it felt only right that our support system should expand as well. I wanted a family down the street we could have impromptu play dates with; friends who could host baby-clothes-swapping lunches, who would join us for museum and library outings.

The first meeting of my group was a success. About ten women attended, nearly all pregnant, one with her infant daughter in tow. We crammed around a large table in the back of the restaurant and swapped tales of irritating symptoms, our desire for or ambivalence over a certain gender, advice for specific trimesters, recommendations for doulas, obstetricians, and midwives. We watched jealously as the sole nonpregnant woman ordered an alcoholic drink, then asked about her childbirth experience, breastfeeding, sleep training. We cooed over the baby and shifted uncomfortably on the bench, rubbing our bellies and bemoaning our achy, sleepless nights. Presumably, we were all there because we sought the kind of companionship only found in each other.

Although I still felt my usual discomfort and self-consciousness, this time, the feeling was much easier to overcome. Some of that was being the group’s organizer, though not all of it — despite this being the first time I’d met any of these women, I felt a deep, tacit solidarity with everyone at that table. I felt understood. Based on the smiles around me, and the messages I received afterward, I wasn’t the only one.

The group is now two years old, with just over 100 members. I’ve since migrated it to Facebook, changed the name, and added two more administrators. I try to plan at least two activities a month, and occasionally I or another member will hold a group playdate in our home. We have baby-free brunches and nights out. We swap couponing tips and recipe ideas; ask for potty-training advice and babysitter recommendations. We discuss relationships and domestic duties; commiserate on the state of the world and share our hopes and fears for our children, as the next generation of black citizens.

A community of fellow parents of color — even if our opinions diverge occasionally on bedtime routines, meat and dairy intake, or religion — goes a long way toward helping me feel less alone in a job that arrived, painfully and loudly, with no instruction manual or oversight committee. It’s knowing that there is always a small corner of the internet, and a few living rooms in our own neighborhoods, that we can retreat to if we need to hang with someone who just gets it.

Our community doesn’t look the way mine did as a child. Most of our family members live out of state. Our daughter can’t ride her tricycle in the street with her friends, and under no circumstances would we leave our front door unlocked. But when I watch her wave and say “Hi!” to one of her friends from the group, or when I receive a suggestion on how to brush her teeth without being bitten, replicating my childhood memories doesn’t matter quite so much. Our daughter is watching us establish new relationships and sustain old ones — while learning, bit by bit, how to form her own.

Creating a Community for My Black Daughter