What We Owe Our Families, and What We Don’t

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

When I started reading Jenisha Watts’ Atlantic cover story, I Never Called Her Momma, I was on my phone, which is not how I prefer to read. But the writing was so crystal clear that I had the very rare experience of reading hundreds of words without realizing it, so quickly was Watts’ memoir being absorbed into my mind, like a chemical reaction. After a few minutes I realized I was standing up and staring at my phone, which wasn’t comfortable, but I needed to finish this story. So I found a seat and read till the end, at which point I cried, for many reasons, some of which had nothing to do with the story — a bit like how some people cry at the opera, having suddenly accessed previously buried emotional states.

Watts, a senior editor at the Atlantic, wrote this personal history about growing up in Kentucky, living in a crack house with her siblings and her mother Trina, and later with her grandmother. The story follows Watts from childhood into adulthood, a journey that takes her far from where she started. She is now a mother herself, with a young son. What she gestures toward could easily fill a memoir, although she told me she isn’t currently working on one.

It’s rare that I read a piece of writing with so many points of entry for challenging conversations about family life, so here’s just one: Recently in this newsletter I’ve been thinking a lot about what we owe our elders. It started with a question from a reader, who felt she no longer needed to be a “good daughter” to her selfish mother. I continued to think about that in the last edition, about elder care in general. What would someone in Watts’ shoes think about this question, I wondered. When those who raise you do not keep you safe, do you feel anything is owed to them?

I spoke to Jenisha Watts over Zoom. She was at her office at the Atlantic in Washington, D.C., the sun on the Potomac River glinting through the window shades behind her. Our conversation has been edited.

What has it been like for you to write about very painful experiences, and to have everyone saying, “I loved it”? Is that strange? 

I think I’m still processing. But you know, it really depends on the audience. A lot of my friends, they have a parent who was either an addict, or they know someone who was an addict, because they grew up during that time. So for us it’s like, it’s just every day. It’s just my life. You don’t think about it, until people react in a very passionate way. I have been really surprised. I’ve been so surprised.

I wanted to hear your thoughts on whether you feel you owe your mother Trina, or your grandmother, anything — just generally, in the way we might owe something, some debt of gratitude, to the people who raised us. 

That’s a good question. My gut says no. But if I take a step back, I think the only thing I owe them is just for my son to know who they are, to know their story. I think that’s probably the thing.

Have you brought your son down to visit your family? 

So, this is the thing. Not really. Because, yeah … Not really. I mean, he’s around like my family members that I feel most comfortable with, my cousins. But no, it’s too much. I’m very guarded and very territorial about who I let in his face. There are even certain things I don’t even like to talk about, like certain traumatic things, because I don’t want him to be impacted. It’s a hard one. It’s not that I think they would do anything bad. It’s just that I’m territorial. I’m not there yet.

With my husband’s family, I’m one hundred percent comfortable. We had an event to go to in August, and my husband’s mom watched him the whole weekend. I feel completely, completely at ease.

In your story you write that you feel like you’re in a mixed marriage with your husband even though you’re both Black. What are some of the ways you feel that you’ve come from completely different worlds? 

I think it’s because of my childhood, and then, his family. He’s from Kentucky, but his family is from Ghana. And it’s very funny, because we are like night and day. Wow. I would have loved to have grown up like that. He has brothers and sisters, and they all get together. We eat, laugh, play games. The kids are just running around. I just love it. Even last weekend, I was with his nieces and nephews, and we took them to the zoo, and it was just fun! No drama. It was just pure joy.

After I had the baby, his mom stayed with us for a month. She cooked me a bunch of food, anything I wanted, all fresh. And she also knows her boundaries. She wasn’t overbearing. I got lucky in the mother-in-law department. She just kind of let me be. She’s never been judgmental. I love my husband’s brothers — my son can go with his uncles, he can go with his aunts. I know that he will be okay and be loved. Not to say that my siblings are not like that. It’s just — his family is peaceful. Like, I’ve never been in their house where there was like a bunch of arguing and yelling and disrespect. It’s just not like that at all. They don’t say bad words. His Mom doesn’t cuss. It’s very interesting!

What stage of parenting are you in, these days? 

I just stopped breastfeeding. My son is going to be two. I think I was the only one in my family — well, not the only one, but — anyway, no one in my family understood it. We’d be on FaceTime, and I’d be breastfeeding, and they’re like, ‘When are you gonna stop doing it? He’s not getting the milk!’ Like, ‘You should give him formula! He’s too old!’

I’m just like, No, this is what I want to do. I’m not going to stop.

Breastfeeding is so interesting right? People still have very strong feelings about it, depending on where they are. Is it pretty normal to breastfeed in your milieu in DC?

I did not know anything about breastfeeding until my friends started doing it. My best friend Sade breastfed her son, and then my friend Alise, and then my friend Saneda. But I didn’t even think I’d be able to do it. I was stressed because, I mean, it wasn’t my reality. All I knew was formula. But then my friends kind of walked me through it. I said, okay, I’ll try it for a month and then another month, and then the next thing you know it’s a year, I’m still breastfeeding my son. I did not know that I would do that.

Did you ever freak out? Did you ever want to quit? 

Yeah, a lot of times, especially when I started work going back to the office, and I had to carry all that equipment. And then sometimes when I’d forget the milk in the fridge at work, and I’m halfway home in my car and I’m like, oh shit. So I had to turn back around and go get the milk. It became a game for me though: Let me see how long I can go.

There are some trends in parenting today that are really different from when we were young. And I’m wondering if you consider some of the expectations around parenting today to be unrealistic? 

Oh yeah. I make jokes with my friends — our kids, they just won’t have the lives that we had. The whole “gentle parenting” thing… You know, growing up, I was spanked. I was yelled at. So it’s funny, when my son has his tantrums, and I’m like, ‘Okay Benjamin, how do you feel? Take a deep breath.’ It’s just so far from how I was raised.

Yeah, I don’t spank him. I don’t yell at him. I don’t call him names. But you know, sometimes it’s very frustrating. When it’s like, oh my God can this boy just listen. We are trying to follow his lead, give him his independence. He’ll tell you what he wants to eat in the morning. This morning he wanted a popsicle. And I was like, no, it’s too early. But you know, I gave in and gave him a popsicle. Listen — I just break all the rules.

There’s a lot of anxiety in parenting these days — about doing it wrong. 

I mean, especially in D.C., I have a friend who was obsessed with getting her daughter into one of the top schools — her daughter is like two. I think for me, it’s just been making sure he’s hitting the milestones. But I also get stressed about silly stuff, like I didn’t give him green foods for the last couple of days because I’ve been working a lot. He’s been eating a lot of carbs and bread or just snacks, and I feel like I’m messing up in that area. And it gives me a lot of anxiety! Or like sometimes, you know, I don’t brush his teeth every night—

Can I interrupt and say I was also very bad about that and my kids’ teeth are now fine? I feel like the tooth-brushing-at-two-years-old thing is overrated. 

Well, I do notice I’m mellowing out. I would say the first six months, I was very just on the edge and now I’m mellowing. He’s breaking me down!

Have Trina and your grandmother read your story? 

Trina, yes, she has. She’s been supportive in talking to me while I was writing it, but I think it’s different when you read it. She just — she cried. She just kept saying, I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry. I put you all through so much. And my grandmother, she’s heard about it and people have read her bits and pieces, but I don’t think she’s read it.

Do you think she will?

If she gets a copy.

Will you send her one? 


Are you on speaking terms with her? 

She’s not talking. No, we’re not talking, because she’s mad about the piece. So, yeah. She might come around. Or she may not.

You know, what I realized too, with this story, is that it was mine at first, but now I feel like it’s not anymore. People have their own reactions or their own thoughts about it. So I’m just like, well, actually, you know, it’s everyone’s story. And I think that’s something that I’ve had to get comfortable with in the last couple of days. I’m not all the way comfortable. I wish I could say that I was, but I’m not.

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Jenisha Watts on What We Owe Our Families, and What We Don’t