Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Lonnae O’Neal Parker

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With her book, I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, Washington Post journalist Lonnae O’Neal Parker gives voice to the experiences of black mothers balancing work and family -- experiences which she feels are often absent and at times dismissed from the national discussion about women, work, and family. The result is part-memoir, part-American history text. Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter and mother of three, spoke with Literary Mama columnist Deesha Philyaw about the so-called Mommy Wars, the importance of dialogue, and about feminism, the remix.

Deesha Philyaw: What was the genesis for I'm Every Woman?

Lonnae O'Neal Parker: I wrote a long piece for the Washington Post called "The Donna Reed Syndrome" about deciding to take a year off -- to have gleaming hardwood floors and to hang out with the kids -- after I fell asleep in my driveway once after covering an event for work. So, I wrote about what that year meant to me, and how at the end of it, I returned to who I was -- a reporter. I returned to my career at the Washington Post with a better set of tools in place to give myself more rest and a greater ability to do what I do.

Amongst the responses to that piece, I got a letter from a woman who wrote: "I suppose you think I'm pathetic -- I have stayed at home since the birth of my son three years ago..."

As if what I wrote was an indictment of her! The total obliviousness to black women's history, and that it had always included work, was just galling and unbelievable to me. How about: I work, my mama worked, my grandmamma worked, her mama was a slave?

DP: And in a long chapter of our history, large numbers of black women worked as domestics and provided childcare for white families in which the mother was not employed.

LOP: Yes, taking care of their kids when we had kids of our own, while everyone was extolling the virtues of women staying at home -- except when it came to the black mules who worked in their houses. So we have these layers of contradiction -- I won't call it hypocrisy because I believe most people are well-intentioned, and it is a human tendency to look inward and base things on our own reality.

DP: So you wrote the book to give black women and their experiences a place in the larger discussion of work and mothering. Did the book register on the radars of those who follow mother-writing? Was it noted by those who concern themselves with what's been called "The Mommy Wars"?

LOP: The short answer is: not as thoroughly or as completely as I would have liked. "Oh, and there's also a black woman's perspective on [motherhood and work]." So we get that obligatory sentence! But what I was responding to with the book was that even that sentence was absent. I would read these articles in various publications that suggested there was one reality, it was the overarching reality, and no one else brought any thought or history or critical analysis to modern motherhood or modern womanhood, for that matter.

So I reacted to that very strongly in the book. And if I measure the feedback I've gotten in terms of real dialogue and openness to other voices on these issues, then it's still embryonic. My hope was that, frankly, white women had gotten tired of being in an echo chamber, and that their conversations had gotten so shrill and intractable, that they would recognize the need for other perspectives, that they had reached an impasse. There is a need to open up the dialogue, listen in to other voices and other histories, and to realize that other people have something of value to offer to this discussion. And this isn't just about the Mommy Wars. It's important and necessary to hear other voices. It's human, it's sisterly, it's progressive.

If I had written about being a victim, or overcoming odds, or being placed in a certain strata of society and trying to fight against that -- I feel that that would have been easier for women in the mainstream to accept, than to hear a voice stepping to them as an equal, and disagreeing with them. "You've got a college education and a good-paying job. I've got a college education and a good-paying job. You're married, I'm married. You've got three kids, I've got three kids." I'm writing as an equal saying, "Some of the ways you're doing things are off and self-indulgent. Let's dialogue about this. Maybe you have some things to share that I haven't taken into account, and I'm telling you that I do as well."

DP: It was refreshing to read about a woman who, amidst the hard work of mothering, has fun, who dances, who is very open about her sex life (without being gratuitous). You also reflect upon the heart-breaking realities of slavery and about the traumas in your own childhood, so there is this wonderful balance and we see a whole woman, in three dimensions, not in the service of an agenda. Sometimes the temptation is to pigeon-hole mother-writers (and writers in general): either you're scholarly or you're Anne Lamott. I read one review that likened your writing to that of Paula Giddings and Anne Lamott.

LOP: This is what I had hoped the book could do, exploring the notion of a remix, the idea that we can sample the best of each others' ideas. I have liberally borrowed from the best traditions of black women, white women, Latina women, and popular culture, and from everything I come across in my daily life that speaks to me. I didn't craft this person; I didn't get here on my own. I got here by being open, which is the place I want other women to get to as well. Take lessons from other histories, and let go of some of the guilt and the anger and the angst. If I do have an agenda it's that we've got to move past that because we've got work to do! This is modern womanhood in the United States of America, the most privileged place to be a woman on the planet. We have to get past our whining and self-indulgence to do our work.

As much as I want for my children, I am also beholden to a larger community that my kids fold into. I adore my children, but they aren't the only children in the world. What good is it to raise wonderful children, and not value community? What good is it to raise these great children and leave them a broken world?

This is not to say that mothers shouldn't ever feel angry or lonely or conflicted about ambition. The point is not to get stuck in that place; the point is to reach out to other women and get ideas and best practices -- find some way to move forward. Black women, to a degree, have always "reached out"-- by history, by necessity, and as well as by choice. I've never been in a community of black women where there wasn't a component of moving higher, and bringing other people along with you. I'm not saying that that's completely missing for other women, but since the height of the women's movement, they've gotten distracted by some intensely inward-looking concerns.

DP: Alice Walker coined the term "womanist" to describe a black feminist or feminist of color because feminism as a movement has not adequately addressed black women's realities. She wrote, "Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." Do you consider yourself to be a womanist?

LOP: I am a womanist, and a feminist, and a part of the hip-hop generation -- all of these things. I used to say, "You can consider me a feminist, but first me and feminism have to come to some terms. Feminism really has to get bigger than it is." "Womanist" encompasses that sentiment; it implies a broadening, a greater vision. That's why a lot of women are rejecting "feminism" and a lot of feminists worry that women aren't taking up the mantle. Feminist concerns have been framed in such an old, stark, dogmatic way. They need to be reframed, to engage more people. But in general, no one is coming to ask me my opinion, to ask black women to weigh in on these issues. So whether I'm a feminist or not is irrelevant, nobody's asking!

DP: Throughout the book you invite dialogue. You make declarative statements, but you are also open to dialogue.

LOP: Not only open to dialogue...hungry for it. But I've got to come to these conversations fully represented. I can't come to a dialogue about motherhood and marriage and feminism without the totality of my experience. It would dishonor the people who came before me, if I didn't represent that. I can't have those conversations if you're going to ask me to leave that "race stuff" at home. History is on my side. The country is becoming more diverse, not less.

DP: How have black women responded to the book?

LOP: It has been so very gratifying. In large part, they appreciate seeing themselves rendered in three, full dimensions. Part of why I wrote this book is because I wanted to read it, because I was so hungry for that kind of rendering, myself, to see somebody I could identify with -- the regular sister who is working, has a family, married.

When I was younger, I had all these aspirational characters. A lot of them were white, which is part of the remix. I got to sample what speaks to me about Virginia Woolf or Audrey Hepburn or Jaclyn Smith from Charlie's Angels, or the Enjoli woman. There were all these places I could go to pull pieces of identity. But now, in my late 30s, I'm looking for this woman. Where is the Lonnae O'Neal Parker in books, in popular culture? Other black women are responding the same way. They were hungry to see themselves, and so they appreciate it even if they don't agree with everything in the book. But also our disagreements are far less shrill, mostly because I'm saying, "If you work, more power to you. I feel you because I'm out there with you. And if you are at home in some capacity, I'm glad you've got it like that." So people have been really celebratory, everybody from high-powered attorneys on Capitol Hill to the stay at home support group Mocha Moms.

DP: In I'm Every Woman, you write about ways you find respite from the demands of marriage, motherhood, and work. What advice do you have for mothers who are feeling stretched out by these demands?

LOP: Establish a perimeter. It may be one that's very close in. A lot of us don't have the time or the money or the supports in place to have this broad perimeter where we can take care of ourselves. But establish something of your own -- even if it's small -- that is inviolate. Something that turns away jobs and husbands and children. And you're the gatekeeper. No one is going to give you that, so you have to develop a sense of entitlement. If you maintain that boundary, other people will respect it whether it's a book club, or a workout night, a mani-pedi, a movie by yourself, Mother's Day spent at a hotel -- whatever it is that you need to keep yourself intact.

Find a way to get your time. Insist on it. And lose the guilt about it. Surround yourself with women who can give you that permission and support, if you need it. Reach out, step outside of your comfort zone, and find women like that.

If we don't do this, what are we modeling for our children? I'm not going to teach my daughters that you get a college education simply so that you can sacrifice everything that you are on the altar of motherhood. And I'm not going to teach my son that that's what women are for.

DP: You write about falling in love with hip-hop when you were growing up, and a year later you wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled "Why I Gave Up on Hip-Hop." Is hip-hop, with its current violent and misogynistic elements, at all relevant to you now, as a black woman and as a mother?

LOP: In terms of my aesthetic, yes. It is the idea of sampling. This is what I teach my children: All your gifts are fully available to you -- your intellect and your beauty and your compassion and your sexuality. You can sample from all these things when you're putting on your girl suit. That is nothing but a hip-hop aesthetic -- this notion of sampling and remixing. It's a black music aesthetic, period. It is speaking your truth even if it's painful or if it's going to make some folks feel uncomfortable, because to do otherwise is to be complicit, to not be fully yourself. That's hip-hop: having a voice, speaking up. Even without listening to commercial rap music for over five years, this aesthetic is still with me.

DP: You mentioned speaking your truth even at the risk of making others feel uncomfortable. I'm interested in your family's reaction to your life, especially your mother's reaction.

LOP: My mother gave me the best gift anyone can ever give a writer. In some parts of the book, she really does not come off well; it is really difficult for her to read what I think about her mothering, to read about places where I think she should have done things differently. And I knew this going in. But she said, "Baby, you're right. Some of this is hard to read. But you write your truth. And I'll just have to be okay with that. And everyone will have to be okay with that." What a gift! So a whole layer of doubt and guilt and second-guessing was lifted from my shoulders because my mama gave me permission, even if it hurt.

DP: When I read your book, it made me think about stories my mother and my grandmother told about people in their generation seeing black people on TV. They would stop what they were doing and watch, because you see yourself, and your life reflected. That's how I felt reading your book. It really resonated with me. And even though you write about the particulars of your life, your experiences are in many ways universal, and not just for black women.

LOP: I was reaching for that, as I was writing the book. I thought, "This is not a black woman's truth. This is a woman's truth."

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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