My toddler is angry because green beans don’t taste like applesauce, so she dumps her plate on the restaurant’s plush carpet. I am a Black, single, queer, relatively broke mama; in public opinion, I’ve wronged her with my very existence. Although I’ve grown accustomed to feeling naked under the stares of disapproving onlookers, today I feel as splendidly clothed as the fairytale emperor. As I reiterate boundaries and help her clean her mess, I wear the invisible cloak of positive discipline.
Lately, people have been suggesting that my clothes don’t exist—that my commitment to this “new age parenting” is actually permissiveness, or worse, “some White sh*t.” I have become the punchline in the “Billy’s mom” routine– the one who is nothing like the comedian’s belt-swinging authentic Black mama.
My non or “White” parenting decisions (depending upon who you ask) started before my daughter’s birth. I hired midwives and doulas whose degrees had “professionalized” the trade that some Black women mastered when we were disallowed in pristine labor wards (of which we were justifiably suspicious). In the middle of an excruciating contraction, a White doula told me to conjure the strength of my ancestors and I knew that my next birth would involve an epidural.
My next White group was a mother’s milk circle, in which we openly fed our babies and complained about our milk production. All was well until the leader wondered aloud why more Black women didn’t breastfeed. “It really is best for baby,” she said, sympathetic eyes affixed to the only brown breasts in the room. As she waited for me to explain the shortcomings of the race, I thought of the Black woman who probably nursed her grandmother. I wished I had asked my own grandmother about nursing since she’d worked and nursed in the days before Medela pumps. I thought of the many women whose material conditions were being ignored as we gloated in a circle at noon and leisurely wondered about the fate of babies whose mothers (GASP) had to work for a living.
Finally, a glutton for racially insensitive punishment, I’ve joined the uber-segregated “positive discipline” movement. Mothers are instructed to ignore or redirect undesirable behavior, reward good behavior and to acknowledge their children’s feelings. The alternatives, experts say, are dire. Children of spankers more frequently battle mental illness, imprisonment, and substance abuse. Of course, the new findings indict Black mamas (rather than socioeconomic factors) for their low-down, spanking ways. Even well-meaning defenders of Black mothering depend on these false binaries to support their arguments. Parents must use “credible threats” to “run” their households or be victim to “ruthless dictators.” If it sounds like a duck, it’s probably a plantation.
Corporal punishment is not an invention of the antebellum plantation, but the relationship between American totalitarianism and brutality was forged there. Disobedience to unclear rules was met with brute force not even two hundred years ago; that’s only five Big Mommas back. We still speak the names of the last people whose flesh was bullwhip-torn. Although I won’t make an essentialist claim about (mythically homogeneous) Black parenting, I believe that today’s plantation system— the prison industrial complex—necessitates a history lesson that will explain why some parents train children to respect authority and others can afford to ponder freedom.
Positive discipline is my birthright. I am only a few generations removed from the last woman in my family who “kept house” for those who could afford her surrogate parenting. Non-punitive discipline was forged in these homes, where her livelihood depended on her ability to discipline children as if their freedoms were more secure than her own. They were.
I don’t take for granted the privilege that allows me to intentionally raise a free brown girl. My patience is as much a class privilege as it is a virtue; I have time to entertain my daughter’s questions, to respect her tiny, age-appropriate rebellions. Even my best efforts won’t secure her safety. There are systems in place that could potentially harm her worse than any whipping I ever received as a child. All this focus on perfect parenting is really an attempt to shirk responsibility for the world we’ve created, which is both as messy and redeemable as a dumped plate.
Asha French is a writer living in Atlanta, GA. She is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and the Crunk Feminist Collective. A graduate of Howard University, she is currently pursuing her PhD at Emory University.