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'The Mamas': Reimagining parenting through a lens of race and class

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Helena Andrews-Dyer had her first child, she started paying attention to other moms in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood. She was trying to figure out what kind of parent she wanted to be, so she joined a mother's group for a weekly meetup. But moms groups can sort of be a love-hate kind of situation - commiserating and community - yes, great - but also the fear of judgment and living up to someone else's parenting standards. Toss in some racial tension, and it gets even more complicated. Andrews-Dyer writes about all this in her new book. It is called "The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class And Race From Moms Not Like Me."

HELENA ANDREWS-DYER: We're all supposed to be great at something that in essence, we all sort of suck at at the beginning because we don't know what's going on. We don't know what we're doing. You know, I remember going to my first group meeting, which was just, like, a bunch of moms sitting in a circle in the park. And I remember thinking - I was like, oh, have these women, like, known each other forever? They're having these deep conversations. People are, you know, breastfeeding with abandon. You know, it's just - I was like, oh, these women must have known each other forever. And then I learned in talking to the woman sitting next to me, she was like, oh, no, I just came here last week. Once I got really into it, I saw these women literally almost every other day. And for me, one, not only being a new mom, but also being one of the few, if not the only Black faces I saw in the group, that then presented obviously its own anxieties. That presented its own walls.

MARTIN: So how did that manifest? How did the racial breakdown start to create fault lines, real or perceived?

ANDREWS-DYER: It felt like this world that existed like a bubble over the ocean, right? It was like I could moonlight just as a mom - like, not as a Black mom, necessarily, or - just a mom, right? We all didn't know each other well before, even though we've lived in this gentrifying neighborhood together for years. And then the pandemic happens. Then George Floyd is murdered. Then the country becomes, quote-unquote, "more aware" of its deep racial, racist - you know, all of that - right? - is coming to the forefront, all the things that have been swimming in my mind and living in my body for all of my 41 years. But it comes to the forefront. And then I think everyone started to think about what they were doing, how they were raising their kids, how we were interacting with each other, right?

And one of the stories I tell in the book that was so funny was this Excel spreadsheet where they listed, like, all these books that were, like, teaching children about anti-racism and, like, BIPOC bookstores you could buy them from and TED Talks and articles. And they were doing all of this on their own and sharing it. And I remember thinking to myself, this is ridiculous because it felt, like, of a piece with everything else, right? Oh, we have to make sure our toddlers know how to swim. We want to take them to the music classes. Oh, and then also make sure they're anti-racist, right? It seemed like another box to check off. And obviously that was, like, deeply offensive to me. But at the same time, when I finally opened the Excel spreadsheet and realized my husband and I only had two of the books that were on this list of, like, dozens of books, I was like - then I turned the lens back on to myself, right? And I'm like, are we doing all the things that we need to be doing to make sure our children understand race and racial difference?

MARTIN: But it still felt - it was an uncomfortable space for you to be in at times in a group where you were the only one, and you confided to your Black friends outside D.C., or at least not in your neighborhood, that despite all that, you still liked these women, and you felt guilty about it.

ANDREWS-DYER: Yeah, absolutely. It touches on so much more. Like, yes, because of them, we were meeting up in the park once a week in the cold during the pandemic to sing songs to our kids. But they also made me, like, reimagine my parenting through a larger lens of race and class and gentrification, the meaning of home, school choice, what's best for your kids - like, all these issues that have always been swimming in my head. And I think for my friends, they are just thinking, like, why are you hanging out with all these white girls? You know, they're just like, what is this? Why? - because there's an issue of trust, I think, that we don't explain or even sort of deal with more deeply in between us, you know what I mean? And I talked to motherhood experts. I talked to motherhood scholars, I talked to historians in the book to sort of explain that to me, because it's something that I know I feel.

MARTIN: We're talking about the distrust between Black and white women. I'm going to quote you...

ANDREWS-DYER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...From the book. (Reading) That's the thing about forming even the most tentative bonds with white women as Black women. We simply don't trust them - at least not at first or maybe ever. Over centuries of mistreatment, the suspicion has settled into our very bones.

How did that end up affecting your relationships with the women in your parenting group?

ANDREWS-DYER: It made every interaction one in which I'm waiting for what, you know, is called the trap door - right? - the moment where someone says something and you're like, I knew it, you know? I knew that you were going to say something racist. You know, I knew you were going to say something stereotypical. I knew that this was hiding somewhere, right? And so for me, then it makes you - you're constantly on high alert. You've constantly got your head on a swivel looking for these moments.

MARTIN: Well, because also, how much of your effort is going towards sharing your own experience, like, the burden of teaching white people, in this case white mothers, what your experience looks like and how it's different than theirs?

ANDREWS-DYER: Exactly. And I don't believe in the burden of teaching, you know what I mean? I believe in coming as my full self, and you getting it from that. There's a wall there, and it's a wall that's been built up by history. It's a wall that we as Black women use to protect ourselves. But it's a wall that I think can come down, or at least a door can be sort of lasered into that wall, when you are around people that you do feel like you can trust, when you are around people that you feel like, OK, now these are the folks that I do want to take the time with. These women's children are children who are around mine, and so I want to make sure that what they're doing and how they're raising their kids is never going to negatively impact all of the joy and love and just fire that I've put in my own girls.

MARTIN: Yeah. Helena Andrews-Dyer is the author of "The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class And Race From Moms Not Like Me." Helena, thanks so much. I've really enjoyed talking with you.

ANDREWS-DYER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.