I was in my mid-thirties when my perspective on life changed. For as long as I can remember, I had vacillated about cracking open this new chapter, but when my biological clock started ticking and my husband and I neared a decade together, it was time to take the leap. Despite what felt like an eternity, it wasn’t long before my OB/GYN was pointing out a pulsating grainy black and white blob on a monitor. I wanted to hear that the indistinct mass would be my future son. Or so I thought.
I knew that pregnancy could be hard on the body. Morning sickness, swollen feet, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and hemorrhoids were just a few of the symptoms that plagued my friends. And the birth process itself was just a whole other toll on the body and mind. For most of my pregnancy I thankfully managed to escape these physical ailments. Instead, my pain morphed into anxiety about the gender of my child and what that meant for his or her future.
Despite always wanting a boy, I kept circling back to the thought that this innocent being’s blackness would be the first thing society would see. And that reality would alter how we raised him, how he walked through the world because the burden of male blackness manifests itself differently—disproportionately and more often fatally—to female blackness. While black women are also victims of dehumanizing treatment, black males fall victim to knee-jerk deadly reactions of police, who view them as more physically intimidating than women.
I made a pact with myself to stop poring over the news before going to bed. When I did, there was yet another headline about an unarmed black man being harmed by police, which kept me tossing and turning all night. Over the past few years, the relentless stream of stories justified my fear and feelings of helplessness to equip my child with the tools needed to live without constantly looking over his or her shoulder.
There were the especially heartbreaking stories of young black boys robbed of their childhood, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed when cops mistook his toy gun for a real one. Then there was Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Sam DuBose, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher, Chinedu Valentine Okobi. These were just a fraction of the stories that made it into the mainstream news. My greatest fear was that my unborn child would be added to this list.
Still, before my first trimester ended, I jumped on the opportunity to learn the gender of this tiny being growing inside me. My husband and I waited in the windowless cramped office of the genetic counselor, staring at the piles of papers on her desk. “So, what’s your guess?” I asked him.
He knew what I was talking about and in his usual even toned manner, replied, “You know it’s been determined already. I just want it to be healthy whatever it is.”
At this point, a cheery woman old enough to be my mother walked in. She asked us if we were ready to learn the gender. I didn’t waste a moment to say “yes.”
She scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I looked at my husband before slowly opening it. A joker-sized smile cracked my face as I saw “boy” staring back at me.
I left the appointment sullen with contradictory emotions. I was excited to have a son but sad for his future challenges. For weeks, I no longer needed the news to trigger sleepless nights of worry because my imagination took me to dark places I hope never to visit in real life. As much as I got what I wanted, I knew the emotional weight of having a black son in America. Instead of wondering whether my son would inherit my curly hair or my husband’s athleticism or both of his parents’ stubbornness, I was bogged down with questions. How could I protect him in a society where black males are targeted and victimized more than any other race or gender? How could I teach him to thrive in a country where modern day Jim Crow laws and the school-to-prison pipeline were very serious realities? How would I teach him how to thrive in Trump’s America, where “Make America Great Again” means he is treated as less than?
President Trump’s deplorable comments about communities of color and often marginalized groups are a constant fixture on Twitter and in news headlines. A NFL player who won’t stand for the flag in protest at police brutality is “a son of bitch,” while those immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa are “people from shithole countries.”
The vitriol behind his words is not empty, but is impacting the decisions made by his administration. Joe Arpaio, the Arizona county sheriff who was found guilty of violating the rights of Latinos, received a pardon from Trump. And then there’s the zero tolerance policy that led to the dehumanizing and unnecessary separation of migrant children from their parents.
More and more Obama era policies are being rolled back, including Betsy Devos’s initiative to move away from policies intended to reduce unfair disciplining of minorities in schools or the reversal of affirmative action. Trump may only be president through 2020. But even if he isn’t elected for a second term, the policies of his administration help propagate the systematic oppression of minorities, possibly impacting my family.
After my son was born, I fell into a delusional denial that anything bad could happen to this sweet, innocent child. I mean look at those dimples. Plus, he had two working parents cognizant of what challenges he might face, ensuring he had every opportunity for a top education, safe neighborhood, and a stable home life. But that nagging voice kept whispering to me that it could be all for naught.
In a few months, we will be celebrating the second birthday of my son, not long before his younger brother arrives. I wish I could say that watching my son grow into an adored, smart and spirited toddler has alleviated me of recapitulating my anxiety during my second pregnancy, but it hasn’t. I hear other parents talk about how much they love their toddler’s cuddles, their innocence and unabashed affection for their parents, wishing their kids could remain at this stage longer.
For all these reasons, I yearn for the same, but it is layered with my recognition that my boys will lose their innocence in the eyes of society sooner than their non-black playmates. I don’t know when their cuteness turns to suspicion so even at this young age, I am already contemplating how and when to talk to them about their perceived identity.
Will I tell them that the only way to be on par with their peers is to be extraordinary? Do I let them know that, yes, it’s not in your head, people are looking at you differently? Should I encourage them to make themselves small in whatever context as to not appear intimidating? Or do I plant the little white seed that if they work hard and treat others with kindness, that they can do and be whatever they like?
There is nothing worse for me as a parent than knowing despite my best efforts to protect my boys and prepare them for the harsh reality of this world, I feel helpless. Time and time again, we have seen the deadly repercussions of being black while walking, driving, simply existing. And why must a mother protect her child from living the way any other person in the country does?
While I resent that society has robbed me of the excitement over milestone occasions like finding out the gender of my future child, I know the only way to reclaim it is through voting for people who believe in equality and accountability. Those people are the pillars that not only set the foundation for the fate of our country, but for all those who live in it. Perhaps that will allow a future where a mother, upon finding out she is pregnant, doesn’t need to fear that her child’s gender and race will predetermine his or her path in life, but instead can lose herself in piles of paint swatches for the nursery.