Interview By Lauren Ash. Write-up by Chelcee Johns. Photography by Deun Ivory.
“I would say that what I learned from my mom that I hope I pass along to Autumn is just to give unconditional love. She never has to go out and look for any other mother image in anyone else because I gave her my full self,” says Mom and Nana Darlene. After she completes her thought one can feel the emotions rise in the room, the love and laughs rise, the mothering at full attention, the devoutness in the ways we women love… giving our full selves.
This Mother’s Day we sat down with Chicago’s forerunning style maven Autumn Merritt - a divine creative, wife , mother of two and co-owner of Sir & Madame, a Chicago-based boutique and lifestyle label turned beloved international brand. Autumn not only gave BGIO a glimpse into her world, but she shared her mother Darlene and daughter Milo with us as well. The three come together and talk multigenerational mothering as a woman of color, love, activism and more. They remind us of the strands woven together in motherhood and the women we become in the sewing.
We honor the many ways we evolve as women through our mothers and also the ways our mothers evolve through us.
“I guess it's appropriate that my mother says 'unconditional love' because I was going to say what I learned from my mother was how to be nurtured and nurturing,” says Autumn in response to her mother’s selfless love.
“I think that's one of the greatest things that I've learned from her and I'm my mother's daughter so patience is also key… she had all the patience in the world. And that really made a big impact and so I think that patience and nurturing really go hand in hand when raising your kids,” continues Autumn as smooth sounds coat the walls of the Sir & Madame store on a weekday afternoon.
The dynamic of love permeates throughout the women as they share what it means to pour down generational lessons of mothering, patience and child-rearing. It’s the image that makes us all consider the lessons our nurturers planted in us that will bloom in our own offspring. It’s the rocksteady that reminds us that even if we feel we may get it wrong sometimes, that we have our mother’s garden of lessons and love to glean from and no one is exempt from the blessings thereof. Young Milo, is an image of what love looks like in action.
Lauren Ash: Milo, What's one thing that you would love for your mother and your grandmother to know on Mother's Day?
Milo: She's good at working. She's working hard. Grandma is good at singing and she is good at church, and she's very good at volunteering, she softly states.
Autumn: Thank you baby!
Milo: Is there another question?, the adorableness coos in her asking.
Lauren Ash: One more thing Milo, what’s one lesson your mother has taught you?
Milo: Can I say something she helps me with? She helps me cook.
Lauren Ash: Nice, you’re a little chef junior in the kitchen?
As laughs abound and Autumn confirms.
Grandma Darlene: And I always tell you to walk like a what? Act like a what
Milo: Like a lady, she whispers lowly in Lauren’s ear.
But cooking, though sweet and seemingly small from young Milo’s mouth is a worthy cornerstone of what it means to nourish.
Lauren Ash: Okay, so what are a few truths that you've learned about parenting that you still hold to be true?
Darlene: When you have to correct your kid, always correct the action and never break their spirit.
Lauren Ash: That’s Beautiful.
Autumn: As a child I looked to my parents just as being “my parents,” you know, they were superheroes. When you get older and start experiencing the same things, then you're like okay they're just people, trying to figure things out.
So, I really say parenting is about winging it sometimes. You don't have it all figured out, but you're using your instinct to say ‘okay, hopefully I'm making the right choices.’ And as long as I feel confident in that then I feel like everything is going to work out as it should.
Darlene: And I would say keep a sense of humor. Sometimes I think you can get too heavy and too deep, just keep it light and keep a sense of humor.
Autumn agrees in abundance as completes her mother’s thought.
Autumn: That's important because sometimes you think, "Is this happening to anybody else?"
But it does and there is nothing new under the sun really. You can't single yourself out, you just have to figure it out. And you need to write down those funny moments!
Social media is good for that, for capturing moments like that.. I feel like being able to have that diary, so that in 10 years you can look back on it, it's a beautiful thing.
Lauren Ash: So, there's this idea for Black Women and Black mother's in particular of just always being strong and never breaking and being super selfless for your children and your family. How did and how do you keep to the core of your purpose beyond mothering? Mothering as we've discussed is super important and a part of your identities, but how do you stay true to all the other identities that you carry with you?
Autumn: I will say that it's unfortunate that you have to break sometimes before you're able to build a better you or the right you.
But breaking is a part of the process. How else will you really figure out what needs to happen, what balance you need to achieve? And so then it's like when you break, you're able to prepare just by setting those boundaries.
It's okay, getting time away from the kids, spending more time with your spouse, spending more time by yourself, with your friends, working out.
It's like you have to take care of yourself first because how can you pour from an empty cup? And unfortunately you have to break before you can build, and I think the conversation now is super important because for the longest it's been Black women are so strong and so resilient and this that and the third, but nobody was seeing the breakdowns.
It's like yeah, when I outwardly have conversations about having anxiety, I feel like this is ultimately going to help the next person you know, this is life. And unfortunately we go through those things because so much is expected of us, but I do believe we can do it all.
But, give us at least a good 80 years to do it, no, she adds lightness with a laugh.
Lauren Ash: Yes, take your time in it! So you spoke openly about dealing with anxiety, you're not trying to have this myth be like “you can do it all, right at once you know.” So how do you maintain balance or how do you strive to maintain balance and peace of mind in your own sense of self care?
Autumn: Part of it is a routine, getting into a routine. And she was a perfect example.
Mom hit 40 and she started doing triathlons and what not and that was a huge inspiration. And so now it's having the routine of being up to pray once the alarm goes off, before emails, before social media checks. It's like ‘okay, let me pray, then let me get the kids together,’ but then it's time for me and I'm able to work out, I can go box, I can do yoga, whatever it might be. It's just that time where you're able to focus on you and your task at hand. Or maybe it's not even your task at hand, maybe it's completely escaping and listening to some stuff you shouldn't be listening to on the radio.
It's spending that time for yourself and of course handling your work, and then don't take the fun out of it because I like to hang out. So, that's balance. It's like let me kick it with my friends, let's do drinks at Soho House. This is my Soho Sunday day, it's like let's just go do it.
All of that is important!
Lauren Ash: And Ms. Darlene, same question for you. So again, in thinking about this idea about always being this strong Black mother and how you've experienced that and also maintained your own sense of self and identity while also embracing motherhood.
Darlene: Well sometimes I think at the beginning when you have children and you get married, for me, everything kind of all meshes together and you're like okay, who am I?
What am I supposed to be doing again? And you're stuck in that for a minute and you're taking care of the kids, that was my main focus, is to take care of them, always make sure that they're okay, that they have everything. And then once they reach a certain age, I was like okay, I need to do a shift and get out, do some other things. Maybe around 45ish, you come into being and saying okay, this is what I want do and this is who I am. It's not that you always have everything together, and I was such a perfectionist, because I wanted everything just right.
But, it was so cool when I just got into this mode of saying ‘you know what, I don't have to be perfect, I can just be. And when you fall into that, I think you become a better example.
And there are things that creep up in life and you kind of feel like my world has just tilted, and you go with the tilt, and you just go from day to day and do what you have to do. And you do stay strong, you do have those moments of ‘oh my god, what's going on?’
But then you come back and you get to where you need to be and you dig your heels in, and I dig my heels into my faith and say you know what, I'm going be the best me and I'm going do it one day at a time.
Lauren Ash: So as you both know, here at Black Girl in Om we’re aaaalll about self care? I heard about the triathlon, what does self care look like for you?
Darlene: Well, I love to exercise. Just going on the lakefront and running or getting on the bike and swimming. It’s something about the rhythms and I’ve just learned so many life lessons just being in the pool.
I remember when I first learned how to swim and I had to translate that from swimming in the pool, seeing the black line, and being able to go to the side if I’m tired. I had to translate that to being in the ocean to being in the lake and there’s no black line, there’s no thing on the side and still saying: ‘You know what? you’ve trained for it. You know how to swim.. Swim through the fear. You get all of the craziness out of your head, going ‘ Oh my God, I’m going to drown.’ You get yourself together.
You’ve trained for it and you find your sweet spot and you just go at your own rhythm and you're not trying to beat out nobody else’s time. It’s like your training within your own self and your like, ‘I’m here and I showed up and that’s all that matters.’
I think we are in our heads too much andI’m just so analytical. Sometimes I have to break out of that. In doing the exercising, I don't have to think or doing like gardening it's just working with my hands and I think we need to get out of our heads and we need to have hobbies.
We need to just to allow the mind to relax and because that's where we just get super super stressed out when we try to figure all of life out. Sometimes, it's just by faith and you can't see faith. You just gotta walk it out, you just gotta breathe. Just come out of the house and breathe.
Lauren Ash: You literally spoke so much to my life right now! So, I’d love to close with one of the questions I actually asked Milo earlier. I’d love if you both could share what you favorite thing is about one another.
Darlene: I love, I love her soft side but I love her spicy side. I’m the peacemaker. I'm Obama, 'ok we’re going to sit down together and have this conversation and we’re going to bring about peace in the world.' But I love her because she’s like that’s enough of the peace and sometimes you got to have a fighter and they have to come in and say 'Uh uhn, no we need to handle this!"
And so I love that strength about her that she’s able to be peaceful, but she’s spicy too!
Autumn: So about my mother… I’ll start with humor. As she says, you do have to laugh through things and she’s one of the funniest women I know. Corny, I know because it's all been passed on to me, but funny! Also, she’s one of the most caring and intuitive people and I appreciate that.
She's able to see the good in people, but she’s also able to be very discerning about her energy and where she has to put that. She knows how to comfort people and comfort them at the right distance. So rather that’s up close to them or at arms reach, she knows what people need.
Lauren Ash: And, what’s your favorite thing about Milo?
Darlene: Her spiciness and she gets her dancing from her grandmother!,” she says teasing.
Autumn: She is the most independent yet loving child ever. Like I mean, she’s a care-er. She is my mother’s caring and sass from right in here from me. She’s going to tell you where to go and what to do with it, but in love. Just the perfect balance.
Darlene: She developed her voice and her sense of self very early, and I think that is powerful!
Lauren Ash: That is amazing and true testament! This was beyond my highest expectations.
Thank you deeply, for sharing your mothering and love with us!