Watch Me Rise: On the Work, Love & Hustle of Motherhood

By Teni Odunsi. Photography by Deun Ivory.

The story of how one child comes to be always starts with another because every Mom is a child once. I was only 2 when I received my first baby doll. This, in addition to looking like a doll myself, just as my son later would, (with smooth skin, a nose that never ran until he went to daycare and wide almond eyes that seemed to discern all of our faces from the moment that he was born), gave young children, especially babies, an allure that never left me. Babies were desirable, an accessory for any elegant, married lady who was just running errands in the mornings or serving her best postpartum looks in the skinny pews of church on Sunday. The man never mattered. He was an aside to this woman’s triumph of juggling a baby with tasks that were everyday and ordinary.

I found out that I was pregnant when I was only 4 months out of college. My worries were counter to what they might have been as a child. My own mother, that saint and soldier, didn’t sleep for over a decade raising my sisters and I. She worked nights while my father worked days to keep our household going. Here I was, 23 years old with a fresh B.A., not immediately afraid of the financial ramifications of this literal development in my body (though that would come swiftly, as the shock wore off) but worried because I loved sleep. And don’t most Moms, even if they don’t work nights, they hardly ever sleep? That is not even to count the level of panic that arose when I thought of my community- artists who would likely marry in their 30's and venture into parenthood even later, if at all, African Immigrants who murmur about the misfortune of women who choose the wrong man, and the already difficult to please young woman who lived in my head. I simply knew that I would be abandoned. Unemployed, unmarried, unconscionable. Like clockwork, as news broke, a single question plagued and haunted me. I still wince when I hear the words uttered. “Are you sure?”

“Are you sure that you want to do this?” (Yes).

“Are you sure that you can do this?” (No, but I will try).

“Are you sure that your parents won’t freak out?” (They did).

“Are you sure you can still do the writing thing?” (Well, aren’t I?)

Somehow, these answer did not matter. Only the questions and worry that motherhood meant that whatever life I had lived before, was over.

I know, from talking to other brown and black Mothers, both attached and single, secure financially or otherwise, that the current conversation about motherhood versus it’s seemingly more appealing adversary, career, hurts.

For some, it brings back memories of pushing down doubt that turned to guilt about not being quite so happy about having a child. For others, like me, it brings white hot anger at the ways in which our work doesn’t accommodate us. First, we are the strong warriors for literally carrying the weight of our children and enduring labor but then, sadly, we are the burdens that force our colleagues to consider why we are actually leaving work at 5 when really, staying beyond our designated 8 hours isn’t a mark of being hardworking but rather, that your time is expendable and free. For every Cardi B, who has to make the contents of her bank account plain for folks who don’t believe this is the “right time”, there are mothers who are working on their Extended Practice, making their creative dreams come true.

We all prove that it is possible to have a bit of ourselves left that motherhood and our careers do not get. And we get to rise in every space. 

There is no doubt that this is easier said than done. But, there are a few ways that have made the work, love and hustle of motherhood feel even more complete.

  1. Create community. I spent two and a half years being a mother without friends who were Moms. Now, many of my closest friends are Black Moms. This isn’t coincidental- I manifested it into my life. I was blatant in reaching out to people on social media and asking to be connected. I used Ways We Make, a series of workshops for creative Mothers of Colors, Extended Practice, an artist lead project to support artists who are mothers and matermea to connect with Mothers who shared my interests both in person and on the ‘gram. And in the spirit of BGIO, if it doesn’t exist where you live, create your own.

  2. Be Honest. My day job requires me to work events and travel sometimes. I vividly remember the day that an overnight retreat, something that I didn’t feel that I had signed up for was announced, and I freaked out. I quickly called a Mother friend, in tears with anger and she asked a pivotal question- “Have you told anyone there that this stresses you out?” Since that day, I have advocated for myself so that my Son can continue to be my first priority. To my surprise, it’s been well received. When I’m worn down, sick, have a meeting at my son’s school or screw up and show up an hour late, I simply tell the truth. That is how trust with my workplace was formed and why I will never work in a place that can’t respect that family comes first.

  3. Follow your dreams. It’s a cliche but it’s real. When I was a new mom, I lost myself. I stopped writing (how could I when I wasn’t sleeping) and it took a deep look in the mirror to decide to stop beating myself up for it and prioritize coming back to myself outside of being a Mom. It didn’t come overnight either and I am still exploring that balance. I had to reach out, ask for help, use what little time I had carefully and realize that my child wanted what was best for me as well. Like I said- every child starts with another.

We need to think, with pride, at the ways that our own mothers and caretakers were able to achieve and consider how much more they might have done had society and their loving hearts hadn’t told them that we came before everything else.

You deserve whatever it is that your heart desired before bringing new life. Find it, chase it, and don’t let it go. You can rise for you, and see the way your rising instills in your child that they can too.


Teni Odunsi is a non-profit professional and poet. She is based in Chicago, Illinois. In her spare time you can find her drinking tea as a form of self-care. You can follow her on Instagram (@teniola_o) and Twitter (@therealtenio).