Book Review: Motherhood So White

Book Review:

Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America

by Nefertiti Austin

reviewed by Lisa L. Moore


When it comes to memoirs on parenting, there are few that reflect the experience of Black parents and/or the experience of Black motherhood. In the rather large body of work that has been published by adoptive parents, Black adoptive motherhood is a narrative that is even less present. In fact, narratives of single Black women who pursue adoption through foster care are nearly nonexistent in the literature on adoption. But this is all changed with Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, by Nefertiti Austin (Sourcebooks, 2019). With this book, Austin has added something vital to the literature, having written one of the first such narratives in an arena long dominated by white parents.

Black motherhood

It is through the lens of the author’s experiences that readers are given essential insight. As a single Black woman, Austin set out to build her family by adopting a child through foster care. During her journey, she was confronted with the intersectionality of oppressions and forced to navigate gender, race, and class in a way she hadn’t anticipated during her experience of becoming a mother and in single motherhood itself.

Austin presents the reader with many examples of the challenges she had to face among her community of family and friends for making the decision to become a parent through adoption. She offers a thoughtful, personally informed reflection on the social and systemic conditions through which she persisted during her efforts to adopt and become a mother. This narrative is important to hear, and it is challenged like many narratives by adoptive parents to consider the grief and loss of the birth parents that are inherent in the process.

Austin introduces readers to the complexities of Black motherhood by generously sharing her own experiences and addressing the relationship she has with her own mother, as well as with her grandmother and grandfather. This reflection provides societal and familial contexts that shaped the author’s relationship to adoption as a pathway to making a family. As a child who was raised primarily by her grandparents, Austin cites the refuge they provided her in childhood as a major influence on her understanding of the long history of kinship care/adoption in Black communities. Without question, this formative experience of being raised in kinship care also contributes to her own perspective that the role of primary caregiver can be filled by people other than biological/birth parents.

As she is shaping the community that will support her own developing family, Austin presents herself to readers as a parent who puts a great deal of thought and effort into ensuring her children have access to people and opportunities that will anchor their lives and facilitate their growth as happy, healthy and self-confident individuals who are proud of who they are and where they came from. We are offered a vision of motherhood that transcends the adoptive parent experience and challenges any parent to consider the people and communities that influence how and why they choose to become parents. One of the most thoughtful aspects of “Motherhood” is how the intersection of gender and race emerge when the author is seeking out Black male role models for her son. She goes out of her way to demonstrate the importance of finding—in other people—resources parents may not be able to provide for their children.

Austin also explores the multiple contexts that have to be navigated when choosing to build a family through non-kinship adoption as a single Black woman seeking to adopt through the foster care system. She shares candidly how she worries about the impact on her child’s emotional health of supervised visits with her birth parent, underscoring the devastating reality of the tenuous relationship between birth parents and adoptive parents. The reality is that birth parents’ interests are often only acknowledged as a source of inconvenience and fear by adoptive parents. Meanwhile, adoptive parents are focused on the emotional fallout of their children after such visits, which don’t fit their own long-held dreams of what it means to become a family. In this way, we are reminded in Austin’s book of the complexity of power in the adoption triad.

Austin reflects:

“The purpose of adoption literature was to build community. Foster/adoptive parents were united in our mission of supporting children in need. We read the same manual and operate from a level playing field of information designed to equip prospective parents, regardless of race, about loss and grief. Children’s adoption books were supposed to be inclusive, because we all came face to face with that critical question, Are you my mother? But how could I answer that question for August when there were no examples in the adoption canon? If I was erased at the beginning of the conversation, how could I be his anchor and outlet for hard discussions about feeling different for being the only one of color or family in a small town, high school, church or neighborhood? How would I normalize his adoption journey if the available literature excluded us?”

Ultimately, at the heart of Austin’s memoir is the reality that access to available resources for Black adoptive parents—or even just Black parents—is limited. With “Motherhood,” Austin has made an essential contribution to what I hope is a growing body of literature.

Memoirs are about the experience of the person sharing the story, with the hope that they engage and facilitate a sense of connection with readers. Austin’s memoir certainly accomplishes this well and at the conclusion, one cannot help but wonder about the stories of other Black adoptees, Black birth parents and Black adoptive parents. I finished this book with a sincere appreciation for what Austin set out to offer Black parents with adopted children and/or with children born to them.  I also came away with an understanding that adoptive parents parenting across race have on-going work to do and a responsibility to consider their role and position in the adoption triad.

Lisa Moore is a Black adoptive mother of two who works as a social work educator and practitioner in Chicago. She holds a master’s degree in social work and a PhD in social and cultural anthropology. Lisa is professionally engaged in work that addresses the experiences of Black families, and is passionate about holding space for Black adoptive parents and Black parents involved with the foster care system.

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