In a small New York apartment, sometime in the 1960s, a single mother hoists her baby higher on her hip as her toddler crawls and clambers at her ankles. She's feeding them both in the kitchen, as a stack of manuscripts awaits her attention on a desk in the next room. Newly divorced and working as a rookie Random House book editor, she has her time stretched too thin as it is, but she writes around the distraction, ignoring the stains of her children's spills and the high pressure of being one of the few black women working in New York book publishing. Soon, she'll publish her own first book, and though she can't be certain of its commercial success — with two small kids vying for her attention and a pile of bills to pay — she believes in her talent enough to prioritize herself and her efforts.
Toni Morrison's mothering life has long been as important to me as her literary legacy. Since I became a mother myself, her parenting example has been as instructive to me as any book she's written. Morrison was the first black woman writer to teach me that while parenting requires a willingness to embrace interruption, it has never required us to prostrate ourselves at an altar of deferred personal goals.
We live in a culture in which "it's not about me anymore" has become a motherhood mantra. Few people are still willing to remind parents — especially single parents, who are already facing heightened scrutiny for our performance — that our own dreams still deserve priority. Morrison has long been a joyful counterexample.
It's tempting to consider her an exception, as brilliant, accomplished and awarded as she was. Of course a woman that dynamic wouldn't allow her progress to be slowed, even after a divorce that left her single-parenting a 3-year-old while pregnant with her second son. Of course she wouldn't view her household as "nontraditional" or less than ideal, even as Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan's fatalistic report on Negro families popularized the view that single-woman-led households signaled a widespread crisis for the black community. In the 1950s and '60s, Morrison was college-educated and gainfully employed, part of the intellectual class. She had left a marriage of her own accord and could afford to raise and support her children as she worked full time in a demanding field. Her situation was distinct.
But Morrison herself would balk at the idea that her approach to parenting was unusual or unattainable. She knew personally what she would affirm for us in many novels to come: Black women have single-parented and helped one another single-parent for centuries. Stigma enters the picture only when we internalize family values that are imposed from outside our own communities. She refused to cede power to that imposition. Instead, Morrison spent much of her life encouraging us to consider that single motherhood wasn't just "doable" but desirable.
"The real liberation was the kids, because their needs were simple," Morrison told Emma Brockes in a 2012 interview. "One, they needed me to be competent. Two, they wanted me to have a sense of humor. And three, they wanted me to be an adult. No one else asked that of me. Not in the workplace — where sometimes they'd want you to be feminine, or dominant, or cute. The kids didn't care if I did my hair, didn't care what I looked like."
This notion that parenting in a household where only a mother and her children are present can be liberating is one that I've held onto during the nine years I've spent as a parent — and one that I've heard from too few other voices.
In a 2013 New York Public Library talk with author Junot Díaz, Morrison described her early days in New York, when her sons were still small and friends such as Betty Rose and her fellow author Toni Cade Bambara gave her space to write, as communal and collaborative.
"You didn't have to ask. Everybody, particularly those of us who were without . . . controlling males in our lives," Morrison recalled. "It was a kind of singularity. That intimacy, that instinct, knowing exactly what a sister needed before she could even articulate it, was what was so important."
She is explicit about the role of black female friendships in lightening our single-mothering load. In the community of other women, we find respite and, especially among those of us who are artists, we can create for one another the uninterrupted time to engage with our work.
Among all the messages Morrison left behind, one rings clearest to me in this moment: Women owe themselves their whole selves, as much as they owe their children their best selves.