On Beauty, Black Motherhood, and Perceptions of Third-Party Reproduction:

An Interview with my Grandmother, My Mother, and Myself

By: Madison

I don’t remember a summer during my childhood when I didn’t go to Granny’s house.

During the hot Texas months, my parents sent us to our grandparents’ homes, where we would embark on the “grandparents tour” a sold-out event spanning weeks around Texas (or really just College Station, Bryan, and Houston) where we visited my Granny, Papa, and Grandpa. Granny grew up on the same street she lives today, in College Station, right next to her mother’s house. My brother and I were treated like royalty. Now, we laugh about the summers spent at her home—which was always ours too—running between the two houses, fueled by Sunny D and Lunchables, and watching music videos on the old TV. We spent the days leading up to fall, splashing in the mini water park on the corner and walking the seemingly endless floor of Dillard’s. Surely it was a vacation for our parents, a time where they could have a break from our squealing and fighting, but truthfully it was a vacation for us too. And Granny, a woman who was never sorry to see us, always stocked her fridge and fueled her gas tank to make it the best summer ever.

When I decided to write this blog, I did so hoping to learn a bit more about how our different upbringings and experiences led to a fundamental difference in how we perceive ourselves. However, the interviews I did with my Granny and Mom, two women who probably had the largest impact on my own views of womanhood and identity, only highlighted our similarities. As we talked, both telling me about their childhoods, I realized the lifetime of stories I’d never heard before. The whole lives they’d lived before they gave me medicine, before they gave me hugs, before they made me breakfast in the mornings. Their honesty and vulnerability during these interviews cannot be captured by my words alone, but there was a realization that with writing this piece, though generations part, we all share a closeness that seems to come with blackness, womanhood, and family.

On Beauty

On Beauty

What about beauty? I asked. The pivot was a sudden one, it came as we finished chatting about breakfast and little tangents we always seem to take whenever we talk for hours on end. It was a question I’d posed to my mother a couple of weeks back, when I first thought of this blog. During that conversation, my mother and I realized in a lot of ways we were similar. Our perceptions of beauty were entirely shaped by our own experiences, what we saw, and who we saw it on. Traits and little details on my mother that I associated with beauty, that I coveted and wished for growing up, seemed to be her insecurities. I can recall tracing the moles on my mother’s face and wishing for them when I blew out the candles for my next birthday. The same moles found on Granny. The thought that they could ever despise them rattled me to my core, to me they were the truest sign of beauty I’d ever seen. It was the first time I can remember realizing that the women I looked up to could feel insecure. It was this memory that pushed me to ask Granny.

“Did you feel beautiful growing up?”

She paused, took a second to look away from me, (a moment of hesitation I still didn’t anticipate from the most confident woman I’d ever met), and responded no.

“No. I don’t think—I mean I was skinny, and had cat-eyed glasses. A girl called me sticks at school. I don’t think I felt beautiful until I was grown.”

Surely the struggle to feel beautiful is something many can relate to growing up. The discomfort of puberty, pimply faces, and new bodies seems designed to make you feel like an ogre. But what is it about feeling ugly as a black girl? It’s a different kind of ugly. The kind reflected back in the media, the kind grounded in a certain horror that we struggle to articulate. Of course our complexion comes into play. Throughout my own childhood, I can remember an internal colorism that kept me from stepping outside, and into the sun. My own fear of getting darker and subjecting myself to teasing or thinking boys would be less likely to talk to me, pushed me to spend many summers in front of a TV. In contrast, an insecurity about the fairness of her skin led Mom to view her own complexion as a flaw, thinking her fairness would only serve to highlight the rest of her insecurities.

For Granny, her own insecurities about beauty was intrinsically tied to her body. From her legs, to her arms—her weight was truly a point of contention when it came to how she viewed herself. She recalls spending her years in school, trying to hide the skinniness of her legs and arms with long sleeves and pants. The only thing, she’d felt she had going for her was her hair.

To try and capture the complexity, importance, and at times the stress of Black hair in a single blog post is rather impossible. However, our hair, and how it impacts our own perceptions of beauty is a truth that cannot be ignored. It’s one Mom also brought up.

“I never really thought I was beautiful.” Mom says, not at all unlike Granny. “Growing up in a predominantly white area in school, once I made the cheer team I think I tried to [attract] the least amount of attention to my differences, but it was very hard…being the only Black [cheerleader]…there were noticeable differences between me and the girls, and one of those was my hair. When we had a game, when there was rain, pressed hair doesn’t last in the rain…Imagine my horror. I would immediately try and cover my head, because if I get my hair wet it would just turn into an afro…you talk about embarrassed. It was embarrassing back then because our natural hair wasn’t considered beautiful, but my silk straight pressed hair—I thought—was beautiful.”

It’s a story she never shared with me, but one I knew well. In elementary, whenever it rained the attention quickly turned to my hair if it got wet. Laughs about it turning into an afro, made me hate the rain. I’d watch my white friends dance in the sprinkle of rain while our teachers ushered inside, while I anxiously attempted to cover my own straightened hair with my hands. The embarrassment I’d felt trying desperately to laugh along with the joke, pretending like the appearance of the tight coils of my curls wouldn’t send me into a tailspin, is still felt to this day. Do I love my natural hair? Yes. But there are still times, when I hear the boom of thunder, or some classmate mention rain, and my stomach drops a little.

On Motherhood

“When did you know you wanted to be a mother?” I asked Granny.

“I didn’t. I didn’t even plan on being married.”

This was news to me, as she is a woman who has always seemed to be made to be a grandmother. Feeding you constantly? Check. Heavy on the hugs? Check. Quick with a nickname? Check (I’ve been deemed “Granny’s baby” for a solid 24 years now). And yet, when asked when she knew she wanted to be a mother? Never.

As Granny puts it, she wasn’t worried about dating or the intentions of sneering men, she was a catch (definitely), but she wasn’t interested.

Somewhere along the way she met my grandfather and after a while they had my mother.

My mother was actually an only child for about 17 years. My aunt came the year my mom was going off to college which was a surprise to everyone. She laughs when she thinks about it now, little Adyia coming so late in life, attached to my mom at the hip, who at the time was a young woman getting ready to go to college, meet the love of her life, and have kids of her own. The gap makes Granny shake her head. “Poor Adyia.” She laughs.

When Granny became a mother, she was still living at “Mama” and “Daddy’s” house. If you’re not a part of our family you would most likely, and quite fairly assume she was talking about her own biological mom and dad. However, she’s actually talking about her grandparents. “Popcorn” and Daisy.

I grew up hearing the names of James (Popcorn) and Daisy Stewart often. They weren’t the names of celebrities or politicians, but they were rather legendary in their own right. They raised Granny, and when she had Mom they helped to raise her too. There’s an obvious amount of love and respect Granny and Mom both hold for Popcorn and Daisy. They both sigh and smile at the mere mention of their names, citing how instrumental they were to their childhoods. Funnily enough, when asked about their childhoods, both Mom and Granny say the same thing. “I was spoiled.” (These statements are both followed by the clarification that though they were spoiled they weren’t brats.) As my Mom puts it, with Popcorn and Daisy—they (Granny and Mom) felt the most loved. Listening to them, I realized that Popcorn and Daisy seemed to have provided a certain security. Through their actions, their affection, their love—they gave a safety and care that Black women don’t always experience in our society.

For my mother and grandmother, their childhoods were both defined by a number of influences. Both of their models for parenting and familial units, are characterized by this idea that you can have multiple mothers. Those who helped to raise them, acted as safe spaces, and provided them with love and comfort. Perhaps that is why my brother and I spent so much time with Granny, Mom has long known the gift that having more than one mother in your life can bring to you.

Third-Party Reproduction

For Granny, surrogacy was never anything she was particularly well-versed in. She had no expectation that I would want to join the industry and really only considered it in terms of how hard she’d seen my mom worked in the field. (“She had so much work to do!” She says exasperated.)

For Mom, surrogacy was one that came a bit later in her career. Mom worked in family law, and I can recall sitting in the kitchen and eating a burger while she went on about her day to Dad. Over the noise of the television, I would hear words like adoption, divorce, prenups, and the like—but it’d never been something I’d fully focused on. She first got exposed to third-party reproduction in the mid to late 2000s, and today the thought of the field, the opportunities it provides, and its role in the Black community chokes her up.

“It’s funny because I never really thought about it until I started working in it. My good friend, I found out later on used it to have her child. To witness how that has unfolded over the years has been very interesting to me. I think that any way you can build your family is a blessing…and I think our children—you guys—are like the best part of us. Something we created…I think these things (ART, adoption) are in place as a gift. I wish more of us, people of color, knew or had the information or knowledge that our white counterparts have known for so long, because I feel like we are trying to play catch up…and sometimes when we look down and want to build our family we can’t, and we didn’t know we could freeze our eggs, or get a sperm donor. Had I known back in the day, had I really really known about third party reproduction—I don’t know, I think there was so many missed opportunities [for a lot of people].”

For me, third party reproduction was a journey I took when I found myself at a crossroads for my future. I’d long heard the questions about what I would do next and found myself realizing that my statement of “when I grow up” was quickly becoming a shortening timeline as I actually grew up. Now, at 24, I’m more interested than ever in in exploring the intricacies of family law and aiding in the expansion of opportunities for third-party reproduction in communities of color. Third-party reproduction is a field that celebrates building your family in the way that works for you. Whether you are a single parent, a same sex couple, or otherwise, third-party reproduction absolutely focuses on the beauty that can come with alternative family building. I work for an agency whose interests lie in providing a safe space for surrogates and intended parents alike, who focus on diversity, accessibility, and the beauty of different experiences. Having been raised by strong women, it’s kind of fitting that I’ve chosen to work with them too.