Like a Mother: With a New Column and Coast, Writer-Activist Jamilah Lemieux Talks Progressive Parenting

Illustration for article titled Like a Mother: With a New Column and Coast, Writer-Activist Jamilah Lemieux Talks Progressive Parenting
Photo: courtesy of Jamilah Lemieux

Jamilah Lemieux is a millennial working mother—emphasis on working. The acclaimed journalist, activist, cultural critic, communications expert and “fixer” is one of the leading voices of her generation on issues of race, gender and sexuality, putting her imprint on everything from the 2012 rebranding of Ebony magazine to Cynthia Nixon’s recent gubernatorial run, where Lemieux served as the campaign’s communications and engagement strategist.

In fact, the Chicago-born Lemieux, a 2014 Root 100 honoree and consultant with Girls for Gender Equity, appeared in the groundbreaking Lifetime documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, long being one of the most prominent voices calling for justice for the accusers of R. Kelly. Recently, she even joined #MeToo’s Tarana Burke and journalist Jim DeRogatis to discuss the decadeslong allegations against the singer-songwriter.

And all this before recently turning 35; a milestone she celebrated with a wish for each year.


But as dynamic as Lemieux’s career is, so too is her approach to parenting her 6-year-old daughter, Naima—fondly known to Lemieux’s social media following as “Mini Milah.” Committed to co-parenting with Naima’s father and stepmother, Lemieux has forged a particularly progressive path as a single parent. In fact, the blended families, which include Naima’s younger half-brother, recently made the mutual decision to move cross-country from Brooklyn to Los Angeles; a move initially proposed by Lemieux, as her own ambitions began to draw her to the West Coast.

The rewards and challenges of co-parenting are one of many topics Lemieux will be exploring as a new columnist for Slate’s parenting advice column, Care and Feeding. Replacing and recommended for the role by acclaimed writer Carvell Wallace, Lemieux, known as a thought leader in black feminist circles, admits being dubious that her voice would resonate in the parental blogging space.

“Physically, the idea is that you can be really good at single parenting—you might be the best at it, or better than the expectations or stereotypes—but when we think of someone as having a voice of authority, then we still want someone who’s married; who did it the ‘right way,’” she tells The Glow Up.


“But I hope that my presence will encourage more co-parenting parents; or parents who want to become co-parenting families, that are really raising their children in silos; or single parents that may not have the help of a co-parent but certainly share some of the same concerns that we all have as parents, will feel comfortable reaching out, and saying, ‘Hey, there’s somebody who might get this, and understand what I’m dealing with, who can help me out here.”


As the product of a similar family arrangement, this writer couldn’t agree more. There is a dearth of single mothers’ voices in the realm of parenting advice, let alone black single mothers discussing how they constructively make co-parenting work. While Lemieux praises her daughter’s father for being “really hands-on in ways I wish that more fathers were,” she admits that adapting to the presence of another woman in her child’s life wasn’t a seamless transition. The relationship with Naima’s stepmom was hard-won, but ultimately more than worth the effort.

“She’s been in Naima’s life essentially from day one, and it took me some time to heal and make my peace with that,” Lemieux explains. “But I knew, from the beginning, that what I could not do is try to put any barriers between Naima and her father, or Naima and her stepmother, just because the relationship had not ended on my terms. There was no value in attempting to punish them, either financially or in terms of my child’s time—and attempting to punish them, period, was not the appropriate response to heartbreak. The right response was time.


“And two, I recognized early on that having this person in our lives was of value to me, and to my child,” she continues. “And one day, something just changed, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready’...I was ready to extend my hand in friendship, and I was really happy and fortunate that she extended a hand back.

“What’s most important is that she really loves my daughter, and she loves her as if she’s her own child,” Lemieux concludes. “[Naima’s stepmother is] no substitute for me; I’m no substitute for her.”


The two moms even began doula training together last year at Latham Thomas’ Mama Glow, a decision made after Lemieux reading veteran journalist Linda Villarosa’s report on the black maternal mortality crisis in New York Times Magazine.


“I read it, and I just cried and cried, and it really just broke my heart,” Lemieux recalls. “The thing about racism is this constant awareness that your life means to be treated differently than white folks...There’s a toll to that anxiety...

“[T]hroughout my pregnancy, I was fortunate; I had pretty good prenatal care and went to a great doctor in a fancy part of town...I thought that was what protected me,” she continues. “And coming to find out that the black maternal health crisis knows no class lines; that college-trained, high-earning black women are faring worse than poor white women who only have a high school diploma and didn’t have prenatal care. So, you can be black and well-off and have prenatal care, and still lose your child or lose your was just devastating.”


Lemieux, who considers doula work a practice residing “at that intersection of East and West[ern medicine],” is well aware that doulas aren’t the primary solution to lowering the black maternal mortality rate. But with evidence that stress, environment, bureaucracy and lack of empathy are all potential factors in these grim outcomes, providing expectant mothers with advocacy and care potentially make doulas at least part of that much-needed solution.


“A doula is a birthing coach, so in a way, having me there is like having a dear friend there. I’m not going to give you medical advice that I’m not prepared or trained to doesn’t replace traditional prenatal care,” says Lemieux, who has thus far attended two live births and plans to complete her training next year. “I’m very clear and careful not to suggest that this will fix it, but that having somebody during the most vulnerable time in your life to support you, to hold your hand, to advocate for you, to cheer you on—whether you’re partnered or single—can really make a tremendous difference.”

Doula work is only part of Lemieux’s steadfast commitment to demanding racial equity. It’s an ethos she was raised with that she’s now instilling in Naima, whether making her young daughter aware of microaggressions and systemic racism or teaching her to confront colorism.


“I feel very passionate about racial equity, so there’s a lot of things she’s been exposed to that a lot of 6-year-olds don’t know about,” Lemieux says, sharing an anecdote. “[Naima] said this earlier—out of nowhere, she says, ‘You know, some light-skinned people think they’re better than dark-skinned people because they’re light-skinned. But we’re not that kind of light-skinned people,’” she chuckles. “And it came out of nowhere, but it’s something that I’ve worked hard to instill in her...that she understands that the hierarchy is inappropriate; that this isn’t a privilege that she should revel in or something she should think makes her prettier or better than anyone else...that she treats people with fairness, and expects fairness in return.


“I like to think that in most ways, who I am as a woman is who I am as a mother, and that the values that I have for myself and the things I want for the world or for my life are the things that I want my child to either be exposed to or comfortable with, [and] have the option to choose,” Lemieux concludes.

While that type of exposure may seem unorthodox to some, it’s a parenting strategy that is paying off for the multifaceted mom—as is pushing back against stigmas that plague single mothers like herself.


“I think that we tend to understand single parenting in two different ways: either somebody being just completely bound to their child or children, and that’s the headline of their life...or on the flip-side, somebody being neglectful or selfish, just chasing the life they had before,” Lemieux muses. “And I was very clear that I didn’t want either of those outcomes for me, because there was enough life for me to give to this child, and there was also enough life for me to center myself.”

In her new role at Slate, which includes joining the team at their popular “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” parenting podcast, Lemieux hopes her characteristic candor will be an asset in helping Slate’s audience understand what it’s like parenting on the other side of the game.


“I think that if you enjoy my writing or my tweets...I hope to bring the same sense of humor, and honesty and optimism with a lens on race and sexuality, and a perspective on race that we don’t often see in the mommy blogs or parenting magazines or advice columns, in general,” she says.


And thanks to the help of her tribe, Lemieux is watching her child thrive, as well as her own life, enjoying the freedom to work, travel, have a social life, explore romantic relationships, and yes, even follow her dreams (which include developing a comedy pilot loosely based on her life) to the “Left Coast.”

“I’m not going pretend that it’s as easy for me as it would be for somebody who’s completely unencumbered, but I’ve done pretty okay in that regard; and most times, without sacrificing more time with [Naima] than I should have,” Lemieux says. “I think we found balance.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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There is so much to dissect from this post/interview/woman that a comment would only be a setback to this great article, but without adding or taking away, I do have a couple things to say.

“The thing about racism is this constant awareness that your life means to be treated differently than white folks.”

This is a fucking heartbreaking quote. It stands alone in its earnestness. That said, it reminds me of something Monique Judge wrote recently about the fact that she will never know what it is like to have white privilege. It was in regards to a white woman who called people (went out of her way to do so) the “n word” and promptly stated she was not racist, but she would say it again. Monique was absolutely right and it puts to shame any white person who claims they have been victims of racism. More specifically, it would be like me saying I know what it is like to have an entire society stacked against me; police harrassing me, underfunded schools teach me, banks giving me higher interest rates, my house devalued, etc, etc, etc, because someone in the greys called me the “n word” on The Root. I only know what it is like to be white and if we, as a society, could empathise with each other rather than compare each other, we’d be in a far better society.

I read a post, maybe Jez or Splinter or Deadspin (somewhere on Kinja) about sexual assault around the “beginning” of the #MeToo movement. The “beginning” of the #MeToo movement in 2017. I didn’t comment, but holy fuck, did it ever put me off considering the fact that Burke started #MeToo a DECADE earlier than when it was whitewashed by women claiming to be “pioneers” of the movement.