Hannibal, Lemuria and Zaiane Alawode, circa 2006
Photo: Courtesy of Lemuria Alawode-El

Editor’s note: This year, to celebrate Mother’s Day, The Glow Up interviewed four generations of mothers within a single Harlem family that recently welcomed its fifth generation. We’ve asked these mothers, ages 19 to 83, the same 12 questions about motherhood, daughterhood and matriarchy. These are their stories. 

I first met Lemuria Alawode-El in 1994 as a streetwise, take-no-shit 17-year-old high school senior, younger sister to my college (and still) best friend, Moji, and middle child of the loving and well-loved Harlem family known as the Alawodes. Two years later, during her own first year of college, Lemuria would become first-time mom to adorable son Hannibal.

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Hannibal is now 22 (and Lemuria still takes no shit), but with the addition of 19-year-old daughter Zaiane, whom we profiled Wednesday, Lemuria became a doting mother of two—and is now a new grandmother to Zaiane’s infant daughter, Naiilah.

For the second installment of our motherhood-themed conversation with the women of the Alawode clan, Lemuria talks to The Glow Up about becoming a parent at the turn of the last millennium, and how becoming a mom while still in her teens was a beginning, not an end.

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The Glow Up: Were you always sure you wanted to be a mother? Was motherhood a deliberate choice for you?

Lemuria Alawode-El: I was always sure I wanted to be a mother; I thought I would have more children than I have now. When I was younger, I thought I wanted six children; I only ended up with two. [But] I knew I wanted to get to this mothering business as soon as possible—I didn’t think it would be at 19. When I found myself pregnant at 19, I wanted to believe it was not deliberate, but at 40, I know I was not taking the precautions I needed to ensure I would not get pregnant.

TGU: How did you first discover you were pregnant (the first time)?

LA: I was in my freshman year of college away in Atlanta, and I missed my period. It was October; I had only been in school for a little over a month and didn’t really know my way around Atlanta yet. But I had spent a few days riding the bus, so when I called Planned Parenthood, I remembered passing it a few days before and knew exactly how to get there.

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I thought being pregnant could be a little out of reach, since I’d seemed to have my period a few weeks before on a family trip to Miami. We were there for a wedding, and I distinctly remember not wanting to go to the beach because of it. I’m sure you can imagine how surprised I was to get a positive test, and then to find out after the examination that I was four months pregnant!

I thought the exam had to be wrong, and insisted [on] an ultrasound to ensure it wasn’t twins that [were] making me seem so far along (twins run in both sides of our families). [Ironically], my son’s father had thought this was the case in mid-July and had made a warning call to my mother. I was pissed, and that was a huge source of bickering between the two of us over the summer. All that bickering to find out he was right all along.

TGU: How did you feel about that discovery?

LA: I was nervous, scared and excited. This was before we all had cellphones, so I had the whole hour-plus bus ride back home to keep this news to myself and contemplate a plan for letting everyone know what was happening. I knew that at four months along, I was having this baby and I was going to be a mother. I called my boyfriend to let him know he was right, and then my mom.

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TGU: What was your mother’s response when you told her you were pregnant?

LA: She was surprisingly excited and congratulated me. She said, “So we’re having a baby!” I was relieved by her immediate support, and then the excitement really settled in: We were having a baby!!!

My mom was heading out of town that weekend to support my brother in a fencing competition [Editor’s note: Lemuria and Moji’s brother is Olympian competitor and coach Akhnaten Spencer-El], and asked me to meet her so we could spend some time together. When I arrived, she greeted me with a big hug and had already begun sharing the news ... everyone greeted me with congratulations and continuously asked me how I was feeling. It was great.

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We did some light maternity shopping, and at the end of the weekend she decided to come back to Atlanta with me. In Atlanta, she helped me find a doctor to provide prenatal care, secure transportation to and from the doctor and get all of the vitamins I needed to properly nourish my body while pregnant. It’s always nice when your mom comes to visit you away at college, but when you find yourself pregnant, that visit is even more special. Not only did I feel super supported, but I knew my mom had me—and her new grandbaby that was on the way. I knew I didn’t have to feel ashamed or embarrassed that I was 19 in college and pregnant. I felt confident that I could get through school and life because of that support.

TGU: What was special about your birth story?

LA: I opted for a regular hospital birth. My mom asked if I wanted to have the baby at home or in a birthing center, but that seemed too chancy for me. A close family friend had had some complications at a birthing center, and I didn’t want to take any chances of needing to be transported to a hospital. Instead, I wanted to take the most natural way possible in a hospital.

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I chose to take childbirth education classes with a family friend who was a midwife and had done many home births. The classes were just her and me, and I was able to ask every question imaginable about what this process could be. I feared the “pain” of birth and over-researched the whole thing, I’m sure.

I went to a regular prenatal appointment the day before I gave birth, and my blood pressure readings were higher than normal. I was immediately sent to Labor and Delivery, and they thought they may have to induce labor. Luckily, my blood pressure went down, and I went home, [but] the experience of being on the L&D unit for just a short amount of time made me realize that I wanted to spend most of my laboring at home.

The following morning, I woke up with light contractions that seemed to progress quickly. My mom called her friend that [had done] the childbirth classes for me to come over and check on my progress; I don’t remember how much time passed between the call and her showing up, but she left her car running downstairs and ran in just to give me some support and check on me. When she walked in, I was in the third stage of labor and almost ready to deliver. She stripped down to her slip (as sterile as she could get at the time) and delivered my son about 30 minutes later. He was healthy and strong and born on my sister’s 20th birthday.

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While it wasn’t the birth I planned, it was really a perfect birth. My mom was there, my grandmother came at some point with my younger cousin, and my sister arrived shortly after the baby came. It was perfect and magical.

Hannibal and Zaiane Alawode, circa 2002
Screenshot: Courtesy of Lemuria Alawode-El

TGU: What is the most surprising thing about motherhood?

LA: The most surprising thing about motherhood is as hard as it is, it’s really very easy. Motherhood has come to me like second nature. Not that it doesn’t have its challenges, but I truly love being a mother and understand why people decide to have many children.

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TGU: What is your mothering style?

LA: Because I was a young mother, my approach with my children is very hands-on. They have experienced life with me and I have grown up with them. They are my best friends and greatest gift.

Lemuria and Hannibal, present day
Photo: Courtesy of Lemuria Alawode-El

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TGU: How does your mothering style differ from your mother’s?

LA: I don’t think my mothering style differs from my mother too much. I may be a little more liberal with my children, but I think that is more of a generational difference. I have learned how to mother from my mom, grandmother and extended family. I have tried to take the best from all of them and infuse it with my own personal touch. Like my mom, I take cues from my children to ensure I am doing what works for them. I know not all children need the same thing from their mother.

TGU: What is your strongest impression of your mother?

LA: My mother is about family and community all the time. She makes the most of any and every opportunity to come together as a family—and family doesn’t mean just us, our immediate family—it includes old and new friends too. [Editor’s note: I can personally vouch for this.]

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TGU: What do you hope will be your child’s (or children’s) strongest impression of you?

LA: I want my children to appreciate that I will always be on their team and rooting for their success. They will tell you that that doesn’t always mean that they get what they want, but that I always showed up and supported them. Those are the kind of parents I had, and that is what I have always strived to be for them.

Lemuria and Zaiane Alawode
Photo: Courtesy of Lemuria Alawode-El

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TGU: What is/was your greatest wish for your child (or children)?

LA: My greatest wish for my children is that they are happy. I know happiness can take shape in different ways for many people, and I don’t want to define that for them. I want them to discover their sweet spot and ride that wave forever. Whether it’s their professional life, where they live, who they choose as a mate—whether they even decide to have a mate or not—I just want them to be happy with the decisions they make and be sure where they are brings them joy. And I hope the lessons and support that I and our community collectively have given them influences those decisions that ultimately make them happy.

TGU: Do you consider your family to be a matriarchal one? Why or why not?

LA: I was raised by my mom and dad, but our family has always had more women than men. Most of our immediate family lives in other states, so my grandmother has always been the elder and matriarch of the family, which has grown now that my siblings and I have children. Among my grandmother, my mother, my siblings, seven great-grandchildren and now a great-great-grandchild for my grandmother, there are only four boys. So yeah, I would say we are definitely a matriarchal family, because there are so many women.

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