Moji Alawode-El and her son, Garvey, in 2016
Photo: Courtesy of Moji 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. 

Full disclosure: Moji Alawode-El and I have been best friends since virtually the day we met as college students at Sarah Lawrence in 1994 (technically, it was the second day we met). Over the course of our now decadeslong friendship, she’s become a de facto member of my family, and I of hers: a Pan-African family well-known in their Harlem community as the Alawodes.

But while we’ve watched each other mature in many ways over the past 24 years, I was still wholly unprepared when Moji announced her pregnancy in the spring of 2015. Frankly, I thought that motherhood was something we were both entirely ambivalent about, and was genuinely (albeit selfishly) concerned about how it would affect our friendship.

Moji Alawode-El, Maiysha Kai (aka “Auntie Mai”) and Moji’s son, Garvey
Photo: Courtesy of Maiysha Kai

But as my best friend’s pregnancy progressed, my commitment to our bond actually grew, as well as my curiosity about what type of mother she would be. Now mother to my godson, 2-year-old Garvey, Moji joins four generations of her family’s women to discuss motherhood; telling The Glow Up what it was like to become a first-time mother at the tender age of 39, how babies can change even best-laid plans, and what her hopes are for her son.

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

Moji Alawode-El: While I can’t say that I was always sure I wanted to be a mother, getting pregnant and having my son was a deliberate choice that his father and I made together.

TGU: How did you first discover you were pregnant?

MA: We had been trying for a little while, and for a solid week before I took an actual pregnancy test, I’d mentioned that it might be time to find out. I was having some symptoms of pregnancy, but those symptoms had been misleading before. So they’d been going on for a while before I accepted that my period didn’t seem to be coming this time.

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The day that Mikel [Garvey’s father] brought a pregnancy test home for us, I didn’t actually take it until I got up in the middle of the night to pee. I got the positive result when he was asleep. I just sat with it for a little while, excited but also really calm, before going back to sleep. I didn’t end up sharing the news with him until he woke up in the morning.

TGU: How did you feel about that discovery?

MA: I was excited, and scared and oddly surprised that it had finally happened. And I was also a little bit afraid of losing the pregnancy. I have no history of miscarriage, but I was 39 years old when we got pregnant, and it seemed like it could just go away, which would have been devastating. While I did have one very tiny scare, despite my advanced maternal age I had a mostly unremarkable pregnancy.

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

MA: I hadn’t really talked to my family about our decision to get pregnant. When I finally went to a doctor to confirm my pregnancy, I was so excited I called my mother and announced the news to her.

She started crying and shared with me that she’d just assumed that that was something that I wasn’t interested in, so it was a joyous surprise. I’m her eldest child, and the last of my siblings to have a child. I really love that I hadn’t felt any pressure from her; that she was content with whatever choices I made for my life. And I also love how excited she was to find out I was having a baby anyway.

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TGU: What was special about your birth story?

MA: Since I was proceeding with an unremarkable pregnancy, I had grand plans of a chill, unmedicated birth. I’d planned to walk to the hospital, maybe have some wine, definitely have Starbucks and then push this baby out.

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Unfortunately, a few weeks before my due date, my sonogram revealed that my son was in a breech position. That meant his butt was down rather than up—a position that can complicate birth—so most physicians (including mine) choose to deliver breech babies via C-section.

I spent that month trying myriad ways to turn him. Headstands, chiropractor visits, music placed by my vag to coax his head down there. I joined breech birth Facebook groups, I even briefly considered changing doctors. They’d scheduled me for sonograms every week, and each one revealed that he was comfortably in the breech position and otherwise developing on schedule. My doctor suggested trying a “version,” where they attempt to manually turn the baby, but that option just didn’t feel right for me.

Finally, two weeks before my due date, we accepted that my son would be born via planned C-section and scheduled the appointment. The upside was that the “When are you due?” question had a very specific answer. We could confidently say that on Nov. 20 we would walk into the hospital and walk out with a baby.

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The day of his birth, I was pretty chill during my presurgery prep. Our doula had provided a helpful video outlining what to expect during a C-section, and while that video was terrifying, we’d had two weeks to process it before our appointment.

But in the operating room, after they’d numbed me and before they started surgery, I broke down. I started crying hysterically, partially because of the birth plan I’d been “robbed” of, and partially because of the understanding that my life as I’d lived it was about to change profoundly. I, who’d shied away from caring for pets and plants, was about to take on the management of a whole, entire human being for the rest of my life. What if he was an asshole?

I’m not much of a crier, so when Mikel walked into the OR and saw me hysterical, he also lost his chill. We cried and held hands and just comforted each other through my procedure until we heard our son crying, too.

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Because I was still in surgery, we’d arranged for Mikel to do skin-to-skin contact with Garvey immediately after the birth while they sewed me up. And all three of us were really calm for that part, just marveling at how perfect he was, and amazed that he was finally here.

Garvey and Moji in 2016
Photo: Courtesy of Moji Alawode-El

TGU: What is the most surprising thing about motherhood?

MA: I couldn’t have expected that I’d like it so much. My son is amazing and so much fun. He brings me so much joy, and watching him grow and develop his personality is fascinating.

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TGU: What is your mothering style?

MA: I’m trying to let Garvey reveal himself to me. I wouldn’t say I’m hands-off, but I’m definitely not strict or particularly regimented. We have our habits that we’ve mostly co-created, but like new parents everywhere, I’m figuring it out and in many ways following his lead. Motherhood is truly a journey, and we’re on this path together.

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

MA: I don’t know if it differs significantly. My siblings and I are very close in age, so that singular, microscopic focus that I have on my son was not possible for her. I’m not saying my mother was not focused on us as individuals, because she really was. But there were three of us, and consequently I don’t remember any of us insisting on her full attention the way my son does.

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Moji and Garvey in 2017
Photo: Courtesy of Maiysha Kai

TGU: What is your strongest impression of your mother?

MA: My mother has always been supportive of who we are and our changes. She is loving and has always been available and easy to talk to. She’s sometimes critical, but never judgmental. We don’t always agree, but I know that she’s always got my back.

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

MA: I want Garvey to think of me as loving, supportive, attentive and engaged. As an older parent, some of my primary concerns are centered around our age difference. It’s really easy to keep up with him now, but I’ll be 80 when he’s 40. I imagine the issues we’ll face will be vastly different, and the ways that we’ll relate to each other may be different than how my mother and I relate. So I feel like I have to give him a strong sense of who I am now so that he will remember that.

Moji and Garvey celebrate his 2nd birthday in 2017.
Photo: Courtesy of Moji Alawode-El

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TGU: What is/was your greatest wish for your child?

MA: I want Garvey to be loving, kind and attentive, and to flourish while being entirely and unapologetically himself. I want him to be a good citizen, a good partner and, if he chooses, to be an excellent parent.

My job as a mother is to give him the tools he needs to live in and create a life that he is proud of.

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

MA: All of my grandfathers lived far, far away. None are currently alive, and my grandmother has always been the elder in the family. So you could say we are a matriarchal family by default. But I’m not sure that’s how my brother would describe his household.

We definitely have very strong women with strong opinions, strong wills and plans.