Zaiane Alawode and daughter Naiilah
Photo: Courtesy of Zaiane Alawode

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. 

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a family gathering—not my immediate family, but close. Full disclosure: I’ve known the Ali-Seck/Alawode clan for nearly 24 years, am godmother to one of its youngest members and have been an adoptee of sorts into what I, a Chicago native, call my “New York family.”

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If you happen to be a Harlem native, you may already be acquainted with the Alawodes; they’re a Pan-African family sharing American and Nigerian roots and have been deeply entrenched in the community since the height of the Black Arts Movement. Now, five generations deep, they continue to honor their ancestry and traditions through African customs—such as the very traditional naming ceremonies each child under the age of 45 has had.

Those of us in their expansive extended family often joke that the much used phrase “It takes a village” was likely coined to describe the Alawodes. So it wasn’t really a surprise that I was invited to participate in the naming ceremony of their newest addition, baby Naiilah. But having known Naiilah’s mother, 19-year-old Zaiane Alawode, since her own infancy (Zaiane’s mother, Lemuria, is a peer and friend), I was inspired to begin this family’s journey of motherhood with their newest mother, who graciously shared her story with The Glow Up.

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

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Zaiane Alawode: I always knew I wanted to be a mother, since I was a very little girl. I used to tie baby dolls on my back and pretend-nurse them as I saw the women in my family do. As kids, we don’t always appreciate our mothers, especially when they say no. I remember telling myself, “When I have kids, I hope I don’t mature too much so that I won’t disappoint them and say no to the things they want to do.”

Fortunately for my kids (or unfortunately for my kids), I have matured and now can understand why my mom has said no in the past. I remember thinking to myself how I can’t wait for a baby to always want me because I’m their mother, how cute my daughter’s hair was going to be and how much fun we would have getting dressed, because I just knew I was going to have a beautiful daughter.

TGU: How did you first discover you were pregnant?

ZA: I discovered I was pregnant five days after coming home from my freshman year of college. I could go all day without using the bathroom, and suddenly I had to pee all the time. The night I knew for sure [that] I had to get a pregnancy test, I had gotten some Jamaican food—and less than a hour later, a jumbo slice of pizza. Aside from my cravings and symptoms, I [also] knew what I was doing before I came home from school ... LOL.

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TGU: How did you feel about that discovery?

ZA: When I first took the test, I just knew it was gonna come back negative because I was just being paranoid. ... To be honest, I was in denial. I was like, “This can’t be real; this is a joke; this is wrong.”

I went straight to Google to see if pregnancy test results were often wrong and found out that it’s best to take the test on your first pee of the day. So the next day, as soon as I woke up, I took the test again, and within seconds it came back positive again. I was in shock, and it still felt so surreal. I had just finished my freshman year of school, almost had a 4.0 GPA and [had taken] summer classes to get ahead of the game; was having a baby the right choice right now? How [was] I going to tell my mother?

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

ZA: “Shut the fuck up.” She said it about 10 times. She said that, and then she asked me, “What do you want to do? Because I’ll support you, no matter what.”

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TGU: What was special about your birth story?

ZA: What was so special about my birth story would have to be the fact that there were eight people in the delivery room with me! My mama, my grandma, my aunt, two of my grandma’s friends, my aunt’s friend and my mom’s friend. I have been blessed with a huge village of women, and it was really special that my daughter, Naiilah, was literally born into the hands and eyes of that village.

TGU: What is the most surprising thing about motherhood?

ZA: For me the most surprising thing about motherhood would have to be how easy it is to be a mom. I’m not saying motherhood isn’t difficult, but to be Naiilah’s mom is second nature for me. I don’t think twice, ever, about doing for her. Every decision I make, I think about how it will affect Naiilah, and I don’t [have to] do that on purpose.

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Zaiane Alawode and baby Naiilah
Photo: Courtesy of Zaiane Alawode

TGU: What is your mothering style?

ZA: My mothering style, which I believe is passed down from my grandmothers to my mother to me, is unconditional love. No matter what decisions my daughter makes in her life, I will support her the best way I know how and love her the same. This involves tough love, too, because we need that sometimes. I want my daughter to know that I’m always on her team and I want the best for her.

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

ZA: My baby is still really new, so I’m not quite sure yet. I will guess that I might be a little more patient with my daughter and that my decisions are a tad bit more calculated.

TGU: What is your strongest impression of your mother?

ZA: “By any means necessary” would have to be the strongest impression of my mother. My mother is a trouper and will go to the moon and back 10 times for my brother and [me].

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

ZA: I want my child’s strongest impression of me to be motivating because I’m always going to motivate/push her to do her best. I also want to motivate her with my story because I will be living proof that anything is possible with a positive thought and good work ethic. [Editor’s note: Though she left her original undergraduate program, Zaiane recently re-enrolled in college and will start her sophomore year in New York.]

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

ZA: My greatest wish for my daughter, simply put, is happiness. I want my daughter to be happy with the life that I provide for her and the life that she’ll eventually create for herself. I want her to feel fulfilled and to have lots of fun. Too often, adults—young and old—are trying to heal from either their childhood or a traumatic experience, and I don’t want my daughter spending her life trying to heal.

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

ZA: I feel like my family is a woman-driven family. I don’t believe that it has always been that way, but I think that as time moves on and the men started dropping out of our family for whatever reason, we kind of had to lean on each other and, I guess, empower each other to try to make whatever [needs to] happen, happen. ... I don’t believe that it was always that way, but I believe because of the circumstances, we have become that way. [Editor’s note: Naiilah’s father is currently part of Zaiane’s parenting plan.]