Gabrielle Union: “I Know I Can’t Be A Good Mum If I’m Not Good To Myself”

“I’m such a bad mum.” Five words we tell ourselves, veiled in the feeling that we're just not doing it right. The truth is, with the bar of motherhood set so impossibly high, there really is no doing it right, all the time, in every way. And now, in the throes of a global pandemic, the bar has shifted even higher. If you, too, are making meals out of old cereal, abandoning screen-time limits, and, you know, are occasionally terrified about what the future holds, you're not alone. No Bad Moms is a series about not just lowering the bar, but ditching it completely. It’s about finding the good mum within all of us. And most of all, honouring that in each other, on Mother's Day and EVERY day. So, please share your stories about what it's like to be a mom right now with #nobadmoms, because we see you. And, no matter what, we think YOU are an inspiration.
Photo: Courtesy of Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.
I absolve myself of “mum guilt.” Coming into the parenting game late, as a 46-year-old rookie with my first biological daughter, Kaavia, I had already experienced the best and the worst of what the world has to offer. I have decided I'm not going to feel guilty for working. I'm not going to feel guilty for self-care. I'm not going to feel guilty for prioritising myself, because I know I can't be a great mom if I'm not a great person. 
There are six of us self-isolating here in our house (it’s like Big Brother… with a lot less sex and drugs). I’m someone who needs silence and alone time. Right now, I'm in the farthest corner of our backyard and still, our 12-year-old daughter Zaya is roller-skating by on her break between online classes, and I'm trying not to be distracted. My husband just came out here. They’re like locusts. It's like they can smell that I need this time alone and then they just start to descend. 
There are days when I stay in the bathroom an extra five minutes because I just don't feel like dealing. I don’t consider that something to be guilty about. Saddling yourself with guilt, angst, and anxiety about why you feel the way you feel is so counterproductive. I can say this because I'm old as fuck, and I've just been around the block. I know that at the end of the day, there is no gold medal for those who guilted themselves the most or who stressed themselves out the most. There is no trophy for performative parenting.
There’s this idea that for someone like me, who fought through infertility to have the family that they wanted or fought to have the career that they wanted, anything other than absolute gratitude is unacceptable. Yes, I am grateful for my health, my family's health, and that my loved ones who've had COVID-19 have all recovered. But leading with gratitude all the time is exhausting. 

There is no gold medal for those who guilted themselves the most or who stressed themselves out the most. There is no trophy for performative parenting.

gabrielle union
Sometimes I just want to say, Yeah motherfucker, I'm grateful. Now get off my back. People are like, "But you have a miracle baby, and anything that miracle baby does is also a miracle!" When she picked up dog shit yesterday, was that also a miracle? Oh, OK, I'm supposed to be grateful for my baby handling dog shit.
Kaavia is one-and-a-half now, and it’s aggravating when she doesn’t want to put clothes on, or when out of the blue she's got a whole new food palate, or that she’s becoming seriously, psychotically addicted to phones, iPads, computers, and any kind of electronic. She's like a con artist. We call her Long Con Kaav. You'll be like, "Oh my God, she's so loving,” and then she pickpockets your iPhone. For a baby, it's pretty diabolical. She grabs the remote and turns the channel in the middle of the Michael Jordan documentary. I'm so frustrated and then I want to cry, and it’s not even something to cry over, but it’s like, The Jordan doc is all I had to look forward to this whole week, come on! Then, the fucking gratitude police say, "But you should be grateful." Look, right now, I'm not. I'm angry, annoyed, and frustrated. I am entitled to having feelings that are not completely wrapped in gratitude. That's okay. Everything isn't always rosy.
I think I'm unshameable at this stage. One of the first things I shared on social media of Kaavia was me kissing her. And my comments were full of people who were telling me about the dangers of kissing my baby daughter. Now, I always get, "How come Kaav is dressed differently? How come she's not in designer clothes?" Or, "How come she doesn't have a top on? She's a little girl." And I'm like, Maybe, I don't sexualise babies, you fucking weirdo. If that's going to be my response, it's probably just best that I don't respond. A lot of mom-shaming comes out of people wanting to believe that sameness equals goodness and righteousness. And if someone is doing something different, it's like an indictment of what you're doing. Girl, bye. Unpack that before you attack.
It has been fascinating during this time to learn about myself and my children. Instead of feeling guilt or shame, I’m checking myself. The other day Kaavia fell down and everyone froze — we were waiting to see if she was going to have a reaction and she was waiting for us and second-guessing her pain. I was like, "Get up. Come on, get up. You're good." And she gets up and her knees were actually really scraped. It sent me down this rabbit hole. Was it wrong of me to try to negate her legitimate pain?
I was raised in an environment where accessing my pain, my trauma, or any kind of negative emotion was looked at as weakness. I battle with myself often because I respond to other people's displays of pain as weakness. It has affected me as a friend, as a spouse, as a stepmother, and as just a fellow human being. At that moment I was like, Oh God. Is this how it starts? But I don’t call that a “bad mom” thing. It was more of a “questionable mom” thing. I think it’s a good sign that there was something in me that went, Let's try to do better the next time. 
Since I’m usually working away from home, being present every day is really different for me. I’m watching the girls change every day. Zaya is almost 13, and to see her light bulbs go off with schoolwork is amazing. It’s funny, Zaya does not ask for any help with homeschooling at all. I think she thinks that we are all idiots and she's the most intelligent person in the house. She'd much prefer getting help from her teachers and tutors. And I love watching her be independent and communicate with her friends because I usually miss it all. Being able to witness it up close reminds me that it doesn’t matter whether you're a stay-at-home mom with your kids physically at school for a good chunk of the day, or you're a working mum, we all miss a lot.
Zaya's journey since she was clear about her gender expression has made me unpack everything I thought I knew about gender and identity, which turns out, was very little. It made me unpack all of the things that I had just accepted, without question, that are actually wildly harmful for the development of girls and the self-esteem of children, period. We're still making a ton of mistakes. We are definitely not the poster parents because we're still learning. We are perfectly willing to be held publicly accountable for our shortcomings. We’re trying to not make those same mistakes with Kaavia. It started with how we designed her nursery. Now it’s the clothes that we buy her, and the things that we say. Like when somebody said to her before the quarantine, "Be nice Kaav." I said, "Fuck that, Kaav. Take up as much space as you want." She wasn’t hurting anyone. In that scenario, they were telling her to be nice to make it an easier time for them. 
We use the words “nice,” “sweet,” and “precious” with girls, and we don't encourage anything else that they may be feeling. In my mind, when Kaavia fell and I essentially told her to “toughen up, kid,” there was a moment where I felt like I was empowering her. When I saw that her little knees were skinned, I realised I was doing something else. I was actually robbing her of her feelings. We have to try to figure out how to meet our kids where they actually are, not force them in a direction that is more about our own personal comfort or our own ignorance. It’s also okay to not have all the answers.
This time has also made me think about how few answers I have about my kids’ futures. Zaya has not left the house in almost two months. In that period of time, we have seen Black, Brown, and other people of colour disproportionately affected and impacted by COVID-19. Zaya will be a teenager at the end of May, and eventually I will have to send her back out into this world. It was bad before, and it’s terrifying now.
We've seen how Black and Brown people are being treated when they complain about anything, much less COVID-19 symptoms that could lead to their death. When we’re told, You can't come into the grocery store without a mask, you’re seeing Black people put masks on and still get escorted out. We're entering an unprecedented time. I don't know what is coming, but I can damn sure see what's happening right now doesn't look good for Black people. 
Right now, indefinite quarantine feels like the safest bet for my Black children. I don't think “The Talk” covers all the new shit that has come up. There is anger, frustration, and fear that comes with being a Black parent during a pandemic, but I refuse to take on guilt.
Because even when you succumb to all the guilt and stress, and you do everything that society tells you you're supposed to do to be a perfect mom, your kid might still get an F. Your son might display misogyny and toxic masculinity. Your daughter may be the absolute opposite of what society says is an acceptable woman. You could be perfect, or you could be less than perfect, and your kids are going to be who they are. All we can do is our best to instill some peace, joy, grace, compassion, and a sense of community. All we can hope is that we raise people who are going to be accountable for themselves. 
We're all built differently, and I have zero guilt about that. 
As told to Kathleen Newman-Bremang. This interview has been condensed from its original transcription. 
Gabrielle Union’s children’s book, Welcome To The Party, was inspired by the birth of her daughter, Kaavia James Union Wade, and is available now.  

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series