Anthonia Akitunde has a new take on motherhood and small business

Above: Anthonia Akitunde, founder of mater mea. | Photo Credit: Emmanuel Hahn for Arq

Above: Anthonia Akitunde, founder of mater mea. | Photo Credit: Emmanuel Hahn for Arq

Anthonia Akitunde started the website mater mea in 2012, after Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can't Have It All” put working mothers in the spotlight. “These women were at the tippy-top of their careers,” she told me. “I didn’t feel like it was relatable to someone who was entry level and a black woman.”

Drawing on her English and journalism degrees from University of Chicago and Northwestern, she started interviewing and writing about mothers she looked up to as role models. That was the inception of mater mea (whose name means “my mother” in Latin). Now, after five years featuring moms of color, Akitunde has a lot to say about the stereotypes of working motherhood and the journey of balancing a thriving career with personal fulfillment.

How do you think the conversations or topics about motherhood and career differ based on demographics?

Overall, there are certain aspects of motherhood that are the same across the board. You love your child, you worry about their education, what they’re eating, keeping them safe, keeping them alive. But for women of color, there’s an additional fear surrounding keeping them alive in regards to things like police brutality. Black children are more likely to receive harsher disciplinary actions than white children are for the same infractions. Schools tend to be harsher with black parents as well. There was recently a story of a mother whose daughter was being bullied. She wanted to hear for herself what this bullying sounded like, so she brought her daughter to school with a recording device to record the bullying. The recording device was found, the mother was charged with a felony [of intercepting wire, electronic or oral communications]. If this had gone farther, she could have gone to jail and her family could have been separated. 

I’ve noticed a lot of people are interested in homeschooling their children because the traditional educational system does not have black children’s interests at heart. They have Eurocentric curricula that relegate black history to a month, or to slavery and civil rights. Children are being disciplined for wearing “Black Girl Magic” or “Black Girls Rock” merchandise. You just don’t feel safe.

That’s an incredible story about that mother who was charged with a felony. It just makes me so mad.

It’s so crazy! And there are so many like that. I guess because I’m a journalist, my immediate thought is to go to the injustice. But there are other things, too. A few months ago we had a series about home birth. I was noticing anecdotally that for more black women on Instagram, their first pictures with their baby would be in a kiddie pool in their living room -- not in a hospital. If you go onto Google and type in “natural birth” or “home birth,” the pictures that show up are of white women. It creates this sense that home birth isn’t something that’s for you, that people in our community don’t do this. So I really wanted to create a space where you see different ways of being a black mother. We often say that black people aren’t a monolith. But there are expectations that we all think the same way on certain subjects within our own community, and that’s not the case. But I wanted black women interested in home birth to feel like they could type it in and find a place where people look like you. 

I'm also working on a podcast now about infertility in the black community. It's something that’s not talked about. Infertility is very much positioned as a white issue, but Black women are two times more likely to experience infertility. So there’s a lot of shame already around trying to conceive, but when you feel like no one is talking about people who look like you, there’s an additional concern. 

Because motherhood-meets-career conversations often center on stress, I'd love to talk instead about the joy of having a career and children. What are those really joyful elements that working mothers tell you about? 

The moments that women treasure are when their kids get why their mom is working, when they say, “I know what Mommy does. Mommy does this.” We also see women who are able to incorporate their children into the work that they do. One mom on the site started a company with her daughter around vegan-based beauty products like lip balms and lotions. She wanted to teach her daughter to tap into her entrepreneurial spirit.

I just did an Instagram takeover with a mom who travels with her two daughters under the age of four and her husband.  She has a 9-to-5 job, and she was sharing, “This is how I’m able to take my kids to Thailand, Paris and Amsterdam and have all these amazing experiences with them affordably.” Showing that kind of joy is important.

Anthonia Akitunde speaking at the #BlogHer17 conference. Photo credit: SheKnows Media.

Anthonia Akitunde speaking at the #BlogHer17 conference. Photo credit: SheKnows Media.

What are the most common biases about motherhood you’ve heard from Millennial women with career aspirations?

I think there’s a perception across the board that your life ends once you have a child. You’re solely living for another human being, and it’s all about this little person you brought into the world -- to the detriment of who you are. Women will tell me there’s all this stuff they want to do, whether that’s traveling or having a certain amount of money. The bias is that they have to have their ducks in a row before they have kids. Inherently, you change from having a kid. Your responsibilities are different and your relationships with friends might change. But there’s a misperception that it’s all for the worse. The frenzied, overwhelmed mom is a prevalent image, but that’s not the reality for everyone.

Representation matters. It’s important to see someone like Jodie Patterson, who has this beautiful brownstone, five kids in New York and a thriving business. She’s a trans rights activist, and she has a very full life with all the accoutrements. It’s helpful to see someone like who looks like you being successful and happy.

I’m really curious about what running and scaling mater mea has looked like over the past 5 years.

The first 3 years I definitely thought of mater mea as a passion project. I just really loved sharing these women’s stories. I was very mercenary about my talents as a journalist. If you looked at my resume you’d be like, “None of this makes any sense, you’re writing about Baby Boomers and now you’re going into small business stuff." With mater mea I felt like I had found my purpose. I could use my skills to tell meaningful stories in a very thoughtful and quality-driven way. When I first started it was longform profiles with beautiful photography once or twice a month. Then I transitioned it in 2014 to more of a traditional blog. But then I had health issues. It was really hard for me. I had this feeling that mater mea was supposed to be bigger than it is -- for my sense of what it means to be successful, but also because I knew that this kind of content was needed in my community. Then there was my imposter syndrome around being a businessperson and telling myself, "I’m just a writer." So I was dealing with competing feelings: wanting mater mea to be bigger, but also feeling like, "I don’t know how to write a business plan or monetize."

Funnily enough, the process of getting married has put me in a better position to treat mater mea as a business and consider myself an entrepreneur. I went through a lot of therapy and just started to connect the dots. Keeping mater mea small meant it was safe. If it fails, no one will notice but a handful of people -- as opposed to me failing epicly in front of everyone. I kept thinking that it needed to be huge for it to be worthwhile. Now I want to scale that back to why I started in the first place, which is the community. I think going back to the community and growing based on their needs is exactly what I need to do. That will probably lead to success that feels truer to me than becoming the "next Oprah” or going on Oprah. I was really stressing myself out when I thought that’s what mater mea had to be at the gate. Maybe I’ll get there, but for right now I think a safe space for my community is what I want.

A lot of business owners feel like it’s very important to project success, so I always think it’s such a treat when I get to talk to people who help me go behind the scenes. And I’d love to hear more about how you built your business in alignment with your values. How did you get to this place where you’re comfortable saying no to a business that feels wrong, and embracing one that feels true to your mission?

When you make a business so personal, it’s privy to your ups and downs. The site used to be so tied to myself. If I was doing great, the site was doing great. If I was feeling anxious or upset, the site and our social media didn’t get updated. I was trying to glom onto this entrepreneur identity that didn’t feel right for me, and I had the realization that the site needed to be separate from myself. Recently I posted something brutally honest about this, talking to my community and saying, “I want mater mea to be bigger than just me and my couch. I want it to be able to withstand.” The community is what keeps me going. Now I can tell myself, “Oh, you want to have all this content ready for Black Breastfeeding Week because your community needs that content,” and it’s easier for me to fire up the laptop and work.

How do you maintain this sense of purpose in parallel with meeting your financial goals?

Even though mater mea isn’t making money yet, the work I’ve done has really changed people’s lives. I just shared a post from a year ago, highlighting a single mom in Los Angeles who was making too much money to qualify for public assistance, but not enough to live. She was having a really hard time with her daughter and her daughter’s father, and she was overwhelmed. I immediately started tearing up when I read her email. When I shared her story, people donated money to her. Someone who’s a fan of mater mea knew the woman who wrote the letter and offered her to a place to live. A year later, this woman is a full-time student. She blogs about her experiences as a single mom. She is doing so much better than she was a year ago. I would love to have money in the bank, but this story means so much more to me.

Do you have any advice for other founders and small business owners who need a reminder that their work is worthwhile, even in its early phases?

I have a list of things in my inbox. Any time someone says something nice, I’ll tag the email “kind words,” so I can look at it whenever I need that boost. It’s the same with comments. I’ll take a screen grab. When you’re your toughest critic, it’s easy to see where you’re failing and not where you’re thriving. Being goal-oriented also helps. I’m in the process of figuring out what I want 2018 to look like, breaking it out into quarters and figuring out how I'll accomplish my goals each week. Then I have those wins to celebrate.

What's the best way to better support mothers who are women of color?

Listen to black women and what they have to say, and don't make things about you personally. Do the work of looking at a statement and asking, “What did I do to make them feel that way?” People think that just because their intentions are good, that ameliorates the impact of what they do, say, or think. It's really important to not take everything as an affront to you, because even if your feelings are hurt, I promise you the person who said that you’ve hurt their feelings has it 10 times worse than you do.

If you are a white parent, don't believe in the idea that you’re raising your children to be colorblind. That idea is more harmful than people realize. It actually establishes a lot of biases. Something you hear is, “We don’t see color.” That's actually telling your child that we’re all working from a level playing field, which just isn’t the case. So then your child thinks, “Oh, well that person must be poor or in trouble because they want to be poor or in trouble. We’re all working from the same playing field. Why can’t they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” Now you have this seemingly liberal family who is perpetuating white supremacist ideology without even realizing it, because they’re afraid to have that race conversation. 

I’m dealing with this myself with religion. My husband is Jewish, and we’re trying to figure out what it means to be a Black Jewish family. You have to figure out your stuff before you can teach your child how to be a better person. So if you have unconscious (or very conscious) biases about people of color, you can’t just tell your kid to be a good person. They’re going to pick up stuff. I had a friend whose step-son said, “Oh, only black people play basketball.” He was watching the NBA game and he’s 6. He’s not saying something horrible like racist slur. He’s just saying what he’s seeing. Parents’ inclination is just to say “Oh, no, you’re not supposed to say that,” without explaining why that’s problematic. If everyone would just do the work, we would see some changes in this world. 

How can readers support mater mea and your journey?

If there is a black woman in your life, tell her about mater mea. Tell her about Instagram, Facebook, the website. Get in touch if you work for a company that's interested in working with mater mea to create content and introduce it to my audience, just hit me up!