It’s been said that behind every successful woman is a group chat hyping her up. In the case of bestselling author and Washington Post pop culture reporter Helena Andrews-Dyer, there are at least five: the Super Cool Moms, the Black Parent Meetup, the Dance Moms, the School Moms, and her old-school friends... who also happen to be moms.
“There is a lot going on, and I’m still missing stuff,” Andrews-Dyer says via Zoom from a conference room at WaPo headquarters in Washington, D.C. “There’s always something happening and I try to stay on top of everything, but the group chats help.”
Those group chats—and the real-life meetups they’ve led to—are the lifeline Andrews-Dyer discusses at length in her new book, The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class and Race from Moms Not Like Me (Crown, Aug.). The motherhood memoir is, essentially, the book she had always wanted. Or, as she put it in a tweet: “I’d never read a motherhood memoir that captured my parenting experience, so I wrote it.”
Andrews-Dyer is a California native with a masters from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism who began her editorial career as an intern at O, the Oprah Magazine in 2002. From there she did stints at the New York Times, Politico and the Root before landing at the Post. Outside of her nine-to-five, she’s been writing books. Her first, the 2010 memoir-in-essays Bitch Is the New Black, recounts her time as a Black urban professional on the dating scene and was optioned by Shonda Rhimes for Fox Searchlight Pictures. Her second book is a biography of longtime congresswoman Maxine Waters, 2020’s Reclaiming Her Time. Andrews-Dyer describes this book, which she coauthored with writer and playwright R. Eric Thomas, as more of a “journalistic endeavor.”
The Mamas is a mash-up of both efforts: a memoir that relies heavily on reporting and research, and that began with the iPhone notes Andrews-Dyer started taking in 2017 while pregnant with her first daughter, Sally. “As soon as I was pregnant, I had a colleague who said you have to join this, you have to join that, and you have to do this,” she recalls. “I was like, okay, I have to know what’s going on here. When it’s your first child and you know nothing, you want to be immersed in all the information.”
She continued taking notes and sending them to her agent, Howard Yoon at the Ross Yoon Agency, who encouraged her to “keep going.” (Andrews-Dyer called this agent-speak for “it’s good, but it’s not quite there.”) She took Yoon’s advice and kept up her digital note taking. After having her second daughter, Robyn, in 2019, she realized she had even more to say.
“I like telling stories and telling truths,” Andrews-Dyer explains. “Because I’m a storyteller, I know if I’m thinking this and I’m going through it, then others are going through it, too.”
From there, Andrews-Dyer began to tweak the idea for the book. She started doing research for it—talking to experts, scholars, and other Black moms. (Early interviewees included fellow authors Denene Millner and Deesha Philyaw.)
Andrews-Dyer says the story “got richer and more layered” as she learned more about the history and gentrification of her D.C. neighborhood of Bloomingdale. She reflected on her relationship with her own mother and becoming part of the “sandwich generation”—the approximate 50% of American adults who have parents 65 or older and are simultaneously raising young children. The book began evolving into a story about the complex conversations she was having. “What we’re talking about and going through is different from what other women are going through,” she says.
Then George Floyd was murdered.
Not only did the national reckoning that followed change the kinds of stories people were paying attention to—“Suddenly,” Andrews-Dyer says, “everyone was like, ‘Oh wait, these are stories that we’ve been ignoring’ ”—but it also irrevocably changed Andrews-Dyer’s perspective as a parent. “As a mother, hearing someone call out for their mama... As a Black woman who is very rooted in her Blackness and loves being Black and wants my girls to love being Black and everything about it... It seemed much more urgent to me to tell this story.”
Andrews-Dyer’s editor, Madhulika Sikka, felt, initially, that the book was filling a void. Then she realized it was doing something more important. “There are many, many mom books and they’re almost all by white moms,” Sikka says. “I wanted to have a different perspective and give voice to how other groups feel about mothering and being a mom. There’s a commonality that everyone’s a mom, but sometimes that’s the only commonality.”
Though Sikka didn’t necessarily want the book to feel like “a heavy tome,” she believed strongly it was shedding light on an important topic. “I acquired this book almost two years ago, and during that time we’ve seen a lot of parent activism,” she says. “We’ve seen what’s happening in schools. I really hope it engenders discussion between parents of color, between white parents and nonwhite ones, because we need some honesty.”
One thing Andrews-Dyer is clear about is what the book is not, namely a “field guide” for white mothers that explains Black motherhood. It is, of course, her story—but it’s the story of others, too.
In the memoir, Andrews-Dyer recounts how the universal difficulties of being a mother are heightened and complicated by being Black. She reflects on things like the “invisible seesaw” of code switching between her Black mom friends and white mom friends, and how she feels she has to be “twice as good at something we all suck at”—i.e., parenting. And then, of course, there’s the casual racism she confronts, like the time at the playground when a “well-meaning” white dad assumed she was the mother of a young, brash Black boy who was misbehaving.
Andrews-Dyer was also hyperaware about protecting the privacy of friends. She changed the names and identifying details of the people in the book, in an effort to protect the “precious privacy of moms who don’t need another damn thing to obsess over or worry about.”
Parenting, Andrews-Dyer says, is “ something that we’re all super stressed about: Are we doing it right? Are we getting it wrong? Who’s judging us?” She is hoping to remove stigmas and stressors. “I didn’t want anyone to feel like I’m judging their parenting or anything like that,” she explains. “It’s that line you have to walk between being a good memoirist, which means you are going to lay things pretty bare, and knowing that everybody in your life didn’t ask for that.”
While everyone could stand to learn a lesson or two from The Mamas, Andrews-Dyer wants Black mothers to feel like the book is for them. And on most levels, it is. “I didn’t see my motherhood journey necessarily mapped out in any of the motherhood memoirs that were out there,” she notes. “We don’t have a lot about the experiences of Black mothers, Black women, and Black parenting. It’s important for us to have those stories reflected.”
L’Oreal Thompson Payton is a Baltimore-bred, Chicago-based freelance writer and editor.