Empathic Parenting: A Black Technology of Survival

I have grown accustomed to being a vessel — holding what is not mine: thoughts, emotions, sensations, energy. It’s required me to feel bravely, to go into the depths of discomfort without knowing why or what I’ll find. My relational world is visceral. On any given day, I carry experiences that are known and unknown to me — from friends and strangers alike. Without the equilibrium that comes from being fully rested, nourished, and content, it can be difficult to discern what I am truly feeling into that belongs to someone else or what I myself am experiencing and holding.

My empathic ability expanded greatly when I became a parent. For me, motherhood started before my daughter inhabited my womb. Before I knew her name, I began cultivating a relationship with a being that wanted to incarnate through me. She appeared as I meditated in the bathtub. She would come see me at night when I dreamt. As she summoned me with each visit, I felt called to be her mother. I felt so close to this soul as if I had already known her, many life times before.

Conception was an initiation. So was the miscarriage 8 weeks later. The rainbow pregnancy that followed only a few months after was an eerie confirmation that this soul was still with me. I cannot describe how in tune I felt with this little girl as she grew inside me. Though my pregnancy was a trial by fire as I navigated unmedicated manic-depressive mood states, my daughter ensured her loving presence was felt.

The first time I felt my daughter inside my womb was during my second trimester when I was recovering from a mania-induced retinal detachment requiring emergency eye surgery. Given that I had to be anesthetized, I was concerned for my daughter’s wellbeing, especially after all the stress that my bodymind had endured up to that point. Post-op I was instructed to position myself head-down for my eye to heal. Alone in my apartment as I lay on my belly with my head in a face cradle, I felt my daughter’s first flutters of movement. It’s as if she was saying, “You’re not alone, mom. I’m still here. I’m right here with you.” 

Three years later, I am reminded of this intense psychic connection. Though she lives outside of my body, I still feel her. Deeply.

Recently, my daughter developed eczema. We endured several uncomfortable sleepless and scratchy nights. Yes, both of us. Witnessing my daughter in so much discomfort triggered by own skin condition. As my daughter scratched and scratched, I broke out in hives. It had been a while since I experienced this unpredictable allergic reaction since I take daily allergy pills to keep the inflamed red patches at bay. But as my daughter scratched uncontrollably, so did I. With the most visceral empathy.

A similar situation happened when my daughter came down with a nasty flu. As she wrenched with each round of coughs and vomit, I felt my abdomen ache. I feel my daughter deeply. Which is why I can only imagine what a mother must feel when her child experiences horrific violence.

On January 7th, 2023 a Black mother felt intense abdominal pain far greater than what I experienced when my daughter had the flu. RowVaughn Wells said,

“I had this really bad pain in my stomach earlier not knowing what had happened. But once I found out what happened, that was my son’s pain I was feeling.”

Without knowing at that moment that her son was being brutally battered by police officers, Ms. Wells felt pangs of pain where her son received the blow. This is empathic parenting.

I wonder how we, as Black mothers, developed this psychic relationship with our children. Perhaps we cultivated this ability to ensure an unbreakable connection in the midst of the forced separation from our children since the time of slavery. Given that Black wombs produced commodities owned by slaveholders to be bought and sold, enslaved mothers were denied custody of their children. After the abolition of slavery responsibility for child welfare transferred from the slave owner to the State, allowing for the criminalization of poverty and the removal of Black children from the care of their parents.

As a Black mother with a chronic mental health condition in New York City, I am acutely aware of the danger of being perceived as unfit. According to the NY Times, Black families in New York are 7 times as likely as white families to be reported to the Child Welfare System, a.k.a. the Family Regulation System (FRS),  based on (often times false) accusations of child abuse. Given that “race operates as an indicator of risk,” Black families are also 13 times more likely to have their children removed.

Is it any wonder that we, Black mamas, have an empathic and psychic connection to our children? A technology that allows us to know whether they are safe or are in pain? We have cultivated an ability that allows us to keep the promise to our children, that come Hell or high water, there is nothing that can separate us from our children.

Image Description: A Black mother embracing her baby.

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