Zibby Owens: I hosted a book club for HeyMama, which is an organization for women CEOs and entrepreneurs and other badass moms. Nefertiti Austin wrote a book called Motherhood So White. It’s a memoir about adopting her son and so much else. I got to interview her for the book club, which was really fun. Here’s a little more about Nefertiti. Nefertiti writes about the erasure of diverse voices in motherhood. Her work around this topic has been shortlisted for literary awards and appeared in The HuffPost, MUTHA, The Establishment, Mater Mea,, Adoptive Families magazine, PBS, and PBS Parents. She was the subject of an article on race and adoption in The Atlantic and appeared on HuffPost Live and “One Bad Mother” where she shared her journey to adoption as a single black woman. Nefertiti’s expertise stems from firsthand experience and degrees in US history and African American studies. Nefertiti is a former certified PS-MAPP trainer where she co-led classes for participants wanting to attain a license to foster and/or adopt children from foster care systems. An alumna of Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and VONA, her first two novels, Eternity and Abandon, helped usher in the black romance genre in the mid-1990s. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Zibby: Welcome to all of you. Thanks for listening to our little conversation here. Welcome, Nefertiti. Thanks to everybody for having us.

Nefertiti Austin: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Zibby: You used so many nicknames in your book. You used to be called Tina. Then you were Nef. I’ll use your whole name because we just met, so it’s okay.

Nefertiti: All right, that’s fine. It’s an evolution. You know how this goes.

Zibby: Yeah, I get it. Thanks to the few of you who are here tonight and watching and everything. That’s great. Nefertiti, for the people who don’t know, can you please tell everybody what your book is about? What inspired you to write this memoir?

Nefertiti: Again, I’m Nefertiti Austin. I wrote a memoir, Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America. I started writing because when I was ready to be a mom, I knew I wanted to adopt. I knew I wanted to be a mother. I knew I wanted to adopt a black boy from the foster care system. I’m such a nerd. I love to read. I was looking for books. This is the height of all the mommy wars. I was quickly disappointed when I found that most of those books didn’t include me. I was nowhere on the page. There’s certainly lots of universalities within motherhood, but there are cultural nuances. I was looking for myself. I couldn’t find myself on the page. I began writing. My early writings were really a rage against the machine, rage against publishing, just racism within parenting and adoption. Over time, I really was able to hone in on what it was I was really trying to say, basically what I’m wanting to say. I hope the message is clear. That is that we have so much power as mothers. I would love for all moms, but especially white mothers who still have the lion share of the market in the parenting genre, to be open to alternative perspectives and experiences that are crucial and critical to what’s happening in the world. That’s the impetus for how I began writing about motherhood.

Zibby: You wrote about it so beautifully, how you rolled August into the library and you were like, “Could I please have the books here on black parenting?” They were like, yeah, no, we’ve got nothing. You kept going. You’re like, “Now I’m going to the big-box bookstores. Now I’m going to the independent bookstores.” You looked everywhere. There was just nothing. You couldn’t find a thing. I think you were just flabbergasted by the lack of material that was already out there. Of course, they say that’s the best book to write when you look for it on the shelf, it’s not there. You have to just go do it.

Nefertiti: That’s essentially what happened. I was surprised. There were a couple of oldies from the eighties. Rebecca Walker had a book out.

Zibby: You mentioned that.

Nefertiti: It was one essay collection. There was one little chapter on adoption. In the scheme of things though, it was really very startling and surprising that in the twenty-first century that I could not find mom narratives about women who looked like me.

Zibby: Your book was so multilayered because you tackled so many topics. It’s not just that there weren’t books about people that looked like you. It was the fact that, as you would say in the book, in the black culture, adoption of somebody you didn’t know is just not done. Everybody was like, “What do you mean? You’re adopting somebody you don’t know?” You obviously, as you wrote about so beautifully, you were adopted by your grandparents who raised you. That’s very common. It’s less common to go into the foster care system and be like, you know what, I’m going to be an angel and I’m just going to adopt somebody or I’m going to foster care somebody, and that’s what I’m doing. You met with so much resistance. Tell me about that cultural backlash you got when you even set your mind on doing this.

Nefertiti: The funny thing is I’m such a free spirit. Every time my family expects me to go left, I go right. I don’t know why they were so surprised. Basically, culturally, we tend to take children we know. We look within. We start with nieces and nephews and grandchildren. If there aren’t any children who are in need in those spaces, then often you see a lot of that within churches, with the neighborhood. It’s really giving families an opportunity to maintain a unit even if the parents maybe lives down the street or maybe they’re not blood related but there is some type of connection. I didn’t have that option within my family and because I wanted to adopt. I really had no choice but to go outside my family. The question I still get when I share that my children are adopted, from black people, especially older black people, “Do you know their people?” That’s always the first question. “Do you know them? Do you know their people?” Somehow, that makes it easier. People understand that. Oh, okay, this is someone you knew. Okay, we understand that. Whenever I say, “No, I don’t know their people. I went the foster care route,” I got quite a few double takes. Largely, it’s because children in the foster care system are negatively stigmatized. They have a really, really bad reputation, especially in the press. They’re kind of written off as the lowest of the low, leftover children, rejects. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I just ignored all of that and did it anyway.

Zibby: Amazing. Tell me about your own family. You grew up in a family in which your father ended up being — why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about your background? There are a lot of different ways to go when you have parents who weren’t there for you in one way or another. A lot of parents aren’t able to be there for their kids, whether through drug addiction or incarceration or whatever else. You can respond to that in a lot of ways. One way is not necessarily that you want to double down and create an amazing home life for your kids, but one way is that way. Tell me about how you felt like your own personal experience influenced your decision. I feel like there was so much of that in the book that was so important.

Nefertiti: My parents were very young when they married. Actually, I was born before they got married. They were part of the Black Power movement in the sixties. All that has happened in the last few months and certainly over the years, but definitely Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, my parents would’ve been in the street up front with Black Lives Matter. They were young and radical. Like many people during the sixties and seventies, they took drugs. Unfortunately, they both had drug addictions. It splintered our family. My father went to the penitentiary. My mother went to rehab. Even though she eventually kicked her drug habit, her lifestyle was very unstable. My brother and I went back and forth between grandparents and my mom. One summer we lived with my dad. There was just a lot of back and forth. Finally, I was nine, my brother and I officially went to live with grandparents, but they did not adopt us because, again, in the black community, there’s no need to get adopted. We had a very informal arrangement. Our entire family abided by the new configuration which essentially meant that my grandparents were my parents. Then my mother and father over time really became like siblings. They didn’t have a lot of authority in terms of where I went to school. They couldn’t really get me out of trouble if I got in trouble for doing things. It was just like instead of grandparents raising three children, they ended up raising five of us. That was my orientation to, you could raise a family and not have given birth to the children, but I didn’t connect all of those dots until I was actually writing my memoir. Then it was sort of like, oh, these seeds, this legacy had been established in me. When I was ready to become a mom, all of this stuff came flooding forward for me. It made sense to me to adopt.

Zibby: I feel like you had so much practice after taking care of your brother. You talk about, in the book, how you would get up on a chair and reach down for the Cheerios. I know I mentioned this to you the other day, but that image is seared in my mind. It’s just so cute. Your parents were passed out or whatever. You were like, well, it’s time for breakfast.

Nefertiti: Somebody had to do it. Oh, yeah, I remember that well.

Zibby: I thought there were so many other interesting things in your book. One thing was the cultural resistance to seeking therapy, which I didn’t even really realize. I hadn’t really even thought about it particularly. You were saying that when you went to seek therapy yourself, people in your family and whatever saying, “Don’t tell your secrets to a white person. Don’t do that.” That’s, no, no, no. Tell me a little more about that.

Nefertiti: We still have a lot of resistance to seeking mental health. Speaking of which, I’m sure you can’t miss Kayne West. He’s all over the news with his craziness. I don’t mean it negatively. I don’t mean to offend by using the phrase craziness, but he definitely has a mental illness. I don’t know if he’s bipolar or what his diagnosis is, but he’s certainly living out loud a lot of what happens every single day. In our community, our go-to is, that person needs to go to church. Maybe you’d talk to the pastor and somehow the pastor’s going to straighten you out, or that person just needs to relax. They come up with all of these excuses, everything except for what we need. That is an impartial person just to help us sort through our feelings. There’s so much trauma in our community. We certainly have survived enslavement and mass incarceration and segregation and all of these things that have happened and continue to happen. It’s a lot to carry. I think that we pass it down. We pass down these feelings about getting help. We are very distrustful of the penal system. We are distrustful of the medical system. We have legitimate reasons to be weary of and distrustful of. When it comes to our mental health, we are still very resistant about getting that type of help.

I think we’re afraid that, A, if we tell white people our business, then it will give them more of a reason to mistreat us. B, if we say some of the things we’re feeling out loud, if we’re feeling depressed or we’re feeling stressed or tired or those things, then it’s real if we say it out loud. We hold it in or we overeat or we drink, just as other people try to manage themselves instead of seeking help. It’s a huge problem now. I really hope more of us will seek counseling. I was in law school, which I didn’t finish. I didn’t have any business being in law school, but I was there. My mother was thinking of breaking up with her husband and coming to LA. I just felt like she’s getting ready to ruin my world. She had been gone. I was trying to figure out, I wanted to be a writer, but I’m in law school because I had said I want to be lawyer and I’m trying to honor what I said I would be and make my parents proud. Then my mother is going through her drama. She was going to bring it to me. I just needed someone to talk to about it. I knew within my family, I couldn’t do it. Immediately, my brother and my aunt, “Why would you do that to your mother?” Then it became about her feelings instead of my own and what I was dealing with. God bless my grandmother. She was in my corner. She was like, “You have to do what you have to do.” I’m so grateful for that. I’m a huge fan of therapy. I think it’s good stuff.

Zibby: Truth be told, you could’ve written the whole book about your relationship with your own mother. That would’ve filled multiple books in and of itself. I feel like I have read books like that, coping with a narcissistic mother. So you started writing novels. You pivoted from law school. You started writing fiction. You also had a job. Now you have an adopted child. You do a million things. Then your mom comes waltzing in, as many moms that I perhaps know or have definitely read about would do, and makes it all about her. You’re like, could I have one day, just one day? Tell me about that scene that night and the effect of the world being about her and how that affects you as a child.

Nefertiti: Which time? Are you talking about my very first book signing? That one?

Zibby: Yes.

Nefertiti: My mentor was an assembly member at the time. We were able to get the California African American History Museum, beautiful venue. I’m mid-twenties. This is huge. I’m excited. My grandfather flew my mom out, because she lived in Houston at the time, to come to this book signing. I wasn’t living at home, so I must have gone to my grandparent’s home. I would say hi. All of a sudden, my mother’s like, “So you didn’t want me to come?” It was just so bizarre, out of nowhere. As usual, she made everything about her. I think I thought I was going to pick her up so she could ride with me. I left. I just drove myself. When I got there, I had an amazing time. You have to say a few words and thank people for coming. I had thanked everyone. I had gone to sit down. My mentor was like, “You didn’t thank your mother.” I was like, oh, yeah. I had to go back up and thank her. It was one more thing. It was an afterthought for me because I always felt like — and I told her this. “You show up for the good stuff, for my cotillion, for the book signing, for graduations, that sort of thing. Just on a regular Tuesday or a Wednesday, you’re not there for the regular mundane things that happen in my life.” I was very resentful for many, many years. We had a very cold relationship. The ice was on my part because I was just like, I’m done. I don’t understand. What is your point? She was trying and really pushing for a relationship. I wasn’t interested. It took me probably six years after therapy before I really got, for real, she’s your sister. You don’t have to have this close relationship with her. It’s okay. Then I was able to let all that stuff go and keep moving forward with my life.

Zibby: I think the perk, really, if anybody in the world out there has a narcissistic mother, it means you can write an amazing memoir eventually. That is the hallmark of a great story. At least you have that to mine in addition to other things. I felt like you did such a great job in the book of explaining the whole process of just how much it takes to adopt, to become a foster parent, all of the steps. We all know this. It must be a lot of work, the contrast of just spontaneously basically having your own child and the hoops that you have to jump through in order to become a foster parent and then finally an adoptive parent and all of the decisions you had to make and the classes. Is this special needs child, is this my baby or is this not? Those painful decisions, what was it like having to go through all that? Tell me how your resolve to do it just kept building the more you went through.

Nefertiti: It was definitely nerve-racking at times. Probably, my saving grace, and this is what undergirds my resolve, was just being very organized. I was clear. I knew I wanted to be a mom. I could cross that off my list. I was ready. Then I’m a very organized person, so that definitely helped keep me calm. My best friend, she’s an adoption social worker. I could certainly call her and talk with her. The process is what the process is. I basically just talked to myself. We’re going to get through this. I’m going to get to the other side of it. As long as I remain focused on my goal, which was to adopt a little boy and then later a little girl, then everything will be fine. In the meantime, I just have to give the people what they’re asking me for and remain as flexible as I could. There’s a lot. There’s parenting classes which were certainly invaluable. I enjoyed those as well. I think those classes really also took that last edge of off my relationship with my mother because I finally got, if she could’ve done better, she would have. I definitely believe that. That was very helpful. Then in preparation for the children who are in foster care, the kids are there typically for neglect and for abuse. Most parents are not looking at their child like, I don’t want you and I’m just going to toss you to the system. That typically does not happen. I knew that any child I got was wanted and for whatever reason couldn’t remain with their family. I remained focus on that. That made it easier to get through another set of forms that I need to complete, another psychological evaluation by the social worker. I have to go and get CPR certified. Okay, I can do this. All my friends have to write letters of recommendation. Okay, I can do these things. I just rolled with it because I knew it would end at some point.

Zibby: Another interesting element of your book is how you talk about race and gender not just in terms of adoption, but in terms of how you feel about all of that. One part was so interesting. Well, two parts, really. One, the Clarence Thomas situation where you had to decide between, do I stand by a woman or do I stand by the idea of getting a black man elected to the supreme court? Then again when Obama was running against Hillary. Tell me a little about that and how you felt like your allegiances as a feminist women, essentially, and also a member of the black race who wants somebody else to be represented and front and center, how those conflict and how you ended up deciding who to support and how to make up your mind about those things.

Nefertiti: That was really a wild time. 1991, I had just graduated. It was a recession. I remember I didn’t have anything to do except watch the confirmation hearings and being very concerned that, wow, if black people miss an opportunity to have a black person on the supreme court, we may never get this opportunity again. I had reservations about Clarence Thomas. At the time, I thought, I got to vote my race. That’s something that I think as black men and women, no one ever says that, but it is implied through everything we learned. Dr. King singlehandedly did all of these amazing things. It isn’t until you became an adult and you do your own research where you learn, oh, no, there was a whole army, and typically of women, behind these great men that we hear about who did all of this work. There’s a lot of folklore within our community. I also didn’t have a reason to doubt Anita Hill. Again, at that point, I’m young and I’m thinking, I got to put my race first.

Then fast-forward a decade and some change. I had matured. I had way more life experience. I began to see things a lot differently. I was like, here’s an opportunity to put my gender first and put my feminism and my thoughts about the world and equity, inclusion, and things like that first. I went in like, okay, let’s see what Hillary has to say. I’m open. This sounds good. A woman president, oh, my god, this will be fantastic. Then as I learned more about then Senator Obama, I was like, he and I have a lot in common. He was also raised by grandparents. I felt like I had a personal connection to him. I was opposed to the war on Iraq from the beginning. So was he. I got a better understanding, a deeper understanding of who would get the privilege to represent me. I wouldn’t be blind anymore. I wouldn’t be taken for granted anymore. I wouldn’t allow myself to be taken for granted anymore. I would no longer make decisions solely based upon my race or my gender. I would do my homework. That’s definitely what I did.

It was a huge awakening for me. It helped because I knew I wanted a little boy. That was another question I got. “Why would you want a little boy? You’re a single woman. You’re educated. You’ve been places. You know things. You could really impart those lessons and fill a little girl. That’s what you should be doing. That’s the child that you should pursue.” All of those things were true. At that point, and I still think I made the right decision — I do have a daughter. That’s a wonderful experience. I’m so happy to have her. At that moment in 2006, I thought, there’s so much negativity around black males. I want to do this. This is my community service. This has nothing to do with Clarence Thomas and nothing to do with Obama. This is about me and about a woman being able to make a difference. This will cover everyone.

Zibby: Amazing. I was also struck by, well, by so many things in your book, but as your son was getting older, how the men in the community felt like it was their duty to take what you called their misogynistic views and sort of impart them on how soft he was getting. You had a child boy in Beverly Hills. What was going to become of him? He should be doing this. You had this whole section in the book where it was like, me, them, me, them, which was fantastic. Here you are doing all of this stuff to raise a black boy to become a black man in America. Yet all the black men in America are chastising you about one thing or another. What was that like for you?

Nefertiti: It was actually pretty funny. They still tease me. We’re still friends. Oh, my god, they used to get on my case about how I dressed him, how I was holding him. “Put him down. Let him walk. He needs to toughen up,” and all of these things. It’s funny because he’s still the same little kid. He is very tech driven. He’s still very much into science. He’s a sensitive child, still very intellectually curious. He’s not that dude. He was never going to be that dude. They were doing their best to make him into — I don’t know what they thought they were going to do, but they were so funny. We laugh about that.

Zibby: I feel like there’s nothing more blatantly nature/nurture than seeing a child who now you’ve adopted and you can tell, kids come with their own programming. I have four kids. As I’ve had more and more kids, I’ve realized the more kids I have the least affect I feel like I have on them. They are who they are. August was born the way he was. A fist bump instead of a hug was not going to change who he was. I feel like you have this unique point of view of what, really, it means to raise a child and sort of humanity at its core.

Nefertiti: They’re so funny. I definitely wholeheartedly agree boys need men. They absolutely need men in their lives. There are conversations that a man can have with a boy, because he used to a boy, I certainly can’t have. I have no ego, no issue saying, “You should talk with so-and-so about this because they were twelve or they were nine, and they can kind of walk you through these.” They can role play when the kids tease each other back and forth. I’m like, “You should talk to Uncle so-and-so about that. Let them help you come up with some zingers that you can get your friends with.” We certainly need the men in our lives. I’m grateful that we have a really great group of men that are still part of our lives that support all the kids.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell me a little more about writing this book. How long did it take? Where did you write it? How did you find the time to do it? How did you decide how to structure it? Tell me all the ins and outs in a couple minutes of how you ended up writing the book.

Nefertiti: Originally, I thought I had a collection of essays. I started writing about race and parenting and adoption in 2009. Over time, I had slowly but surely amassed a fair number of articles. I thought, I’ll just expand on different topics. When you adopt a child, they suggest strongly that you not change the child’s name. You want to honor their identity. I changed both of my kids’ names. I had a whole essay about names and naming within the black community. Religion was another something that I wrote about. I had an agent. We worked together for a couple of years. We ultimately parted ways because I don’t know that she was necessarily comfortable with the racial aspect of what I was writing about. I kind of felt like she was taking me away from that. She didn’t understand that the whole point is that black mothers are moms too. We have experiences. We want to be part of the conversation, etc., etc.

Then I got a new agent. We were on board with this collection of essays. She says, “I think you’re going to have to make this a narrative.” I say, “Great, I can do that.” She sells the book. The first draft was seventy-five thousand words. It was super academic. I was so proud of all of these discussions, intersectionality and racial hierarchies and motherhood and breaking down Murphy Brown and all these things. The editor says to me, “This is good. This is great, but we need your story. I know you are a private person, but you’re going to have to tell us your story. You’re going to have to share who you are.” That was hard for me. I had to, okay, okay, okay. I was up for it. The next version, I just laid everything out there. Then she said, “Well, you don’t have to tell everything.” I was like, oh, god, thank you so much. That’s how it went from a very academic, essay-driven style book to what we have now, which is sort of a linear discussion of why it came to be, how I came to adopt.

Zibby: How do you feel having been such a private person to then have your whole life story out into the world?

Nefertiti: It’s easier with strangers because I’ll never see them again. Most of the people I don’t know, and that’s great. It was scary when my friends and family read my book, more of my friends, less my family. That was definitely scary because they knew some things, but they didn’t know everything. I did get a lot of text messages, a lot of phone calls. “I didn’t know that. You never said anything. You kept that to yourself. Why didn’t you ever say anything?” I didn’t hold onto a lot of stuff. I just kind of kept it moving. I’m proud of the work I did. I’m proud of being honest. I stand by what I wrote. I’m okay with it. I feel like ten years from now, five years, fifteen years, or what have you, it’s nothing for me to be embarrassed about. I’m proud of that.

Zibby: Embarrassed? What are you talking about? No, not all. You should be super proud of this book. It was great. It was a really great book. What do you have coming next? Would you want to write more? Are you writing more books? Are you going back to fiction? Tell me, what’s your life plan these days?

Nefertiti: It’s funny. I had a conversation with my agent this morning about that. We’re just trying to figure out next steps and what would make the most sense. I started on a book for children in foster care. I met a librarian last year, and she asked me to write it. She’s like, “There aren’t any books for children in foster care.” My experience as a foster parent was fairly limited because I got my children when they were babies, but I thought that was a great idea. You mentioned having a narcissistic mother and how you could write a whole book on that. That’s actually going to be my next book. You guessed it, writing about mothers and daughters. I was talking with her this morning. I had three or four pages’ worth. She asked a great question. She’s like, “What is the story that you are afraid to tell?” That’s such an interesting question. I thought, oh, I could build a book around that. I think that’ll be the next one.

Zibby: I cannot wait to read that book. That sounds amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Nefertiti: The best advice I can give is a writer does two things, read and write. That’s super important. It’s important to read books in the genre that you are interested in and to do your homework. The other thing is if you have a vision, you have an idea for something, to not get discouraged. As a writer, your work is going to get edited. People are not going to necessarily like what you write. You do have to be open to constructive criticism, but don’t give up. If you have an idea, if it’s important to you, I think you should write your story. People get caught up in, oh, my god, it’s going to take ten years, or I’ve been working on this book for twenty years. That’s fine. It takes as long as it takes.

Zibby: So true. A girlfriend of mine from college just texted me an hour ago. She wrote this romance novel with another friend of hers. It took them ten years. She’s like, “We finally got an offer on our romance novel. It’s been such a journey.” I was like, that’s what it’s like. That’s what it’s like for everybody. It’s always such a journey. Just keep at it. Thank you, Nefertiti. Thank you so much. Thanks for your amazing memoir, Motherhood So White, thought-provoking, well-written, researched, awesome, just really great. I’m so glad I got to know you through the book and now in this venue. Thanks for coming onto the HeyMama Book Club. Thanks, HeyMama Book Club, for having me. Thank you all for joining tonight. Thanks.

Nefertiti: Thanks for having me. I’ll certainly check out your upcoming events.

Zibby: Awesome.