You should know that I really like my maiden name. Millner is an original—a cut above the standards Miller and Milner, with its extra L and the surprising N. I also happen to think Millner, the name my daddy gave me, cuts a really commanding presence next to the unusual but equally well-liked Denene, the name my mom picked up, I’m told, from some soap commercial she saw on TV while she was watching her stories. For sure, they look good together, my two names, especially on my books and magazine article by-lines—the Millner part serving a fitting tribute to my dad, who convinced me to become a writer in the first place.
Denene Millner. Strong, yet feminine, original, yet accessible. Loves it so much so that when I got married, I chose to keep my maiden name (a decision that, for years, had my husband a little vexed).
Still, the maiden name this married mom of three loves so much gets kicked to the curb faster than a virgin at the prom when I walk into a PTA meeting or a teacher’s conference, you better believe it. My kids are Mari and LilaChiles, and I’m Mrs. Chiles, thank you.
Don’t front—you know how it works: A black mom walking her child into school, onto the soccer fields, into the grocery store and the doctor’s office— hell, anywhere—almost always has to rush through a gauntlet of conjecture before she gets through the door good.
Look at her—she laid up there and had all them babies…
I wonder if those kids all have the same daddy…
You know she’s probably raising all of them on her own…
She can’t care anything about those kids’ education/health/well-being too stressed trying to make ends meet…
I wonder how much of my hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going toward her grocery bills…
These things are never said to our faces. But the actions—the way black mothers get talked to, or treated, or, worse, ignored—makes it crystal that way too many folks are operating on the assumption that our children were mistakes, and are being parented by tired, broke, stressed-out moms who have no men to speak of in their lives. This is especially true when the last names are lined up and they see that the black mom’s is different from that of her children. I learned this the hard way the first day I became a mother, a statistic of “birthing while black.” Within a few hours of my giving birth to my baby girl, a nurse actually verbally articulated extreme surprise when I told her the guy holding my child was my husband. “Your husband?” she asked, her neck and eyebrows forming into impossible contortions to match the astonishment in her voice. “Oh, well then let me tell you about the private rooms,” she said, as if privacy and the right to bond with your baby in peace were some kind of prized possession only married folk were entitled to. And don’t get me started about the time when I put in an application to a private school for my girls, and was immediately met with the we don’t have any scholarships available line, no doubt when she checked over the paperwork and saw different surnames for me and my babies. (Not that we couldn’t use a little financial help to foot the tab; it’s just that it was infuriating that this was the assumption, rather than something I could discreetly apply for.)
See, their assumption was that I’m a black single mom, probably scratching and just barely surviving. With little money. Barely any time. Distracted. And not worthy of the respect, time, and attention one pays to a team—a couple, a husband and wife. These are some of the worst kind of stereotypes with which any mother—single or not—could be saddled. Indeed, I have an abundance of empathy for my single mom friends, precisely because I see the evidence of different treatment—mistreatment—everyday. And let me tell you: I know we all got enough problems being mothers in America, and Black to boot. The last thing we need is more mess heaped onto the pile of crap we have to overcome.
In other words, married African American moms just don’t have the luxury of co-signing the mainstream feminist manifesto that demands you reject your husband’s last name on some ol’ anti-patriarchal, you-don’t-belong-to-any-man thing. We have to use our married names to make statements of our own, and there’s nothing like matching surnames and a wedding ring to help shut down the madness at the gate. Bonus if you can actually get your husband to show up to the school functions/doctor’s appointments/social functions with you. Each sends a loud, distinct signal that the person standing in front of you won’t necessarily fit into whatever stereotypes you have of this African American mommy. That we might actually care about our kids’ education and have the time to focus on it. That there is discipline being meted out in healthy doses at our house. That money may not necessarily be an issue for us (yeah, right). That we made the commitment to one another to raise our family together.
Am I being insecure? Paranoid, maybe? Nope. Just being very real about the very difficult reality of being a black mom. So the next time you see me at the PTA meeting, do me a favor: Call me Mrs. Chiles.
I won’t be mad.
And I promise myself to try to do a little better.
[“IT’S MILLNER MRS. CHILES IF YOURE NASTY (or my kids teacher)” appeared originally on MyBrownBaby in September 2008.]
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.