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What does it mean to thrive as a Black working mother in the nation’s capital? Unpacking the ‘dream woman,’ healing and a staying present in a changing DC

Four women share their experiences living and working in the DMV — and what thriving in motherhood means to them.


This report is part of Thriving, a yearlong storytelling initiative from focused on the lived experiences of Philadelphia and comparative city residents. The goal is to generate insights about the economic opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to financial security. Here's who we're focusing on and why.

When I speak to artist and activist Shaina Simmons, who typically lives in Alexandria, Virginia, she’s 38 weeks pregnant and taking the call from Puerto Rico.

The two-time MFA graduate goes back and forth between Alexandria, a principal city in the DC metro region, and Puerto Rico, where her partner is based and where she’s opted to give birth. She worked as a program manager on a contractual basis before being let go in January. She also creates art on women’s healing — a theme linked to her reasons for where she’ll have her child.

The thought of giving birth in the US, she said, prompts a lot of anxiety given the dire statistics: Black mothers are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts.

“While there are these beautiful organizations and doula support that is popping up, the reality still is that a hospital can just be a space of anxiety, in general, knowing the facts,” Simmons, 34, told

In DC and the surrounding areas colloquially known as the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia), Black working mothers face challenges far beyond their control. They’re balancing an ever-changing metro, higher living costs and access to quality healthcare alongside the superwoman expectations of being the best mom possible. For Simmons and three other Black working mothers in the DMV, thriving is simultaneously a state of mind, a mom’s emotional success and a bank account that gets the job done. 

Being a mom in 2023 is a new game, with technology and the world changing practically faster than anyone can keep up with. For the roughly 6,197 Black mothers aged 25 to 34 that the DC Health Matters Collaborative (a consortium of local health providers) suggests live in the district, as well as their peers in surrounding counties, the pressure is even greater. They must confront rising costs (home value went up 91% between 2000 and 2018), gun violence (more than twice as many teens were fatally shot in 2022 than in 2021) and changing neighborhoods that push many out (DC experienced the highest rate of gentrification of any US city between 2000 and 2013). Black residents of the cultural and economic hub once dubbed “Chocolate City” now constitute less than half of the city’s population — way down from the 71% reported in 1970. Moreover, the median household income for Black families is $54,000, or just over a third of the $161,000 their white counterparts make.

Still, these numbers don’t define the moms of the nation’s capital as they take on the most important job of all: raising their kids. This is what it means to thrive for Black working mothers in DC.

The ‘dream woman’

DeMia Bullock-Smith, a 27-year-old medical billing specialist, student at Prince George’s Community College and mother to a 5-year-old son, starts her days at 6 a.m. She follows breakfast for her son with the eight-minute drive to his school, a quick workout and a shower before clocking into her job from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then, it’s picking him up again, working until 6 p.m., dinner and hangout time with him until his 7:30 p.m. bedtime, studying for classes, another quick workout and a little bit of reading before she heads to bed around 10 p.m.

Bullock-Smith said she maintains this rigorous schedule through several alarms on her phone; it’s the only way the Lanham, Maryland resident can think to manage work, school and motherhood. But what keeps her going is actually the thought that she’s not doing enough — Bullock-Smith stays motivated by imagining what her “dream woman” self would do. Her dream woman is the person she wants to be in the next five to 10 years, who is “the most organized person in the world” and starts her day at 4:30 a.m. so she can finish tests before her son wakes up.

“[I think,] ‘What would future me do?’ and then I keep pushing and it drives me insane because I so desperately want to be this perfect vision of who she is,” Bullock-Smith said. “I’m tired, but I’ve got to keep going.”

DeMia sits on the floor in front of a white background with her son. Both are in fancy black dress.

DeMia Bullock-Smith and her son. (Courtesy photo)

The single mom currently lives with her grandmother while studying to get her SHRM certificate, since she wants to be an HR data analyst. But her rigorous schedule is necessary because while she does have community options, like her grandmother’s occasional help with dinner and her son’s father’s involvement, she tries to do as much as possible on her own before reaching out to others.

“I do like to use it as a last resource because it’s like: ‘Have I really done the work to make sure I can do it on my own before I start asking for help?'” Bullock-Smith said.

Amber Thornton, a clinical psychologist, motherhood wellness consultant and founder of Balanced Working Mama (and a DC-based mom of two herself), works to help mothers unlearn some of the pressures placed on women. She said that Black working mothers in particular come up against so many extant pressures — the aforementioned mortality rates, building generational wealth and systemic racism among them — yet still feel the pressure to be the perfect parent. Many of them, particularly in DC, simultaneously deal with gentrification, displacement and anxiety accompanying these processes.

Balancing all this and parenting, she noted, can be a challenge. Some might be unable to attend every event or even a meeting at a child’s school, which can trigger tremendous pressure and overwhelm.

“Things like that pop up all the time: having to decide at any given moment [what] was the biggest priority when everything feels like a priority, and then also being judged for certain decisions you make by society who maybe don’t understand,” Thornton said. 

Thornton believes that solving this involves a lot of unlearning for Black moms who not only struggle to ask for help but don’t even realize that it’s okay to do so. While she sees more and more mothers finding the empowerment and courage to ask for what they need, many still think that if they have to ask for help, it’s not worth it. But this is where she said change is key — while moms can’t make those social coercions disappear, they can change how they respond.

“I always say, 99% of the time, if a mom is feeling the sense that she’s not doing enough, it is absolutely a lie because mothers do everything,” Thornton said. “Mothers do the most and it’s really societal pressure that is unrealistic.”

Trying to thrive, by the numbers

Tanisha Murden stands in an alleyway in front of a graffitied wall.

Tanisha Murden. (Courtesy photo)

Tanisha Murden, a resident of Ward 7, is a 34-year-old mom to a 3-year-old neurodivergent son. She’s also the author of a book called “Success“; a mentor at Right Directions Mentoring Organization; program director of Women Involved in Reentry Efforts; a motivational speaker; founder of Unique Stories Inc.; and creator of Thriving Moms, a six-week program to help moms with professional development. She’s also a returning citizen and a survivor of domestic abuse and human trafficking.

For the most part, Murden said she tries to do everything on her own without assistance from the government or other resources. While she does occasionally apply for resources she knows will help, she and other women often encounter the issue of government aid’s internal disconnect: If she applies for a new service, receiving it might disqualify her from a service she’s already getting.

“It shouldn’t be a conflict of interest with the services I’m getting, and I think that’s the problem,” Murden said. “The system in itself, it’s in conflict, and I think if everybody works together it would be a lot better, but that’s not how that works.”

“Mothers do the most and it’s really societal pressure that is unrealistic.”Amber Thorton

Simmons agreed, describing the red tape to receive Medicaid or WIC support as yet another hurdle that’s difficult for any mother to clear. Many expecting moms end up applying for family and medical leave, which can be unpaid and leave them without an income. Unpaid leave qualifies them for certain other resources, but the myriad of paperwork and bureaucracy can be difficult for expecting mothers to endure, especially when they’re used to a stable job.

“A pregnant woman who’s dealing with so many hormonal and physical, emotional and spiritual changes — to then also ask for them to work through all of these applications and these processes, it can be overwhelming,” Simmons said. “So while, yes, I want to take advantage of what I can, what is there, there’s an aspect of it that has a little a bit of a burden.”

Once they’re ready to return to work, new parents must often sort out daycare bills, which Bullock-Smith said cost around $500 to $600 per week in her area. State and federal governments offer financial assistance options for childcare, but Bullock-Smith noted their many attendant stipulations, including pursuing child support to get daycare funding vouchers.

For her patients and other moms she speaks to, Thronton said that consistent childcare is the biggest issue. And if it’s not sorted out, it can prompt a whole other host of problems.

“You cannot work if you don’t have childcare, and when childcare is inconsistent, or when it’s not adequate, that really interferes with one’s ability to make a living and to care for their family,” Thornton said. “Then that also leads to mental health concerns, physical health concerns, food insecurity, houselessness.”

“The system in itself, it’s in conflict.” Tanisha Murden

Portia Williams, a mother of two, lives in the Northwest with her grandparents. She’s a violence interrupter at Life Deeds, an organization for high-risk youth, as well as a returning citizen and domestic abuse survivor. She has a steady job and salary, but it’s still “not enough” as she assists her family and struggles to find affordable housing options — particularly those that will accept an application with her record.

Williams is 36 and her children are 12 and 8. Although she does find resources for moms, she struggles to find programs geared toward those with older children. Many instead focus on new mothers seeking diapers and childcare, and aren’t aimed at returning citizens; she also noted that while she was able to live with family after her release, she might actually better qualify for assistance if she instead returned to a shelter or halfway house.

“In DC, I feel like there are not many programs for me per se,” Williams said. “I feel like they cater to younger generations of young moms that’s still having kids.”

‘How am I supposed to raise my kids like this?’

A waist-up shot of Portia Williams, who poses in a black dress.

Portia Williams. (Courtesy photo)

DC moms also experience another serious problem: On top of rising costs, gun violence continues throughout the district. As of March, homicides were up 34% from 2022. Despite DC boasting a pretty decent public school system, Williams said she sees many moms wanting to leave due to increased crime.

With escalating costs all around, many get pushed to less prohibitively expensive housing options in more crime-impacted localities. As people adapt to their environments, Williams said, it’s much easier to get sucked into what’s happening outside than it is to “make a better way in the bad environment.”

“If you put us in the neighborhoods that’s going through the most toughest times, that has the most crime rates and things like that — something is about to happen to them, even if they’re not doing anything that’s going on outside,” she said. “Just coming in and out of your house, you’re subjected to getting shot, robbed or anything. How am I supposed to raise my kids like this?”

For Murden, enduring this day-to-day requires tremendous patience and a few therapy appointments each month. Trying to provide for her family and stay afloat is a challenge, but she said she doesn’t let it stop her from being a great mom — and she still wakes up with a smile every day.

Going through all these challenges, she added, also sustains the example of hard work paying off she can set for her son. But she finds it equally important to demonstrate that it’s OK to undergo something difficult as long as you keep moving forward and practice self-care. She even sometimes models this by taking him to the nail salon.

“To thrive as a working mom, for me, is to continue to keep digging deep in myself and acknowledging and loving a woman that I’m still becoming, and striving to be better than I was yesterday,” Murden said.

Staying present

Every day she plugs into work, Bullock-Smith thinks about needing more income. Thriving as a mom, for her, partly means getting to afford things like soccer or other extracurriculars and interests that her son wants to pursue — and not having to sacrifice one sport or club for another.

But it also involves providing a safe, loving environment where her son feels comfortable and she’s not distracted by trying to meet her other goals.

“Making stuff available for my son to have a safe space. I want him to be able to come to me and tell me about anything that’s going on in his life and I’m not thinking about 5,000 other tasks that I have to do,” Bullock-Smith said. “It’s making sure that I’m present with him when I am with him. He needs to know that he comes first at all times.”

An evolving definition

Being a mom in the contemporary DMV is also changing, Thornton noted. Millennials have the unique experience of remembering the world before the internet while still being raised with it. They’re also perhaps the first generation of parents raising children with full access to the internet and no semblance of life before. Almost all moms are working nowadays, she added, especially Black moms. Black women are also the most educated group in the country in the past few years.

With this in mind, she believes that norms around household care and childcare need to shift so moms can fully step into their careers while avoiding burnout. Achieving this will require moms to lean on family, friends and other support systems more (and, likely, an upgrade to government support).

“It’s really leaning into this, this new revolutionary idea that moms don’t have to do all, we really can lean into the support and ask for what we need — and then really demand it, too,” Thornton said. 

A pregnant woman with flowers in her hair holding a bouquet of flowers.

Shaina Simmons. (Courtesy photo)

“Thriving to me is being patient with your kids, being understanding and just knowing that as little people, they have feelings also, and I don’t think that their feelings should be shoved away because they’re a kid,” Williams said. “I feel like their voice always should be heard.”

After her child is born, Simmons said she’d like to find some remote work to enable staying with the baby as much as possible. As a new mom, she wants to focus on gratitude for having this new person in her life and not be so anxious about what could go wrong. For Simmons, that requires staying present, taking things one day at a time, fully assessing her feelings and going with the flow of each day instead of putting too much pressure on herself.

“To thrive is to release the anticipation, the fear and to just really be present in what I have to be grateful for at the moment,” Simmons said. “Of course, we’re always going to be reaching for things and things could always be a little bit better, but it really is about the process. So if I can just stay present in the process, then that’s right where I need to be.”

Series: Thriving

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