Our baby will be born with Down syndrome; when do we tell our toddler?

Dear Dwonna:

We just found out that our daughter will be born with Down syndrome. When should we tell our toddler about his sister’s condition?




*Shauna Thompson, one of my former students and the mother of an 11-month old girl with Down syndrome, has answered this question for me.*

Dear Christina,

My husband and I have had this discussion on whether or not to tell our son, who is a preschooler, about his sister having Down syndrome. Our questions were similar to yours: “Should we tell him or not right now?” and “When do we tell him?”

After weighing all the options, I decided to ask the experts: other parents of children with Down syndrome. Of the parents I have spoken to, most have every intention about informing their children—even the children with Down syndrome—about the disability sooner or later. The majority of parents tell the older children (ages ranging from nine to eighteen or older) as soon as they know. However, for the younger children (younger than about the age of nine), the parents have decided to wait until their children inquire about it.

Originally, I had planned to tell my son when he became old enough by reading to him children’s books about Down syndrome, yet the question I keep coming back to is: “When is old enough?” Since our son is still very young (he will be four in August), my husband and I both agreed that he may not understand the concept of Down syndrome, and even if he does, he may view and treat his sister differently. We want him to view and treat her as his sister. Therefore, we plan to tell him when he inquires about it.

When the time to tell him does come, we will be honest with him about what it means to be a child with Down syndrome, but we will also emphasize that his little sister has the potential to accomplish possibly just as much as he will. We are the type of parents who do not wish to limit our children on what they can do. In our eyes, lots of things are possible!

To answer your question…it is really up to you when you tell your son about his sister having Down syndrome. What I have explained above is our decision. However, I do suggest that answer these questions first: How you want your son to treat your daughter? What do you want their relationship to be like? How do you want her to see herself? Remember, she is still your daughter and his sister who happens to have Down syndrome. The fact is that Down syndrome does not label nor define her.



Should I give my baby a “black” name?

Dear Dwonna:

I’m an African American woman who is eight months pregnant with my first baby, and I’m struggling with what to name him.  Should I give my son an “Afrocentric” name, or should I stick to a more “traditional” (in other words “white”) name?



Dear Haley:

Your question is very timely, as I just finished reading—again—Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery for my “Critical Studies in African American Literature” class.

Born a slave in 1858 or 1859, Washington explains in the second chapter of his autobiography that until he went to school, he was only known as “Booker” and that it had “never occurred” to him that “it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name.” Washington said that he noticed that the other children had at least two names and that “some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three.” “When the teacher asked me what my full name was,” Washington continues, “I calmly told him ‘Booker Washington,’ as if I had been called by that name all my life.” Washington would later learn that his mother had given him the name “Booker Taliaferro” soon after he was born, and he would later make his full name “Booker Taliaferro Washington.” “I think there are not many men in our country,” Washington writes,” who have had the privilege of naming themselves in the way I have.”

I give this background to explain that there was a time in history when African Americans took great care to give themselves and their children names that exalted honor and that seemed to suggest a “distinguished ancestry,” which is why some former slaves took the last names of U.S. presidents as their own. Today, however, too many African American mothers give their children names that are suggestive of overpriced things that most of us will never buy—Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti, Diamond, and Porsche.

Or, as Bill Cosby said in a 2004 speech at a multiracial gala commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, too many African Americans make up names that they think suggest that the child came from Africa. “What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a thing about Africa,” Cosby said. “With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail,” he said.

Cosby’s comments were met with both furor and condemnation, although one of the loudest criticisms launched was that he should not have gone public with the black community’s “dirty laundry.” Still, Cosby’s suggestion that those African Americans with “black names” ultimately end up in jail has become a present-day topic of conversation for some pregnant black women who must decide what to name their baby.

In a “Motherlode” blog for the New York Times, African American freelance writer Nikisia Drayton admits that when her baby’s father wanted her to name their son “Keion” after his childhood best friend, Drayton first looked up the history of the name and then did the “Google test”: she “typed ‘Keion’s name’ in the image search box.” “To my surprise,” she writes, “my computer screen loaded images of African-American young men posing for their mug shots.” When she Googled “Kian” instead of “Keion,” Drayton found “smiling photographs of Caucasian males” and “could not believe the change.”

Historically, African Americans have given their children distinctively “black names,” but the trend has accelerated since the 1960s, when “black is beautiful” perhaps became one of the most repeated mottos of the Black Power movement.The sad truth is, however, that giving your baby a “black name” has repercussions far beyond what most parents would want for their child.

In a paper written for the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Roland Fryer and the University of Chicago’s Steven Levitt found that “black names are associated with lower socioeconomic status,” although the authors did not believe that the names themselves created “an economic burden.” In a paper titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” University of Chicago professor Marianne Bertrand and MIT professor Sendhil Mullainathan found that resumes with names that “sounded white” received one callback per 10 resumes whereas similar resumes with names that “sounded black” received just one per 15. “Carries and Kristens had call-back rates of more than 13 percent, but Aisha, Keisha, and Tamika got 2.2 percent, 3.8 percent, and 5.4 percent, respectively,” the authors wrote.

Another study found that black-sounding names were 50 percent “less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.” “I do believe now when a resume comes across an employer’s desk they can be easily discriminated against because they know that person is of African-American descent,” Bertrand writes. “It’s a difficult decision.”

Minority groups of all kinds have had to decide whether to give their children names that celebrate their cultural heritage or whether to give their children names that will help them “blend in” with “white” America. Whether or not it’s fair, our names have meanings far beyond what our parents intended for them to have, and sometimes the consequences can be far reaching. Not only can our names affect our job prospects, but they can also be the reason we get teased at school or bullied by our classmates.

After reading Nikisia Drayton’s blog, one of my former University of Texas students said that she found herself “unnerved.” In a Facebook post, she wrote that she adored a family friend named “Jahwon” and “carried his name in my ‘when I grow up suitcase’ so that I could give it to my future son.” “Since childhood,” she wrote, “I envisioned an educated, respectful, self-assured young Black man proudly introducing himself—and in the simple act of introduction—shattering misconceptions and stereotypical fallacies of what it means to be a Black male.”

She also wrote that “Whitening” her child’s name so that a Google search would not bring up mug shots “never has or would cross my mind.” “Just the opposite,” my former student wrote, “instead of feeding the beast by shying away from ‘Black’ names because they carry negative connotations, I’d rather make a concentrated effort to change the image.”

I must respectfully disagree with her. As someone with kind of a “black name” (there was a white girl named “Dwana” at my high school), I have had too many experiences of people assuming who I was and what I was about before I even walked in the door. I know that my parents did not intend to place any burden on me when they named me “Dwonna” (my mom says that my name came to her in a dream), but this name has come with some challenges.

Having to constantly repeat my name when asked can be tiresome, and waiting for teachers to try to pronounce “Dwonna” has been, at best, annoying. When I have applied for jobs, I have often wondered if my application will be tossed before the person in charge of hiring has even looked at it. And, when my mother would complain about my obstinate behavior and ask why I couldn’t be like my brothers and sisters or “like everyone else,” I would remind her that if she had wanted me to be like the kids in the neighborhood or my three siblings—who all had “white” sounding names—then she should have named me “Julie.”

Thirty years after these fights with my mother, she now says that she looked at my name as “unique, strong, and intelligent which equals ONE of a kind.”  In an email reply to this essay, my mother wrote that I represented “the essence of conviction, righteousness, intelligence, compassion and a vision to change the hearts, minds and intelligences of those around you. I’ve often wondered if you would have accomplished all that you’ve reached if your name had been Mary!!”

I very much appreciate my mother’s kind words and love reading that she is proud of the person I have become, and having an unusual name probably did toughen me up since the jokes people made about my name were plentiful and not always kind. Nonetheless, even when parents raise “righteous Black individuals with so-called ‘Black’ names,” as my former UT student wrote, too many people in (white) American society hold prejudices that can negatively affect how these children experience America.

Black folks need to go back to the time when, like for Booker T. Washington, names meant something meaningful and were intended to convey an honor or to show respect. It is not fair to ask black children to fight the battles of adults, and saddling an African American child with a “black name” could very much limit this child’s opportunities. The world is cruel enough, and your son will have plenty of challenges as he navigates his way through school and then through adulthood. Thus, give your son a “traditional” name so that his name will not be one of those challenges.

David Boyd, a former student at Austin Peay, has weighed in on your question, too.

David Boyd

Dear Haley:

I asked my friends on Facebook the following question: “What are some of the most ridiculous African American names that you have ever heard?” Here is a list of some of the answers I received—Prada Princess, Sinful, Jodeci, Jaycent, and La-a (for Ladasha). I have long considered the power a name holds and how names affect children when they become adults.

I don’t want to be so biased as to limit this commentary to “ethnic” names, or to be so crass as to just call out Black and Brown peoples. Stupidity knows no color. In fact, I consider ignorance to be “the great equalizer.” The problem is that some people may have a prejudice due to their ignorance of what other cultures may consider the norm. Prejudice isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither are ignorant names given by ignorant parents.

So why then, give up your heritage and the way your family and ancestors name people just because other (white) people are uneducated about where the naming comes from? Some cultures believe there is power behind a name and that there is great meaning as well. Again, that is not what I am talking about here.  The issue, however, still remains—why do people find names that have nothing to do with their heritage? Did these people select these names because they wanted something that “sounded” African? Or did they just want something that sounded “cool” and “different”?

It is just my uninformed opinion that people should embrace their heritage by doing due diligence in not only looking up beautiful names but by researching what those names mean. Let’s even go beyond that by taking into consideration how those same names may affect your child’s future. Why won’t people stop being half-assed and STOP making up names because that is what’s trending right now?

What do I say to my co-worker who has suffered a miscarriage?

Dear Dwonna:

My co-worker was four months pregnant when she suffered a miscarriage. What should I say?




*Nisey James, my former student at the University of Texas, has answered this question for me since she understands this profound loss.*
Dear Marilyn,

First, I’d like to commend you on seeking guidance. This is a very delicate time for your coworker, and you’ve unwittingly given her the best gift possible: thoughtful consideration.

As the mother of a sleeping son, I want to thank you for doing what so few have the courage to do. As someone who knows how painful it is to be a childless mother, I’m honored to offer whatever assistance I can to you (and, consequently, to your coworker).

Here is my advice.

Say something—and then be prepared to just listen. Most people don’t know what to say to someone who suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth, so they say nothing. That can be misread as lack of care. Instead of saying nothing, say a lot with a little. Be available: “I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Be honest: “I don’t know what to say.” Be direct: “How are you?”

What I valued most was being offered a judgment-free space to speak about my son and my feelings. Children who die in the womb are often the elephant in the room—a large, looming reality no one wants to address because, to do so, is taboo. The window of opportunity to talk freely about a deceased baby starts out only half-opened and quickly closes as time passes.  Within a few months, you’re expected to be over it and back to your old self.  Offering your coworker an open invitation to speak with you so soon after her loss is priceless.

Don’t assume or pretend to understand. There’s something uniquely alienating about losing a baby. You’ll spend a great deal of time suffering in silence simply because few others understand what you’re feeling. Even other women who have lost a child only can relate to certain aspects of your grief. The truth is, every story is different, and every journey follows its own path. One of the most offensive remarks I heard was from someone who compared my son’s death to a friend’s deceased grandmother. Even if you have lost someone very close to you, don’t bring this up as a way to bond with your coworker. Accept that there’s an inherent disconnect and that you’ll never be able to fully relate to what she’s going through.

Avoid using clichés and “quick rationales.” I know we love our one-line adages; however, we’re too quick to throw a proverb at someone’s problem, like it’s the best answer around. Clichés and quick rationales are lazy, insensitive, and demeaning. The worst thing you can do is offer a simplified solution to what will undoubtedly be the most heart-wrenching situation your coworker will ever experience. Sometimes, I felt like people didn’t even realize how harmful their rubber-stamped attempt at giving me solace was. Here are the most common examples:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” While this may likely be true and/or part of your belief system, nothing seems more senseless than the loss of an innocent life.
  • “You can always try to have another.” or “Be thankful for the kids you have.”  Most of us know one child can never replace another. It’s almost like thinking your parents will be fine if you die because they’ll still have your siblings. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Each life is sacred. Therefore, when you say this, you’re indirectly saying this baby never really existed since s/he can be so easily replaced.
  • “I know plenty of people who have had miscarriages and went on to have perfectly healthy babies” (or something similar). Everyone loved telling me the “success story” of a coworker, relative, or friend of a friend. This one may be hard to resist, but resist it anyway! We already know people lose babies and then have other living children. However, that still has nothing to do with our loss . . . except to remind us that you don’t understand what we’re going through.  Initially, we’re overwhelmed by our own story, and quite frankly, it’s the only one that matters. There came a point where I did venture out on the Internet and in the bookstores to find stories similar to mine. However, let your coworker take this huge step when she’s ready.

Validate her loss as real. Babies who die in utero have a disconcertingly invisible place in our society. A local newspaper in Austin, Texas, told my friend she couldn’t even memorialize her son the way others do. She wanted to include a picture to accompany his obituary, but the newspaper only accepted pictures of babies who were born alive, and since her baby had been born asleep, my friend did not have any. She said it made her feel her son was too ugly or too disturbing to be viewed, like he was less than a baby. Sometimes, the very existence of a baby is called into question because—once your morning sickness goes away and your stomach flattens—you have little that says “he was here.”

As with most things, timing is everything. Our society has yet to reach a consensus on when life begins and, unfortunately, this debate threatens to minimize the loss of a baby who never took his or her first breath outside of the womb. The distinction doctors make between miscarriage vs. stillbirth and no official documentation vs. death certificate also makes the grieving process more difficult. In fact, it all comes down to a number. Doctors consider a fetus who dies before 21 weeks a miscarriage and not a stillbirth, and they do not even consider a dead fetus who weighs less than 350 grams a person. Thus, medical personnel aren’t required to record his or her life with a death certificate. These are the harsh realities your coworker is encountering—a numbers game that might make her doubt the legitimacy of her child’s life. Let your coworker know that her baby is real.

Ask her about the gender and the name she chose.  Let her know her grief is warranted. Use her baby’s name often to show respect for the short life s/he lived. Let her know her child matters.  Express heartfelt condolences not just for the loss of life but also for unfulfilled promise and possibilities. Your coworker will never see her child’s smile, hear her child’s laughter, or even know how it feels to have her child look at her. These are very real experiences that have been stolen from her, and they deserve to be mourned, regardless of how long her child lived inside of her.

A life that was created has come to an end. Period.

Understand the lasting effects of this lossWe want our children to be acknowledged, but this desire can come at a great price because we risk making other people feel uncomfortable. Babies who never take a breath are too often pushed into the margins. They’re treated like footnotes, and we sometimes require an asterisk just to mention them.

When someone would ask me, “Do you have any children?” it always carried a heavy burden. Something so casually offered into the air as light conversation felt like a 90 mph curveball thrown right at my heart. “No,” I would usually answer. (My son was stillborn at 21 weeks.) When I was feeling especially brave, I would answer the question with the unabashed truth: “Yes, but he’s passed away.” However, being this courageous comes with the added responsibility of answering more questions and potentially alienating yourself further by being perceived as one of “those” women who “flaunt” their grief.

We want our children to be remembered, but this can brand you as someone who can’t move on. My mental calendar has permanent etchings, dates, and days that will forever belong to my son. Father’s Day: I found out I was pregnant.  Valentine’s Day: his expected due date. October 8: his angelversary, the date he was born and died. Gloomy Saturdays: what October 8, 2011, looked like. The 8th of every month: his monthly birthdate. These occasions are for him.

However, I’m often the only one who observes them. In fact, my niece was born on December 8, and my mother now celebrates the 8th of every month as a monthly milestone for her.

And that’s okay.

People do move on, and dates do get forgotten.

Perhaps you can make a notation of the day your coworker lost her baby and honor that date with her next year; I’m sure she will see that as a very thoughtful gesture. Your coworker will always remember. On any given day, her child is on her mind, and she is hurting.

Be okay with your helplessness. I can’t stress this one enough. There is no “right” thing to say, do, or feel. Just be as genuine as you can and everything else will fall into place. When I told my best friend that I was going to write this response for Dwonna, she told me that rereading the poems I wrote following my son’s death was “a good place to start”—as if I needed a refresher on what it feels like to lose a baby. I know she meant no harm, and I didn’t even acknowledge the sting aloud. I swallowed it, like something nasty you just want down your throat as quickly as possible.

My best friend is the kindest person I know and, yet, her well-intentioned suggestion felt like a dagger to my heart. Sometimes even those closest to us don’t fully understand and can say the wrong thing. The reality is that few people will ever fully get it, and this huge void in my life cannot be filled by the passing of time or by having other children.

And that’s okay.

As truly helpful as it would be to have someone who felt exactly how we feel, this isn’t really what we want. No one should outlive their child, so that’s not a horror we want you to endure. We understand that experiencing a miscarriage or a stillbirth is an impossible place to envision yourself . . . our imaginations don’t go that dark. (No doubt, this is a built-in defense mechanism much like the belief that we never actually see ourselves die in our dreams.)

Therefore, without the full understanding, there’s no way to always say the right thing because most of the time there is no right thing to say. Moreover, there are a million ways to hurt her with the most innocent of comments because your coworker is so fragile.

And that’s also okay.

I’ll go out on a limb and speak for all angel mothers when I say we don’t expect perfection. We simply hope for thoughtful consideration.

Thank you again for yours.–Nisey



My daughter is home from college for the summer…and she’s kind of being a jerk!

Dear Dwonna:

My daughter has moved back from home for the summer (she’s a junior at the U of Memphis), and although I love her a lot, she’s not always pleasant to be around. She’s used to being on her own when she’s away at college, so she doesn’t really want to follow the house rules (which are minimal, by the way—be home by midnight, dinner at 6 with the family, keep your room and common areas clean). She also can just be kind of a jerk sometimes. Any advice you could give to help me deal with her until school starts again in August (and she leaves!) would be wonderful.




*I’ve asked my former student, Jennifer Cooper, to answer this question since she has a daughter home for the summer from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.*

Dear Robert,

As parents, we try to teach our children to be independent and self-sufficient.  We push them to do well in school, respect their elders, and to work hard to accomplish their dreams, among many other things. Raising decent children is hard to handle at times—the first boy/girlfriend break up, the last minute assignments we stay up all night helping them with, the sicknesses and injuries that keep us worried—but we signed up for the task when we had children.

When high school graduation rolls around, we are both happy and sad to have that day arrive—our babies have grown up and will be heading off to college.  We have faith that the things we taught them will empower them to become responsible and independent.  Soon after the shock of them leaving to live in the dorm wears off, we reclaim our lives and the space they occupied…to some degree. We clean the house and straighten the area they vacated in a whirlwind.  Our tidy lives begin to feel like it did before they were born.  Although we miss them terribly, let’s face it: we are a bit relieved. Then the inevitable happens—the end of the spring semester and summer vacation.

My daughter arrived back home like she left—in a whirlwind of clothes, dorm room accessories, and frenzy. At first, I was fine with this because my baby was home. My daughter did what I raised her to do, so why was I so upset when shortly after she come home for the summer? I was upset because I did not raise her to be disrespectful, slovenly, or a “jerk.”



My daughter and I are experiencing some of the same issues—the mess in the bathroom and bedroom and the attitude. We managed to get through the bumpy road by talking and through compromise. I made her the independent person she has become, but I also had to remind her that I am not her “friend” or “college roommate” and as her parent, respect is not asked for but demanded.

Still, we have to understand that our children are basically adults, and we should approach them as adults and speak to them like we would other adults. Granted, our children are staying in our homes and should abide by our rules but sometimes we forget that the babies that needed us to tie their shoes and hold their hands are grown up.

Is it worth a long and hard battle to have them home for dinner every night?  Only you can answer that, but a compromise might be in order.  Your daughter must remember that the home she stays in (rent free) is not a dorm room where she can come and go as she pleases. That being said, your daughter is an adult and as a junior in college, you might ask yourself if a midnight curfew is reasonable. I appealed to the technology of my daughter’s generation and requested text messages (because we all know it’s not cool to be 20 and have to call home to check in) when she was going to be late or not home for dinner.  I approached it with tact by reminding her that as a parent it is my job to worry about her until the day I leave the earth. I take my job seriously. Additionally, it is respectful to let me know if she is coming home late so that I don’t fix enough dinner to accommodate her or worry about who is walking through my house during the wee hours of the night.

I sat down with my daughter and explained all of these things to her in a calm and reasonable manner so she could understand the reasoning behind my “demands.” During this conversation, I also listened. She is an adult and a curfew of midnight seemed a bit unrealistic when she has grown accustomed to staying at the library all hours of the night. I had to learn to compromise and let some things go because she is on vacation, and her “job” is finished for a few months. She deserves to relax.

However, relaxing does not include treating the other inhabitants of the home poorly. You might get a nanny cam or secretly tape her interactions with the others in the house, and then you can play these for her when she is calmer and more open to truly seeing her behavior. I once held a mirror to my daughters face to show her the expression on her face that was less than complimentary during a conversation. In this age of technology, we have done our children a disservice by allowing them to communicate completely through text messages where tone and expression are often missing elements. Often, our children have no idea they are actually being disrespectful to us.

Overall, remember that she is an adult and some compromise may be in order to keep the peace. However, she is staying in your home for the summer, and ultimately you get to make the rules. Open communication is the key in our home, though it is often prefaced by “I know you are an adult; however,….”

If these things fail to work, you can always offer some tough love and ask her to pay rent since she wants to treat your home like a hotel J. Or, you can always ask her to move out and pay rent to someone who doesn’t have to put up with her nonsense.

Good luck!




Breastfeeding Mom at College Graduation

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think about the woman who was photographed breastfeeding her baby at her graduation ceremony?




Dear Carly:

Here’s a brief background. On May 22, 2014, Karlesha Thurman received a degree in accounting from California State University, Long Beach, and after crossing the stage and returning to her seat, her friends said that they wanted to meet her daughter, Aaliyah. After getting her daughter from her mother, Thurman said that three-month-old Aaliyah “became fussy.” Thurman then began breastfeeding her daughter, without covering up and without apologizing.

“I did it to show it’s natural, it’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it,” Thurman said. “I didn’t even know there was a big controversy about breastfeeding in public until all this happened,” she continued. A photo of Thurman breastfeeding at her graduation ceremony went viral, and some supported her while others condemned what to many people is a natural bonding experience between mother and child.

Let me first say that I have no children, and perhaps my choice to remain childless colors my views about this situation. However, simply because something is “normal” or “natural” does not automatically make it something that should be done in public. Would Thurman have changed her daughter’s smelly diaper in front of everyone if that had been the reason for her baby’s fussiness? After all, peeing and pooping are natural and normal, too, yet we expect parents to retreat to a private area when changing their child’s diapers.

May I ask why it would have been so difficult for Thurman to at least cover up while she breastfed? Why hadn’t she pumped earlier and used a bottle so not to have to whip out her breast and breastfeed around other students who just came to celebrate their graduation from Cal-State, Long Beach and not sit next to a baby and her breastfeeding mom? I imagine that somewhere in the building there was a bottle since Thurman’s baby had been in the care of her grandmother prior to her having retrieved her.

For some, Thurman’s “act” was a welcomed event, as pediatricians work to encourage more black women to breastfeed. Said Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, a pediatrician at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey: “It’s a wonderful image because it brings together the fact that’s she’s educated, and is going to be an educated professional, and black and choosing to breastfeed…. It’s just nice to have more and more role models of black women breastfeeding.”

Listen, it’s nice that Thurman wants this photo to dispel the stereotype that black women don’t breastfeed, but she doesn’t curry any favor to those who point out that being another black woman who has given birth out of wedlock fulfills another stereotype, too. I understand why more and more women of all colors are choosing to breastfeed in public, perhaps they are doing it as a protest or simply out of sheer necessity. I’m a proud feminist who does not want to “shame” mothers who choose to breastfeed in public, but what is so shameful about covering up when public breastfeeding really is the only option? 


 While normalization of public breastfeeding is on the rise, there are still women who feel uncomfortable nursing in public for fear of judgment of others, and with the recent backlash against Ms. Thurman, it’s no wonder why. This woman was doing nothing but feeding her child, and it has erupted into a social media frenzy with both supporters and naysayers. Not only is the law on Ms. Thurman’s side, but she was only doing what is natural: feeding her hungry child.

Breastfeeding can become complicated. Sometimes baby can’t use a bottle (my 8-month-old breastfeeding baby still hasn’t figured out the concept of a bottle), and sometimes mothers don’t respond to breast pumps, sometimes babies just prefer the comfort that only a mother can give. Regardless of the reason why, it is nobody’s business but Ms. Thurman’s if she chooses to nurse her child, no matter where she chooses to do so.  Remember when people couldn’t even show their ankles in public?

Let’s consider this: unless you are 25-year-old Karlesha Thurman, this doesn’t affect you at all. Why is everyone getting so fired up about a woman feeding her baby? It’s sad that no one would even have batted an eye at her giving her infant a bottle, yet she has quickly become an internet sensation under fire for her healthy and natural choice. That picture was beautiful, in my opinion, and that’s about as far as I’ll go to worry about it. I’m so proud of her for finishing her degree with a kid. It’s hard to do. I graduated last spring with two toddlers and pregnant with number three. I start my graduate degree in the fall, and I’m nervous about juggling schoolwork and three crazy kids. I digress.

Let’s all get back to worrying about Rhianna walking the red carpet naked—I mean, wearing Swarovski crystals that show off her nipples, butt crack, and pubic area—and leave Thurman alone. Because for some people it’s totally okay for Rhianna to prance around naked in public for millions to see, yet some of these same people condemn Thurman for having simply nursed her baby in public. 

Priorities, people. Priorities.


Target, Home Depot, Gun Control, and Open Carry Laws

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think about stores like Target and Home Depot allowing customers to openly carry guns?




Dear Alexander:

Here’s a little background for those who are unfamiliar with the controversy regarding Target and Home Depot and their “open carry” guns policy.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national mom’s group that “advocates strong gun regulation,” persuaded Starbucks, Chipotle, Jack in the Box, Sonic Brands, and Dallas-based Brinker International (which owns Chili’s) to ask its customers not to openly carry their rifles into their restaurants. They next focused on Target stores after the group Open Carry Texas (which says that it is an “organization dedicated to the safe and legal carry of firearms openly in the State of Texas in accordance with the United Stats and Texas Constitutions and applicable laws”) staged several demonstrations to promote its agenda. Demonstrations also occurred at Target stores in Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

Two weeks ago, about 150 “Open Carry” supporters gathered at a Home Depot parking lot in North Richland Hills—a Ft. Worth, Texas, suburb—to push their beliefs in the Second Amendment. Home Depot corporate spokesman Stephen Holmes told The Dallas Morning News that “while The Home Depot allows customers to carry legally permitted weapons into its stores, we do not allow solicitation or organizing by third parties on our property.”

In criticizing Open Carry Texas’ campaign, the NRA said, “Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.” The NRA has finally said something with which I can agree.

Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said, “Target does not sell firearms or ammunition and, as it relates to this issue, we follow all state and federal laws.” However, Snyder would not respond when “asked if Target would request customers not bring guns into its stores.” “Gun extremists have been using Target stores to promote their agenda of intimidation,” Moms said. “American moms,” they said, “will not shop where our children and families—including our teens who work at Target—are not safe.”

What do I think about this? I have been to Target just twice since they announced in December 2013 that the credit and debit card information of as many as 40 million customers was compromised between November 27 and December 15, the busiest weeks of the Christmas shopping season. Target would later announce a few weeks later that “an additional trove of personal information—like email and mailing addresses—from some 70 million people had been exposed as well.” While twice I was willing to give Target another chance after their data breach, their decision not to prohibit the open carrying of rifles into their stores means that I will treat Target like I do Walmart—it will be a store that will never get my business.

While I’m not so naïve as to assume that people are not carrying weapons (concealed or not) when I go into other stores, too many people with mental health and/or anger issues are carrying weapons and putting all of us in danger. And, to the NRA who says that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun: it’s getting more and more difficult to distinguish between the good guys with a gun and the bad guys with a gun. This sad reality came to light this past Sunday. In Las Vegas, a couple who were bent on “starting a revolution” murdered two police officers who were eating lunch at Cici’s pizza, and then walked into a Walmart where they shot someone standing by the front door. This couple then committed suicide in what police are saying was a suicide pact.

The Las Vegas ambush precedes the shooting of two priests at the Mother of Mercy Mission Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona, in which one priest was killed and another left in extremely critical condition; a shooting at a high school outside of Portland, Oregon, in which a 15-year-old student and the gunmen were killed; a shooting at Seattle Pacific University in which a student was killed and two others were wounded; and Elliot Rodger’s mass murder of six innocent people (three were stabbed) in Santa Barbara, California. Few of us can forget what happened on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and 6 staff members before killing himself. There have been some 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook.

I could continue to list all of the incidents of gun violence in this country just in the last year, but that list would, unfortunately, get tiresome and repetitive.

Though fewer than 12 people die during a mass shooting, that is just a fraction of the 32,000 Americans who are killed by firearms. The fact is that in the United States some 33 people are killed every day by a gun, and of those 33, 7 are children. Some 33 people are dead because of a gun: Every. Single. Day. And, most of these shooters obtained their weapons legally. We have a gun problem in this county, and putting more guns into the hands of the “good guys” will not solve this bloodshed.

Immediately after learning that his son Christopher was one of the victims of Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree, father Richard Martinez chastised “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA” for this latest gun tragedy. “They talk about our rights,” Martinez said. “What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness!’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, ‘Not one more!’”

The fact is that some people’s unhealthy obsession with guns and what they regard as their “right to openly carry” is quickly getting out of control.


I can’t stop the leaders at Target, Walmart, and other stores from prohibiting customers who want to openly carry their weapons, but I can choose not to spend my dollars at their stores. Though I don’t pretend to have the answers for what will end the murders of innocent Americans by people legally and illegally carrying guns, arming more people is hardly a viable solution. However, passing sensible gun control laws, requiring more stringent background checks, and shoring up this country’s mental health system are good places to start.








My Friend’s Baby Has Down Syndrome….What Do I Say?

Dear Dwonna:

My friend just had a baby with Down syndrome, and I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t want to tell her I’m sorry because all babies are a blessing, but saying “Congratulations!” seems awkward. Any suggestions?




*My former student, Shauna Thompson, has answered this question for me.*

Dear Jewel:

I gave birth to a baby girl with Down syndrome nine and a half months ago, and the range of emotions I dealt with ran high and low.

During my pregnancy, I found out there was a possibility that my daughter might have Down syndrome based on ultrasounds and blood tests, but she wasn’t fully diagnosed until a week after she was born. I didn’t tell many people before and right after she was born because I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. I wanted people to accept her as she is, love her, and be supportive—and most were! There were only a few people who said they were “Sorry.” Flinching at their comments, I took a deep breath and told them that they need not be sorry at all because there was nothing “wrong” with my baby girl. She has an extra chromosome. That’s really it.

When you see your friend, you are correct that saying “I’m sorry” wouldn’t be the best thing to tell her. It creates a negative environment for everyone, and this is what you don’t want to do. When my husband’s grandmother came to the NICU to visit my daughter, she asked us, “Can the doctors fix her?” Don’t ask questions like this either. If anything, you want to be positive by saying congratulations, which is appropriate in my humble opinion. Your friend just carried and gave birth to her baby, so you are really saying congratulations to your friend and her child.

There are other things you can say: “He/she has so much hair!” “Look at those eyelashes!” “Oh, those pouty lips!” “Precious! Look how he/she sleeps!” You know, the positive statements that deflect anything negative. Do not mention anything that defines her baby as a disability, such as “It will be hard on you.” Or, “Don’t expect him/her to be animated for the first six months.” Yes, I was told these by nurses, of all people.

Also, don’t say negative things about the baby’s appearance: “Why is there a tube up his/her nose?” “Will his/her eyes slant up like that all his/her life?” or “Why can’t she take a bottle yet?” Please … just be positive.

Feel free to not say anything and just smile and/or give your friend a hug. This might be the best thing to do if your friend is not happy with the chromosome results. Let her know you are there for her. Sometimes with the diagnosis of Down syndrome, there are other medical problems that parents have to deal with— heart defects, intestinal defects, and cleft lip, among other issues. This is probably the area where most people feel the need to say that they are sorry, but there is no need to say you’re sorry simply because your friend had a baby with a heart defect. Be supportive and listen to your friend. She will have to accept her baby eventually, and she will.

Ultimately, with any negative or positive statement, you are setting up your relationship with you and your friend’s child. Acknowledge and read about the disability. If the baby has no other defects other than an extra chromosome, like my daughter, a “Congratulations!” is more than sufficient! In fact, that baby will be a major blessing to his/her parents and to you!




Help! My husband is deploying!

Dear Dwonna:

I’m a 23-year-old woman married to a soldier, and my husband just left for a 9-month deployment. I stay at home with our two-year-old son, and I’m wondering if you have any tips for how to get through his time away.




*I asked my former student, Bethany Kavanaugh, to answer this since she is a military spouse.*

Dear Missy:

First, let me say thank you to your husband for his service to our country, and thank you for supporting him on the home front. It’s a difficult situation to be in, and sometimes it can be incredibly overwhelming. 

When your significant other deploys—regardless of how long he’s gone—your immediate reaction is to sit on the couch, wail loudly, eat Ben and Jerry’s, and watch horrible Jennifer Lopez romance movies (speaking from experience here). It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel upset. Don’t feel guilt for having these feelings; your husband—the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life—is now gone for an extended period of time. There’s a void, and it’s okay to be upset about that. 

At some point, however, you’re going to have to put the Ben and Jerry’s down (Milk and Cookies is my favorite flavor) and carry on. I’m not going to feed you some nonsense about the fact that this is your time to learn how to be independent, because when my husband was gone, I still screamed at the top of my lungs when I saw a spider and tried to get someone else to kill it for me. My toddler wouldn’t do it for me, but that’s a different story.  However, these are some methods I have put to use, and I hope that they will help you too.

Here’s my go-to list to make it through my husband’s deployments:

Get into a routine. Find a pattern that works for you and your son, and stick with it. I have three kids, and sometimes the only thing that gets me through the day is looking forward to their bedtime every night. I love my children, but I also love the peace and quiet that their bedtime brings. Having a routine will also make it much easier on your son; he is going to recognize that his dad is gone even though probably won’t understand it. Having a routine has always been important to me, and I can’t stress that enough.

Make a friend. I’ve never been one for FRG meetings; in fact, I tend to avoid them. However, I almost always find someone whose husband is also deployed, and we get together and do things to keep ourselves and our kiddos occupied. It’s so much easier to do our husbands’ deployments together! Still, keep in mind that your situations are different. Just because she gets to talk to her husband on a certain day doesn’t mean you will get to talk to yours. Your husbands will probably be doing different tasks, and their schedules may not be the same. Your husband will talk to you when he can. Trust me. Husbands will stand in line and wait HOURS just to get a five-minute phone call with their wives. He wants to hear your voice just as much as you want to hear his.

Get active. Take your son to the park to play. Take him on walks. Exercise is great for both of you, and it will help the time pass more quickly.

Get a hobby. Make sure that you do something for you—knitting, gardening, scrapbooking, or whatever you’re interested in. Just make sure that each day you devote time specifically for yourself. It will keep you sane. I play softball every year, and I have a babysitter who watches my kids so I can have some much needed time away from my little monsters…I mean, darlings.

Plan a vacation. One of the things I love to do is plan a trip for when my husband comes home. Most soldiers get 30 days of leave after redeployment, and our family always takes a trip. Even if it’s a trip back home to see family, we make a point to do it and have a great vacation. I map everything out because I’m a planner, and it keeps me occupied. Plus, planning a post-deployment vacation gives you something to look forward to and to be excited about.

Plan out care packages. My husband has told me that when soldiers get care packages, it’s like Christmas. My husband was in an area where running water and hot meals were few and far between, so he really looked forward to what I had to send. I always stuffed the flat rate boxes completely full of goodies. Some people like to plan out theme packages. I sent him a package every two weeks so that he always had something to look forward to, and I had fun buying everything and putting it all together. You can go online to USPS.com and have them ship a bunch of flat rate boxes straight to your house for free.

Chronicle your son’s growth. During one of his deployments, my husband didn’t have access to computers for Skype, and his phone calls were also rare. But, I know that he missed not being able to watch his kids grow, so I took pictures like a madwoman. I then got prints of them and kept them all in order in a photo album so that when he came home, he could flip through and see how our much our children grew during the year that he was gone.

If you need help, get help. Sometimes military spouses get overwhelmed with the Superwoman sticker that gets slapped on their chest when their spouse leaves. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Don’t think that you have to be perfect. My husband is gone right now, and I have days where I cry. I have days where I mentally kick him for having to leave. I have days where I consider buying a one-way ticket to anywhere but here and wonder if my neighbors will notice if I just leave the dogs and kids at their house and never come back. I have days where I feel so depressed that I can’t even bring myself to get off the couch, and I don’t even have Ben and Jerry’s to comfort me.

However, the most important thing is that while it’s okay to feel this way, it’s also important to get help if these feelings get out of hand. Please find a good therapist if you’re getting too overwhelmed or sad. It could be depression or anxiety, and I would much rather you get help for this than struggle on your own. You do not have to be stronger than you already are. It’s okay to get help.

Military OneSource (www.militaryonesource.mil/) offers free therapy with a referral. Simply call (800)342-9647 for a confidential referral and to receive a list of counselors in your area.

Count down the days. I had a chalkboard on which I wrote the number of days until my husband came home, and the kids and I updated it every morning. My sister-in-law made a HUGE paper chain that went around the entire house, and she let her daughter pull a link off every day. I know people who put marbles in one jar and move the marbles from a full jar (Days to Go) to an empty jar (Days Down). It’s especially helpful if you get your son involved because it makes it easier for him to have something tangible to see. Plus, when you’re down to the last 60 days or so, the days seem to go by much faster than in the beginning!

I hope that the next nine months go smoothly and quickly for you and your son.  Deployments can be sad and lonely, but for how rough they can be, just know that welcome home ceremonies are twice as exciting. When you finally get to wrap your arms around and watch the smile on his face when he gets to hold his son again, you will forget all about the fact that he’s been gone for so long.

Good luck, and know that I’m rooting for you!



Advice for Graduates That I Wish I Had Received

Dear Dwonna:

Last week I graduated from high school, and I was wondering what advice you have for the class of 2014.


Ann B.


Dear Ann B:

My nephew graduated from high school two weeks ago, too, and I now have a new appreciation for parents who worry about their kids. I worry about what my nephew will do now that he is a “free” man because the world can be very unforgiving for those who don’t lay the groundwork for planning their future now.

I don’t remember feeling any such angst for myself when I graduated from high school 28 years ago. (Wow! Has it really been 28 years since the Moline High School Class of 1986 received our diplomas at Wharton Field House on 23rd Avenue?) In fact, I remember feeling excitement. I was excited that I was finally getting away from what I believed were controlling, overbearing, and plain ole’ mean parents to embark on my next adventure at the University of Iowa. I had a plan to study medicine or law—I had grown up watching “St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law”—and I was ready for the challenges that awaited me.

But, the world has changed a lot since 1986. There was no Facebook, no Snapchat, no Twitter, no Instagram, and so there was very little worry about competing with “friends” from high school. Though many of us promised to keep in touch after the all-night graduation party at the newly-remodeled YMCA, we did not. Thus, we did not know what each other was doing, and I was able to just “do my thing” that summer and at the University of Iowa without worrying and wondering what my friends from high school were doing and wondering if I was doing as much as they were. There was no need to try to “keep up with the Joneses” since I didn’t even know where they were.

For my graduation present, my parents gave me a set of navy blue American Tourister luggage, and they told me that whatever fit into it I could take with me to my dorm that August. I took classes that I thought were interesting, and after realizing that I wasn’t very good at chemistry, I decided that being a doctor wasn’t in my future. I loved reading and writing and arguing with people, so I majored in American Studies and minored in African American Studies because the professors in those disciplines taught me how to think—and not what to think—and how to make connections between the events of the past and of the present. Graduating from college was a no-brainer because my parents had drilled into my head that I would finish my undergraduate degree in four years, and I did.

However, my impending graduation from the University of Iowa caused me some angst since I didn’t really know what I would do with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, so I decided I would do something practical and go into teaching. My mother had been a teacher and it seemed like a stable career that I might enjoy, so I applied to MAT programs so that I could get certified to teach. I received a full scholarship to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and after completing the master’s program, I began my teaching career in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I taught 9th-and 10th-grade English and also coached 9th-grade girls basketball and boys’ and girls’ track for three years. I left teaching and then spent the next seven years at the University of Texas where I finished my PhD in American Studies; I have been an English professor at Austin Peay since my graduation in 2001.

I write all of this to say that although it probably seemed like I had a plan for my life after high school, I don’t think I really did. Well, I didn’t. I was kind of a naïve 18-year-old black girl who didn’t yet realize that she didn’t have the requisite skills to be a doctor (well, at least not an M.D.), but I did have a goal for finishing college in four years. The University of Iowa was a great place to grow up, and I met wonderful people like my friend Brian who helped me stay relatively sane my first year of college by listening to me blabber on about the same boring stuff. I also had wonderful professors like Dr. Robert Weems and Dr. Mae Henderson who helped me select a major that was right for me. Seek out those people who will be honest with you to help you discover who are and what you might do with your life. Brutal honesty with the goal of helping be your best self beats a “yes” person who enables you to do little with your life.

If you don’t think you’re ready for college, get a job. I worked at Hardee’s for two years while I was in college, and nothing shored up my resolve to do well in college than working as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant. If a decent and/or well-paying job isn’t in your cards, join the military. You can see the world and get real-life skills that you can apply towards a college degree later. As Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Don’t get pregnant until you’re much older (and married), and don’t get anyone pregnant until you can adequately support a family. Don’t expect the government or your family to help you while you get it together; food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing vouchers are for people who really need them. Learn how to take care of yourself while you still can. Don’t get in trouble with the law, and pay your bills on time. You’ll be glad you have a good credit score when you’re ready to buy a car or a house.

One of the most important things to remember is to always have a plan for what you want to be doing when you’re in your 30s and 40s and beyond (even though those years seem so far away). Start saving for your retirement, even if it’s just a little bit each month. So much of what you do now will set the table for what happens to you 20 years from now. You will find that the years seem to go by much more quickly than they did when you were a teenager.

Remember to share what you have learned with those around you. Be a role model. Be compassionate to the homeless and the downtrodden. Be an inspiration. Be kind. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. As Maya Angelou said, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”

Do not measure your success by how big your house is or how expensive your car is. Instead, treasure your relationships, but don’t let your friends talk you into doing something stupid that could have lifetime consequences. If you must get a tattoo, get ones that you can easily cover. Without stating the obvious, neck and hand tattoos will limit your future job prospects because people will question your judgment. Yes, folks will judge you even if you really are a nice person who just so happens to have a tattoo on your forehead.

Do not think of your graduation as the end of your learning. Ask questions of yourself and to other people. As one Chinese proverbs says, “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” Keep learning. Keep thinking. Keep trying.

Travel to other parts of the country. Travel abroad. Always challenge yourself, and do something every day that scares you. As First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each expression in which we really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.”

Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Take good care of your body. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables everyday. Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, and drink 64 ounces of water each day. Your body will thank you when you’re older.

Learn how to be alone without feeling lonely. If you don’t like your own company, how can you expect people to like you?

Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace. A good yoga studio can be a wonderful sanctuary for when the world gets to be too much.

Don’t be a passive observer of your world. If you don’t like something, work to change it. Remember to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves, and always defend the defenseless. Fight injustice wherever you see it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Rescue a dog (or three, like I did) from an animal shelter, and you’ll always wonder which one rescued whom.

Stay off Facebook and other social media. If you cannot disconnect from these sites, be smart enough not to post pictures of yourself drinking and smoking and partying and dressing like a skank. You are leaving a digital footprint, and you must be careful. Do not use Facebook to judge yourself with your classmates but instead use it as an inspiration to being your best self. Use it to stay in touch with those people you do like.

You will get over the bad experiences, the mistakes you make, and the bad choices you sometimes engage in, so don’t spend a lot of time beating yourself up over them. (Thanks for reminding me of this, Shauna!) Learn something, and move on. As Maya Angelou said, “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.” Over time, these bad experiences will be like scars: you will still see them but you will accept them as part of your life.

Breakups can really suck, too, but you will survive them, and you will eventually look back on your past loves as part of your life experience, too. “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the universe, deserve your love and affection.”—Buddha. Remember this when you’re feeling down.

Finally, as Mark Twain said to his wife after telling her that he had declared bankruptcy, “Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.” Seriously, though, the world can be a scary place, but it will be less scary if you prepare for it by learning a trade or going to college and not doing stupid things that cannot be undone.

“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”—Mark Twain. Let Twain’s quote always be your guiding principle.

Baby in a Wedding Train

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think about the bride in Jackson, Tennessee, who strapped her one-month old baby to the train on her wedding gown and dragged her down the isle?




Dear Phil:

Here’s my short answer—it was both dumb and tacky and ridiculous.

The mother, Shona Carter-Brooks, told naysayers on her Facebook page that she and her husband Jonathan “do what we want, when we want, as long as Jesus on our side everything worked out fine and gona [sic] continue to be fine.” She added that the “infant was awake and well secured on my train.” To bring Jesus into a conversation when she already has at least one child out of wedlock (she also has another daughter) is kind of silly, and to suggest that she can do whatever she wants with her baby is even sillier. Is Carter-Brooks suggesting that she can beat and starve and sexually abuse said child because she has “Jesus on her side”?

Her wedding coordinator even went so far as to suggest that Carter-Brooks’ decision to drag her daughter in her train has “significant” historical value. “It indicates the dedication of her mother (and father) toward caring for her child and family…. A GOOD mother takes her child wherever she goes, even down the aisle,” wrote Kaye Jordan. Listen, a GOOD mother does not strap her daughter in her wedding gown’s train and then drag her down the aisle, and I agree with other commentators who have suggested that someone should call Child Protective Services.

Many conservative pundits have pointed out that we have gone from a society that used to shame women who had children out of wedlock to one that celebrates pregnant women in white wedding dresses and embraces including these children in weddings. I’m glad that we no longer shame women who have children outside of marriage, but more women need to take greater care in protecting their children from harm, and this includes not dragging them down the aisle in their wedding gown. A GOOD mother should protect her children from harm, and when she does something stupid like Cater-Brooks did, she should spend less time defending her dumb stunt and more time figuring out how to not do dumb things again.