Lead With Love

Jodie Patterson, author of The Bold World, and chair of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Board, shares her insights on mindful parenting.

Photography and interviews by Cathrine White

CATHRINE WHITE: How do you create authentic, diverse experiences for your children to learn about others?

JODIE PATTERSON: When we teach our children, it’s not an academic conversation with pie charts and diagrams. We just pick up a book and start reading it to them. Or when we’re cooking, they just watch and learn. It’s this concept of modeling that works best. If we want to broach the topic of diversity with our kids, we have to have diversity in our own lives. Model it. I took a look at my own friend group, at my Facebook friends one year, and they all looked like me: Black, female, moms over 40, upper-middle class, cisgender. I hadn’t thought much about it before then, but when I took a deeper look I realized that my social group didn’t reflect the diversity of my own family. One of my five kids identifies as transgender, another as genderqueer. It was then that I mandated for my family a wider cast of friends. I actually insisted that we all make new friends that year and that they had to be “gender nonconforming.” My kids thought it was weird and uncomfortable—and I agreed. But it takes that type of intent to go beyond your comfort zone. Now, years later, our friends are way more diverse—in many ways: gender, sexual orientation and age. And I make sure to keep reminding us to expand our friend group all the time. Parents, we should ask ourselves who’s at our dinner table? Who’s on our bookshelves? What is the language we use? What are the documentaries we watch? For cisgender heteronormative families, we have to add books by queer people on our bookshelves. For white families, we have to decolonize our bookshelves and have books by Black revolutionaries. We have to tell children stories about trans kids and gender nonconforming kids. We have to invite a diverse group of friends to sit with us in our homes so that children can see it, smell it, taste it.

CW: What behaviors are you modeling for your children, and how do you continue to build their self-esteem?

JP: My goal is to raise powerful activists. I remind myself that my children aren’t here to be pretty or perfect or polite. They were born to be powerful. I tell them: “You were born ready, love. Ready for anything that comes your way. You can move through any problem or person, any construct or system that stands in your way. I promise. You can even fly over it because you are bigger than it. You are a ninja and what you’ve come here to do is important. I promise.” We have to empower our children.

CW: How are you examining your own biases?

JP :I thought as a Black woman I don’t hold much bias. I thought I was very egalitarian and open-minded—only to find out I hold the privilege of being cisgender, which takes up more space than it should in this world. Most of our language is gendered and even the intonation in our voice is gendered. We speak in different tones to boys and to girls. Our expectations around what we want our children to do and be in life are often gender-specific. If we want to be part of the change that’s necessary now, we have to dissect every part of our life. It sounds complicated and annoying and it does take effort. But we can also see it as a challenge. We can either be stuck in the past or be with the people we love—the young, the vibrant, the future.

CW: What has shifted within you?

JP:I always find myself doing things in relationship to my kids. Part of my new radical approach to mothering is letting go of everything that defines me. Drop it, cut it, say bye-bye. If only for a day. Sometimes for a week. Sometimes for an hour. I run, I curse, I recite hip-hop lyrics: “Got a lot to be a man about…. Got a lot to pop a Xan about…. Man you gotta let it go before it get up in the way. Let it go, let it go.” That’s Lil Wayne. I exercise in mediocre form. I refuse to cook on a Monday. I say ‘fuck it’ out loud. I don’t sweat what a good mother of five looks like. I just roll. I just be. I call this untethering. For women it’s radical to untether. We’re taught from the time we’re young to anchor ourselves to our families, children, husbands, morals. Yet people can’t always be anchored—even to good things. Spirits need to fly. So these days I make sureI untether for a day or 30 minutes and when I return to my children I’m a much better leader.