a woman sits in a pot and enjoys the rain while she waters plants of her own

Dear Mama: HIV and Motherhood

HIV and motherhood introduced themselves to me at the same time. As a young college student, I met this smart, attractive, popular, and fun guy online over Spring Break. When I returned to campus, we met up in person, began dating, and well, long story short I got pregnant.

Out of fear, poor planning, and partial denial, I hid my pregnancy and ended up not being able to access prenatal care services outside of taking over the counter folic acid. I gave birth to my daughter with no preparation for motherhood outside of a last-minute baby shower and family and friends excited for this new chapter in my life.

Pregnancy and motherhood

My baby girl, who I affectionately refer to as my Womb Nugget, was born in 2003 and almost two weeks after bringing her home, attempting to breastfeed and her not latching on or drinking from the breast pump - I was told to stop efforts of breastfeeding because I was HIV positive.

A HIV diagnosis as a new mom

I was diagnosed at the cusp of emerging from childhood - 21 years old and a new mom. I had to spend the first year after my daughter’s birth having her tested and given treatments every three months. I had to hold her tiny little body as she cried when they did lab work.

I had to reveal to her father that I was HIV positive because we were no longer together and he was dating and had gotten another girl pregnant. He later was tested and is negative. I had to revisit the fact that the only other person I’d had unprotected sex with was a year prior; a one night stand from a guy who hid his true identity. It was almost too much.

I had to swallow my depression and plans of suicide until I learned what would come of my child’s health. I had to unwillingly push for hope just as I pushed for her birth into this world.

In July 2004, I was told that my Womb Nugget was HIV negative, my whole world shifted into a defined purpose and multi-faceted journey.

3 lessons learned from motherhood

What have the crossroads of motherhood and HIV taught me? The list is endless but the top three things I learned were this:

1. There is freedom in forgiveness. I have been speaking about my experiences living with HIV publicly since 2007. At the end of my very first speaking engagement, someone in the audience posed the question about the guy I had a one-night stand with that I believe I contracted HIV from. They asked what would I do if he were to walk into the room at that moment?

I honestly at that time, did not have an answer. Outside of knowing it was him and knowing I had no real information to find him, I never gave him a second thought. Until that day I was asked. I went home and that question haunted me. I finally realized after I sifted through justifiable responses of anger, rage, and disgust. I arrived at forgiveness. It has been 16+ years and I am still at the space of forgiveness.

If he were to somehow walk into my life now or approach me, I would be glad to see him. That means he’s still alive. That means HIV didn’t take another person intertwined in my life. That means he’s hopefully been taking treatment. That means he has found some sort of healing, acceptance, wholeness to his life. And everyone deserves that. Plus, this helped me to forgive myself.

2. My voice and my identity matters. I was raised in a sheltered home. I have a naturally timid personality when left in unfamiliar spaces I need to navigate. I tend to observe others through empathic energy and I have a passionate protective side for those close to me. I didn’t know how to use all those pieces of me to advocate for myself. I would stand up or speak out for others that I felt were being mistreated, but it wasn’t until my diagnosis and understanding how stigma has this horribly sticky residue that impacted my loved ones.

I learned that my voice had a foundation of collective power from ancestors, prayers, triumphs, and challenges that mattered. I learned that medical teams don’t always get it right and it was ok to demand a treatment plan that I know worked for me. I learned leaders don’t always respond in a forward-thinking way and it was ok to challenge decisions that impacted my life.

Bonus, accepting these things about myself helped me understand how to see others that don’t live in my spectrum of identifiers and face life from a different lens and I hope is shaping me into a better ally for humankind. I learned that who I am as a Black mother, woman, patient, daughter, sister, friend, and now a widow - all matters. Every experience I have in life is shaping me to continue to be the advocate that I know I was destined to be.

3. I am enough. Nothing HIV has taught me has led me to perfection or having the answers. Visibility because I accept opportunities to expand my platform for my voice, doesn’t mean I want the visibility or need a spotlight - it just means my voice is being heard. It means the stories and information I share for those in the shadows of the stigma that haven’t been able to emerge yet; they have a voice.

I have learned that when I think I am giving my 40% to a project or campaign, others may think and believe that it is my 100% and to not beat myself up because I can’t be everything to everyone all the time. I am enough with myself and, at the end of the day, that is all that I can control. I embrace who I am today, learn from the woman I was yesterday, and look forward to the queen I will be in the future.

Raising a bright daughter

These are just some of the things that HIV has taught me and through this lens, I pray my daughter is watching, learning, and being molded into a better woman than me. The one thing HIV did not do was stop me from raising a bright, intelligent, funny, compassionate, sassy young woman who has made me so proud as I see her advocate for herself in her classes, with her friends, and even with me. She’s a natural and I’m blessed to be here to witness it. For that, I thank HIV.

What lessons can you give credit to an HIV diagnosis for?

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