Professor Mignon Moore has spent decades establishing herself as an innovative and insightful voice in the field of sociology; now she’s embarking on her latest journey: motherhood. After working for so long behind the hallowed walls of some of the country’s most prestigious institutions, Moore tells mater mea about the pleasures and difficulties of switching gears to jump on the parental track.
Mignon Moore, an associate professor in the department of sociology at UCLA, combines the best of the “cool mom” and “cool professor” tropes in a genuine package. But the former distinction is a recent title Moore is still getting used to.
“I have dedicated so much of my focus to my career [and becoming] a tenured professor,” Moore says. “After so many years of not being a mom, my kids have taught me that my time is no longer my own. I’m still trying to find a balance between being a mother to my babies [daughter Joie, 1, and son Ryan, 11 months] and continuing to do my research. Although it can be challenging, I’m privileged to have a job that gives me some flexibility.”
Along with flexibility, her job has also allowed for incredible intellectual and professional growth. After attending Columbia University as an undergraduate, Mignon Moore earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago. She then followed up with a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan and began her first professorship back at Columbia in 2000. It was a move that led to six years of work at the university.
“I hadn’t actually gone on the market,” she explains of her first big job. “They invited me to apply for the position during my post-doc. I was a good fit for what they were looking for, so they hired me.”
After writing her dissertation on risk factors for early teenage pregnancy and childbearing, Mignon Moore continued to study African-American families, looking, for example, at gender socialization.
“One finding I had in my dissertation was that even in high-poverty, disadvantaged neighborhoods, there were pockets of stability and safety. And if girls were able to connect with those,” says Moore, “they had a positive outcome.”
So when she started teaching at Columbia, she could have chosen to find families in nearby Harlem to interview and see where those pockets of stability were. But she felt there were a number of researchers in the field who had already been studying black families in those ways, while few were studying LGBT people and families of color.
“It was a fork in the road where I had to make a decision about what to study,” Moore says. “When I decided to study black lesbian families, people weren’t really doing that kind of work in mainstream sociology. [LGBT people of color] were marginalized in the media [and] they were marginalized in the academy. I thought that I could contribute something more original in showing how race, gender, and sexuality intersected to shape these women’s lives.”
While at Columbia, Mignon Moore began working on her first book, Invisible Families, a study of black gay women creating families. She collected all of her data and started writing some of the chapters but eventually, after a six-year run at the university, Moore felt like it was the right time for a personal and professional shift. In 2006 she accepted an offer from UCLA’s sociology department—another juggernaut in the field of women’s and gender studies—and moved with Elaine Harley (then her partner of four years, now her wife) to the West Coast.
“I wanted to try something new,” Mignon Moore says of the change. “I think it’s important to have a lot of experiences when we’re young. Some people are fine to stay in one place for their whole lives and I think that’s great, but I wanted to see what it was like to be in other environments, and this offered us a chance to grow in different ways.”
Moore and Harley built a tight-knit social group for other gay women of color in Los Angeles, a location that presented unique challenges compared to their hometown.
“In New York there are more public spaces for and a greater visibility of gay people—and gay people of color, specifically,” says Moore. “Los Angeles is a larger city in terms of square miles and everything is much more spread out, so most socializing takes places in people’s homes. But [Elaine and I] believed that greater visibility leads toward more acceptance—self-acceptance and acceptance by larger society. It was important to us that we be in public spaces where we were affirmed, and [where] other women would be affirmed and welcome.”
On the East Coast, the couple had hosted a series of events for women called Persuasion. So two years after moving to the West Coast, they launched a similar recurring program called Chocolate and Wine Upscale Events.
In 2013 Moore and Harley decided to expand their family through adoption. The two had planned to have children for years but ran into a stumbling block after Mignon Moore experienced difficulty conceiving. Still, they refused to give up their dream of raising children together and pursued other options. Rather than embarking on round after round of expensive fertility treatments, Harley and Moore looked into adoption.
“We didn’t choose private adoption because we thought there were plenty of children who needed a home that were in the system already,” Moore says. “Also, female couples have a harder time in private adoptions because when the birth mother has to decide [on a family], she often has an image of the ideal family she wants her child to have”—which doesn’t always include same-sex parents.
Fortunately, with the help of the Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency (SCFFAA), the couple was placed with Joie and Ryan, who are biological sister and brother. The Moore-Harley children were born prematurely. Joie, who was born at 30 weeks and is now 20 months old, is developing at an adjusted age of 18 months, while Ryan (who was born at 25 weeks and is now 11 months old) has an adjusted age of 7 months. The pair faces some common health challenges that arise from early arrivals, including developmental delays, feeding issues due to acid reflux, and underdeveloped lungs. But, Mignon Moore says, “We felt those were issues we could deal with.
“When babies are born early you never know what will happen,” she continues. “But [neither Joie nor Ryan had] any ailments that we felt would make it hard for two working parents to care for them.”
And work she does. After their successful placement, Mignon Moore and Harley became advocates and spokespeople for the nonprofit organization RaiseAChild.US which, like the SCFFAA, is open and welcoming to same-sex, single, and older people building families through fostering and adoption. Moore and Harley now lead workshops in both of these organizations to share their experiences with adopting children through the public system.
Additionally, Mignon Moore is working on her latest book, In the Shadow of Sexuality: African-American LGBT Elders and Social Support. The book is one part social history of African-American LGBT people in New York and Los Angeles starting in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, through the lens of the different social movements at the time—the Civil Rights, gay, and women’s movements. The second component of the book examines how this cohort of black gay elders will live out the rest of their lives.
“I’m trying to understand how this group understood their race and gender and sexuality during that era,” Moore explains. “Did they think about themselves as gay, or was race their primary identity group? Were they able to have children? Were they able to form relationships [and families] or, because of the time, were they limited to sexual liaisons? And the other part is about social support as they age. Who is going to take care of them in their old age? Most of them don’t have children because they came of age at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for gay people to have children. I wonder what kind of support they’ll have in their retirement years.”
The issue is a personal one for Mignon Moore as she celebrates her 44th year. Her life has shifted in many ways since she and her partner adopted their children and have delved further into communities on both coasts.
“I want my kids to see through our example that they have a responsibility to participate in a community,” Moore says. “I want them to be part of a larger movement, to be part of a family, and not to think that the world is only about their dreams.”
DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A MOTHER?
I was very undecided about it in my twenties and even in my early thirties. I was more focused on my career and I didn’t think much about it. One thing I wish that women knew is that they shouldn’t take motherhood for granted. I think because so many people are mothers, it’s easy to believe that anyone can be a mother, but not everyone has that gift.
DO YOU THINK THAT MANY WOMEN TAKE MOTHERHOOD FOR GRANTED?
I think that I did. [Before adopting Joie and Ryan], I just felt that when I decided to have a baby, I could. I didn’t have any medical conditions and I didn’t know that there was a timeframe for the quality of your eggs. I never gave it one second of thought, but there’s only a limited amount of time when you can physically have a child. I guess [some] people don’t recognize that because we hear so many stories of people who have a child in their 40s, so you think, “Oh. When I’m ready, I’ll do it.”
But on my journey to motherhood, I had trouble conceiving a child and carrying to term, and I met many people who also tried and weren’t able to. Others may have assumed those women did not have children because they didn’t want to, but [maybe] they just weren’t able to, and I learned that. I also think there’s an assumption that black women and Latina women are particularly fertile, and I met black and Latina women who physically weren’t able to have children. It would have been a really hard and expensive thing. So I tell people, if you want to have a child, start trying.
I do think that women have to seek fulfillment in their personal and professional lives. For too long, black women have not had that opportunity, so I want them to pursue those personal and professional endeavors, wholeheartedly. But I also want them to know that if they want to have a child, that’s something they have to take seriously and not just think that it will happen when they’re ready. If they think they might want to be a mother, I want them to value that as well.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU’VE FACED SO FAR AS A MOTHER?
Our biggest challenge so far was when we lost our first placement with a child that we planned to adopt. The agency located a distant relative and he had to go live with them. It was devastating because we had been through loss with our efforts at fertility, and then experienced this. Elaine and I had to take time to mourn that loss, but we still wanted to fulfill our dream of raising children together. So Joie and Ryan were a blessing.
DO YOU THINK PEOPLE HAVE MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FOSTERING OR ADOPTING A CHILD?
I think that people might assume that the children they adopt from the foster care system are of a “lesser” status than children you have by birth; that they are second-choice, or that they have extra baggage that children you have by birth don’t have. That’s not a good way to look at it. Yes, adopted children have suffered some kind of trauma. Even though we brought our children right from the hospital as soon as they were ready to come home from being born, they still have the trauma of being separated from their birth parent. But children that you might have biologically may have some personality difference or physical ailment that develops as they get older. Or maybe none of that is present, but something else happens in the family—a failed marriage, or a parent loses her job. There’s always going to be something in your family that will be a test of your will, a test of your endurance, and a test of your faith.
For adoptive parents, bonding with a child who is not biologically related to us or who we didn’t have from birth is our test. But for a person who loses her job and needs to keep her family together, or who is struggling to create a close bond with her child, or who is parenting a child with autism, that is her challenge and her journey. We all have journeys in the experience of motherhood—we just have different ones.
WHAT DOES THE IDEA OF “BALANCE” MEAN TO YOU AS A PARENT, A SPOUSE, AND A PROFESSIONAL?
It’s something that I would like, but I think it’s a hard thing to achieve. You want balance in your professional life, in your experience as a mother, then with your partner or spouse to make sure that you nurture that relationship, and finally for yourself where you can do something that nurtures you as a person. I think that life constantly rotates amongst all of those areas. Balance is not achieved all at once. There are times when each of those areas is nurtured, and there are times when each of those areas might not receive the attention that it needs. So for me, in this state of my life, it’s about making sure that I make time for the babies, and making sure that I make time to do my research and my writing, as well as for myself to exercise or nurture my spiritual side. But usually, none of those areas is in perfect balance; one area is usually suffering.
WHAT IS YOUR PARENTING PHILOSOPHY AND HOW DO YOU AND YOUR WIFE EXECUTE IT?
Right now, the babies are young. Elaine and I tend to have to think about how to help socialize our children as they come into the world. How do you teach them to be good citizens? How do you teach them basic life skills? Fortunately, Elaine and I have shared ideas about parenting. We both think it’s important to read to them, and for them to know that they’re loved and cared for by being affectionate. We are not punitive in our discipline and show them lots of love so that they feel special and know that they are valued. We think those are important things that you give to babies to help them feel secure in the world, and we practice and agree on those things, which makes for harmonious parenting.
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOUR MOTHER, OR THE MOTHERS IN YOUR LIFE, GAVE YOU?
Patience. You have to learn a certain kind of patience, and that’s what my mom did for me. When I get frustrated that the babies are crying and I don’t know why, or they won’t go to sleep when I want them to, it’s just that they’re on their own time. I’m working on their time—and after so many years of not being a mom, my children have taught me that my time is not my own. You may be thinking, “I don’t want to stop!” but the baby is like, “I don’t care if you’re working. I need a bottle!” And you have to listen; you can’t tell them to wait. I know it sounds so obvious but it surprises me, still, how they have so much control. You don’t want them to feel like their crying is not being heard.
WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE DO YOU HOPE YOUR CHILDREN BECOME?
I want them to love themselves and to love God, and to be kind to people who are different from them. I want them to be able to stand up for themselves in the face of hardship, and to be independent and self-sufficient. I want them to experience love and to have happiness in their relationships, and to find fulfillment in their work. I think all of those things make for a balanced person. I don’t have a particular goal for them to be in a certain occupation or to have a certain income. Just that they feel loved, have self-esteem, and have self-worth because to me, that is the key to avoiding many of the pitfalls that plague African-American children.
WHAT PERSPECTIVE DO YOU HOPE TO IMPART TO YOUR CHILDREN THROUGH YOUR WORK?
I want my children to see that they can think outside of the box; that they don’t have to be limited in terms of what they would like to accomplish in life, or in terms of what society might impose upon them. I want them to feel like they have choices, and to feel a sense of mastery where they can achieve the things that they want. I want them to feel like the world is open to them.