For several years, Sagashus T. Levingston felt like she was "faking motherhood," trying to live up to what other people thought she should be and striving to fit a narrative that didn't fit her.

Levingston, a mother of six who grew up on the south side of Chicago, read an article on the topic for graduate school. The article made her realize the importance of reclaiming her narrative and that of other women like her, and it spurred a passion that has inspired her Ph.D in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It also led her to create the group, Infamous Mothers, in February. The group aims to empower stigmatized women in how they mother. Based in Madison, the group plans to hold workshops soon to help women leverage their own stories into personal and professional growth.

What are you trying to accomplish with Infamous Mothers?

I come from a community of very strong women women who are and were very committed to raising their children and were just extremely empowered. (But) what I found is that the women who are from where I’m from are rarely depicted as women who are capable of being a part of social change. I wanted to embark on a journey that changed that narrative. I wanted to include women in discussions about social change. I wanted the face of the women from my community to be part of discussions and commonplace understandings of who are the change-makers in our society.

What kinds of mothers are you focusing on with the group?

I’m looking at primarily African-American, stigmatized moms. And other moms who we just count out and say "Oh well, look at what she's done with her life." They’re at the heart of what I do. I’m always conscious of them and how they radiate outwards in different aspects of society.

When you talk about creating a dialogue over changing the narrative, what specific types of change are priorities for you?

I want the women I work with to be seen as experts of their own mothering as opposed to the state and hospitals and social workers and everyone else being experts on these women’s mothering practices. I want the women to be able to assert themselves confidently in areas of their own mothering and I want the state and hospitals to be consultants and collaborators. I want women to be empowered in their own position as mothers. 

As it stands there's this constant fear for some women that these people in these institutions could come in my home at any moment and take my child away. There’s this constant fear and I think all mothers feel surveyed and under surveillance by society. What I‘m talking about has another layer of fear so there’s surveillance combined with this anxiety. Part of the work I do in the community is to create a platform that helps women feel empowered.

I want to make it clear that while I'm primarily looking at one population, the working class population, there’s another population of women who are very successful who are coming from this background. Being a teen mom or a mom who's addicted to drugs or a sex worker at one point in your life does not guarantee they will live in poverty or struggle. 

I’m hoping we can change the narrative and say, "Yeah, we understand that these women are accomplished in their own right but they also are also coming from this particular history that shouldn’t have to be amputated, denied, so that they can function in society and be recognized for who and what they are today." I’m hoping women can start telling their stories whole and acknowledging the complexity of their lives so that it can inspire women like them to say, "Just because I start here, doesn’t mean I have to end here." I want to create a narrative that boldly states, "I am who I am because of my whole lived experiences not despite of my lived experiences." 

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What changed for you when you realized how important it was for women to claim their motherhood narrative?

I was doing everything you’re supposed to do to be a good mom but I was dying on the inside because I felt oppressed by it. I was mothering and I couldn’t speak my truth as a mother. And once I started speaking my truth and really examining the conditions and creating the space for myself that made me feel empowered, I started seeing my children as allies and not responsibilities. And I started seeing my children as people who are not only a continuation of a legacy but as citizens and as people who will ultimately help me change society. I started changing them with that mission in mind as opposed to the traditional have the kid, put them in the best schools, send them off to do something great in the world. It became more personal for me and it became more specific.

Anything you can point to that is the most pernicious lie that mothers believe that you want to expose?

I hate when people tell you that when you have a child, your life is over. Self care is not a privilege, it's not an option, it’s a priority. It's as necessary as breathing and as food and water and the blood that runs through us. So if we tell mothers, "The minute you have a child, your life is over," that means the mother turns her full attention away from herself and to the children and what is she teaching the girls? She’s teaching the girls to be a constant martyr and self-sacrificial and she’s teaching the boys to benefit from that martyrdom as opposed to saying "We’re in this life together." I now say to my children, "At any given point, it's going to be more about me or more about you, it depends on the circumstances but we’re in this together."

I think (that way of thinking) ruins people and it ruins families and it sets children up for and it sets mothers up for (being) simply caretakers and it welcomes exploitation. It’s a domestic kind of exploitation that’s consistent with what happens in the rest of the world.

What’s coming up for Infamous Mothers?

Sept. 29,30- YWCA Racial Justice Summit. Sept. 24, the Black Women Wellness Summit. Later this fall, International Visual Literacy Association conference in Montreal, Canada. October is the TED X talk in Madison.

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.