The paths women and girls take in life are guided by opportunities and circumstances that are both in and out or their control. Whether they are interested in pursuing an education, having a career, getting married, being a mother, all of the above, or none of the above, their lives and experiences are uniquely their own.
Having a child is something the vast majority of Americans will do at some point in their lives, but motherhood comes in all different forms. Mothers living on the Southeast side of Fort Wayne are no exception.
While there are many conversations that could be had related to motherhood in this part of the city (including disproportionately high infant mortality rates), we wanted to spend some time getting know three mothers living out their own unique journeys and providing a window into the many walks of motherhood in Southeast.
Lakisha Woods and her 2-year-old son Jaxon.
Kimisha Acklin is a 17-year-old high school senior and mother to her 2-year-old son Nir’Vontae and newborn daughter A’Yana. She has been a Southeast side resident for the last 3 years after moving with her mom from Chicago.
“I wasn’t focused on school,” Acklin says. “I started getting into trouble in middle school, my 6th grade year. My mom didn’t want me getting into any more fights and stuff like that, so she moved us.”
But having a baby hadn’t been part of the plan. In fact, Acklin found out she was pregnant by way of a car accident. One morning, she didn’t feel well and thought she had a cold. Because she was sick, her mother decided to drive her to school. On their way, they were hit by a car that ran a stop sign.
“I went to the hospital. It was confusing," Acklin says. "We got in an accident, and they asked if I could do a pregnancy test. They told me to take an over-the-counter pregnancy test, and it came back positive, so I went to a doctor a day later.”
Finding out she was pregnant and having her first baby was a scary, but ultimately, happy experience with her family and friends supporting her. Acklin also felt good about the care she received from doctors, medical professionals, and social services around Fort Wayne, including the YoungLives program that helps connect teen moms with mentors and local resources.
Now with two children, things are a little more difficult, but graduating from South Side High School through Youth Life Skills, a Fort Wayne Community Schools alternative school program, is a top priority for Acklin.
“School isn’t really an option for me,” she says. “It’s something I have to do because my aunt passed away a few years ago, and I promised her I was going to finish school.”
That same determination she has for herself, she also has for both of her children.
“I hope that my children grow up to do better than I did,” she says. “I don’t want them with kids this young.”
Having a child is something the vast majority of Americans will do at some point in their lives, but motherhood comes in all different forms.
For Acklin, where you live doesn’t define who you are or determine what you can do.
“Raising your children, I don’t base it off where you live; it’s about how you handle raising your kids where they are,” she says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with where you’re from. It’s about the outlook that you have and that you want your kids to have.”
Ultimately, Acklin hopes to graduate, get a better paying job, move, and eventually do something that helps moms because she knows firsthand that it’s not easy.
“I wouldn’t want any younger girls to go out and have kids because it’s not what the movies make it out to be,” she says. “It’s much harder. Try not to have any kids at a young age.”
Lakisha Woods always knew she wanted children.
“I always said I wanted to have two and then adopt one,” she says.
Lakisha Woods, center, her 17-year-old goddaughter Ariana, left, and her 2-year-old son Jaxon, right.
A graduate of North Side High School, HBCU Tennessee State University, and the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, Woods moved back to Fort Wayne in 2010 and has lived on the Southeast side for 8 years, working as a civil rights investigator. With family and friends close by, Woods had a support system when it came time to start her family.
Now 36, Woods has two children—her 17-year-old goddaughter Ariana, whom Woods has raised since Ariana was 7, and 2-year-old son Jaxon.
“I thought it would be difficult having children so far apart in age, but it’s kind of an advantage because she can watch him for me if I have someplace to go,” she says. “Ariana will be 18 soon. She helps out a lot.”
Woods says that her goddaughter Ariana helps raise her son.
Also part of Woods’s support system is her friend and OB-GYN Emmary Butler.
“Dr. Butler and I have been friends since high school,” she says. “She’s my OB, so that makes me feel really comfortable—having a friend as my OB.”
That type of comfort and having a doctor who moms trust also leads to better health outcomes for them and their babies, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Having a strong support system is especially important when trying to balance being a mother and studying for the bar exam.
“It was hard working full time, taking care of kids, and studying,” Woods says. “When I passed the bar, it was a huge weight off of me.”
What’s most important for Woods is that both of her children have happy, good lives.
She spent weekends and every weeknight she could studying. When COVID-19 hit and libraries closed, studying got even harder.
“I’d have to go to work and study because there’s no way to study at home with a then 1-year-old. Or I’d be out back with the blinds closed so he wouldn’t know I was out there studying,” she says. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”What’s most important for Woods is that both of her children have happy, good lives.
That hard work paid off. Woods will be sworn in and receive her license to practice law this month with hopes of building a better career for herself possibly in employment or immigration law
Although Woods hasn’t experienced too many downsides to raising her children on the Southeast side of the city, she does recognize certain limitations like the lack of places to take her children for entertainment, fewer restaurants and department stores, and a dearth of pediatricians. Having access to higher quality schools would also make it easier to raise children in the area. Southeast elementary magnet schools like Whitney Young and Weisser Park draw children from all across the city via a lottery system, and Woods hopes to place her son in Bunche Montessori Early Childhood Center when he’s 3, but there’s still middle and high school to consider.
What’s most important for Woods is that both of her children have happy, good lives.
Natalya Dunbar, 36, has lived Southeast her entire life. With no biological children of her own, she has been a foster mother for six-and-a-half years, taking in approximately 13 children ranging from ages one to 18 in that time.
“I definitely wanted to have children, but I wanted to be in a financially stable situation,” she says. “My goal was to be married and have kids.”
Natalya Dunbar has been a foster mother for six-and-a-half years.
But fostering children was also always on her radar. She grew up seeing both her grandmother and mother take in family members and neighborhood kids and raise them as her own, so fostering came naturally to her, especially once she became a homeowner.
“I’ve got all this space, so why not?” she asks. “I can give them a safe place to stay even if it’s temporarily or even until I have my own kids. We’ll see where this route takes me.”
Currently, Dunbar is raising two sets of siblings—14 and 11-year-old sisters and 2-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
“I don’t think there is an actual way to prepare,” she says. “Every child is different. There are different age ranges, and you just never know what that experience is going to be like until they’re in your home and you’re going through the process with them.” Natalya Dunbar, 36, has lived Southeast her entire life.
While all mothers need strong support systems, being a foster mother comes with its own unique challenges. Dunbar’s mother eventually became a licensed foster parent so she could help. Some of those challenges, though, are deeply personal. Developing relationships with children and having to let them go is also hard. As Dunbar explains, it’s very much like grieving a loss.
“It’s definitely not an easy process, and it doesn’t get easier,” she says. “I usually try to take time for myself in between to get through that grieving process, spend some time with myself, and try to get myself back to where I need to be before I take on the next child. But I know there continues to be a need, so that’s what keeps me going. Even though it hurt my feelings in the end, I was helping them even if it was just temporary.”
However, for two of her current foster children, the relationship won’t be temporary for much longer. Dunbar is in the process of adopting the 14 and 11-year-old sisters who have been with her off and on since they were eight and six.
After the adoption goes through and once the twins leave her care, Dunbar plans to take a temporary break from fostering to adjust to life with just the three of them. But she definitely plans to be a foster parent again because she knows the need still exists.
“I hope that I can make an impact,” she says. “Even if it’s just one child’s life, I hope that my help will be the difference for them to become a successful value to society. I hope the children I’ve fostered know that even though they’ve been through traumatic experiences, there are good people in the world who are willing to help them. And once they get older, I hope they take the opportunity to help someone else out in need.”