Issue No. 41
Words: Dara Mathis
Visuals: Lizilu Photography
Leila Noelliste, her husband, Norman Baldwin, and their 15-month-old son Noah are just settling into their first home, a 1920s era remodeled house on the West Side of Chicago.
“I love that it’s old,” Noelliste says. “It’s sturdy, but it’s also very modern, [and the remodeling] does a good job of making it really nice and really livable. It’s given us a sense of stability.”
The couple deliberately chose to move from their condo in an upper class area of the city to her husband’s childhood working class neighborhood of Lawndale for Noah’s sake.
“In those upper class communities, I felt like Noah was becoming ‘the cool black kid,”’ Noelliste says now. “I just felt like he was already being put into this box. Parents would walk up to him and talk slang, like ‘Yo, yo!’ It really bothered me and I really wanted him to be in a place where people would look past his color to get to who he was.” While Noelliste deals with one aspect of being a minority—the politics of natural hair—on her popular website, Black Girl with Long Hair (BGLH), she had no desire to subject her son to early lessons on the matter.
The permanence of having a child coaxed Noelliste into buying property thousands of miles away from her Caribbean roots (the daughter of a Haitian father and an African-American mother, Noelliste was born in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, but grew up in Kingston, Jamaica).
“I wasn’t content with the idea of being a Chicagoan and letting go of my Caribbean heritage in a major way,” Noelliste recalls. “It was a big step emotionally for me to buy property here; it kind of solidifies that this is my new home.”
Though it feels like new, Noelliste has been acquainted with Chicago for years: She received her bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in the Chicago suburbs, and in 2007 began her career as a journalist with The Chicago Defender, a historically black newspaper, after shelving her dream of becoming a television writer.
“Once I started journalism I fell in love with that brand of storytelling and the importance it has for the preservation of democracy and the documentation of culture,” she says.
In addition to black culture, Noelliste was inspired by the photos she saw online of black women learning to love their natural hair. She started BGLH as a hobby in 2008 to document her own journey. Noelliste had worn her hair in its natural texture for nearly her whole life with little knowledge of how to properly care for it. In college she was “the braid girl” and then the “press-and-curl girl” before the confluence of a break-up and other stress led her to “big chop” her hair. The blog’s name voiced her desire to dispel a commonly held myth about hair growth in the black community.
“I always thought that black girls like me couldn’t grow their hair out,” she says. “What if that [was] not true?”
Noelliste’s first posts showed pictures of her own growing Afro. Then she began asking women from natural hair forums, "Hey, can I share your photos on my blog?" To her surprise, almost everyone agreed to be featured. BGLH soon grew into a supportive community that set out to show Black women they could grow long, healthy hair.
Blogging casually about natural hair while working full-time as a reporter allowed Noelliste to tell the stories she cared about on both platforms, but the economic downturn was unkind to the newspaper industry and led to Noelliste’s layoff from the Defender in 2009. “[It] was heartbreaking,” she says now. “I really loved that job.” She soon took a new job at a rural paper in Illinois, but quit shortly after realizing that position offered no opportunity for professional advancement.
Facing unemployment, Noelliste took a good, hard look at her options. “‘I have this little website, people seem to like it, I enjoy doing it, and I think it’s serving a need,’” she recalls thinking. Though BGLH was barely profitable, Noelliste made a deal with Baldwin, her then-boyfriend: she would move in with him, contribute any income she received, and take the next 12 months to ramp up the site’s revenue.
“It was a very, very difficult transition,” she admits now. “I really learned who my friends were. A lot of my friends at the time thought I was foolish for trying to be a blogger. Some of them straight out talked about me and laughed at me. I actually went into kind of a depression around that time. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed.”
Despite her fears and her detractors’ warnings, Noelliste earned twice as much at Black Girl with Long Hair as she had at her prior job within that first year. Today her blog is one of the most popular natural hair websites on the Internet.
“What that year taught me was that I’m a much better businesswoman than I am a writer,” she says now. “It’s not writing that makes a blog profitable, it’s business acumen. I found that I was really attracted to that challenge of learning how to monetize.
“I also think I’m much better at identifying voices that need a platform than actually writing from my own experience,” she continues. “It’s been a journey for me really learning what my talents are.”
Noelliste thanks God for her mother and Baldwin, whom she married in August 2010, for believing in her vision when no one else would. After weathering another employment challenge—her husband was also unemployed briefly—Noelliste and Baldwin finally felt a measure of stability.
“The plan was just for us to breathe for a few years, enjoy the new kind of financial freedom we had, and then have a kid like three or four years later. And right after we made that decision, I got pregnant,” she says with a laugh.
Noelliste was happy to receive the news but says she struggled to adjust. “I would tell my husband over and over again, ‘This is going to be the last time it’s just the two of us. This is the last time we’re going to go to Costco, just the two of us,’” she jokes. “I would freak out all the time.”
Noah was born in September 2012, a carbon copy of his father with his mother’s focused personality. Noelliste sees her son’s disposition as a karmic twist. “You know how your parents say, ‘You’re going to see what it’s like when you have a kid?’” she asks. “I’m definitely going through that right now! He’s very persistent and stubborn. I was so strong-willed growing up, and then I made this son who is just as strong-willed. I’ve definitely met my match!”
Managing both her business and her son during the day proved to be an overwhelming task. “It’s a huge, huge challenge,” Noelliste confesses. “[Noah and I are] in this exchange where we’re trying to figure out how much space to give each other. It’s my workspace, but it’s also his home; I’m a businesswoman, but I’m also his mother.” As a result she’s hired two full-time writers for BGLH to ease her writing load, as well as a part-time nanny to help care for Noah.
“When I was pregnant, I used to hear about the ‘mommy guilt,’ and thought, ‘What are these people talking about?’ But now I get it. As a mother, you ask, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I giving enough?’ That’s an ongoing negotiation,” she says.
Buoyed by her successes, Noelliste is comfortable in her role as a businesswoman, but is still finding her stride as a working mother. “This might not be a [politically correct] answer, but I’m still trying to figure [motherhood] out,” she confesses. “I think there’s this expectation that it’s going to be [instantaneously] ‘the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done!’ As women, we have to negotiate a lot to make way for children. [But] I am grateful... Having Noah has shown me that family is important.”
“I think, on some level, having a child definitely puts life in focus…it is a chance to start over, it’s a rebirth and a chance to really clarify what we want to see in the world. It’s reflected in what we teach our son.”
Did you ever doubt your decision to be a full-time blogger, even after you became successful?
In March 2010 or 2011, I was going to quit blogging. We had stagnated on revenue generation and traffic [and] I had a hard time with the Internet culture. I just didn’t feel I had the stomach for it.
So I put up a post telling people enjoy the blog for what it is. I’m going to keep it up for a year because the archives are online and then I’m going to take it down and move on to something else. And in the comments, people just kept saying, “Where will we go? What space would we have?” At first I thought they were exaggerating, so I said, “Let me look and see what’s out there” [but] there aren’t many spaces that celebrate everyday black women. I realized, “Wow, [BGLH] is an important space [and] this is a valuable space.” It reignited me.
How do you and your husband balance working and caring for your son?
Initially we were both working full-time, and I was also responsible for Noah's care during the week, which was pretty much full time, because I work from home. We soon found this setup was very unsustainable. I felt that I wasn't running my websites as effectively as I could be, and I was not raising Noah with good energy and presence of mind.
After suffering severe abdominal pains in January  and consulting with my doctor, I learned that my body was not taking well to the full-time work and full-time mommying schedule. So after several long discussions, we made some pretty serious decisions. We hired a nanny and my husband decided to go from [working] full to part-time while he pursues his master’s in computer programming of information systems.
Our setup is pretty nontraditional, but we are really loving it so far. Now I feel that I can give the requisite time and energy to my business and really be rested, attentive and "present" when I engage with my son.
Given the circumstances behind your decision, how have you adjusted to hiring a nanny?
Well, I had no choice but to accept and adjust. My decision to hire a nanny was the direct result of an intense stress reaction my body had to the hectic pace of my life. At the time Noah was 15 months old and I had spent almost every day of his life with him. So to watch him leave the house with a stranger felt so foreign. I cried a bit that first day the nanny came. I didn't want my son to feel abandoned, or that I didn't want him.
Plus, I got quite a bit of flak from older family members who felt that it was criminal to hire childcare help. One older family member sat me down and said, "Have you seen the news? These nannies are crazy. You should be taking care of your own child." It was very difficult to explain to her that, as a working mother, I don't have the time or energy to do that.
The thought that has got me through is: It takes a village to raise a child. It might be cheesy, but it holds so much truth! As a working mom, I need a village to help me—and sometimes that includes paid help.
Thankfully Noah's nanny is a gracious and educated young woman who is currently getting her master's in child psychology. She loves Noah's energy and encourages his curiosity. I know that she will never love him like I do, but I feel that she respects him as an individual—despite his young age—and that makes me feel at ease.
It’s very true that parenting is often informed by our village or support network. How does your upbringing influence the way you hope to prepare Noah to succeed in life?
Growing up in a country like Jamaica was the foundation of the sense of pride I have as a black woman today, and the sense that I’m part of a global community and need to do what I have to do to advance that community, given our history of colonialism, segregation, and slavery.
First of all, [Noah] has to know his history, and he has to know the correct history. He has to learn how black culture as it exists across the world came to be. He has to understand what colonialism is and was [and] what effect it had, [and] what slavery was and what effect it had, because there [are] too many people in the world who are going to tell him, “You’re inferior because you’re black.” He also has to be willing and able to question authority
Education, too, is something that my parents really instilled in me. It’s powerful. It’s not about doing homework and getting good grades; it’s about knowing how to make yourself valuable to whatever economy you’re in so you can sustain yourself.
With Noah, I just don’t want my own idea of what he can do to limit him. There’s a world of things that he can do, and I want to be aware that I never limit him with my own expectation. [Also] my husband has a lot of integrity, so I just hope [Noah] is like that as well.
Issue No. 41
Making the leap from being an unemployed journalist to a self-employed blogger wasn’t easy for Leila Noelliste, 28, but she successfully grew her website, Black Girl with Long Hair, into a leading hair care resource for women of color. After an unexpected pregnancy, the arrival of her son Noah (1) has taken her on another journey—this one to define success in her role as a mother while still maintaining her sense of self as an editor, writer, and businesswoman.