I Won an Award, but Who's the Real MVP?

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Photo: Danielle Belton (The Root/G/O Media)

Last week, on Monday night, was the 19th annual Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century gala at Club 101 in Manhattan, N.Y. There was some revelry, but there was a lot more talk about how we can advance our cause as women, and ultimately, not just save ourselves, but save the world.


As I accepted the Rita Henley Jensen Award for Excellence in Journalism, though, I focused not on how women can save the world, but how one woman, my mother, saved my life so that I could be there, in that moment, receiving that award. That she saved my life so that I took could work hard to “save the world” by changing it through my work as a journalist.

And how, after her passing, I’m forever grateful.

Something strange happened to me this year.

After my mother died in December, I was convinced I was doomed to repeat the same grieving process, or have maybe an even worse process, than the one I had after my friend Toya Watts died of colon cancer in 2014. Toya, who I adored, died at 48, not even making it to 50. Her death felt so unjust and so unfair that it made me see the world differently. Everything was darker and in some respects I found myself wondering what was the point of anything. But while my friend’s death seemed to be a reflection of life’s cruelty and indifference in the face of suffering, my mother’s death after a long battle with dementia seemed like mercy. Time had already changed my mother to a woman none of us recognized, so we had to lose her twice, once to Alzheimer’s and once to death. And that was devastating, but at least she didn’t have to suffer anymore.

Gala co-chair Laura Embrey and honoree, Danielle Belton.
Gala co-chair Laura Embrey and honoree, Danielle Belton.
Photo: Astrid Stawiarz (Getty Images)

Yet a strange thing happened a month or two after my mother’s passing. I had an epiphany. What if I didn’t just live for myself, but I lived enough life for my mother and my friend?

Living for my mother had gotten me out of funks before. I suffer from Bipolar Disorder, Type 2, and at one point in my life gave up my career and moved back to St. Louis to live with my parents, long before my mother started showing signs of illness. I had given up on life completely and wanted to die, but chose to live on out of respect and love for her. I knew that my mother loved me more than anything. She loved me sick and she loved me well. There was no limit with her. She just wanted me to be there, with her. So when I didn’t love myself, I clung to the love she had for me and told myself that would be enough to keep me on this earth.

In the end, her love, along with the support and love of my father and sisters, got me through it. I got better. And I moved on with my life, learning to live with Bipolar, as opposed to fighting it, trying to desperately cure what is incurable, or destroy myself over it. But my mother’s love is what saved me.


She’s still saving me.

After her passing I wondered what on earth I thought I was doing with my life. I was “present” but I was mostly just existing, not living, going through the motions. I was there, but I wasn’t really with anyone. And it was strange. I’ve written here before about how even though I’d reached a point of success in life, I didn’t really comprehend or enjoy it, but that this particular job kept me stable and sane because I had no other option but to be these things. I was responsible for others now and couldn’t afford to be a flaming hot mess anymore. But it was hard to stay in the moment. My mind was always elsewhere.


Then my mother died and it was like a light came on in my head. I’m 41. What’s the point of living your life like you’re just waiting for it to end? So, after a series of fails, pratfalls, mishaps and mistakes, I dusted myself off, stood up and said, “You know what? I’m gonna punch this world straight in the balls.”

Meaning: I’m going to kill it. I’m going to kick ass. I’m going to live my life with the richness and fullness of someone who knows their ancestors never got these opportunities. And I’m going to get better and be a better person—a better friend, a better manager, a better employee, a better daughter and sister. I was going to be the best version of me I could be, no matter the cost. And the results, so far, have been pretty amazing. In two months, I’ve started a whole new path that involves talk therapy, exercise, a healthy diet, confronting my fears and investing in myself.


Do I have a long way to go to success? Pretty much. I have my setbacks and slip-ups, but I will not let these deter me. I’m a fighter and I got that fight from my mother. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.



Yes to “investing in myself” because you deserve to treat yourself as lovingly as your mother treated you. I’ve been following your career for a long time and your Black, female readers are rooting for you. Also, congratulations on winning such a meaningful award!