The season of parental celebrations is coming.
After a crazy March, I glanced up from my car to see that Mother’s Day was coming.
I wrote last year about my first season without parents and what it felt like to be without my Mom and my Dad for the first time. My loved ones told me that anniversaries would be hard and oddly enough, that helped. The twinge I get now isn’t really about what I’m missing — it was before, when they were alive. Now I feel something more like…love. Respect. Honor.
I stay out of discussions about single mothers and parents. I actively chose not to be a single teenage parent, which I write about in Get Out of My Crotch. This is not because I felt ashamed, per se, of growing up the way I did and mistaking sex for love or a way to feel worthy, but because I watched how hard my mother’s life was as a single parent, and I knew that I wasn’t up for the task.
There was also the fear, of course, of being a statistic. This is both the artist in me, the creative, who wants to be fully seen and acknowledged as unique and the black woman intellectual in me, who understands that what and who I am on the outside is always judged first as the total of what I am on the inside — even if it is incomplete or flat-out wrong.
But underneath the fear of being a statistic, which I am as a single, professional woman anyway, is the desire to belong to a community. To be single, parent or no, is often to be cast aside and cast away, the stubborn avatar of independence, failure to launch by failure to merge, somehow. And for women, this failure is always depicted as our own problem, our defect.
My Mom, some time in the 1970s. Working it.
If you’re a single mother, especially if you’re not white, this shaming can be relentless and unceasing. Even though it makes perfect economic sense that fewer women are getting married because there are diminishing returns for many of us on that front.
My friend, the lovely writer and Beyond Baby Mamas founder Stacia L. Brown, wrote recently at The Atlantic about how unwed mothers feel about being unwed, noting that when statistics come out about single mothers, people tend to talk around them instead of to them about their feelings.
As the child of a single mother, I remember this acutely. No one ever asked my mother about her feelings. If they had, they’d have found nuances that didn’t match their disrespectful portraits: she had internalized enough heart breaks that she hid her deepest self, even from me. She was a registered Republican in New York State (!) during the Reagan era, even while we were in the cross hairs of Reagan’s draconian policies related to the poor.
What I wish I had known then, when I was internalizing messages that I was a part of a larger social problem because I had a single mother who worked and went to school all the time, trying to be better, was that pretty much everyone grows up in one form of dysfunction or another. Steven Spielberg spoke powerfully about this on 60 Minutes, memoirist Mary Karr writes extensively about this in The Liar’s Club, which I just finished, and the list goes on. Pathology is not just a single black woman’s thing.
Except, when people start talking about women who are mothers who aren’t married, they are inferring that these are unfit women. They don’t respect them. They suggest that it is somehow, defying reason, the easiest thing in the world to raise a child alone, when in fact, it appears to be the hardest job on the planet.
Consternation over our parenting of our children, it has to be said, is a coded way (in the same way that arguments about single black women is) of saying that without “proper course-correcting” we don’t have the instincts God gave us to be good women, caregivers or anything else without the help of the state, the government, smart people and, basically, men. Jim Rigby, an eloquent pastor, writing about the death of Chinua Achebe, notes that we are all victims of the narrative of the American Empire:
It is not our fault that we were born in a vast and brutal military empire, but it is our responsibility to do what we can to lessen the violence of empire against our sisters and brothers of the earth. It begins when we can recognize their humanity. We may not have the answer on how to undo the violence of empire but, at the very least, we can get our minds and hearts free.
We are all always just doing the best that we can. My deep affection and longing for my mother, in spite of our history together, is entrenched in honor. I honor her for what she had to give, even when it wasn’t exactly all that I needed, or even close.
It’s very rare that someone is just mailing it in when it comes to their children, in particular, I’ve noticed. Even my own mother, who was divorced by the time she had me, had a lot of flaws, but all things considered, I turned out pretty great, albeit with a few bruises and existential identity issues.
How is it possible that the world keeps spinning and children somehow magically grow up to unwed mothers without being maladjusted soul-sucking malcontents?
Well, single parents are incredibly resourceful human beings — the children they love and adore require that. What my mother, the most resourceful person I ever met in the pre-Internet era and since, didn’t know how to give me she found someone who could. The village raised me, even in places completely unfriendly, if not downright hostile, to kids, like New York City. This was a coalition of friends, relatives and mentors. A multiracial cast of people who provided much more to me than my biological father would ever be able to offer me.
Beyond that, what I find fascinating about discussions about single mothers, particularly those who aren’t necessarily highly educated or high earners, is that few writers and reporters interrogate their own assumptions about “the right way” to raise children, whether they have them or not. In Daring Greatly, another book I just finished, by Brene Brown, she writes that one of the most harmful things parents can do is judge other parents for how they raise their children.
It seems to me that the last thing single mothers and single fathers (the latter of which are almost entirely invisible in any debate — do they not exist?) need is hand wringing over the economic ramifications of their personal choices or the insinuation, essentially, that the rest of us have to pay for what we also insinuate are their careless mistakes. I was made intentionally, loved with a greater intensity than most kids can ever hope for and while I could have had more stability, and life would have been different with a father in the home, there’s no telling if it would have been better. Conjecture that promises a narrative that isn’t true isn’t an answer, and it doesn’t change the course of personal lives.