Photo credit: J. Ballet
This is a guest post by Shana Swain. Shana is a full-time mother, bartender, and freelance writer. She contributes to the Huffington Post and the Lowcountry Herald, and her personal blog is Feedmetipme.wordpress.com
Boiling tears scalded my cheeks as I tried to swallow nausea to brush my teeth. The reflection in the mirror was a stranger. Swollen, bloodshot eyes of this woman looked nothing like the bright, almond eyes of the carefree girl of yore. Her face drooped, her hair was brittle. She wasn’t me. Yet, now she was. Now, I was angry. It made me humiliated and scared. I was pregnant, with another sleeping quietly in bed. And I was alone. Alone to raise two girls.
The writing had been scrawled in maddening capitals on the proverbial wall: I knew our relationship would not last. The decision was mutually made, and we parted ways. But what I didn’t know then, and what I was beginning to realize is I would also be charged with taking care of two children mostly by myself. I was fighting overwhelming depression of the breakup, as well as the impending societal shame and dehumanization I was sure to feel of being a single mother. Plus, I was a black single mother. Sure, I’d seen my mother do it, but like her, I never envisioned this for myself. Co-parenting seemed to be something I would only read about in the blogs — not see in my real life. My life henceforth would involve struggling to do it all, with little recourse.
That was in October 2014. The struggles I initially endured were in the appearances of it all. Once, while pregnant, a client who knew I wasn’t married felt it acceptable to ask me if I knew who the father was, and how I planned to educate my children — questions I doubt my white single mom peers face.
“I felt like a predictable statistic.”
Then the struggle got more real. I was so afraid when he left, I would be broke, my lights would be turned off, and I wouldn’t be able to pay rent. I have a skill, I have always worked (and worked hard!), and in the truth of the matter, I financed our relationship anyway. One less grown-up in the house proved to be less expensive for me — at least in the beginning. Then I began to see not only would the girls receive few, if any, visits from their father, it also became apparent he would offer no financial assistance either. Yet again, the same sticky, shameful feeling washed over me as I prepared for the next arduous steps in this journey of single motherhood. I felt like a predictable statistic.
With my meager savings quickly dwindling, I felt I had no choice to ask for child support. I could not afford a private lawyer, so I went through the courts. Sitting, waiting for my turn with the social workers was an eye-opener for me. It also made me cringe thinking of the statistics we were all about to become. Not one parent in the waiting room was any race other than black. Were we the only ones who sought the help of social services? Were our men and women the only people who were summoned through a court system to help pay for their children? I had read and heard various bits of information on the state of child support, and who used it. I read articles of the plight of black men being enslaved again with the current system of paying child support. I saw social media posts blaming women for putting their baby’s father on support and now he is in jail because he couldn’t pay.
“I would hold a black man responsible for his children.”
It infuriated to me. How could you help create a life, and refuse to help pay for them to eat? My father never gave my mother money for his children, I would be damned if I allowed my children to endure the same fate. I plead with their father, and asked him where our girls would be if they had two parents who didn’t pay for their children to eat. It was a simple question with a grave answer: They would starve, they would wither, they would be lost in this world. I blew off all the pleas from my community to give an absent parent a break, none of those reasons would change my mind on asking for child support. I dismissed the excuses non-custodial parents make when mandated to pay for their children.
When we met with the mediators, the names of both my ex and myself were on that paper. It was cut and dry: I make this much, he makes that much. I was in charge of a certain percentage of the financial well-being of our children, he had a responsibility to the remainder. BOTH of us were now on child support. And yes, there could be repercussions for the non-custodial parent’s for failure to pay, but if I didn’t contribute to the financial support of our children — as custodial parent — would not those consequences be more dire? I decided I would not have sympathy for delinquency, as little sympathy would befall me if I came up short. My children would now receive support from both parents, even if one was more present in the physical. This was my way of changing the narrative for black families: My children would know that their father was financially responsible for them, and I would hold a black man responsible for his children.
“I don’t know how you do it.”
That does not mean he has been the involved dad that every mother — of any race — hopes for her kids. As any custodial parent will tell you, it is the physical that is the most demanding. Actually being there when they needed you. Nursing two children to almost two years old. Setting up doctor’s appointments, registering them for swim lessons and dance class. The parent who picked up freelance writing gigs to afford private violin lessons. The one who bandaged the cuts and gave big hugs when all seemed lost to them. The one who rushed home from a busy day of serving others to further serve two littles. I am the mother who has to hear from her child when she returns from school: “Mom, is Daddy gonna come to my school sometime? My teacher was asking about him.” (Big sigh and a SMH.) I am the parent who sets up playdates and accepted birthday party invites, while my married friends and childless friends continued to marvel, “Shana, I don’t know how you do it.” I am driven to give my kids the best life I can, like any mom. I am also motivated to buck the statistics, and hyper-motivated to change the story of what it means to be a black single mother.
How did I do it? How am I doing it? In the eyes of our community, I shouldn’t be doing it. I should be waiting for someone to do it for me. Let politicians like Ben Carson tell it, he infers the decline of the American moral fabric is to be blamed directly on single motherhood: “We need to face the fact that when young girls have babies out-of-wedlock, most of the time their education ends with that first baby. And those babies are four times as likely to grow up in poverty, end up in the penal system, or the welfare system.” From where did he get that statistic? I have yet to find it after many searches. At any rate, I should say I do not belong to this demographic, and most of the black single mothers I know also do not fit this description. But, thank you, Dr. Carson for your keen insight.
I recently spoke with some of my black peers. The idea of needing to be married in order to properly raise children was a prevalent one. Admittedly, in my heart of hearts, I was angry. If I actually thought about being married, it was a fleeting thought when I was much younger. Growing up in my mother’s house, I think I always knew I would require the independence of single life. Still, it did not mean I didn’t want children. I felt those opinions were directed at women like me — black women — and I took offense. I did understand, however, many of my black peers spoke from their upbringing in a religious household, thus their opinion on marriage already differed greatly from mine. To me, I didn’t see being a single mother as being negative. It didn’t spell doom for my children or others. I know I am still fairly new to this mothering game, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say I appreciate the freedom I have to raise my daughters, and ensure they know the importance of their role in this world. In response, I allowed my analytical side to comment and tried my best to quell my emotional side.
There are so many factors involved in the “why” of 70% of black children are born to unmarried black women. Has anyone stopped to consider the extremely high incarceration rate of black men? How about the systematic emasculation of our men; the psychological and physical breakdown forced on our men since slavery? Black men were purposely separated from their families through that detestable period of bondage (moved to other places to make more children– aka property), and continue to be separated through means of a more legal slavery: prison sentences. The implication that arises is some of our men aren’t mentally prepared to support a family.
Lest we forget the American divorce rate: sure it has decreased, but it is still astounding (6th highest in the world). Many women are not seeking marriage because there is not much faith in it any more. Some women still see marriage as their greatest social standing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they choose happiness. There is still infidelity, still children born outside of the marriage, still physical and emotional abuse. I think women and men alike grew weary of the institution of marriage and took their lives to do what they wanted to. I am most bothered by people who claim marriage is best because like many black women my age (I’m 38), I do not see marriage and parenthood as interdependent. These laws were set forth by man, not by nature.
I went into single motherhood with a goal and expectation of raising adjusted and thriving children. Expectations come from me, but they also come from my family and friends. None of us want to see me fail, and we won’t allow that to happen. The support my girls and I receive from my mother and family is endless and without condition. My amazing and empathetic mother helps everyday with my children. My siblings are available to help with many requests. My mother was single for most her life, so she raised her seven children to be very close. It has continued that way, and I see us being close for the duration. My support system spreads past my family and unto lifelong friends. Many of them are also mothers and we definitely lean on each other when in need.
Giving back to the community
Being a black single mother does not exclude me from giving to others. In fact, it fueled me to reach out to my community. My spirit needed to say: “Thank you, and now I am here for you.” The most sound piece of advice came from my mother: “No man is an island.” We are all here to live our lives the best we know how, and we take what we have and help our community. My daughters are young, but we have a yearly food and clothing drive to help our neighbors who are experiencing tough times. There was a point — albeit a small one — when I thought I would need all the help from every agency. But the people who surround me, and my own drive to do what I set out to, has enabled the girls and me to have the means to help our neighbors.
Let the pundits speak and share their ambiguous statistics on the huge American problem of black single motherhood. Black single motherhood is hard and easy, fun and expensive, scary and fulfilling; same as any motherhood. Racist attitudes towards me and others who look like me have translated into the notion that we must not be capable of doing our jobs as mothers as we inferior from the start of our journey. I will continue to bite my thumb at them and keep showing my daughters the love and care they deserve. Being a parent is hard enough, I nary have time to listen to critics telling me the proper way to do it. I don’t get bothered by the label of black single mother any longer. I also do not wear it as a badge. I take what is in front of me, and I make it work for my daughters. Their opinions are the only ones I am truly concerned with, and even then I will remind them that I am the mama.
The tears cooled and are now tears of happiness and freedom. Freedom to raise my daughters on my terms and no one else’s.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.