“Don’t cry for me, I’m a black single mother”

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Photo credit: J. Ballet

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.

Black single mom statistics

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.

Related: Single mom statistics and data

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.

Single mom statistics 

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

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.


I feel sorry for your children that they have to grow up without a father, same for all the women in the comments. But there is something I’ve been noticing in these types of articles on single-motherhood, as I have been doing research for a project. The central theme tends to be: “It’s not my fault, he should’ve, society should’ve, etc etc. Could you please take responsibility for your actions. I know its a hard thing to do, but if you can, I would be willing to bet a lot that your children will likely have better outcomes. Also, let’s not pretend that you didn’t play right into the statistics, because you did. Children of single-mothers usually become absent fathers and single-mothers themselves. The father, though not there physically, was there financially, because of the state. Had the state not been there, you would have been in a very different position and have a lot more incentive to choose carefully who became the father of your children. Playing victim will not help your daughters at all, it’ll guarantee that they will also become victims when they make mistakes. I mean this in good faith. I can see the angry replies already

This is a wonderful article for single parents. I too share your sentiments as a single mom of two. I vowed never to let the absence of a father in the home be an excuse for my kids to suffer. I have positioned myself financially to take care of them on my salary, so when I receive support, it is a bonus. My goal is to not be another statistic as well. Thank you for your candor and honesty. We need it!

Wow!! I am on the verge of saying take your son, I am tired!! Couldn’t have read this at a better time. Lucky for me, my ex has has been financially supportive. Yet raising a boy without a father can be challenging, I tried so hard to give him all he needs and want , yet I feel I have done no justice to my son getting out of a relationship I felt was just too grim to continue. I hope he forgives me for not trying harder to make it work. However, I will do everything in my power to ensure we are not a statistic. This article has help to rejuvenate my spirit to keep going…..

I am reading this at a time of distress. I really needed to read this. It’s been very hard to get over divorce and accept being a single mom. I want to get out of this pity party and stand tall. Your story encourages me even more to knock down that wall of shame and work on being a great mother. My situation does not define who I am. My son needs me to be strong. I need to be strong. I’m a work in progress and God still loves me. So I will do better. Thank you for sharing your story. I would like to do the same one day. Writing is my second passion. God bless you Emma

Great post! As a black girl raised by a single mother when my daddy left me as a baby, I completely understand your struggle. One thing I didn’t like is this:

I doubt my white single mom peers face.

Really? Can you really be that ignorant. This ain’t no black and white issue (quite literally) this is a women’s issue. You are the one shaming them women. You think they don’t face those struggles? My mama’s best friend was a white single mother. She has a son four years younger than me from rape. Believe me. She faced as many issues as my mom, and you, and every other single mother out there.

Girl, your story is great the way it is. No need to undermine the struggles of other women like you. Keep changing the world :)

Tamika, by excerpting the full comment to its last few words, I think you missed the meaning. The full sentence is as follows:
“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.”

The author of the post was not denying the struggles or shaming other women. The doubt she expressed was related only to the acceptability of the questions she was asked: 1) did she know who the father of her child was; and 2) how did she plan to educate her children. These particular questions lend to the stereotype of the lascivious and ignorant black woman going around having multiple babies with multiple baby daddies. Due to being keenly aware of this stereotype, even I preemptively offered my children’s fathers the option of an immediate paternity test upon birth to eliminate any potential doubt.

Thus, I am inclined to agree with the author that white single mothers probably do not have to face these particular questions on top of all the other struggles surrounding female, single parenthood.

Thank you for writing this. And thank you to Emma for sharing it with us. Not only am I a “Kickass Single Mom” but im a black kickass single mom as well! I have had many moments when I second guess the decisions that I make in the best interest of my son and have been criticized by his father for those decisions even when he never brought any suggestions or solutions to the parenting table leaving me to do it by myself. I still worry daily about my sons future and his success but I have no other option but to keep trying and doing my best. He takes priority over everything else in my life because I am pretty much all he has and I dont want to let him down. I pray, I cry, I worry (yes even though I pray I do still worry) but I keep going. Thank you so much for letting me know that I am not alone in this struggle. I cant wait to finish Emma’s book and I look forward to reading more from you as well Shana.

Shana, this was a lovely written piece. From one black single mother to another, thank you for your courage and determination, as it inspires me to be courageous and remain determined.

I know it’s a small thing to remark on when the whole piece was wonderful, but I do especially love the bit about biting your thumb at them.

Truly inspiring story Shana! Thanks for sharing it. This is truly my favorite quote from your article: “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.” This is one for the books!!

Reaching out is one of the best ways to turn a painful experience into a positive one. I’ve written about overcoming tragedy and grief at Aspire-Canada, and its a long, winding process – but when we can focus on others and reach outward its like medicine.

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