On Being Born To A Single Mother

Khadijah mom

My mother wanted me and I was born. My very existence is an act of resistance.

When I was young, maybe 6 or 7, I was riding in a car with my mother on a sunny day. Suddenly, my mind flashed to a schoolteacher’s recent explanation of abortion. I started to cry.

“Mommy, thank you for having me,” I said.

She looked at me surprised, wondering what was going through the mind of her tender eldest child.

“I wanted you,” she told me. And she’s told me that many times since then. I’ve always known it to be true.

I was raised by beautiful, sturdy, hardworking women in different shades of brown. I was held up by the gentleness of my Auntie ReeCee, the boisterous laughter of my Aunt CeeCee, the outrageousness of my Aunt Deb, and the warmth and love of my Nana. In the early mornings of my childhood, phonics lessons on PBS filled the bedroom my sister and I shared with my mom. The smell of ironed clothes floated through the apartment and my mom’s clicking heels played a resolute rhythm as she prepared for the day. She dropped us off at my grandmother’s house on her way to work and in the kitchen my Nana spooned butter, milk, and sugar into steaming bowls of oatmeal or Cream of Wheat.

Men were variably around, with quick and affectionate presences I loved to observe—I adored the moments sitting quietly near my grandfather as he dressed for work, watching my godfather as he donned a wave cap and fixed cars on his block. I melted when my uncles sang beautiful melodies or told jokes that made us laugh until we cried.

But the men were intermissions in a larger play, minor characters in a script written, produced, and directed by black women. For me, these women’s starring roles were much more important than their romantic attachments—they were warm hands that rubbed my back and smoothed my hair. They were sweet potato pies and collard greens, no-nonsense advice and compassionate fierceness. They were smiles that see themselves in my face and promises that were always there. They were life, resilience and grace, and taught me what it was like to be loved for everything I am.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that none of this was relevant to a world full of binaries, a society that values women based on their relationships to men. I wasn’t aware that trips to the library, family vacations, and cooking, cleaning, and attending to family did not appear on official forms next to the check boxes that asked whether or not you had a husband. I had to learn that I was born single, but should die married.

These two categories still seem woefully inadequate to me—they don’t tell anyone about heartbreak, the fiancé who left you, the husband shot in the head, or the jails filled with the men you love. They don’t ask whether you want to be married or if you’ll lose the benefits that feed and clothe your family if you do. And, as a child of a single mother, that label doesn’t tell anyone about how amazing it was to be loved and raised by 20 people instead of just two, how it feels to have kin that extends beyond family. Where is the box that asks whether my godmother picked me up from school when I was sick, or about the time my Nana brought me last-minute brownies made from scratch? Why is there no category for love, for childrearing, parenting, and community, in all its forms, in all its ways?

I still find it sad to think that my mom ultimately married my stepfather because of these boxes, staying much too long in a dangerous, abusive relationship that uprooted years of love and stability. And, of course, I find it ironic that in the end, she was single again, checking boxes that left everything unsaid.

*****

Marriage as a societal ideal is a persistent moralistic rhetoric that Americans can’t seem to shake. While today, gay people fight hard for access to the institution, others are fleeing it. Marriage is a peculiar arrangement—a state-officiated contractual agreement that is as much (or more) about preserving property and financial security as it is about love.

In reality, many women who have married have done it under obligation and even coercion. Until the last few decades, women were unable to support their own children, get a mortgage, or even sign up for a library card without a husband. Women in abusive or difficult marriages were discouraged from leaving them, or treated with contempt and scorn if they did. Though times have changed, the obsession with marriage rages on, as does its coterminous shaming of women who raise children alone.

Some folks play tricks with numbers and statistics about single mothers in order to promote marriage as a social ideal. Last month in The New York Times, Kay Hymowitz wrote an article allegedly about “single mothers” that very quickly disintegrated into an indictment of poor single mothers. Hymowitz argued that low-income single mothers have less social mobility and more poverty than other mothers, and threw in a slut-shaming swipe about their promiscuity in tangential points about unprotected sex and an epidemic of “half-siblings.”

Of course, Hymowitz failed to note that one scholar she cites points to failed public policy as a major cause of lower marriage rates among poor women. Without financial stability through adequate wages, public support, and investment in education, housing, and food, and available jobs, marriage is not seen as viable or sustainable. Ironically, it is their respect for marriage that keeps poor women from pursuing it. And, while marriage has declined among single mothers, rates of cohabitating have actually increased, undermining the notion that all of these women are going it alone. Poor women have apparently figured out what many of our elected officials can’t seem to get—that having children generally doesn’t affect whether or not you make it out poverty.

On a winning streak, another New York Times column last week oddly argued, without any evidence at all, that unwanted pregnancies were caused by low self-esteem among women who don’t “value their bodies.” Somehow side-stepping all of the unwanted pregnancies among married women, Charles Blow claimed that “there are too many children born to single mothers.”

It’s hard not to wonder if this is what Mr. Blow thinks of my mother, who conceived and carried me in her last year of college. Did he wish I weren’t born? I think I’ve turned out OK, despite my mother’s supposed lack of self-esteem.

Sadly, these writers are not alone in their views. Many high-profile figures, from Bill Cosby to President Obama, have blamed poor single mothers for being poor and single.

Facts and information do little for these ideologues—for them, it doesn’t matter that poverty causes poverty, that many single mothers don’t start out single, and that most women with children living under poverty have full-time jobs. In shaming, scolding, and maligning poor women, these writers, celebrities, and politicians implicitly affirm the forced sterilization of women prisoners happening today, they advocate for the disproportionate rates of child removal among poor women and women of color, and show tacit approval for food stamp cuts that will starve the poor and hungry (many whom are children). They are bullies, performing strength by attacking the weakest among us.

These folks believe that being poor makes you worthless, that the value of a person depends on how much she earns (or was born into).

And they believe that some children don’t deserve to be born.

So in a society where fictions prevail, corporations are considered more valuable people than actual people, and genocide is as much ethos as it is policy, I can only speak my truth into the void.

My mother wanted me and I was born. My very existence is an act of resistance. And every woman who ever loved me, every single mother who served as my caretaker and joy-builder, and every utterance of “mommy” that sounds in homes throughout this nation untells these lies, maintains these truths, and undoes these binds. Love always wins.

Always.

Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.

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