I don’t know why other women do it. I can’t say what keeps them out of the pharmacy within 120 hours of conception. I don’t know why they don’t choose the clinic? It’s unclear what makes them believe: in the strength of their relationships, in their capacity for quick maturation or increased earning potential, in the rightness of what they feel taking root, that warm fleshy oblong, unformed but undeniable. To be sure, there are many unmarried mothers of color, but I cannot imagine the myriad narratives that motivated their choice. To speculate would be more than presumptuous; it would be damaging.
The numbers don’t provide that insight. Whenever I hear new ones, issued in press releases, then disseminated like handfuls of grain, before spreading unchecked like weeds, like root rot, I imagine the underpaid census-takers, the overtaxed academics being pressured to publish work on issues that go under-explored, the grad students who need to lend their theses gravitas. Did they ask the right questions? Were we breath and bone to them or just data to add to their infographics?
Could they hear our exhaustion as we answered? Yes, single. Yes, black. Yes, 30-35. Yes, under 18. One child, three. Two fathers, both involved. One father, an apparition. Did they know we could already sense the collective tsk-tsking of a nation, as they scribbled their survey findings into the blank spaces of forms on clipboards?
Does it matter what they know? Is it significant that we love our daughters or sons more than each other, that we pool our paychecks to protect them from the blight of poverty, if not the category of it, and that most days we succeed? Would it skew the data if they realized that when we go to bed at 2 am, with a near-primal ache in our joints and a day’s worth of worry to quell, we don’t put ourselves to sleep by contemplating bygone outcomes which do not include having children?
Do they know we do not deny that there are women who find ways to cull more than a fair share of the assistance that government subsidies offer? Do they understand how reticent we are to declare that those women “make us look bad”–or that they are themselves “bad?” We do not know them. We do not know their stories.
Do they wonder at all what the thousands of families who qualify for TANF but decline it do to stretch their earnings? Do they get how injurious the very thought of being labeled can be, how criticism can haunt so deeply it can cause us to refuse the food in an open palm, even when we’re truly hungry?
Have they asked how often we hear, “Well, that’s your problem.” and “You shouldn’t done xyz if you didn’t want to hear about it?” Do they know who-all has offered unsolicited, retrospective advice about our bodies and about the legitimacy of our love? “You should’ve closed your legs. You should’ve gotten confirmation of his commitment with a ring and a signature.”
These are the longer narratives. They cannot be fully considered in 140 characters. When they are truncated, there is too much lost in translation–though, if we’re honest, they’re often delivered in a dialect few people have interest in learning.
We still try to communicate. We are loose-lipped about our struggles. We co-opt others’ conclusions. We internalize the criticism and publicly concede that the dynamics of our families are, indeed, unfortunate. When they knock with their clipboards, we still open our doors.
But their numbers are not our stories. We are our stories. And only in telling them fully can we change the condition of our communities. Only in offering each other a bit of the light we’ve found on the roads down which we travel can we see all the newly paved routes to better destinations.
It is through conversation, not calculation or criticism, that we learn to identify with one another.
Join me tonight, as I begin that conversation. Each week, I’ll be hosting a live webcast called Beyond Baby Mamas: Conversations with Single Mothers of Color, which will feature a different invited guest panel and field viewers questions and comments. Our premiere episode will begin live-streaming on Google Hangouts On Air at 6:30 PM EST. We’ll be talking statistics, stereotypes, and personal stories. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to catch any conversations you miss. And join our online community on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.