And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? — Matthew 7:3
Last night, a woman cradled her abdomen and revealed the life growing there, as vibrant and as certain as the crimson of her Lanvin gown. You are too young to know her, but she is an icon for my generation, in much the same way that the triumvirate of divas–Aretha, Diana, and Tina*–are for your grandmother’s. Her husband is similarly eminent and, as they took to yet another of what, for them, must be an endless strait of red carpets, the radiant woman basked in the rarefied air that only exists under an arc of flashbulbs.
It was a seminal moment, not at all spontaneous but with just the right amount of coyness, delight, and pride. Responses were immediate–and as polar as they were predictable. Opinions were divided along moral lines. The couple was applauded for being married before deciding to procreate: “They did it the way God intended.” and “They did it the ‘right way.'” Many offered up their hope that this would “start a trend” in the black community, of valuing marriage (as though the reason black women and men remain unwed is because they thumb their nose at nuptials). By extension, unmarried mothers were inundated with presumptuous gloating: “This is what you should’ve done.” and “Never have a child with a man who doesn’t even offer to marry you.” and “You’ll never have this moment.”
But even the couple, so lauded for their pristine ordering of life events, did not escape the critical gaze of their public. They were blasted for releasing their news in as public a way as possible; some detractors went as far as suggesting the news was meant to boost their respective album sales. Others still wanted it known that they would not be engaging in any excited, celebratory antics “over a couple they didn’t know” and wondered aloud if they were the only ones who “didn’t care” about this announcement.
Darling, there is something I should tell you.
Every decision carries with it a value judgment; every action is first magnified then dissected. This is true of the famed and the civilian, of the leader as well as the follower. There is always someone watching, always someone desperate to compare, and to come away from that comparison looking superior. As much as I will teach you that the language of “better than” is dangerous, this language is unavoidable.
There is no sense in defending yourself against people who are certain they are better than you are. That is the worst kind of futility; it not only leaves you spent, but also unnerved and inadequate. But it is no better to seek solace in your own “better” circumstances. This renders you dispassionate and smug in ways that never fail to mortify you during life’s inevitable reversals of fortune. These are slopes that descend into hells; it would behoove you not to slide down them.
I spent much of your first year of life, and the nine months before your birth building an immunity to Better Than. I am still susceptible to the lesser of its side effects, but there are some nerves I have protected from its paralysis. There are some criticisms that I will just not allow to bring me low.
I am a third generation single mother. In high school, I was lauded for escaping teen pregnancy. In college, the voices grew louder, the compliments more flowery. By grad school, I’d “escaped a generational curse” and “broken a cycle.” I was half of an “upstanding couple”–a fine Christian man and a wholesome, Proverbs 31 woman; it was only a matter of time before we married, before someone suggested that we become youth leaders, before we were asked to educate others on purity. I didn’t protest; that wouldn’t have done much good. There was no baby then, to confirm what we weren’t. But I didn’t chime in, singing solo in a chorus of my own praises, either. I knew who your father and I were to each other, and it wasn’t husband and wife. And there were few days we would’ve described ourselves as “wholesome.”
You will find that people love their narratives. They need for your life to have meaning; it must provide them a teachable moment, whether cautionary or aspirational.
But you will never be who they think you are. The more you allow their expectations to dictate to you what you should be, the more unfamiliar you’ll become with your own reflection in a mirror. You must know, even as a grade school girl—and perhaps particularly then, as children can be cruel—that you are not pitiable because your parents are not married. You shouldn’t feel excess pressure to excel because “the odds are against you,” nor does my marital status require you to defend me or yourself against the assumptions of your peers. But it also does not give you license to exalt yourself over other children whose circumstances are different than your own. You will find soon enough that all homes, whether married or single-parent, are not created equal. There is no greater example of this than this red carpet couple whose little one will be swaddled in cashmere receiving blankets, with diamond pins fastening its handwoven diapers.
We are ourselves. That is all that we are, and that is enough.
There will be days—like this one—where I will feel like I am everything others assume I am: jilted, irresponsible, and unworthy of a man’s unerring commitment. And then I will remember that I am the woman who writes to you. I am wise and intuitive; artful and accomplished; nurturing and nourishing; strong enough to tear apart and reassemble myself for you; and beautiful in ways the naked eye cannot observe—particularly if its gaze is obstructed with beams.