Beyond Baby Mamas: Conversations with Single Mothers of Color, Current Events, Fashion & Beauty, Natural Hair, Nonfiction, Parenting, Pop Culture

What Solange’s Remarriage Means to Never-Married Single-Mother Me.

 

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1. “Carefree” is a crossroads, the center of four paths: parent and lover, artist and merchant. You dance in the dirt with hydrangea in your hair and you are wild when you’re expected to be tame. This is where people see you, where sun rays collect in the gold of your skin, so that even in the dark you’ll be swathed in phosphorescent spotlight. And dark it will be when you leave here and venture down each of the roads, where destinations are dim and the underbrush, unwieldy.

The road where you mother: The gravel cuts your feet as you carry your sons and your daughters.

The road you create: You dig until your fingertips bleed for art that feels rich and raw, as untapped as underground oil.

The road that may lead you to love: This is the longest most dubious walk and even when you’ll want to travel it solo, you will not often be alone. Here, you mustn’t forget that your child will become your lover’s cargo. He must carry him as carefully as you do. He must accept that when he joins you on the path where you parent, his own feet will also be cut.

You should watch what you are paving. Turn back to the clearing as soon as you can; your love and your art and your mothering find their greatest sustenance and purest ambition there.

You should marry at the crossroads, where you child and your art and your industry swirl up from the earth and make a sparkling white column of dust. Bask in how high it rises and in the way it all settles again.

2. Everything is inspiration, and when you are working toward something that inspires you, the sweat of your brow is someone’s aphrodisiac. God bless a working mother. God bless the passionate woman.

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3. And sometimes your sister’s sacrifices earn you your freedom. Her years of hiding under an industry’s expectations and artifice allow you to be your truest self out in the open. Then, you coax her authenticity out from the shadows in return. When the world demands your inferiority and calls you a mere facsimile of sun, you keep your light and refuse to be eclipsed.

4. Other lives simply aren’t enviable.

5. We unmarried mothers who have been so afraid have been told to be afraid. We were told we wouldn’t find love, or that the love we might attract would not be worth finding. We were told that missteps preclude forward motion. But there is no shame in having lived through a moment unwisely. Neither mothering after divorce nor having had no husband at all is cause for resignation or shame. The demise of our difficult relationships are no cause to deny ourselves new love.

6. No decision a black mother makes will diminish the Maatkare markers in her blood. We are queens, even us, be we ever so bowed or broken or humbled. We are regal — whether burdened with low-income or beset with incomparable wealth. We are regal when we choose to be, and the choice is all that matters.

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7. Hair, in its natural state, is a halo. But you are well within your rights not to behave as angelically as you appear.

8. Hurt cannot be hidden. It will seep out in the notes and on the page, will be seen in the set of your jaw on the subway. So bare it bravely in the public square, where someone well-equipped to soothe you may see it.

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9. When you are young and you’ve found a boy your age and whatever combusts between you feels like a kind of love, it is fine for that love not last. Even if it results in a pregnancy, even when the baby propels you both toward the altar, it is okay to flee. Marriage borne mostly of obligation flings you forward in ways that will disappoint you; the union itself is a stop so short of what you’d imagined for adult life to be that it may be best to run before it feels far too late. Keep running, with your child’s hand in yours, toward hope, toward extended family, toward your older wiser self, toward the kind of love that acts as a reincarnation.

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10. Single mothers who wish to marry greatly benefit from seeing other single mothers marry. Wearing white and frolicking, with gold bands ‘round their wrists, reveling with the same village that’s helped to raise their children, enacting intimate, in-joking customs as nontraditional as their their premarital lives, dancing silly choreography with their children, who appear quite secure and supportive and happy. It happens, the nuptials seem to testify. It happens far more often than we’re told to believe. It can happen for you.

 

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Nonfiction, Parenting, Pop Culture

Some of Us Just Want to Be Unbossed.

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Patriarchy wrings young women dry. It tells girls who were raised in households where men were not present that their mother’s ability to thrive in a man’s absence was not a testament to her strength but evidence of his rejection. When a mother internalizes this, her daughters are raised under a specter of spurning. Every action and word they witness is instructive: this is how to act when you are a woman and mother on your own: decisive, assertive, impatient, frustrated and curt, entirely confident and selectively cooperative. This is how to own yourself: be unapologetic; accept that it may mean remaining alone.

But a daughter raised this way may not immediately ascertain the appeal. She may be lured instead by the promise of men’s presence, by the challenge attendant to compelling them to stay. And she may act in all ways opposite her mother’s example to curry their favor.Learn to cook, she might note, not what you love but what he will eat. Learn to let a last male word — even (and perhaps especially) a foolish one — linger in the air. If it is foul, pretend not to notice its stench. Allow him its echo. The last word is a preservation of dignity. Women who shout down humiliate.

(But what of our dignity? What of our own humiliation?) 

*  *  *
I was ten when the only man who ever lived with us moved in. He told me, early and often — whenever I wanted to be heard, whenever I seemed to be more than an ornamental fixture of a marriage he barely wanted — that I was disrespectful or ungrateful for his guidance, provision, and presence. If I said: you are wrong; if I said: I’ve not done what you’re accusing me of; if I said: I am not who you’ve convinced yourself I am, he would take these words to my mother. If I brought the words to my mother first, he accused us of conspiring against him: peasants attempting to overthrow a king.

In marriage, my mother was bossed, her husband a man not given to ceding the final say. Over time, she learned to be meek. If peacekeeping meant to defer — or, as our churches taught wives, to submit — she would. But she had to contort herself to do so, had to twist like wet laundry to be left out in the wind and pretend that being limply pinned,  absorbing  her husband’s hot air, was a welcome aspiration.And sometimes when we were alone, in the quiet of a house for which he paid, she would tell me to throw the fight. Accept the charge. Nod at the accusation. You know who you are. It does not matter what he calls you. It’s his house. Let him win. 

Bossy. Boss. Bossed. None held much appeal. None were winnable.

I was not raised in the manner of girls whose anthems and aspirations instruct them to run things. I would not know where to begin, if I were told I should govern myself as though the world were a corporation and I, its CEO.

I was raised to know who I am but to keep quiet about it.

*  *  *
My daughter is months away from four. Every day for the past two years, I have watched her struggle to coax words up from her consciousness — where they seem to be quite clear to her — and out through her mouth, where they often sound garbled to the naked ear. Sometimes, she wails in frustration. Sometimes, she barrels through, happily chattering as though she is fully understood. And sometimes her expression clouds because she knows, looking into the face of the listener, that she is not.
I would never have learned the importance of raising my voice if I had not watched her wrestle so with hers. Her language is swimming upstream, but she calls out over the current. I will be heard, is what I always hear, whether I understand the words or not.

And I would not have understood being assertive if it had not become so essential to advocate for her. Regularly, I weave in and out of meetings, in and out of conversations, where her development, her hearing, and her cognition are assessed and questioned. It becomes ever clearer that managing someone who cannot manage herself requires an absence of ego, an open ear, a willingness to give oneself over to the study of what best serves her needs and her interests. This kind of leadership hinges not on being acknowledged as a boss but as a confidante, not as a superior intellect but as a constant student. We do not become assertive by telling others what to do; we do it by informing them of what we will and will not abide.tumblr_lyyqjuu3jI1qeoyjlo1_400I am an opter out of many discussions. Whether to embrace or repudiate the term “bossy” is one of them. But I know well the damage that is done when young women and girls are not taught to speak on their own behalf. I know what fighting to own oneself looks like and how terrifying it is to watch a woman go slack under the guise of submission. I have contorted myself for men who’ve seen no need to do the same. And I’ve worked for and with difficult, yet enviably self-possessed, folks of many genders.

It is always the better lot to own yourself, to carry your voice across the current, to insist that you should and will be heard. And it is often the better lot to be gentle — not only with others, but also with yourself. Label this however you will; it is an ideal way to live.

Let every man and woman who wants power pursue it, but not at your expense. Power isn’t the ability to make others bend to your will; it is possessing sole guardianship of your will. If you would be “bossy” about anything, let it be about how you will be addressed and defined. Let it be about who cannot enter your space with the intent to tamp you down. Let it be in the stead of those who have gone limp or shrugged off their wills and thrown them at the feet of someone they love. Let it be for those who have been treated as though they are incapable of governing themselves at all.

Some of us are best off calling ourselves unbossed. Like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, we want history to remember us, not for the professional goals we accomplished or for ascending through ranks often dominated by men, but for the larger feat of holding onto ourselves in the process.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Motes and Beams.

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.

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