By Guest Contributor Deesha Philyaw
A few years ago, there was an orchestrated online blogging effort to shame black women for having children outside of marriage. This effort masqueraded as a movement of concern seeking to reduce poor socioeconomic outcomes for black children. Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As a co-founder (along with my ex-husband) of co-parenting101.org, I was asked to participate in this effort. I took note of the fact that my invitation to participate came after the movement launched and was found to be wanting. I mean, after you castigate women and call their children “bastards,” and critics are calling you out for it, it’s definitely time for Plan B (no pun intended). Well, I wanted no parts of it, and I made my reasons clear when I declined the invitation. Co-parenting101.org was created to support and encourage parents and their children, not demonize them.
Further, I refused to participate in something that I felt would dishonor the struggles of my single mother, who did not raise me to be ashamed of the circumstances of my birth nor of her marital status. But for a variety of reasons, I did grow up feeling ashamed about it. And I know that I’m not the only child of unmarried parents who experienced this shame, or the shame that’s heaped upon people simply because they are poor. It’s a shame that predates blogging and the internet. Shame clearly isn’t effective birth control.
I also chose not to participate out of respect for my relatives and grade-school classmates who later became young, unmarried mothers unexpectedly. Because I know that on several occasions, I was just one day in my menstrual cycle or one broken condom away from that same situation. We went to the same free clinics together in 8th and 9th grade, got our “foam and rubbers” to use until the birth control pills were reliable, and had sex while holding our breath. Nobody said a word to us about HIV and AIDS in 1985. A lot of them got pregnant before they wanted to; I didn’t. I don’t feel superior.
That said, I absolutely care about the fact that half of all children raised in single-mother-headed households grow up in poverty. But shouldn’t we be attacking poverty, instead of attacking people who live in poverty, if that’s really the concern? Imagine if even a fraction of the $1 trillion in resources and public support for the failed “War on Drugs” of the past 40 years had funded a “War on Poverty?” But that didn’t happen, of course, because it’s easier to simply blame poor people for being poor. In the absence of actual solutions comes blame, shame, and the politics of respectability.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are six alternatives to shaming and blaming unmarried women for having children:
1. Get Your Stats Straight
*While half of all children raised by single mothers grow up in poverty, only one in 10 of their counterparts in married households grow up poor.
*Nearly 3 out of 4 black children are born outside of marriage.
*Most babies born to women under 30 are born outside of marriage, and in the last 20 years, the fastest growth for this trend has been among 20-something white women who have some college education.
However, a statistic that’s far less widely known is that most single mothers in the U.S. are separated, divorced, or widowed. And these moms have higher poverty rates than single moms in other high-income countries, despite working more hours. Across the board, single US mothers’ employment experiences and support from the social safety-net lag behind that of their counterparts abroad.
2. Support Public Policies That Support Women And Children
Why are US single working mothers and their children faring so poorly? And why is marriage put forth as a cure-all for their predicament?
Writing in The American Prospect, Amanda Marcotte observes, “To justify obsessing over non-married-ness—at the expense of, say, asking why a single income isn’t enough to be middle class, as it was for huge percentages of the population in the 1950s—requires believing that single women need a bit more scolding…”
And if single women need more scolding, single black women–with our wanton baby-making selves–need 10 times more. But, oh, right…it’s about the children. Our children face a harder row to hoe than their white counterparts, hence the urgency of the situation…and the extra heaping of scorn.
Except scorn never fed a child’s mind or empty belly the way, say, early childhood education and his mom’s equal and higher wages could. Scorn doesn’t enact better family- and sick-leave policies, and it doesn’t protect the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or food stamps (SNAP) from Republicans hell-bent on destroying the social safety-net.
And scorn never gave a woman or girl access to birth control and abortion when politicians on the right want to eliminate access to both…at the same damn time.
3. Ditch The Marriage Myths About People With Low Incomes
According to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, people with low incomes subscribe to more traditional values with regard to marriage and divorce than those with moderate and higher incomes. Thomas Trail, UCLA postdoctoral fellow in psychology and the study’s lead author, notes that lower-income partners “have no more problems with communication, sex, parental roles or division of household chores than do higher income couples.” But, according to the study, they may still choose to remain single because they recognize that sustaining a marriage is particularly difficult when you’re struggling to make ends meet, and they don’t want to end up divorced.
The study also concluded that unmarried women with lower incomes have children because while they may have no role models for successful, healthy marriages and may not trust the men they know with their “financial and family future,” they do feel capable of raising a child because they have role models for successful single motherhood.
Unfortunately, government policy is based on false assumptions about what people with lower incomes value and how they relate. The result? A billion dollars spent on educational curricula to promote marriage to people who already believe in it.
Benjamin Karney, co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA and senior author of the study, says increasing social mobility, through educational and career opportunities, is the best way to lower teen pregnancy rates. In general, government money is better spent helping people with the “day-to-day challenges in their lives” such as transportation and affordable child care, not on relationship education.
4. Remember that Life Doesn’t Always Go As Planned
Relationships and marriages fail. Birth control fails. Some women choose not to marry people they deem to be unsuitable mates, while still choosing to have a child. Things happen that we don’t anticipate. Punishing ourselves or teaching our children that they should feel less-than when life doesn’t go as planned isn’t productive. As parents, our job is to help our children make wise and healthy decisions. But it’s also our job to raise resilient children who know how to be resourceful, how to cope, and how to bounce back when bad, difficult, or unexpected things happen.
5. Stop Talking About Single Moms…and Start Listening To Them
Stacia L. Brown, founder of BeyondBabyMamas.com, makes so many excellent points about the diverse social, personal, and economic experiences of single moms in her piece for The Atlantic Sexes, “How Unwed Mothers Feel About Being Unwed Mothers,” that I’m just going to link to it here.
6. Remember That Not All Single Moms Are Parenting Alone
Research, anecdotal evidence, and plain old common sense bear out the fact that children can thrive when their fit and willing parents play an active role in their lives, even if their parents aren’t married to each other. If the government wants to spend on curricula for parents, then funding ongoing, quality co-parenting classes–not just the handful sometimes required by family courts–would be a wise investment.
Someone can make a terrible mate, yet still be a great parent to their child and a great parenting partner to their ex-mate. This isn’t always easy, to say the least, and our cultural expectation is that exes will be hopelessly combative. Yet some co-parents manage to put their animosity side and put their children first. Some previously absentee fathers do the hard work of re-engaging in their children’s lives. And some single moms parent with the support of a “village” of extended family, other moms, and friends.
Children born to unmarried parents are not a foregone conclusion. Condemnation of single parents doesn’t allow for the myriad of possibilities of their children’s lives. But for black folks, embracing these possibilities requires us to let go of cultural presumptions about deadbeat baby daddies, child-support-misspending, promiscuous baby mamas, and their “illegitimate” children. Our children deserve better. They deserve our advocacy and our activism–not our contempt.
Deesha Philyaw is the co-author (with her ex-husband) of “Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce” and the co-founder of co-parenting101.org. She is a remarried mother of four girls–two daughters and two bonus daughters.