By Christina M. Grange
Photo by nappy on Pexels
This piece is part of our Spark series: Celebrating Black Women and Girls ? 50 Years of Black Women?s Studies
?Are you going to be a single mom?? I was about four months pregnant when my Goddaughter asked me this question as we walked through the park. I appreciated that she shared one of the many thoughts likely floating around her bright, curious mind. It was a reasonable inquiry reflecting a socially constructed story that she was trying to understand. My reply: ?I am not going to be a single mom. I am going to be an unmarried mom.? That simple question required me to make a distinction not always made. I now feel that the lack of such a distinction is a disservice to everyone affected by it ? including this young Black girl who I affirm will grow into a woman with the power to direct the narrative for her future family.
Words are The Narrative
There are two major issues with the term single mom. First, the ?single? in the description too often leads our society to make huge assumptions about how parenting is or is not occurring. The Census defines a ?single parent? as one who is not currently living with a spouse ? divorced, widowed, or never married. While most single parent households are led by women, the term ?single mom? can create political and economic categories that disregard the complexity of relationships that fall between the socially constructed end points of single versus married. While ?single? may better (though not always accurately) suit efforts to describe an unmarried woman, it is misleading as a term for parenting. In fact, as related to the act of actually parenting, what is the opposite of single? If you are not ?single parenting? what are you doing? Surely it isn?t ?married parenting?, as this term is in no way related to a parenting behavior. On the contrary, married women sometimes lament feeling like they are parenting alone. Hence, ?single? as a way of understanding parenting dynamics tells us very little.
Unfortunately, there is limited language regularly used in the larger political and social culture to explain ways in which households are constructed and how unmarried parenting is occurring, particularly related to Black parents. This is evidenced by a recent Pew Research Center report that categorized unmarried parents according to (1) cohabitating dads; (2) cohabitating moms; (3) solo moms; and (4) solo dads. In this instance, ?solo? expands the notion of ?single? to more broadly reference parents raising a child with no support (parent or partner) in the home, versus the Census?s definition referencing a spousal arrangement. The use of only these types of categories (single and solo) in nationally disseminated, family-focused research can limit a comprehensive understanding of the complex ways in which Black, unmarried parents are raising children. Without intervention, these words, ideas and messages can shape the way that women and men see themselves, their families, their communities and possibly their futures.
Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash
Unintentionally Facilitating the ?Invisibility? of Black Fathers
The second issue is that in American culture Black men need no assistance being made invisible. As referenced in The Myth of the Missing Black Father, Black fathers are rarely depicted as deeply embedded within the family systems they help create. The greater their invisibility as fathers the more problematic the reality for Black families and the Black community. The reality is that, relative to other ethnic groups, a disproportionately larger percentage of African American children, 69% according to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, are raised in single parent homes that are largely run by Black women. That is a fact. What is NOT a fact is ?that means absent fathers? as larger culture, such as the 2013 Don Lemon?s initial CNN commentary, would have people believe.
We cannot ignore the fact that some fathers are not present based on their own decisions ? they simply may decide to not be involved during seasons or lifetimes. However, there are many fathers making a contribution to varying degrees. In fact, additional research from the CDC and other sources supports that Black fathers are just as present, if not more present, than fathers from other racial backgrounds. While we should in no way submit to the notion that something is better than nothing, we can give voice and life to that something. In doing so, perhaps in time, what we focus on can grow.
As indicated by the CDC data, a higher percentage of Black women are more likely to be classified as ?single? parents. Essentially, it would seem that if there is not a romantic (married or cohabitating) relationship, parents are ?single? or ?solo? in the parenting journey. Since the actual term ?single? means only one, the idea perpetuated by this language leads to damaging assumptions that biological fathers are 100% missing from the parenting process. In this black and white dichotomy, there is little room for the range of kinship resources that can contribute to child rearing, including care providers such as grandparents, family friends, aunts, and uncles. There may be even less room for the spectrum of ways (emotional, economic, logistical, spiritual) that fathers can contribute. This lack of attention to the range of ways in which parenting occurs, and various factors that impact the parenting process, may contribute to why 66% of Americans surveyed in the PEW study believe that single women having children is bad for society.
A Solution: Spectrums versus Categories
We do not help ourselves by using categorical defaults. As Black women, we have the right, the ability, and the responsibility to shape the narrative that will become our children?s story, which ultimately extends to our community?s story. If the term ?single? accurately reflects a woman?s parenting experience then, she should use it. However, let us not use the term simply because it is the only one available to us. If the goal is to determine a mother?s marital status, the terms married and unmarried are sufficient and more specific.
The reality is that Black parents are engaged in parenting practices in ways that may be ignored in the ?Single Black Mother? narrative. If we look across social class, there is research that many Black women are actually sharing parenting responsibilities in a range of ways with their ?Baby Daddy?. However, there is a gap in our empirical knowledge here given that most research involving Black parents focuses on younger or lower social class families in which coparenting may be limited for a variety of reasons. Insights from Heather Hopson, a Black ?single? mother, adds additional perspective: ?I think people think that because you?re single it means you?re raising children without fathers in their lives, and that?s not often the case?. More and more families are opting to coparent. While coparenting can be applied to a range of family structures, a large portion of the research links to marital, divorced, or kinship coparenting relationships and is less about coparenting among biological, unmarried/never-married parents. When literature about Black women parenting references ?single?, the process of coparenting between biological parents is not adequately representative across age and economic class. We can acknowledge that kinship care is a solid core value and resource among many families, while also highlighting the diverse ways in which Black coparenting occurs. We can give life to a myriad of possibilities.
Black Women and the Power of Our Tongue
Every story is different, and there are some painfully complex stories out there that bind Black mothers and fathers together. This essay is not intended to minimize those complexities, romanticize the Black parenting experience, or impose a narrative of what it means to be parenting alone. Instead, this essay is a call to recognize, evaluate and (as applicable) reject the internalization of a narrative that has been placed upon Black families versus one created by Black families.
Let us create space to breathe life into the things that deserve the chance to live. As such, Black women are in a key position to challenge themselves to define their parenting experience in a dimensional versus categorical way. This can occur from a position of power and authenticity. As women, we shape much of a family?s narrative. In doing so, we model for all of our children, particularly our girls, the use of a particular power that they will need in this world that aims to dim their light and tell them their future. Our challenge is to be mindful and intentional in the use of our words so that we can bring truth to life, strengthen understandings of the Black family, and enhance opportunities for our children to thrive.
Christina M. Grange is an associate professor of Psychology at Clayton State University. She is also owner of the Fern Center for Life where she works as a psychologist. She provides psychological support for children and adults managing a range of mental health challenges. She has a particular interest in promoting healthy coparenting relationships among unmarried African American parents raising their children in separate households. Her research focuses on factors influencing adaptive functioning among African American families, with an evolving focus on elucidating the strengths, strategies and challenges of adaptive coparenting among African American coparents.