Following a speaking engagement some years ago, an audience member who was a prominent black man came to congratulate me on the topic, content and delivery of my presentation. Our conversation was all good and well until he said something like, “I wish more young black women were like you, doing great things instead of making babies”.
He seemed quite surprised and embarrassed when I told him that I was a mother and didn’t understand what he was trying to say. Needless to say, the conversation ended rather awkwardly. I have heard many variations of this sentiment over the years, about black women only making babies or collecting ‘baby daddies’.
What does ‘single mother’ connote?
This should come as no surprise since ‘single mother’ has for a very long time been used pejoratively, particularly in relation to black women.
I feel it in the way I get complimented for how well-cared for my children are, which often goes with the qualifier, “despite raising them alone”. It’s evident in the way some people ask me if they have the same father, followed by a sigh of relief when I say yes, as if I am now suddenly acceptable. I see it in the disapproval on some people’s faces when I go out with my kids and get asked if I am married and respond no, and it’s also there when I get asked whether my kids and I live by ourselves, which is often done in hushed tones.
These are all seemingly small things, but yet betray the assumptions made about black single mothers, which range from being poor examples of black womanhood to evidence of being ‘loose’ or being incapable of having any aspirations.
[It is evidenced in the sexist, moral panic which is unleashed when high profile ‘wholesome’ black female public figures (eg. Beyonce) have babies after getting married, leaving the rest of us getting lessons about ‘doing things properly’].
While this is rooted in patriarchal singular views of womanhood, which range from the ‘loose’ vs ‘virtuous’ dichotomy to ‘hyper-fertility’ vs ‘intellectual prowess’, I want to point out there is a particular way in which black single mothers experience it because having kids out of wedlock seems to be considered a ‘public’ violation of sexist morality (kids aren’t conceived miraculously, so it’s clear that once you have kids, you’re having sex hence the ‘public’ violation).
In the past, I must admit, I felt a need to explain my choices – my relationship, why the kids were born out of wedlock and that they have the same father. I can’t explain it, but despite it not being anyone’s business and being quite rude, I would feel compelled to answer.
However, I have come to realise that by so doing, I am reinforcing the idea that there is a ‘right’ way for a woman to build a family, thereby devaluing any other black, single mother whose experiences are different to mine. So while it could be said that I was defying stereotypes about black women and single-parenting, I was simultaneously playing right into the hand of respectability politics; something too many of are burdened with everyday alongside just trying to get by.