As a teacher I have come to appreciate some of the challenges that teenagers have to face: teenage pregnancy, drug-use, sex education in relation to the myths they hear from friends! All these ills are often clumped under the portmanteau word: peer-pressure. Beyond these challenges, access to quality education and opportunities that will ward off poverty also form part of the teenage-question. In truth, the list is endless.
What is also often included in the list of the many social ills that plague young people is the question of family structures. For many working class teens the prospect of being in a child-headed home is a real possibility or a home where the mother is the primary care-giver, raising a child (or children) alone. As someone who was raised by a mother who opted for divorce and a grandmother who raised six children alone, I am often uncomfortable when single-mothers are lumped into the list of social ills that I’ve listed above.
My purpose is not to glorify the experience of single mothers as I have no doubt that it is often (not always) circumstances beyond many women’s control that leads them to a place where they are left with the responsibility of raising children without the assumed extra help of the father or a father-figure. I have also been surprised by friends (who happen to be white) who have spoken about being single-mothers. The one shared how she opted to be a single-mother because she was financially independent enough to do so and another said she would opt to be a single-mother if she felt ready to have a child whether or not she’s in a relationship.
I’d like to question how it is that we continue to add single-mothers to the list of social ills. The truth is, the reality of being a single-mother and the extent of the hardships one faces are closely related to a woman’s social class. The reality of raising a child or children alone without the expected help of a father, is different for a middle class woman than for a working class woman. The middle-class woman has resources the poorer woman does not have and the poorer woman is often called in to be the child-minder for the wealthier woman who can afford to pay someone to help look after her child.
My other concern is that the focus on the poor, single-mother should rather shift to the harsh reality that renders the lives of poor women an eternal hardship. Poverty. Together with poverty, the obsession with the idea of the nuclear family means that women are a problem unless they conform to the social structure of family where there ought to be a father figure in the home. Where a man or father figure is absent in a home, we refer to this as a broken home (but if a man is in a position where he raises children alone, he is the hero).
If we consider the reality of many working class black families, the family unit has never been prioritised. Many working class women have never been “kept” women who stay at home and look after the children. They have mostly been working mothers who have been in exploitative working environments without the benefits to support child care (When my aunt had her first child in the 1970s she was working in a factory. She did not have maternity leave and she was back at work the day after she gave birth to my cousin). Fathers, brothers and uncles were migrant labourers who could not be in the home to help raise the children. And this form of family life in the black community still exists where work opportunities do not allow working class men and women to fully support their families either financially or with their physical presence.
The single-mother question often brings into light the question of what kind of children does a single-mother raise? The perception is often that single-mothers cannot raise boys who will become “real” men and their daughters will become women who are too independent with “daddy issues” and will therefore seek attention from men because they have never received attention from their fathers. These are negative perceptions about what it means to raise children as a single-mother.
We need to recognise that whether a woman chooses to be a single mother or not, she has the right to be given the space and the rights to raise her children in a society that does not damn her for not conforming to the heteronormative idea of what is means to be a mother. We all have taken-for-granted ideas about what it means to be a mother and a father without thinking about the role of the extended family as well as the role of more supportive networks that woman may have when they are single-mothers. These networks may be informal or formal but they must allow us to recognise that single-mothering is a legitimate form of parenting.