Ever since Wil LaVeist’s commentary blasting Hallmark’s questionable marketing strategy of selling Father’s Day cards for single mothers, I’ve been thinking about the issues he raised. But more than that, I’ve zeroed in on the 100-plus comments posted by readers. As a single mother of two boys, this topic truly hit home with me. Reading the passionate responses reinforced what I’ve witnessed firsthand and observed from a distance — we have serious work to do in the Black community; and there are some very deep wounds festering among us. Underneath many of the comments, I sense hurt, resignation, resentment, anger, confusion, and emotional fatigue.
Though we may disagree on root causes and solutions, I believe there’s one thing we should all be able to admit: single parenting and the attendant and antecedent dynamics are longstanding and complex, especially as they relate to relational issues between Black men and women. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do think I have at least some level of understanding of these issues, and a degree of empathy for both sides. So in that spirit I offer some words to us all.
It’s futile to attempt to dialogue on the issue of single mothers, their children, and the men who fathered those children, without speaking truth into the situation. So from that point I begin.
Some Hard Truths
1. Strictly speaking, mothers are not fathers. This is true whether the parents are married and raising a child together, or separated. The truth of this statement lies not only in function, but in form. To insist that somehow mothers can be fathers is to ignore some very basic realities.
Fatherhood, like motherhood, originates and is defined not just by what a parent does, but also by who the parent is. So then, gender is a foundational underpinning of parenthood. Men are fathers; women are mothers. Acknowledging this truth in no way minimizes or detracts from the unavoidable reality that there are some women who do things that we would traditionally associate with a male role in a child’s life, just as there are some men who perform some of the actions associated with a female role.
But there’s more to parenthood roles than what we do; indeed what we do, and how we do it, is bound to be influenced by who we are. For example, I can teach my son to shave or tie a tie. I can show him a razor, explain how to put the shaving cream on his face, what to do if he nicks himself, etc. I can cover all the technicalities of the process. His father can explain those same things to him, using exactly the same words I use. But it’s not just about the mechanical process; it’s equally about the nuances that come out while father and son are going through this ritual. His father can tell him about the first time he shaved, who helped him learn how to do it, how it feels to get razor bumps. As a man, his father can help our son identify as a man who now does things that other men do. These are things that as a woman, and by virtue of the fact that I am a woman, I simply cannot do. We desperately need to come to terms with this because as long as we resist this truth, we perpetuate a number of undesirable consequences. These are just a few of those consequences:
• We short-circuit the identity formation and development of our children. It’s important for kids to understand how men and women function differently in families and in society.
• We potentially rob fathers of the opportunity to fully grow and develop in their role. Sometimes all a man needs to step up is for the mother to step back … even just a bit will often be enough.
• As women, we overtax ourselves trying to fill roles we weren’t designed to operate in. If we are indeed the only parent in our child’s life, then of course there are actions we must do. But we can do them while acknowledging that as a woman, there will be something missing because we are not a man.
• Sometimes people and resources that could fill some gaps in our child’s life go untapped because we believe that we are indeed mother and father. Simply put, we don’t look for what we feel we haven’t lost.
2. Mothers and fathers both need to determine if they’re really putting the needs of their children first. I know, this one is challenging. So much hurt and pain often passes between parents that our emotional baggage piles up on our sons and daughters, and we often don’t realize what’s happening. When fathers are absent or uninvolved, it causes an incredible strain on everyone involved, including grandparents, siblings, and other extended family members.
But the strain is equally damaging when mothers are hostile, resistant, or overstressed. Rather than bickering about marketing campaigns and holding fast to erroneous mindsets, let’s commit to being better parents. We must ask ourselves some tough questions, for example:
• Am I willing to let the other parent perform his/her role in the way he/she wants to and is able to? Or do I insist that my child’s father/mother parent like I do?
• Do I pray for my child’s mother/father, that they will be the parent my child needs? Or have I made it difficult to pray because I have unresolved issues that I can’t let go of?
• Do I consistently support the other parent’s efforts, no matter how small I think they are? Or do I instead focus on what I believe the other parent leaves undone?
• Do I make every reasonable effort to overcome obstacles that challenge me as I try to be a good parent? Or am I making excuses for why I’m not taking care of business?
• Do I accept constructive criticism and feedback from the other parent on how I could make our relationship and interactions as parents healthier, and then work diligently, and without resentment, to address those issues? Or am I more interested in being right and winning arguments?
• Do I have a martyr complex? Do I find reasons to refuse help so that my child will see me as the better, more committed parent, and therefore shower more love on me? Or am I actively seeking the other parent’s input and suggestions with a true intention to work with him/her?
Pray, Think, Talk
There are, of course, many more questions that will give us insight on the position of our hearts. But the ones shared here can at least get us started on a road that leads to more transparent, effective parenting. In a future column, I’ll outline some additional ideas to keep the conversation going.
So, what do you think?
Do me a favor. Read this article all the way through, and then put it aside for 24 hours. During that time, pray about what you’ve read and how you feel about it. Ask the Lord to give you insight on what applies to you and what He wants you to do about it. Then read the article again. Please share your thoughts by commenting at any point in this process.
I love our community and I’m praying for us all. Stay tuned.