Society Expects Black Single Mums To Fail. I Won’t Be Written Off

Black families are stereotyped as dysfunctional, single mums as shameful. But I’m proof it doesn’t have to be this way.

When my first ultrasound scan revealed I was expecting twins, I burst into tears.

Sadly, these weren’t tears of joy but tears of the realisation that I was at a pivotal crossroads in my life. I was a scared 21-year-old student, in many ways still a child, still trying to find myself and what I wanted to do with my life. And now I was going to have to figure life out while raising twins on my own?

The narrative I told myself of what single motherhood was going to be like came from my own upbringing by my mum, a single mother of five. I saw a Black matriarch struggle, and I assured myself I wouldn’t end up in similar circumstances; yet unbeknownst to me, fate and poor choices in men somehow made it so.

I had also inherited the deep-seated social stigmas that paint single mothers as unstable, shameful and poverty-stricken. As a woman, I am forced to make choices in life that are more costly than those of men; such as choosing children over a career. As a Black woman, these weighty choices feel even more stark knowing the old adage that, because I am Black, I have to work twice as hard to get half as far.

There is too the stereotype that Afro-Caribbean women like me disproportionately have children outside of marriage and from multiple fathers. This stems from racist perceptions of Black families that neglect to consider the effects of historical racism, relationships within Black families, and even slavery as victims of sexual abuse from slaveholders. Throughout modern history Black families have been portrayed as dysfunctional ,with the archetype of the mature and stern Black women as the head of the family, and the young, sexually immoral black women dismissing stable relationships.

“Somehow I felt more judged for deciding to keep my twins because, in society’s eyes I was 'just another' single Black mum.”

These racist and sexist interactions shaped how I was to perceive myself as a young, Black woman and as a mother. Somehow I felt more judged for deciding to keep my twins, because in society’s eyes I was ‘just another’ single Black mum adding to the phenomenon of Black and other ethnic minority mothers being more likely to be single parents. This depleted my self-esteem in my early motherhood – I felt as though I had resigned myself to a life of obscurity, and fell into postpartum depression. What got me through those dark days was holding tightly onto the glimmer of hope that things would get better for me somehow, and my connection with God. Through these, I came to better understand who I was, and what I wanted out of life.

The turning point was acknowledging that I had my final year at university waiting to be finished. I did not want to live with the regret of having started something and not see it through – becoming a mother was the driving force I needed to complete my degree in psychology.

Yet, this transition wouldn’t have been possible without the much-needed support system: my mum, their grandma, and my extended family, thanks to the tradition of kinship within Caribbean families.

At times, I overburdened them with childcare, but nevertheless their help made it possible for me to sustain myself. I travelled to and from university 125 miles away twice a week, interned throughout my final year, and put blood, sweat and (many) tears into my dissertation, all the while visualising myself in a graduation gown with my babies beside me.

“Graduating gifted me the confidence and reassurance in myself I had so desired and needed.  It allowed me to break away from the internalised stigmatisation and negative thought patterns I had accepted.”

Graduating gifted me the confidence and reassurance in myself I had so desired and needed. It allowed me to break away from the internalised stigmatisation and negative thought patterns I had accepted. I learned to take back control of my life. And not only did graduating gave me an opportunity to help create a better future for my children in the absence of their father, it also imparted in me a sense of freedom, growth and pride that allows me to have the professional identity and future I had always sought.

As Malcolm X said, “education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”. With that zeal behind me, I realised that in order for me to be the best mum I could be, I needed to continue to follow and fulfil my life goals and dreams. For me, that meant going back to university again and begin postgraduate study, with the aspiration of a career in child psychotherapy.

I saw how important education was for me. It has allowed me to have my own identity separate from the title of ‘mum’. It allowed me to recreate myself, and defy society’s perception of what it means to be a young, Black single parent.

It was Michelle Obama who spoke of the significance of investing not just in your children, but investing in yourself too, to show your kids it’s okay to ‘put yourself a little higher on your priority list’. The secret to a happy child is a happy mum, after all.

Rochelle Rodney is a mum and postgraduate student

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