This essay is published by The American Prospect in partnership with The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowship. It is part of a package of commentary pieces centered on Mother's Day 2015.
“What have you ever done right?” That was the question that dominated my mind one night two years ago as I lay in my bed, surrounded by fluffy pillows and a sleepy Yorkie at the foot.
This wasn’t one of those self-denigrating moments I engage in when I internally chastise myself for not writing enough that day or holding my temper tighter, or not giving one of my journalism students much-needed grace under the pressure they face to prepare for an industry that asks them to do everything at once masterfully. No, this was a true thought experiment to force myself to fully identify the things I’ve gotten right in my life as a way of charting a course to build on something righteous and real, instead of wallowing in the wreckage of failed relationships, bridges burnt, tasks incomplete, dreams left to slumber or doors of opportunity walked by, not through.
“You have never had children,” I answered myself.
This reality might seem like a cause of sadness or lament for many people who view having children as a raison d’être or path to true social security in old age. To many of my girlfriends, it’s a cause for hope because in pursuing our dreams for work, play and travel, we had long convinced ourselves there’d always be time for making children. But that’s not true, is it? Abundant eggs crack with age. And so had my dreams of one day being a mother inside a committed partnership with a man who wanted to make family as much a centerpiece of his life as I did mine.
While I’m satisfied in knowing I made a series of deliberate decisions to land me where I stand now, childless, the truth is the American way of living doesn’t really support families beyond a few tax breaks. Subconsciously, I’ve always known this. Why else would we use the Band-Aid for public education reform—charter schools—as the antidote to true progress? If we really cared about stable families, why would we institute a culture of fines and fees a la Ferguson, Missouri, to pay for services enjoyed by the collective? With more women heading families, why won’t we shift our paradigm and adopt workplace policies, schedules, salary structures and paths to the board room, as we would if we really cared about families? My gut has long told another story my head wouldn't hear.
So, as I lay considering the next steps in my life story, I struggled to figure it out. I’ve practiced journalism for two decades, a career I chose at age eight because I felt like I had no voice and figured other people might feel muted into submission, too. Yet, downsized from being a vital, high-performing member of a major media outlet, I now faced joblessness and intermittent contract work due to company bankruptcy and a changed industry, in addition to the lack of a retirement nest egg. I was still reeling from a divorce that sneaked up on me rather than announcing itself loudly for months on end letting me know to get ready for the next phase.
I was thankful in that moment I had no child to worry about as I considered selling my car and downsizing my apartment—or moving back home to my mother’s, which is odd since I didn’t grow up entirely in her house due to the presence of her abusive husband. So I became convinced the need for planning was a righteous thing, and more black women needed to take heed to avoid the burden of single motherhood lest, should the vagaries of a broken economy come crashing down on them, they cheat their children out of opportunities and life quality. I even wrote a fellowship proposal to study the idea of encouraging black women to take a time out to eschew parenthood outside of the bonds of marriage or committed partnership. I called it The Generational Sacrifice.
The Generational Sacrifice
Briefly, the idea goes like this: Despite the unquestioned love of a child and the ability to see shades of oneself in a cherubic face, raising children alone is a burden and often robs those kids the opportunity and attention they deserve. Every indicator puts the black family at the bottom ,with the black woman helming the whole hot mess. Why do our children suffer from the lowest standardized test scores? Why are they so susceptible to peer acceptance over educational and personal excellence? Our children are too often unparented—because one is not enough.
I believed black women could extricate ourselves from this chokehold: All it would take is a generational sacrifice: Stop having babies out of wedlock. Let’s call our movement “Generation G” and we could get T-shirts. Our collective consciousness must once again agree marriage or committed partnership is the best situation for raising children. Then black womanhood must reinforce this notion among one another because group-think is part of the problem. Black women must agree that men are necessary, I posited, especially for raising strong daughters and boys who understand what it means to be a man regardless of the structural inequities that threaten the family at any given point in time. We could then focus on being healthy, and maybe, a little more wealthy, in time, by pressing a generational reset button.
The sacrifice requires the honesty of admitting black women have sex, like sex and in between committed periods of chastity for many, won’t say no to sex if offered. And that requires another type of honesty: proactive and consistent use of birth control, because intercourse is not about giving oneself to a man but sharing what a woman has to offer of her own volition and place of power. Collective coyness about our intentions to be sexual is dangerous, and it’s an attitude passed to younger women and teens who don’t learn how to take control of their sexual destinies (a health issue as much as a moral one) until it’s too late.
When not having babies, the sacrifice allows women to do what they do best: better themselves. There’s no reason why black women shouldn’t be sought after, to embody what it means to be American, shiny and new. Just think, if black women lightened their stress load and spent more time seriously pursuing healthier lifestyles, we’d be quite attractive to men at home and abroad for our fortitude, in addition to our other attributes. Women collectively reinforcing the highest health and wealth standards and practices encourages men to up their game, making them better mates. The trick bag that is the American economy becomes more onerous when women get into debt just to finance the basics in life because the cost of living has risen faster than income. What if black women made a collective effort to get out of debt, stay out of debt and maybe even get richer? If black women pooled their money, shared their knowledge and remained limber and ready to invest because they’re not pouring dollars and energy into one-woman families—what a wonderful America that would be.
Now, I’ve always been willing to stipulate the presence of structural inequity. We'd simply need to close ranks and muster the energy to dismantle poorly built structures by working on the inside and organizing on the outside, unencumbered. The mind game I was engaging in was about what I and my sisters could do for ourselves, knowing no one is coming to save us. It’s a concept born out of love, not judgment, and an idea I thought worth putting on the table.
Guess how far I got it that? Nowhere.
Nobody Wants to Hear That
Nobody wants to hear about what they can’t do. Nobody wants to admit we live in a society that requires a higher standard for some than others. And maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s not fair.
After two years of shopping that idea and getting shot down again and again by people looking sniff out a "respectability politics" argument from a mile away (“You can’t say that! What’s wrong with you?”), I decided to go through another thought experiment: “What is this really about?”
I had dig deep to understand why I never bore children. Going through process of elimination, I realized all the opportunities I had to do so when I was fully realized through my top-notch education and career (though low-paying) before getting married, during marriage and after marriage. That it had to do with fear was the revelation.
On the surface, the fear was not having money to make a choice to send my child to parochial or private school. (I’ll be damned if I submit my child to the ravages of a public school education if I found myself in a community with substandard schools.) It had to do with the revelation that I’d never really factored my husband would truly be a partner in rearing my children because, though I know many great fathers, black, white and other, the optics I’d memorized said fathers weren’t engaged on that level. And I wanted my children to have things and experiences.
I said as much years back when I entertained my cousin and her friend in my downtown Chicago condo, serving them homemade chocolate chip cookies, made with expensive premium ingredients and tall glasses of cold organic milk. When the friend looked at my bespoke home and pressed me about having children, I told her I wanted my kids to have access to the finest computer equipment, the best schools, overseas travel and Oreo cookies if they wanted them, not cheap knockoff cookies or Salerno, a brand of butter cookies I viewed as a go-to for cash-strapped moms. She responded, “Guuuuuurl, those Salernos be good!”
Facing my fears, I decided to lean in to the darkness of those feelings and press myself for more. I realize I had always been afraid to put my body in state of pregnancy (read: emergency) where I might have to depend on other people for support or grace as I dealt with morning sickness or other physical changes that would keep me from being a force of nature as I am accustomed. That fear had to do with trust. I did not trust anyone to extend an iota of sympathy at the fact that I might be feeling queasy, so I might need a little time and grace at any given moment. I know this because I’ve been pregnant. Then I wasn’t. Further, I visualized actual childbirth as a horror story with nurses and doctors ignoring my need for compassion, hurrying me through the process because women everywhere do this all the time except it’s me this time and I’m scared now.
“Pregnancy is a condition, not a disease,” my aunt once told me.
And that distrust has to with every message I had ever received about my purpose and role as a girl and a woman in this society, where a family member once pronounced me as looking “like a good breeder” — like a horse. As a black woman, I would be expected to do more, take more and be more, but no one would give me a shoulder to lean on if I got out of breath or became momentarily afraid. Because I am supposed to be strong. The idea of childhood, and the vulnerability that comes with it, is not something we’re afforded, as writer Stacey Patton has so eloquently written. This notion that black people don’t feel pain is reinforced early.
A Little Cultural Competence, Please?
Lest you think I have been overreacting (due to my ostensible lack of pain-feeling), my fears have a basis. Since age 11, I’d always had debilitating menstrual cramps. At age 12, after several episodes where I’d presented to the ER for Demerol shots to quell the pain, doctors suggested I take birth control pills. Now, coming, as I do, from an evangelical Christian family, the idea of taking a contraceptive drug while still a girl was more than a notion. Even at that age, I felt the doctors thought something was inevitable about me, a black girl, becoming sexually engaged, so they sought to kill the proverbial two birds. They clearly didn’t understand the cultural context of the Holy Ghost empire that was my life, and certainly didn’t care.
I know they didn’t because my mother and I asked, and asked, and asked if there was anything else they could give me? While I fully had my mother’s support for whatever choice my 12-year-old self wanted to make, being associated with something connected with sex shamed me, leaving me flushed and reddened, something anyone could see if I weren’t such a dark shade of brown. Part of my fear was that my verbally abusive stepfather would use the pills against me by suggesting I was sexually active, or concerned with those matters in some way. I only learned what sex was the year before, from a little purple book my mom left for me when she went back to her room for afternoon prayers. The book, which lives on my bookcase today, has colorful collages to illustrate the point: first flowers, then chickens, then dogs and then humans. But birth control, that’s not something I could deal with.
So, like clockwork, every month I hurt. And screamed.
When I eventually moved to my grandmother’s house, she was old-school, didn’t believe in seeing doctors for what comes naturally. As I willed myself to die as a form of relief, she plied me with peppermint tea, aloe vera juice, and teaspoons of turpentine and sugar until I could prove she was actually poisoning me with that particular paint-stripping concoction. “Oh, baby, I didn’t mean to try to kill you!” she lamented.
I know, Grandma, I know.
But I never believed my pain was necessary; it was left unattended. Somewhere, there was the right doctor with the right medicine—just not for me. I never believed some fruit that bitch Eve ate a long time ago had anything to do with me.
And finally, during one bout of pain while at track practice at age 15, I was finishing a 400 when my coach, a man, saw me grip my stomach and grimace in agony. “Run, ugly, run!” he shouted. It was the only help he could give, and it echoed the bad medicine of the times. I had been repeatedly told exercise was great for combating cramps, and here I was in peak condition, rounding out a brisk run, and I was in agony and tears—alone. It was the type of aloneness that haunts because I was surrounded by people.
Nobody would come to save me, so I resolved to save myself by avoiding becoming a goddamned statistic by having a child without a husband. I would be one with means, and never suffering the kind of aloneness that comes from needing help from someone I couldn't trust.
So I’m here, at age 47, with no retirement plan. My company didn’t even have a 401k until three years before my downsizing and it was the first job that paid enough to build the middle-class life for which I had prepared with all the required sacrifices good people make. And I realize that every decision I have ever made had to do with fear. Fear that although I believe in the American ideal and my ability to leverage my ideas in the public conversation to make a difference, I had to wear a protective shield kept me from another kind of safety and security that makes life worth living: The gift of security in the warm embrace of family. My missing children.
I made the generational sacrifice. And I look at my sisters like the mothers of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd, who took a chance on happiness born of passion. I breathe in relief that I don’t have to worry about my black child being mistreated by police or underestimated at school or rendered invisible to their pain, hope and joy. On one hand, my never-born child won’t have to suffer the hypocrisy of a nation that insists families matter but goes out of its way to undermine all women by failing to pay them right, or position and welcome them into STEM careers where opportunity truly lies. I know people like economist Heather Boushey are thinking progressively about these things, daring to crunch the numbers and offer culture-shifting policies. But today, the reality is being poor means staying that way, and being unable to pay for education means staying dumb and locked out of the marketplace or being over-leveraged in debt. So the idea of making a cohesive family under a sturdy paid-for roof seems an impossible gamble. And being black is to live marked in blood scarlet, wherever one sits on the socioeconomic continuum.
Just ask the president.
And in all that righteousness, what the the nation demands of is no more fair to me than the idea of a black woman asking black women to save themselves by giving up something really important. And it’s me, childless, who’s missing out—on the promise of America, and the love of a child to hug away the pain.