It isn’t often that we get hopeful, even-tempered, nonjudgmental songs about unmarried parenting from gospel artists, but Mali Music’s latest album, Mali Is…, released this past Tuesday, gives us just that. The second to last track on the album, “Johnny & Donna,” tells the tale of a young unmarried couple who naively embark on the journey of parenthood and promptly realize how unprepared they are — not just for parenting but also for salvaging their flagging relationship.
In his short New York Times review of the album, Jon Caramanica calls “Johnny & Donna” “a classic morality tale for the Teen Mom era” and finds the song’s final lines: “Whether you’re Johnny or Donna or neither of the two/Just try to make the best of what’s given to you,” to be too morally noncommittal. Caramanica assesses the lines as “an answer that tries to please everyone, and may satisfy no one.”
But as someone who grew up in church, who met the father of my daughter at church, and who still attends church as an unmarried parent, it’s hard for me to be as dismissive of “Johnny & Donna.” On more than one occasion, we’ve written here at Beyond Baby Mamas about condemnation of single motherhood at church and how Christian mothers are practically forced to internalize that condemnation.
Few sermons or gospel songs allow for the ideas in Mali Music’s song about a young couple forming a permanent relationship while acknowledging the impermanence of their romance:
Johnny and Donna slowly recognized
That for the baby’s future they planned 2 different lives
Donna wanted a family; she wanted to do it right
Make Johnny’s house a home
She wanted to be a wife
But Johnny was a dreamer
And he had to move around
Yeah, he’d be there for his child
But wouldn’t settle down
How, how, how, how
Do I win and where?
Are questions they often both asked God
He doesn’t mock either party’s idealism, naivety, or needs. He doesn’t make light of either’s desires, opting instead to attribute the dissolution of their partnership to a difference in priorities and personalities. In truth, that’s often what it is. Break-ups aren’t a punishment for sin; they’re often a miscalculation of compatibility. Single parenthood isn’t indicative of defunct morality; it’s the result of breaking up with someone with whom you’d once intended a shared future.
The ambiguity of the last line isn’t an attempt to “please everyone.” It’s a call to all of us: listen to people’s stories, honor their individual circumstances, acknowledge their humanity. The reason “Johnny & Donna” isn’t a satisfying “cautionary tale” is because unmarried parenting isn’t a “cautionary tale.” It’s like artist asserts in the end:
Life is full of twists, twists
Life is full of twirls, twirls, twirls ,twirls
It’s the way of the world;
It’s whirlwinds and girlfriends
Toys and boyfriends, friends, friends
and Frenchmen (war) Peace, impeachment
gentlemen, ladies, Hyundais, Mercedes
Mistakes and Peach Rings,
Blacks and bleach stains
(Don’t forget wasps and bee stings.)
It isn’t arbitrary, exactly, but it comes at your in clouds and dust storms. It hits you hard and fast. Some things are avoidable. And some things are result of running toward the wind instead of shielding ourselves from it. But we’ve got to make the best of whatever comes (and whatever we’ve chased). It’s refreshing to have a new song celebrating that process instead of shaming those who are navigating it.
Mali Is… is currently $7.99 at iTunes. Buy it. It’s brilliant.