We Are the Ones We’ve Been Taught Not to Wait For: On Shanesha Taylor and Caring Communities.

Image

Last week, a black single mother dominated the national news cycle. In her mug shot, plastered above many a think-piece headline, Shanesha Taylor’s tear-soaked cheeks and emptied eyes were offered to the world as a kind of apology, a kind of explanation, a kind of platform. The reading and viewing public was all too happy to fill in the blanks. At first, she spoke to us only through the police who arrested her for leaving her sons, ages 2 and 6 months, in a hot car with the windows cracked in Scottsdale, Arizona. She left them for approximately 45 minutes, while she interviewed for a job. According to Sgt. Mark Clark of the Scottsdale Police: “She said she was homeless, she needed the job. Obviously, not getting the job. So it’s just a sad situation.”

This got the wheels of the commentariat grinding. Black single mothers are popular grist for the editorial mill; our circumstances spun in whichever ways suit the writer’s (and the public’s) politics. Shanesha Taylor, then, became the face of America’s public daycare problem, the soul of its limited housing and employment options for unpartnered parents. Her name seemed an instant folk ballad, invoked to woefully decry the ripple effects of poverty.

Outrage was leveled at lawmakers and at the criminal justice system, while Taylor’s case was used to educate readers about the brick walls single mothers face on their labyrinthine quest to improve their families’ quality of life.

We are used to the news cycle ending here, with most readers’ mournful tsk-tsking at circumstances they’ve either not had to face or have left far enough in their rearview to provide an insular distance. How sad for her, we’d say as newer and equally complicated stories crowded Taylor’s out of reportage. Society is cold and hard, we’d muse while reading about some other injustice.

But this case was different.

By now we all know about the YouCaring campaign, with an original funding goal of $9,000, that has raised over $85,000 to date, for Shanesha’s bail, pending legal battle to have her charges dropped, and housing and child care needs. While the initial local news coverage of Taylor’s case can be credited for alerting us to Taylor’s plight, it wasn’t the columnists who saved her. It was other single mothers and their advocates.

Before the first wave of think-pieces was even in full-swing, 24-year-old Amanda Bishop* took matters into her own hands and set up the YouCaring page. She’d never met Taylor before reading the news report, but she heard in Taylor’s story something she recognized. And she wasn’t alone. Comment after comment on the fundraising page reifies the cliff’s edge over which single parents so often find themselves peering. The most resonant sentiment there is: This could’ve been me.

Taylor is not the first mother to make risky parenting choices, particularly not those related to leaving her children unsupervised. In 1999, the national number of children left to “self-care” (defined by one research brief as unattended or in the care of an underage sibling) was 3,325,000. Of that number, 866,000 are between the ages of 6 and 9. Taylor’s children were significantly younger. At 2 and 6 months old, the idea of “self-care” simply isn’t applicable. In this way, Taylor’s decision was less calculated risk than unmitigated desperation, a desperation capable of impairing logic.

It is absolutely true that she shouldn’t have ever been criminalized for this act. But I’m late to weigh in here at Beyond Baby Mamas regarding her case because I suspect it’s more complex and individual than I know, more complex and individual than the public is engaging it.

I hesitate to develop a hard and fast “take” on Shanesha Taylor’s actions and how they fit into our larger discourse on poverty, public childcare options, and homelessness. In as much as I’m able to take any real stance here, I can say with certainty I don’t believe “child abuse” is an appropriate allegation. But I do believe “child endangerment” is. Were her children older– even as old as six and two (as I’d originally misread when this story was first reported), I’d be less likely to call it even that. A six-year-old left unsupervised for 45 minutes could at least be taught to feed and soothe a younger sibling and to crack open a door if the car got too hot. A two-year-old in a similar situation is helpless. He is not being actively abused, per se, but his life and that of his infant brother have been endangered.

Something very significant has broken down in a parent’s ability to reason when a job interview takes precedence over shade and air for her toddler and an infant. I think we should be more closely examining that breaking (and our society’s complicity in it).

The police who responded to a report of Shanesha Taylor’s children crying and sweating in her car would have better served her by ordering a medical/psychological evaluation for her. And rather than felony charges for “abuse,” she should have been offered pro-bono family counseling and/or parenting courses. These are things I still believe would benefit Taylor and her family.

In the meantime, here are the single mothers, rising to support her. Here are the advocates for low-income parents, doing their independent investigation of the facts in her case and in her post-jail progress. Here is the help single mothers in peril have been waiting for.

It turns out that help wasn’t found in editorial-writing or policy-passing. Many single parents learn early to keep their heads down, their challenges quiet, their desperate moments secret. We are taught that work must take precedence over everything else, that self-reliance may have to come at the expense of a sound mind or safety for our children. We are taught not to look up for help, once we’ve been denied it by people who attached accusations to their “No”s. Our government responds to our needs either by ignoring them, by reducing the limited aid it once offered to help us address them, or by allowing political candidates to make us the scapegoats in debates about the national deficit.

And so we get busy. Very busy. Busy enough to believe that we cannot be helped; we are our only recourse. We haven’t had time to wait to be proven wrong. As it turns out, we needn’t have looked any further than each other. Perhaps this is the start of a larger community care movement — and if it is, we have Shanesha Taylor and her generous supporters to thank for that.

 

* An earlier version of this piece erroneously identified Amanda Bishop as a single mother. She is not. 

Why ‘Doing Everything Right’ Doesn’t Insulate Women From Single Motherhood.

Image

Professor Jen Jamison, with her gorgeous three-year-old twins.

Where I began my story as a single mother was at a time in my life when I felt like I had done everything the right way and in the correct order. I graduated from high school at the age of 18, followed by a bachelor of science degree in chemistry at the age of 22 and a Ph.D. in chemistry at the age of 28. During my postdoctoral training, I met someone who I felt loved me, supported my dreams, and wanted me to support his dreams.

He was everything I thought I wanted. He did a lot to impress me and I did my best to reciprocate all of his efforts. We had a great time together.

This whirlwind romance was followed quickly by engagement, marriage, and pregnancy. That’s when the wheels came off the proverbial cart. All of sudden, instead of being loving and supportive, he became emotionally abusive and threatened and actually performed physical violence on numerous occasions. Instead of him showing me off to his friends, he would tell me I was nothing.

I thought about leaving the marriage, but I was also pregnant…with twins! I figured things would calm down after we graduated from the newlywed stage. I made a marital vow and I intended to keep it. I eventually became a shell of my former self; I was broken, humiliated, and mistreated frequently.

In October of 2010, my son and daughter were born at 33 weeks and stayed in the NICU for nearly a month. I also had a one-week hospital stay, which gave me time to decide to leave the marriage and formulate an exit strategy. I was laid off from my postdoctoral position around the time the babies were born. I had dreams of becoming a college professor and submitted applications to several schools around that same time. Since most universities do not hire until around August, I knew I would be unemployed for many months.

Here I was with no job, a new mother to twins, and a plan to fix my life. I was still married and living with my husband, and everything was manageable until the babies were released from the NICU to come home. Because they were preemies, I had to stick to a strict schedule of feeding them, which was every 2-3 hours, 24 hours per day. It was very difficult manage this with absolutely no help from anyone else.

I went to stay with my parents for a while so I could get help with the babies. While there, I got job interviews and continued to apply to other universities. My parents helped me by taking care of the babies while I was flying to other states for job interviews. I eventually narrowed my job offers down to two universities: one in the same city as my husband and the other in another state. Long after I signed the contract with the university in the other state, I informed my husband that I was leaving.

He kept most of my belongings, which were acquired long before I met him. I basically moved to another state with 9 month old twins and a few possessions in July of 2011. We moved into a duplex on the not-so-great side of town. I didn’t even have a television or cable. Despite living simply, being in my new place was great because I was able to begin to recover from all of the abuse.

When August of 2011 rolled around, I was so excited to begin working as a college professor. I loved my university, my colleagues, and my students. I was also nervous because I had no family nearby to help with my kids. I was so nervous about them getting sick and having to miss work that I expressed my concern to my boss. His response: “If you need to miss work, your colleagues will help cover your classes. Worst case scenario, if you can’t be there, cancel class! You are the professor, after all!” I was able to breathe again, to smile, to laugh, and to make friends. For the first time since 2010, I had a positive plan to move my little family forward, including home ownership.

I finally saved up enough money in 2012 to get a divorce. The whole process was pretty straightforward and I became a free woman on July 6th of 2012. I didn’t have time to cry or have any emotions because I knew that there was nothing to cry over. Also, I was too busy packing and getting ready to move into my brand-new home that was built from the ground up; I moved into my home on August 1, 2012. There was new furniture to buy and other first-world problems to solve such as finding a reputable lawn maintenance company.

These days, I am happy with myself and my accomplishments as a mother and career woman. I appreciate the fact that I have overcome some huge difficulties, yet I am still standing. I have raised my twins by myself since their release from the hospital; they are almost 3 ½ years old and my love for them continues to grow. I love that I have a job that seems custom made for me. Most importantly, I have learned to lean on God and trust His ability to make all things work together for my good. I assumed that since I did everything “right,” bad things weren’t supposed to happen to me.

While I do not wish single motherhood on anyone, I recognize that it can happen to anyone, regardless of race, education, or socioeconomic factors, for any reason. It doesn’t matter how one becomes a single mom; if it happens to you, you will have much greater concerns than who is judging you. Yes, the stereotypes are alive and well, and some people are not as graceful in keeping their opinions to themselves. I can’t control them any more than I could stop my ex-husband’s mistreatment of me. I just make sure I remind myself that being a single mom does not remove or diminish my desire to give my children the best upbringing that I can give them, which is the same desire held by other types of mothers for their children. Finally, I remind myself that I love my children and always will, which keeps me going when I become exhausted from taking on too much at work. Their hugs infuse me with energy and their smiles and giggles confirm that every ounce of labor, stress, and discomfort is completely worth it.

Jen Jamison is a mother of 3-year-old twins and a chemistry professor at a university in Arkansas. She is also a writer, a speaker, and an enthusiast for science education at the K-12 level.

For Potential Givers: A Feed-A-Single-Parent-Family Primer.

Since launching our holiday Feed-A-Single-Parent-Family holiday initiative yesterday, we’ve received overwhelming response, both from families in need and from generous supporters interested in donating. To streamline the process for the latter, here are some additional details and a separate form for those looking to give a grocery gift card to a family that could really use your support this holiday season:

  • Beyond Baby Mamas is a volunteer-run support community. Though we do have plans to transition into a fully-supported nonprofit organization in 2014, we are not currently one. Should you decide to help a family you do not know by donating a grocery gift card, your contribution cannot be claimed as a tax exemption.
  • Please complete the form below or email us beyondbabymamas at gmail dot com, providing ALL the information listed below.
  • We are, to the best of our ability, matching givers to families, based on family size and contribution amount. This is why it’s so useful for us to know how much you hope to contribute.
  • There is NO minimum contribution amount, provided the grocery store website for your family allows you to name your own amount. If you can only give a very small denomination, the family you’re assigned will receive your card, as well as other small denomination donors’, until he/she receives a sufficient amount.
  • Please allow 3-5 days to hear from Beyond Baby Mamas about your family.
  • Feel free to leave any other questions in our comments section below!

Thank you so much for your interest in helping a single-parent family in need!

Tanya Fields, Melissa Harris-Perry and the Single Mom Moment Heard ‘Round the Sister Circle.

On Friday, The New School hosted an historic conversation between black feminist academics bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry. A public meeting long anticipated, the talk yielded high online traffic as live-streaming viewers tweeted feedback in real-time. The effect was akin to an hours-long group hug — and a bit of group therapy.

But for this blog and its readership, perhaps the seminal moment was during the Q&A segment following the talk, when food activist and single mother Tanya Fields took to the mic and voiced following:

As a low-income black mother, I have been struggling to find my voice and I’ve been using my platforms — Twitter, Facebook — and talking about being this whole person, what it means to be unmarried with three baby-daddies and four kids…. The pushback that I am often feeling is not from the white folks in the community. It is from the other sisters who tear me down, tell me that the reason I am low-income is because I didn’t have the insight to choose good men, that I should’ve kept my hand out and mouth closed and my legs closed…. So I’m trying to figure out, as we talk about this ‘plantation culture,’ as I try to rise above my circumstances and literally create meals that the children in my community can eat… it stops you from wanting to have that voice. I have people who tell me, ‘When you talk about being low-income, don’t talk about feeding your kids on food stamps. You don’t need an audience for that. Suffer in shame and in silence. The situation that you are feeling is your own and is a product of your own bad choice.’ I am pregnant with my fifth child and just had this man walk out on me. How do you wake up every morning and… I consider myself a black feminist but some days, it’s just so hard to get out of the bed and face other black people.

After attempting to speak to Fields’ frustrations from the platform, Harris-Perry stepped off it, walked over to Fields and, without microphone amplification, gathered Fields in an embrace, addressing her privately. Later, Harris-Perry did address the idea of single-mother shaming, evoking her own experience after divorce for added context. Two key points raised were these:

bell hooks added:

Many who watched the panel live remarked on what a safe space it was for black women to discuss their championed causes, insights, observations and insecurities. This was especially important for single mothers watching who, like Fields, have had to live under the oppressively critical gaze of our own communities.

Fields mentioned that she had appeared on The Melissa Harris-Perry show last month, but I hadn’t seen it. This moment, where Fields cut to the core of an experience many a black single mother has weathered, was my first introduction to her. I immediately went to Google and looked her up (something I encourage everyone reading this to do) and found that Tanya Fields is a veritable force in the Bronx, in the five boroughs of New York, and well beyond.

Here she is as a keynote speaker at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies 2013 commencement, where she speaks specifically to the challenges she and other single mothers face in returning to college:

Here she is speaking last year at The Scholar and Feminist Conference 2012, “Vulnerability: The Human and the Humanities” at Barnard College:

The Executive Director of The BLK ProjeK, a food justice and public/mental health organization committed to urban farming and the elimination of food deserts, Fields and her work are gradually, quietly revolutionizing low-income neighborhoods in one of many cities in this nation where it is toughest to survive while poor.

… And folks are focused on her family dynamics?

Some might argue Fields is an exception to the single mom rule: educated and at the frontlines of activism while low-income and expecting a fifth child. Those who’d make this argument would assert that “most” black single mothers are not invested in the betterment of their communities and are instead solely reliant on their communities to invest in them.

The mothers featured here at Beyond Baby Mamas time and again defy that logic. We are non-profit workers, college professors, hospital workers, writers, artists, intellectuals, engineers, public servants, students at all levels of education. There are too many of us to be “exceptions.”

Black single motherhood is not just diverse in its professional representations; we have distinct attitudes toward our families, personal narratives that may converge at some points but all possess unique characteristics. And we deserve to be able to believe about ourselves and our children that which makes us strongest and most productive.

But friends, family, and strangers actively work not only to attack that belief but to willfully ignore any and all work we do for the betterment of our own families and others’. They do this in the name of advancing a single narrative black single mothers as poor, money-hungry, lazy, bitter, and/or pitiable. And, to Tanya Fields’ point, plenty of them are black and brown like us.

It can be exhausting to get out of bed and challenge those deeply ingrained stereotypes. It can be paralyzing to face a world that won’t acknowledge your pain, your disappointment, or your endurance — an endurance that, some days, is nothing short of heroic.

This was what made that moment last Friday so significant. For once, for a few moments, we all bore witness to a single mother as a whole woman and were all called to contend with any of our own culpability in making her and women like her feel so staggeringly tired.

The Not-So-Curious Case of Udonis Haslem’s Wedding Announcement.

 

Udonis and Faith, with their three children. Their eldest is Udonis’ from a previous relationship.

There’s been a low buzz of criticism gathering on social media about NBA star Udonis Haslem’s wedding announcement in The New York Times on Saturday. The piece, “Taking Their Very Sweet Time,” tells the story of his 14-year relationship with the mother of his two youngest sons, Faith Rein.

It’s a love story — a long and arduous one, replete with potential obstacles: abortion, death, poverty, the specter of a mother’s drug addiction, intercontinental distance, career setbacks, career triumphs, growing pains, the threat of suburban ennui, and Tupac’s “2 of Americaz Most Wanted.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone reading Udonis and Faith’s story and not rooting for their marital success. It’s also difficult to understand how anyone could read about the emotional mountain they had to scale and wonder “what took them so long” to marry.

But there have definitely been readers who’ve taken to Twitter to call their wedding announcement “messy” or to police their respectability. One tweet in particular is pretty telling: the writer questions Haslem’s decision to ask Rein’s father for her hand in marriage, given the fact that they’ve already started a family. He also questions the couple’s love, because of their decision to terminate a pregnancy when both were in college.

The tweet linked above isn’t isolated nor is the sentiment. In fact, I’m fairly certain a few readers here will share similar opinions. Working to develop Beyond Baby Mamas has taught me how linear and stringent many people’s ideas about love, morality, and healthy families are. We all come to our ideas about what constitutes true love and about when it’s appropriate to moralize about others’ relationships through distinct means.

Our upbringing colors our views. Our own relationships’ successes and failures shape our beliefs about what is and is not acceptable for other couples. Our faith may also greatly influence what we think should be seen as right and wrong or “cursed” and “blessed” in relationships and families.

But if these are the only means by which we develop opinions about people we may never meet, if we don’t consider them as individuals, if we don’t respect or empathize with their challenges and — worst of all, if we can only view their hardships and decisions as mirrors that somehow reflect poorly on us — we’ll remain locked into the kind of myopia that damages society far more than unmarried partnerships could.

There’s nothing unsettling about Udonis Haslem waiting fourteen years to marry Faith Rein. By their own accounts and by the accounts of all those interviewed for their wedding announcement, they’ve loved each other the entire time they’ve been together. But there were factors on both sides that barred them from breathlessly rushing toward an altar. On Haslem’s side, there were the effects of an impoverished upbringing. On Rein’s side, there was career advancement and a need not to entirely reliant on Haslem’s earnings or prospects. Together, they had to wait until they both felt confident that they’d have a shot at a healthy marriage.

Their experiences suggested that love alone was not quite enough.

BSruw64CQAEUkZO

After 14 years together, Haslem and Rein married last week in Florida, in a ceremony attended by 200 guests.

For couples in 2013, it’s difficult to know when is the exact “right” time to marry (if marriage is to be an option at all). We can rely on arbitrary rules and assumptions like, “Waiting any more than 2.5 years for a ring means he/she is wasting your time.” Or, as a post-”divorce generation” generation, we can allow what we’ve seen and heard to inform us and, in so doing, we can begin to appreciate that the time spent “dating” and “relationship-building” shouldn’t be measured in months and years alone.

We can marry because it’s what’s expected if an unplanned pregnancy occurs between two people in love or we can wait until we know for sure that we’re basing what’s supposed to be a lifelong legal commitment on more than the timing of a birth.

These choices are every couple’s to make, given the unique challenges they face.

That Haslem and Rein ended up at the altar is unsurprising to those who know them. Given what this article tells us about them, the length of time they took to get there makes a great deal of sense. Those who read their story as one marked by a “fear of commitment” are missing the fact that commitment was exactly what they’ve been learning and testing and shaping since they met in college.

For some, marrying young and fast isn’t as important as marrying compatibly and wisely. For others, young, fast, compatibly, and wisely work together. Either way, marriage is a risk. Waiting errs on the side of making that risk more calculable.

As a community practice, Beyond Baby Mamas doesn’t accuse couples or single parents of having “loose morals” and “low self-esteem” when we hear their stories. We don’t doubt that they loved their partners or hoped for the best when their relationships have ended dissolved. In fact, we don’t look for loopholes and weak points in their stories at all.

You can’t advocate and indict simultaneously. And for those who need, want, or welcome mentoring or educating, you can’t mock, scold, or shame and expect to be at all effective. Further, shaming often comes from a space bereft of investigation. When we accuse women who give birth before marriage of not valuing themselves or the institution of marriage, we ignore research that largely indicates women who give birth before marriage do tend to marry eventually. Most women in the U.S. tend to marry eventually. Why does it need to become everyone else’s business when they choose to do so?

Wish Udonis and Faith well. Or don’t. Your choice to be appalled at how they’ve chosen to build their family has no bearing on whether or not their family will thrive. But it does, however, absolutely influence the way the unmarried parents you know and love are treated and condemned in our culture. The ways we in which we publicly engage unmarried parenting and the decision of couples to marry post-children must change. Our condemning attitudes are directly tied to the legislative punishment families face for choosing not to marry or for choosing to give birth or even for choosing not to.

As long as we see every situation that’s different from what we consider to be “normal” as a sign of widespread moral blight, we’ll all suffer. We’ll suffer from the fallout of our delusion that our individuated ideas about morality shape the health of other people’s relationships and the economic or social resilience of our nation.

Let’s try, at least, to listen to and consider experiences that don’t much resemble our own and begin to accept that our own framework for building healthy families is not a practical barometer for everyone else. For instance, Haslem and Rein are now millionaires. Imagine if what has become possible for them, as a married couple and as parents, were expected and demanded of the rest of us. The scale of what’s fair and equitable is constantly sliding. We cannot remain rigid and immobile and expect to make our difficult, often unfair and often unjust society better livable.