When my daughter said, “Look Mommy, your breasts! One, two, three, four, five!” I thought for a split second, Great. Now she’ll never get skipped to the three year old class. I know that memorizing numbers is developmentally appropriate, but advanced achievement had been a passive goal of mine since another little boy in her class got skipped. He was the kid in her class who walked around reminding himself of the sounds that letters made, the kid who was reading already. He was advanced, I reasoned, because he could count his parents: “One. Two.”
There is one national narrative about single parenting that I know enough to dispute: the children-doomed-to-lack-and-crime narrative that reeks of Moynihan. Whether it comes from Don Lemmon, Iyanla Vanzant, or family, I know it is a poorly researched sham. I have “book smarts” enough to deconstruct the argument, point to research that shows otherwise, and use big words to say “keep reading.” My common sense, a mixture of wit and sensitivity, tells me that for the achievement gaps that do exist, we should look past the immediate family and toward the structures that are more likely the culprits. I think the Upstream parable applies here. In short, a person standing downstream saves dozens of drowning people before finally making her way upstream to find out who or what is causing the people to fall. There are many renditions of this parable, each with its own approach to primary prevention.
What I know for sure is that single mothers are not the ones at the top of the stream throwing their babies into the raging waters.
What I am less sure of is how to navigate the opposite extreme: the single supermom narrative. Black Consciousness presents: The Adventures of Single Supermom. Faster than a two parent family! More powerful than a two parent family! Able to leap tall, two-parent-family crises in a single bound! ("Look! Up in the sky!" "It's a mom!" "It's a dad!" "It's Single Supermom!")...Yes, it's Single Supermom, a strange visitor from planet Strong Black Woman, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of most single mothers! She can change the course of institutional racism, bend prison bars in her bare hands, and can serve as a mild-mannered laborer for some place that requires forty hours. Single Supermom fights a never-ending battle against Daddy issues, poverty, and the American way! Tune in next week, same Black time, same Black channel!"
I imagine that the cape is heavy and the rewards are few. I imagine that the superhero is also the victim, repeatedly saving herself from public opinion.
We single supermoms often find ourselves wondering how to make up for the (perceived) shortcomings. Should we incorporate more structured activities? Should we buy a bigger house? Should we make our own flashcards and drill our children every night? Should we buy our children everything they ask for? Should we hunt for a second parent? Should we get multiple jobs? Should we bubble wrap our children? Should we prove, over and over, that we are not at fault?
I don’t like playing any game in which the object is to catch up to someone who was winning before the game even started, but parenting has been that for me. It seems I am competing against an imaginary opponent, fighting against a family member’s prediction that my daughter’s life would be “f’ed up” because of my decision to parent solo. It’s time to give up.
I don’t own my daughter. She is not my prize. She is not an experiment in (insert any of my ideologies) parenting. She is not someone’s proof that single parent homes can work. She is not someone’s proof that single parent homes don’t work. She is not responsible for my parenting esteem, nor is she responsible for my lack thereof. She is an autonomous member of my small community. She is a sacred text, always writing and rewriting herself.
The second passed. I remembered my friend’s advice: If my daughter got skipped now, she wouldn’t be able to drink in her senior year at
Howard her institution of choice. I remembered that “compete” was not a good parenting word. I remembered not to ruin her unmitigated joy.
“You are counting!” I said, kissing her beaming face.
“Yes, I am,” she squealed, moving on to the next thing while I puffed out my chest, all five of my breasts swelled with pride.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta.