Shelly Frey and the Single Mom Struggle

Many of us were horrified to learn that a young Black woman suspected of shoplifting was shot dead by an off-duty police officer working security for Walmart. It’s a tragic story; a young mother’s life gone for pilfering cheap items from a store that would hardly miss them. Desperate to get away, Shelly Frey and two other women involved ran from the officer and eventually attempted to flea in a vehicle that the officer claims he feared would strike him. He fired into the vehicle filled with women and children (yes, there were two children there) and Frey was struck in the neck.  She later died from her injuries.

Frey moved to Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was having a hard time like many evacuees and many of us, even, who are struggling through these tough economic times.  Her two-year-old daughter suffers with sickle cell anemia, which made regular employment difficult for the single mother, if not impossible. She was arrested previously for stealing small items from Walmart, including a package of meat and some tee-shirts.  Through her probation agreement she was barred from returning to any Walmart, ever. 

The store, the sheriff’s department and many here will blame Frey for her fate.  It makes no sense. Why would this woman who is described by her family as “the perfect mom, perfect friend, perfect daughter” risk going to prison and leaving or losing her children for anything one could find at Walmart?  My heart hurts as I watch the video of her parents being interviewed after having driven through the night from New Orleans.  Her mother wants answers from the chain and the police; she cries while holding pictures of her daughter and wonders how she will tell Frey’s children that their mother is never coming home.  Holding back my own tears I wondered where this woman’s support system was, where the father(s) of her children was or were, and I thought about my own life.

I sit here with two degrees, a talent I am blessed to be able to earn with, and multiple streams of income. Yet I am, like many women I know, a few steps above destitution. My days are consumed with negotiating plans to make ends meet, calendaring events for my daughter’s academic and extra-curricular activities, and developing a blueprint that will bring me through that day with my sanity in tact.  I’m doing it alone and it’s hard. This is the story I tell the young women I mentor, and the young women in my own family. 

As I spoke with a girlfriend the other day about her hardships and single mommy blues---the delayed child support, how much winter coats cost this season, why many Black men somehow believe that throwing money (sometimes) and visiting their children (sometimes) make them good fathers and a community that doesn’t tell those men to do better but tells us constantly to, our own yearnings to have moments for ourselves but the lack of space and time to do so, and the price of groceries---I say something that even I was shocked to hear.

“How can we prepare our daughters for this?” I asked her. The first thing I tell young women is that they don’t have to become mothers, that there is a world out there with endless possibilities and that mothering doesn’t HAVE to be on the list.  I tell them to be safe and smart when they choose love and sex; and give them strategies on how to do so. I told my friend that I plan to tell my own daughter, when it’s time, that she shouldn’t even think about having a child unless she is prepared to fully care for that child mentally, emotionally, physically and financially on her own.  “I don’t want to tell my daughter that,” my friend rebutted.

I understood. I, too, want my daughter to believe in love and happiness and goodness. I want her to meet the man (or woman) of her dreams and for them to make a beautiful life together that may give me pretty, plump grandbabies; but I want her to know that when the smoke clears from all of that—she may be going at it, at it all, alone.  My mother didn’t have that conversation with me because it wasn’t the experience of the women she knew or her experience, but times have moved on and we must move on with them. 

Moving on means making better choices for ourselves and our children; it means admitting the harsh realities that many Black single mothers face; it means taking men to task about not contributing to raising their children ENTIRELY; it means growing up.  Ain’t really no way to sugar coat it either.

Josie Pickens is a writer, educator and social commentator who