It would be wrong to say I never appreciated the sacrifices of a solo parent. My mother, a single Black woman, has always been the hero of my story. She instilled hope in the hearts and minds of her four kids in a South that tended to quench the flickering light of possibility in the imaginations of Black children.
But the cost of her gift was something I could not grasp until now.
Last August my wife, a Navy reservist, was called to active duty and deployed. I found myself responsible for the academic, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being of four Black children between the ages of 4 and 12 in the midst of a pandemic, yet another reckoning with racism in the United States and a contested election. All the while, I’ve been teaching college classes online and in person with students who themselves are trying to make sense of those same traumas.
My experience and that of my mother (and other solo parents) are not the same. There is an end date, a coda to this portion of my parental narrative. But these six months have given me a window into my mother’s experiences.
Before my wife’s deployment, each of us was responsible for different things. She made sure that we got out of the house and explored the world. I am the one who likes to start a fire, make some popcorn and watch a movie. I told the jokes; she checked the homework. We split the cooking, but her meals had more vegetables.
Whenever she came home from a long day at work with a certain look, I took the kids for the evening. When there was a writing project that I needed to finish, she made sure that I had a Saturday morning to myself. There was a give-and-take, a space for breaks.
Now that my wife has gone, those breaks are over. I have child care during the day while I’m at work, but when I return home, the day’s problems are mine and mine alone to solve. When the children miss their mother or feel the weight of the pandemic, I must do the emotional work of comforting them. Science projects and math assignments have invaded this humanities lover’s world. When the images of the Capitol riot or anti-Black violence dominate the news, I must walk that fine balance between truthfulness about what this country is and finding room for hope.
These past six months have been more exhausting than any other period of my life. There are times when my alarm goes off and I have little desire to move. I want to lie in bed and wish the world away, but there are four kids who need me. So I smile, open my bedroom door and welcome the chaos. I wonder how often my mother felt the same way. I remember noticing the strain in her laughter when I was a child, and now I understand the source.
Simple activities are logistical nightmares. If child care happens only during your work hours, how do you find space for ordinary errands like buying groceries? You either pay for child care while you do it or you drag four children to the market. I now understand my mother’s extensive instructions before we entered the store not to touch or ask for anything.
I have a network of friends and church members who provide meals and rides to band, baseball and soccer practice. My dean and co-workers have been understanding when I have had to leave a meeting early or not attend at all. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed how lonely solo parenting is. I go to work, come home and care for the kids. My interactions with other adults without children present have become nonexistent.
When I think about what it must have been like for my mother to do this as the weeks turned into months and years, the scope of her achievement is staggering. All four of her children graduated from high school. Three of us graduated from college. Two became doctors. We are, like all families, flawed, but we are here as a testimony to what is possible.
By the time my college graduation rolled around, I planned on skipping the ceremony. I wanted to get my degree mailed to me and move on, but she insisted on attending. I realize now it was not my graduation — it was hers, the fruit of her sacrifice. My mother’s joy at her children’s achievements was both pride and vindication, a sign that her labor was not in vain.
My mother’s exceptionalism can create a false narrative that if we work hard enough, all will be well. But it shouldn’t be this difficult for solo parents.
I wish my mother had had the supportive network I’ve had. What would it look like for religious communities, employers and others to help the 23 percent of American parents who are raising their children alone? It would look like their not, in fact, being alone. It would involve their receiving what I’ve received, the support and understanding of a community that recognized that I was doing something important. If that is true of me, it is even more so of solo parents whose sacrifices continue.
Governments can also help. President Biden has offered a proposal to expand the child tax credit. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah has a plan to replace the credit with monthly cash payments to parents of children. These programs are not designed just for solo parents, but since on the whole, solo parents’ households are more likely to be impoverished, they will help. This issue deserves sustained public debate.
Every year, when my mother calls me on my birthday, she talks about how she can still feel the pain from giving birth to me. She used to ask, “Did you know that I was in labor with you a whole day?” In recent years, the length of her labor has grown, to a somewhat unbelievable seven days.
I used to push back on her comedic stylings, saying, “Mom, it was not that long.” But there is a truth hidden in her humor. Her children are not the work of sweat and pain in a hospital. We are the work of a life. All children of solo parents, who contribute so much to the American project, are proof that their work was not wasted.
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