Reclaiming the Narrative: Single Motherhood

This is first of a series of blog posts that will discuss the reclaiming the narrative of single motherhood. Bookmark the blog or sign up for email notifications here.

A big part of my life’s work has been talking about the challenges, misconceptions, and hopes of single mothers. During my last year in seminary, I wrote a paper that explored single motherhood and the ways both church and society has misunderstood the nuances and varying experiences of single mothers. While it’s way too in-depth to go into in a blog post (there was conversation about eugenics, Christian ethics, and the Church) what was birthed out of that research was a need to re-imagine and re-frame the narrative of what it means to be a single mom.

Society has been long plagued with discussions concerning single mothers and how they shape (or dismantle) community life, especially among African American communities. In recent years, there has been an increase in discussion regarding how Black single mothers have attributed to the social ills of the time. In a 2013 speech in his hometown of Chicago, President Barack Obama talked about the increasing gun violence in the city and recognized the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who was gunned down one week after performing at one of Obama’s inauguration events. In the middle of the speech, Obama turns his attention to single mothers and, in a round about way, associates single parent homes with increased gun violence in the country. “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood.”[1] And one of Obama’s resolves for this growing epidemic of out of wedlock children breeding violence in the community: marriage.
Single mothers taking the blame for violence in political rhetoric is nothing new, however. In 1994, then GOP candidate Rick Santorum said in a campaign speech, “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms.”[2] A month later, he would correlate single parenting to growing criminality in America: “What we have is moms raising children in single-parent households simply breeding more criminals…”[3] From politicians to religious leaders to quiet whispers around America’s dinner tables, single mothers have long been charged and found guilty for perpetuating some of the country’s most deeply rooted social ills – from poverty to violence to generational trends of out of wedlock children and absentee fathers.

The Church has also done its fair share of blaming and shaming, using the Bible to draw a line of delineation between single mothers and the rest of the congregation. Televangelist Pat Roberson has been an opponent of single mothers as has publicly ridiculed them on his weekly broadcast that airs all over the world. Pastor Marvin Winans, one of Gospel music’s most recognized and respected voices, refused to baptize the child of a single parent in 2013 noting that it is against church policy to bless out of wedlock children in front of the congregation. From the sacred to the secular, single mothers have it hard to find a space where shame and blame is not at the forefront of their experiences.

But the reflection of these experiences, often rooted in shame and misplaced blame, are a myopic view of single motherhood. The common narrative of a woman who made a “bad decision,” that is poor and unlearned, excludes the many other ways the narrative of single motherhood takes its place in society.

Single motherhood is not a blanket experience nor is the path to single motherhood homogeneous. Many women choose (gasp!) to be single mothers because their desire to be a mother far outweighs the need to be a wife/partner. And what is to say about the many single mothers whose partner dies as a casualty of war, a disease that ravages their body, or in a tragic accident? And the women whose hearts are lead to adopt children — what is to be said of their single motherhood? Are they too breeding “more criminals?”

How do we begin to re-frame the narrative of single motherhood — not only in political and social spaces, but religious ones, too? As a person of faith, I find that longstanding misinterpretations of Scripture have lead many congregations to believe that single mothers not only have no place in the church, but they also are not the responsibility of the church and community at large. (They must haven’t read 1 Timothy 5 or 2 Kings 4?) The presumptions made about all single mothers only further injures and marginalizes a group of women whose life work to raise happy, healthy children take precedence over their own hopes and dreams.

Recently I talked about re-framing the narrative of the single mom on The Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey podcast. This Mother’s Day edition of the podcast features four moms whose varying experiences of motherhood leave room for the multiplicities of stories that make motherhood possible. Click here to listen to the podcast; my segment is at the 30:40 minute mark.

Happy Mother’s Day!

On the Chase,

Alisha L.

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[1] “Remarks By The President On Strengthening The Economy For The Middle Class”      http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/15/remarks-president-        strengthening-economy-middle-class, February 15, 2013, Accessed December 10, 2014.

[2] Tim Murphy and Andy Kroll. “Santorum: Single Moms Are “Breeding More Criminals”            Mother Jones, March 6, 2012. Accessed December 10, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

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