(Note: Though the focus of this discussion is heterosexual Black women who desire marriage and children, please know that I recognize and am sensitive to how elements of this discourse will be different for women who are not heterosexual and/or do not desire marriage.)
Recently, I moved to New Jersey to begin a new chapter in my life. I’ll be pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary, teaching a class at Rutgers Univeristy and enjoying all that Northern life has to offer. While this particular part of my journey is only five years, it is a considerable amount of time. When I graduate, I’ll be 38 years years old. Thankfully, I’ll still be young enough to seem cool to my students. Yet, the idea of waiting until I’m 38 to start a family isn’t appealing. I’m ready to begin the transition of my life into the space of motherhood. I’m ready to be a mom.
And because I’m ready, I had a series of conversations with people whose opinions matter the most in my life. My best friend. My inner circle. My cousins. My mentors. My pastor. And, of course, my mother. All of the conversations began with a conversation about single parenthood and, at some point, I slipped in the question. “Soooo what if I became a mom now?” Some of my people played along with the hypothetical scenario while others were much more direct and asked me if I was pregnant. Eventually, I had to tell all of them the truth. I’m ready to be a mom. I’d been thinking about it for a while and was ready to begin exploring my options, with their support. Though the conversations varied and some were much more enthusiastic about the idea than others, they all were supportive. My mother, most of all. I remain grateful for their support because it has allowed me to be honest. It has afforded me the ability to say, “I want to be a mom and I don’t want to wait much longer.” And I’m not the only one. Whether it is my single homegirl who is lamenting the dating scene and its options or the sister across the country who randomly messages me on Facebook, we’re all talking about it. We all desire motherhood but the “traditional/socially accepted” path to get us there, marriage, doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. And no matter how many books Steve Harvey writes to tell us otherwise, it’s not our fault.
As a nation, I don’t think we’ve really come to grips with the total impact of the prison industrial complex on Black America. While African-Americans are incarcerated at higher rates than their White and Hispanic counterparts, it is estimated that over 600,000 Black men are currently incarcerated. This staggering number, unfortunately, does not account for Black men who are on probation, which brings the total to nearly 1 million Black men under some form of correctional control. The absence of that many men has far reaching consequences. One of them, without question, is the ability for heterosexual Black women to find committed partners and/or husbands. A great deal of scholarship has been done regarding the marriageability rates of Black women and scores of relationship experts have toured the country discussing what Black women need to do in order to find the men of their dreams. However, we must face the sobering fact that many Black women will never marry or marriage will come much later than they’d hoped due to the demon that is mass incarceration. It is tough to digest that my Boaz, the man the church has been preparing me for since I could read, might be serving 15-20 years on a drug charge. Sadly, that’s a more hopeful thought than the possibility that he could have just been picked up his third strike and may never seen the outside again.
Wherever this man is and whatever he’s doing, I can’t wait forever…especially if I want to have a family of my own. During my annual exam, my gynecologist had “the talk” with me. A sister, she told it to me straight. Everything may be fine now but, in just a few short years, my ability to conceive and carry a baby to term will become much more difficult. I told her about my desires and conversations with my “village”. She agreed and told me to get my body in the best shape I could to ensure a healthy and successful pregnancy. “You’re still young but you’re also getting older. If you want to do this, you need to do this now.” We may not want to believe it but biology/anatomy/physiology/all that matters. Many of us are racing against time waiting for someone who may never come.
If a woman never becomes a wife, does that mean she cannot become a mother? Many say yes. There are those who suggest that planning motherhood before marriage denotes a lack of faith. Many have dismissed these intentions as unholy and contrary to the will of God. Others have bemoaned that single mothers are what’s wrong with Black America and we don’t need anymore. Before I’d even approached my doctor and loved ones with my desires, I’d already done the work to be at peace with the decision myself. Desiring and planning for motherhood doesn’t reveal a lack of faith. In fact, in my opinion, it’s quite the opposite. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be married anymore; I still do. It means that I’m trusting God with my dreams; I’m trusting God to literally do the impossible and give me a YES in a world that has already said NO. Isn’t that what faith is all about? Also, I believe that all life is sacred and it is a gift from God. Life, even that which isn’t conceived through traditional means, is still holy. God gives life. Period. And single mothers aren’t the problem with Black America. Single mothers aren’t why Black people still lag behind their White counterparts in every indicator of progress and development. Racism is. Structural oppression- institutionalized racism- birthed the prison industrial complex and is the reason why many Black women are single and have to make such decisions about their maternal future. It’s so easy to critique victims of a system rather than the system itself. Such a critique is irresponsible and unproductive. Also, just because a mother is unmarried doesn’t mean that the father and/or other men are not and would not be present in her child’s life. Many Black men have been and continue to be amazing fathers without being in a romantic relationship with the mothers. And, in instances where the father is absent, there have always been men who are willing to step up and be counted. Ultimately, Black children, whether born to single or married parents, have always benefited from “the village”. We do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss that just to demonize single mothers.
What role, then, does the church have in the life of a sister who selects motherhood before marriage? First, I believe that any church that takes seriously the life and love of Black women must take seriously the call to dismantle the prison industrial complex. Women’s and singles’ ministries that “prepare” women for marriage are rendered insignificant when there are no husbands available. Congregations must be active in calls for policy and legislation reform that will have a direct impact on arrests, convictions and sentencing. Black churches must also be invested in the work of reintroducing newly released and paroled men into society, providing them with mentors and employment. Most importantly, pastors must be willing to preach and teach grace and forgiveness in ways that will help to soften the single sister’s heart towards a brother who did some time but is now on the right track. Sisters, be clear: this is a struggle for me too. If I’m honest, I feel like I did all the right things and shouldn’t have to end up with a man who has a record. However, some of us are going to have to take a chance on a brother with a less than stellar past, who is working hard in the present and has a bright future ahead of him.
But not only this, pastors must be willing to unlock Scripture in a way that invites us all to consider motherhood before marriage as a gift. And while single mothers are no stranger to the Black church, we’re going to have to take the notion that single motherhood is a consequence to the altar and leave it there. Being a single mom is not a consequence for doing something wrong; it is blessing. Who are we to limit God? Who are we to say the ways that God can and will advance the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? We serve a savior who was born into scandal and delighted in children. If anyone will understand the complicated unconventional routes to parenthood, it is Jesus.
In the past week, I’ve talked with so many women who are considering adoption, who are beginning the IVF process and who have intentionally stopped taking birth control. All of these women love God and aim to live a life that is pleasing. All of these women are single. All of these women want to be mothers. All of these women have my full support and I pray that their dream of motherhood comes true.
Here’s what I know: “Wait on God” is nice to say. On the right days, it may cause a congregation to shout and dance. On other days, it may move worshippers to humble submission. Yet, “wait on God” can’t be the empty and trite cliché we give to escape dealing with the real world and all its issues. You can’t tell a 40 year old sister to just “wait on God” anymore. What do you think she’s been doing? And you can’t tell the 36 year old sister to wait and give your testimony about how you waited and got married at 38, either. Our testimonies are amazing; they show us what God can do. But our testimonies are not one-size-fits-all. Your testimony could be that you were married at 38 and rejoiced that God didn’t forget about you. Your sister’s testimony could be that, on her 38th birthday, she looked at her 2year old and rejoiced in the fact that God didn’t forget about her, as well. We have to give people the space and the support to live free of our criticisms and scrutiny.
The decision to choose motherhood before marriage is one only a free Black woman can make. And, truthfully, we don’t know what to do with free Black women. We never have. Be free anyway.
To every sister who wants this, I’m rooting for you.