Wednesday, September 22, 2010

No Wedding, No Womb...

My daughter and I disagree on many things: how she should dress, how she should spend her time, the way she wears her hair. But one thing we agree on is simply this:

She won’t be having a baby.

Now if you’re thinking that means that I think she’s also too young to have sex, you’re right. I do feel that way. But I’m also realistic. Sex may happen. Pregnancy won’t.

That’s because we have already discussed what will happen when she meets her first serious boyfriend: she and I will go to the doctor together and get what we have to get and do what we have to do.
I’m not sure some of her friends will make the same choice. Three of her very best black girlfriends live with their single, never-married mothers. One of their mother’s lives with a “boyfriend.” She works… and he doesn’t do anything from what I’ve seen unfortunately. This girl’s baby brother is a child of that union: her own father is not in the picture. The other girls are sisters: their mother has three other children from different relationships that never ended in marriage. Their father isn’t in their lives either.

These are not urban, low income families. These are suburban, middle class folks.

All three of these girls visit our house so frequently Kevin often says we’re running a “Home for Girls.” They call me “Mom” and watch how I interact with Kevin with fascination. Okay, that’s partly because we’re a black and white family, but I think there’s more to the interest than just that. One of them asks all the time if we can “adopt” her. We can’t: but the vibe that I got from her mother’s boyfriend made me tell her she was welcome and safe at our house—and that she could come anytime, night or day.

While I believe their mother’s are doing the best they can for these girls, their choices puzzle me. For some reason, there is an attitude in the black community that makes it perfectly acceptable to have a baby without a husband, or without the support of even a committed partner. I once had a conversation with a young lady who accepted this as “the way it is” without question. “I didn’t have any problem with it,” she said about being pregnant by a man who she acknowledge wasn’t interested in marriage and in fact had relationships with several other women. She even spoke of her child as “my daughter” –absolving the child’s father of any ownership, possession or role in the child’s life. Another went on and on about the coming day when she would have “her baby”— with same tone that once upon a time, girls spoke about meeting their “Prince Charming.”

As the mother of daughters, I’m worried about the role model set for our girls. I’m worried about the perception of child-rearing as the sole responsibility of the woman—and our acceptance of that notion. I’m worried about the perception of black men as sperm donors—not fathers, looked to for love, guidance and support. I’m worried about the erosion of marriage as an institution in the black community, when marriage is linked to everything from family income, educational success of children, the likelihood those children will use drugs and commit crimes. Even when the parents divorce the kids do better than children whose parents were never married. There’s something about the commitment of marriage—legally, emotionally, psychologically—that provides kids with a stronger connection to both their parents, even when they no longer live together.

I’m worried about the idea that some young black men and women have espoused that “Marriage is for White People.”

If it is, then we are in serious trouble as a community.
Of course, a single woman is completely capable of raising a child—and raising a child well. That isn’t the point. After Sisi’s Dad and I divorced, I was a single parent for five years. It was often very difficult, and on occasion I had to make tough choices about how my time would be spent. I think she’s turned out well in spite of—or perhaps sometimes because of—those choices. And I don’t regret my divorce.
The point is not against single mothers. The point is single motherhood shouldn’t be the default position. It shouldn’t be what we expect to become or accept as the norm. The point is, from the child’s point of view, there is and always will be something missing.

With 70% of black children born out of wedlock, I’d say that not only are there a lot of young people walking around with something missing—with a hole in their foundation—but that it’s a crisis. And it’s a crisis that is solved not by government interaction, or reparations or a rebuke to white racism. It’s solved by individual choices.

Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a few hours of the Congressional Black Caucus here in Washington, DC. Somehow, I ended up in a discussion with a gentleman—a state legislator from Texas—on the black family. He trotted out the tired old chestnut about how welfare separated black men from families.

“You couldn’t have a man in the house and get the money!” he said, working himself up about how white racism is responsible for our current dilemma.
“And that’s because of the expectation of manhood,” I replied. “To hustle and provide for the family. As I understand the policy beneath that, the idea is that if you have a two-parent household, you have two potential wage-earners. The expectation is still that men will make money—more money than women.”

He blinked at me like he hadn’t thought manhood had any expectations.
“But there aren’t opportunities for black men. Racism keeps black men from jobs.”

“You seem to be doing pretty well.”

He blinked at me again. I could see in his face, he wanted to argue that he was the exception to some “rule” but we both knew he wasn’t. The room was full of men like him. In fact the nation is full of men like him. Yes, poverty disproportionately affects black Americans, and yes, black men do face racism in employment contexts. But so do black women—as well as gender discrimination--and we’re not absolved of any responsibilities for the next generation. And while an alarmingly high 25% of African Americans live below the poverty, line 75% do not. To say that the spike in out of wedlock births is an issue of poverty or welfare is inaccurate. The numbers just don’t add up.

“It’s a choice,” I said simply. “It’s still a choice. Maybe I’m too bourgie to get it, but I wouldn’t break up my family for any amount of government money. Just wouldn’t do it. And neither would you.”
I reminded him of our grandparents, who lived in oppressive segregation—but got married and raised their families as a unit. They were poor because of laws that kept them that way much of the time. But they both worked, and worked together for their families’ sakes.

“If they did it under Jim Crow, what’s our excuse?”

Excuses. That’s exactly what they usually are. By choosing not to be proactive, we let “accidents happen.” By choosing not to model two-parent homes for our children, we send a message that further destabilizes our communities—and ultimately the nation. By choosing to accept the role as sole parent, black women undermine their children’s success and their own viability in the dating world. It’s a vicious cycle with far ranging repercussions.

Not for my daughters…and if our example provides anything they can use, maybe not their friends, either. I want my daughters—by birth and by “adoption”—to choose long-term, committed relationships. I want them to choose marriage before having children and, of course, to throw wide open the doors of possibility to include men of any ethnicity. I want them to be proactive about their own sexual behaviors… and if Kevin and I have to help them make good choices for themselves, I know we will use what resources we have to do so—whether they are daughters by birth or by virtue of circumstance. A ride to the clinic? Done. Some help with paying for prophylactics? Done. Talking, talking and talking about men, expectations, and responsibilities? Already done, done, done.

We owe it to our daughters to model a family unit that provides the optimal support for them and their children. Through individual choices, we can reverse the attitude of “I don’t see anything wrong with having a Baby’s father relationship.” to “Not for me. No wedding, no womb.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Big M...

A couple of nights ago, I got a call from my doctor. I was expecting it... but still, when it came I felt a little sad.

"Well, Karyn," she said. "I got your blood work back and the levels confirm it. You're definitely at the beginning of the end."

Not the beginning of the end of my life (I hope) but the beginning of the end of my childbearing years. Yes, it's the beginning of what my mother's generation called "the change." Menopause, or more accurately perimenopause, the stretch of time between the symptoms of menopause and it's actual arrival.

You have to love my doctor's phrasing. "The beginning of the end" sounds so dire, but in a way, those are exactly my feelings about this stage of my life. Don't get me wrong, I don't want any more children. But it's more than that: in the back of my mind I'm realizing this is the beginning of the end of my youth. It's the beginning of my life as an "old lady."

And while it's something that happens to every woman if she's lucky enough to keep breathing long enough, it's somehow something I didn't really think would ever happen to me.

There has no mistaking the changes in my moods and in my body over the past year or so. Suddenly, I had a mustache and I was always warm even in the dead of winter. My once-curvy body had gotten round as an apple, with a nasty little pouch up front that never went away no matter what I did. My patience was hair-trigger sensitive. And then, for the first time in my life, I skipped a period... and I wasn't pregnant.

The beginning of the end.

I wish I could say I am immediately embracing this change for the new possibilities it offers. In time, of course, I will. But for right now, it makes me feel sad. I look back on my youth and I regret things I didn't do, things I was too scared to try. I regret that I didn't know how cute I was-- and that I didn't believe that the day would come when "matronly" would be an accurate description of my figure. That "hot" would be an adjective for "flash" and not for me.

I look at Sisi and I feel a little jealous. Does she know what she has right now? Does she know that one day, she will be me? Probably not. It seems unbelievable when you're young, that you will one day be... not.
Sometimes I think the heart of the mother-daughter conflict is simply that while the daughter's hormones are soaring, the mother's are declining. It's just biology and little more. We're a couple of moody bitches who don't really know what the hell is wrong with us. Enter fighting.

Poor Kevin. :-)

One of my favorite sayings is "This too shall pass" because it captures the transience of our experiences so perfectly. I know that twenty or thirty years from now, I'll look back and wish for some the blessings I have now: flexibility, mobility, my kids at home, otherwise perfect health. I'll wish for these days--hot flashes in all. Knowing that helps me to find acceptance for this moment. There's good in this, I know there is. Of course there is. It's just going to take me a minute or two to find it.

It's the beginning of the end, but it's also the end of the beginning. And experience and wisdom are wonderful things to say that I have gained a bit of at this point in my life. It's celebration and grief. It's joy and pain, it's endings and beginnings. A perfect circle of womanhood and a perfect circle of life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is College Overrated for Some (Most) Kids?

There's an intrigue piece in today's Washington Post with the seductive title "Is College Overrated?" To check it out, click here. I read it with great interest, because, around here with Sisi already a freshman in high school this Fall, the topic of college is becoming more and more relevant.

Given that I'm fairly (over)educated myself, it may surprise you to know that, not only do I fully agree with the article, but we have pretty much already decided: Sisi will not jump directly to college from high school. It's not that she's not smart, nor do we believe college is unnecessary. It's a question of focus and maturity.

Rare is the high school senior who knows exactly what she wants to do with the rest of her life from the moment she crosses the graduation stage. I'll never forget in my own freshman year of college, my English teacher (who bore the ominous nickname 'Bloody Mary') told us our first day point-blank: "Most of you don't belong here. You're just not ready for serious study." Of course, she was right: most of the class was more interested in pledging a sorority or fraternity and exploring their newfound independence than writing analyses of the works of Dead American Poets. And while there's nothing wrong with sororities and fraternities and nothing wrong with exploring newfound independence, I'm sure their parents didn't appreciate paying what would amount to $15,000 to $50,000 a year for that privilege.

I know I don't want to pay that. Exporation and independence, life experience and focus can be had for a whole lot less than tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, kids and earn money while acquiring it.

Obviously, for some (few) kids, college is the next best step. But we've already discussed what will happen when Sisi graduates. She'll have an allotment of money to spend on travel, or on a car, or, if she's got a plan, a business idea. If she chooses the car, she'll take a few classes at the local junior college and get a job. She'll pay rent if she decides to live here with us (nothing major, more on principle) and be allowed to explore her independence while earning money, sticking a toe in the academic waters and figuring out what her passions in life are.

She's mentioned getting work on a cruise ship and I think that would be a tremendous life experience and opportunity. Later, if she really liked it, a degree in business, management, or hospitality would make sense. A three-month contract on a cruise ship would be enough to figure out if the industry was something she really wanted to pursue... and she'll get to travel as well as make some money.

She's mentioned veterinary medicine. Why not work with a volunteer shelter organization for six months or a year? Do you still like animals? If so, let's go to school, knowing what your career will really look like.

She made the prestigious Treble Choir at her high school. Want to try the music industry? Use your money to live on and get an internship with a record label. Find out what it's like. Want to sing? Use your money to form a band, tour and produce music. When you realize you need more education, go get it.

Experience is the best teacher here and it seems some of us might be doing this backwards by sending kids to college straight out of high school, enabling them to prolong the realizations about their true interests at our expense. We're going to try to do it the other way: experiences first, education after.

Perhaps because of my own (dubious) experiences with higher education, I've long believed that a little time off is helpful for kids. Sisi knows she has that time to explore. Then, and only then, will we make a plan for her higher education-- in the hopes that when she goes to college, she won't be just another unfocused student on the parentally-subsidized party train.

What are your thoughts? Is college overrated? Love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Disaster Planning (Just in Case)

By now, regular readers of this blog are familiar with my own particular neuroses about the unexpected. I do tend a bit toward the "worst case scenario." Call me superstitious, but I happen to believe in the notion that if you're ready for it, it won't happen. And so, as the weather forecasters in my part of the world go back and forth about the weekend track of Hurricane Earl, I'm turning my attention to our family's disaster plan.

No one is predicting that Hurricane Earl will actually make landfall here in the Metro DC area. But in 2003 Hurriance Isabel just grazed our region... and our power was out for a week. Since 2010 has already been our "Year of Weather Nightmares" (60 inches of snow over the winter in three separate blizzards, a summer of record-breakingly hot temperatures, several lightning storms that closed roads and took down trees, and let's not forget, the EARTHQUAKE with an epicenter of a few hundred yards from our house!) it seems smart to replenish the supply closet, just in case.

In addition to checking the flashlights, buying more batteries and a few jugs of bottled water, this time, too, I decided to double-check myself against the County's emergency preparedness recommendations. It turned out to be a good idea: both girls have changed schools since I last thought about rendez-vous spots in the event something happened and we're in different locations. And though I've taught Lil Bit "911" and her address, it's time to start drilling her on other emergency names and phone numbers. She's going to be 5 in a couple of weeks: she can learn them competently now with a little work on my part. And of course, the County's plan gives a good checklist for a disaster supply kit.

I once had a fully stocked "disaster kit": a bin full of things that would needed in the event of an emergency. In the days after 9/11/01 when everyone was in a panic about security, I put together our own survival supplies in a large storage bin; it held blankets, a first aid kit, extra flashlights and batteries, canned foods, etc. Over the years, however, the bin's has emptied as our perception of the imminence of any threat has diminished. The blankets are on beds and in closets. The flashlights got taken to camp and are now scattered around the house. I realized out was out of one thing or another needed for a recipe and raided the canned goods as a backup (not the intended emergency, I know, but an appreciated alternative!). The first aid kit was opened for extra bandaids inside. It looks almost bare to me right now. Even the candles have been moved and used.

In the event of a real disaster, we wouldn't have tiime to run around the house gathering up these things-- and that's exactly why it's important to set them aside in advance of an actual emergency. It's time to replenish these supplies and seal up my bin again. True, over time they will be used for other purposes and dispersed... but that's the good news. It means we've been lucky and blessed and haven't had any actual emergencies.

Paranoid? Maybe. But one of my favorite saying is that we should pray like God exists and work like He doesn't...and emergency preparedness is just another place where fortune favors the prepared. Even if you and yours aren't in the path of Hurricane Earl (or any other warning, for that matter) it's not a bad idea to check your readiness every so often. As my mother likes to say "better safe, than sorry."