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Mother May I?
When I returned home from Christmas three scarves richer, I knew it was time to paw through my famous collection and choose old ones to donate to a deserving charity in the new year. After all, how many teal scarves does a lady need? Anxious to downsize and learn about new non-profits, I started researching women's shelters. Usually I give my used clothes and home goods to Diversity, the thrift shop that benefits the Richmond Gay Community Foundation—as much for their worthy mission as for their proximity to my house. (They even offer free pick-up!) Maybe it was the seasonal barrage of Madonna and Child images or maybe the fact that I recently started reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch that pushed me, but this time I wanted to help needy mothers.
Whether they're battered, alcoholic, single or all of the above, there are many reasons why a mother might have trouble supporting herself and her children. 72.6 percent of single U.S. parents are mothers and, even in the most open-minded towns, solo mamas faces stigmatization. Yup, even though it's no longer the Victorian age (or the 1960s or even the 1980s.). Tracy Mayor's piece, “Single Mom Stigma, Alive and Kicking,” for Brain, Child earlier this year captures the stereotype perfectly:
They’re easy. They’re slutty. They got pregnant with some random guy. Or, selfishly, they ran out to the sperm bank when they turned forty. It’s their fault.
They’re always broke. They’re on welfare. They’re sponging off the taxpayers. They should work for a living, and, simultaneously, they should stay home with their kids. Whatever they do, it’s never as good as what a married mom does. Ever. It’s their fault.
They should have worked harder to keep their marriages together. They go out partying anytime the ex has the children. They’re man-haters. Or manhunters, who shouldn’t be left alone with other people’s husbands. Their kids are troubled, or troublemakers, bound for the penitentiary, suffering without a male in the house, un-cared for, un-read to, a bad influence on other children.
For every rule, there are plenty of exceptions, and sometimes there are more exceptions than rules. I've known single mothers on welfare, but I've also known single mothers who graduated high school or even put themselves through trade school or college. One acquaintance will be attending medical school, despite having an 8-year-old in her care. Since becoming a mother at age 16, this woman has earned her B.S. and also worked as a nurse and an EMT. She attributes a lot of her success to her own mother's flexibility: allowing her to live at home as a teen mom, caring for her daughter while she juggled classes and a job. Even with her mother's generosity, life hasn't exactly been The Sound of Music. More like The Sound and the Fury.
Growing up in “the Arlington Bubble,” as my senior English teacher called it, I never knew a teen mom until I moved away after high school. A couple of friends in D.C. Public Schools, on the other hand, said that there were always a few teen moms in each year and that these girls sometimes brought their children to class.
“Yeah, you'll see 'em in the hallway, bouncing a baby on one hip and carrying textbooks in the other arm,” a friend told me.
All of the single mothers I knew in my dumpling days were mature divorcees. One such woman was the mother of a friend. When we were in 6th grade, he explained that he and his mother had to move in with his grandparents. Even though his mother had a full-time job as a librarian, her salary alone could not provide for both of them in suburban Washington. Since there weren't enough rooms in the house, my friend's grandparents put up bookshelves to divide the den. My friend slept in the blocked off corner. At first, his set-up sort of reminded me of The Boxcar Children, but as the weeks wore on, I saw that he was having anything but fun. Whenever his mother came to school, she looked exhausted.
Now that I'm an adult, I realize that just because I didn't see unwed mothers doesn't mean they weren't there. The same goes for the alcoholic and battered ones. And even though single motherhood is on the rise, societal perception has not caught up to societal reality. Some women choose to have a baby out of wedlock. Some of them have a partner, but they do not wish to marry. Some of them are financially capable of rearing a child on their own. In other words, babies born out of wedlock aren't always a “mistake.” Though deciding against helping a woman in need because she doesn't have a marriage certificate (or she does have a black eye or a drinking problem) is.
In donating some scarves, sweaters and jackets, I'm not hoping to save anyone because that's an unrealistic and narcissistic expectation. All I'm hoping to do is put a smile on a lady's face because she has something warm and pretty to wear this winter. To quote Bombshells against Bullying, “Girls compete with each other, women empower one another.”