In Praise of Single Mothers
At the bottom of a crowded subway stairwell one recent night, I got lodged behind a mother and her toddler-age son. She was bending down to level with him, his tiny primary-colored backpack slung over her left shoulder and a vinyl grocery tote in her right fist. The two were going over that night’s dinner plans.
“What are we having for dinner?” she asked, smiling at him and hardly paying attention to the bottleneck forming behind her.
“Pizza!” the boy babbled. A drop of spit pooled on his chin. I planned to duck to their left and scoot past them as soon as I reached the acceptable threshold of openly eavesdropping on a private family matter. The mother, sensing my desire to move, grabbed her son and picked him up, cradling him on her hip, the backpack dangling from her left shoulder. The grocery bag dragged in her right hand. The two marched heavily up the stairs, and with each step, she asked him, “What else?”
“Peas!” he yelled.
“And what else?”
“And what else?”
The mother and son were in happy bliss together, a little ritual so sweet that the boy was smiling coyly, perhaps an indicator that the what’s-for-dinner routine had happened on many other occasions and its mere kickstart ignited joy. As I made my way through the turnstile, I looked back at them. They were trudging slowly along, still playing, still laughing.
I spent a long time ruminating on that intimate moment between mother and son. Its simplicity and its sweetness felt poignant, far away, unaware of the endless challenges that come with parenting in an expensive and unforgiving metropolitan city. The mother and child looked out of place in the dungeonlike 14th-and-6th subway station, which was beginning to show signs of early summer heat and fatigue among its riders. Bodies orbited the pair in hurried, cheerless movements.
The moment reminded me of a recent Onion headline I’d seen—“Parents of Crying Child Must Not Be Any Good.” New York is often hell enough for grown adults to have to navigate, let alone mothers traversing the city with small children tugging at their hips, their own concerns completely submerged beneath layers of worry and stress in favor of their kids. Subway riders, restaurant patrons, and simple bystanders (myself included, I am not innocent) express irritation when mothers publicly scold their children, or when their children loudly wail with no intention of ceasing. There is a tacit understanding in New York that if what one person is doing is audibly affecting another’s ability to feel Zen, they must immediately be notified by the exasperated faces of surrounding New Yorkers.
Knowing that I have been overly critical of mothers in public rattles me. I was raised by a single mother (though not in a major city). I was often unforgiving and cruel to her when she likely needed it least. My brother and I bickered like awful little kids, another thorn in her side when we should have been a united front. We asked for too much; we barely listened; we were openly critical of her choices. I don’t doubt we were brazen enough to do these things in public, on top of it all. Mothering—not astrophysics, not medicine, not law, not academia—is an insane occupation. Mothers get nothing from the world. Why would anyone be a mother, I often think in our achievement-obsessed time. You’ve never seen a New Yorker profile on the best mother, the most fascinating mother. Maybe it’s easier just to skip it? But when I saw the woman happily chattering with her son, I felt relieved that at least she could publicly feel love from her offspring. In that brief moment, being a mother looked easy, rewarding even.
I’d been wondering, as I do every year when Mother’s Day comes around, how to give a gift to my mother that accurately represents my gratitude for her years as a single parent of two incorrigible and unaware children. Flowers never seem like enough. Jewelry doesn’t say anything. And when I ask her, as my mother is wont to do, she always says, “Please don’t get me anything.” This last option always seems saddest but best. How can you give your mother the world that she deserves?
In 2007, just as Kanye West had put out his second album and was on his way to unimaginable success, his mother, Donda, published something of a memoir. Raising Kanye, which was cowritten with Karen Hunter and bears the tagline, “Life lessons from the mother of a hip-hop superstar,” was given to me as a joke. At the time, I was deeply obsessed with Kanye and anything about him that might reveal his true character. On the back of my hardcover copy, stamped above the barcode, it is categorized as “Inspirational.”
Donda, who died from surgical complications just months after the book was published, came up in conversation recently. I was reminded that I had the book in my possession. Considering who Kanye has become, it’s an interesting (and mostly forgotten) token in the artist’s legacy, especially now, when he is as ubiquitous and lauded as his eternally young wife, Kim Kardashian. Though I’d never read Raising Kanye when it was first given to me, I decided to crack it open last month as a companion to my “reading” of Kardashian’s first book, Selfish. The printed word, according to the West family. Why not?
Raising Kanye, on a critical level, is not perfect. It’s often redundant, generalizes too broadly, and with all respect to the dead, is not especially challenging. As a fervent Kanye fan, I was initially against it: it seemed like the relationship Kanye and Donda had was a little too intense, a little too close, and it was easy to see how Kanye grew up to be the person he is. Donda was indulgent of him, at least from how she tells it. Don’t forget that Kanye was an only child. Only children typically grow up to be monsters.
That assessment aside, there was a subtext to the book that became clearer as I neared its end. Raising Kanye would not have sold any copies if it were a book written by a single woman raising a normal child. Society tells us not to care or make special allowances for women who fulfill the role that they have signed up for. There is supposedly nothing notable or interesting about a mother’s ability to successfully and thoughtfully bring up a son by herself, especially if that child grows up to be an average adult. Why bother keeping record of those experiences? Mothers, despite being essential to the proliferation of the entire human race, are not considered spectacular enough to be remembered for being simply that: mothers.
But here, because Kanye turned out to be a megasuperstar, a book deal was signed. The book frequently touches on Donda’s struggles with and ideas about being a single mother:
It’s not easy being a single woman with a child. You have needs and desires. You want to date and enjoy the company of the opposite sex because after all, you’re human. But your child must come first. You cannot have a revolving door of “uncles” and friends coming in and out of your child’s life.
I bristled there, and at other moments throughout the book that read similarly. The overwhelming narrative of Donda’s story felt like a conversation of simultaneous guilt and confidence—acceptance and denial—about her parenting. I hadn’t expected this. Her honesty was refreshing.
I thank God that I changed my mind about having a child. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without him. Not because he happens to be Kanye West, but because being a mother is for me by far the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. Besides life itself, raising Kanye was my greatest blessing. He has brought so much to my life and taught me so much about myself.
Declarations like these are common in the book. They’re sweet, sometimes unbearably so, especially when one remembers the pain Kanye outwardly expressed after his mother’s death.
But it’s really the relationship that Kanye and Donda had, an unbreakable bond between a single mother and her only son, that is the book’s highlight. It celebrates, so wonderfully, how the pair saw each other:
If you get too much love, maybe you’ll be called a mama’s boy. But that isn’t the worst thing in the world, is it?
Kanye has never been shy about admitting his love for his mother, a fact that he has not been de-masculated for, one presumes, because he is so talented. On “Hey Mama,” Kanye raps, “You never put no man over me / and I love you for that, mommy, can’t you see?” This line, as well as lines on “Only One,” and Kanye’s naming his company Donda, are returns on Donda’s investment in him. Surely, she was very proud of his success.
But it is Kanye, not Donda, who gets the credit. As is detailed in Raising Kanye, Donda set everything up for her son to be the best, and sacrificed much herself in order to ensure it. How would we feel if Donda had instead put her needs first? The Reviled Mother is often a character in many artist’s creative work, a trope that has elevated Eminem among others, and to which we react with both vindication and rejection. Aren’t mothers allowed to have a life for themselves? Just as fathers can?
Purely by coincidence, the book I’d read prior to Raising Kanye was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, a novel by the pseudonymous Italian author about a woman, Olga, whose husband leaves her for another, much younger woman, and who is then left to be alone with her two children as she falls into delusional despair. Ferrante, who my colleague Jia Tolentino wrote about beautifully for Jezebel at the end of last year, writes from a female perspective that shoves uncomfortable feminine realities to the fore.
Here, Olga’s young daughter surprises her mother by dressing in her high heels, putting on layers of makeup, and a blonde wig. Olga insists, despairing even more for her daughter after the betrayal of her husband, that they must take it all off:
I opened the door of the bathroom, and avoiding the mirror, dragged the child over to the bathtub that was full to the brim. With one hand I held Ilaria by the head and immersed her in the water, while with the other I rubbed her face energetically. Reality, reality, without rouge. I needed this, for now, if i wanted to save myself, save my children, the dog. To insist, that is, on assigning myself the job of savior.
The Days of Abandonment’s Olga comes off as abrasive and selfish in how she handles her children. She breaks so easily and becomes so far gone that she lets the dog die, allows her son to get sick, acts irresponsibly and irrationally, losing a bit more of herself each day. Donda West, on the other hand, put Kanye’s needs so far ahead of hers that to imagine her thinking of anything but parenting and parenting well would be difficult. Both are instances of single mothers doing what they can, with the circumstances they have been given. Circumstances in which one half of the equation—the men, the fathers—had taken off, a far more selfish action than anything these mothers have done in regards to their children. But mothers do what they are expected to do, what culture insists: they stay. In 2013, 77% of single parents in the United States were mothers.
With Olga, we learn the danger of seeing a woman just as a mother, and not as her own person—someone who must not only learn to parent alone, but to be alone, and to thrive at it all.
We don’t have very many videos from my childhood, I assume because we made a big move when I was a kid and left a lot of stuff behind. A few years ago, I got the opportunity to watch footage from my older brother’s six or seventh birthday party, which we held at my mom’s best friend’s house, another single parent with two kids who were our age. A friend of my mom’s was filming the kids’ shenanigans, capturing us jumping up and down, screaming, and pouring Smarties down our throats. At one point, my mom and her friend are in clear view on camera, and the friend asks how they’re doing.
My mother shrugs, she’s holding a glass of white wine, and her friend and she look at each other, exasperated. My mom raises her glass, tipping her head thankfully toward it, and walks off screen. Watching it was the first time I really felt for her, or understood what it meant to be alone in the decision to raise your children, to know what those birthday parties meant to us and how she put them together without complaint. She looked tired in the shot—one more event with screaming kids that she’d have to tolerate—and I realized that she was doing the work of four people, almost completely alone.
The hardworking single mother trope is now a tired cliché. The mother is exhausted, she has sweat beads dripping from her forehead. She wants to meet a man, but can’t find a babysitter. She’s harried and working two jobs and frequently, she is an incompetent parent who can’t give everything to her kids. Her poor kids, we think, even though they are bratty and mercurial and cruel. The cliché has led us to heap blame for her children’s sadness entirely on the mother, even though she is doing all she can. The single mother, despite how hard she works, inevitably always shoulders the blame.
This cliché is exhausting, not only I imagine to the single mothers who see it time and time again, but to the children who respect the single women who raised them. I can’t imagine Kanye West thinking of his mother in this condescending or exhausted way. He worshipped her. Inversely, the way Ferrante paints Olga reminds us that imperfection is also allowed, and autonomy, especially from men, is encouraged. Mothers are human women, after all. From being alone, Olga emerges better and stronger than before. She is independent—albeit hardened—and in control.
In our culture, we want mothers to be everything: good wives, strong role models, educators, friends, and empathetic listeners. We want mothers to shed their former selves in order to carry on the role of inspiring their children to be something. We want mothers to be intelligent but compassionate; generous but self-aware; at work but at home, all at once. That responsibility is difficult enough to bear when there is another warm body willing to step into a parental role beside them.
But when there is an absence—when it is just the single mother being asked to fill in for an entire child’s life, to rise to the occasion, to do the birthday parties and the rides to school and the homework help—the strain is enormous. I am thankful to my mother for doing it. I am in awe of my best friend for succeeding at it. And I am empowered to know it is possible if I want it, too.
Image via Getty. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.