As a single mother of two boys, we have serious work to do in the Black community and there are some very deep wounds festering among us. I sense hurt, resignation, resentment, anger, confusion, and emotional fatigue.
Though we may disagree on root causes and solutions, I believe there’s one thing we should all be able to admit: single parenting and the attendant and antecedent dynamics are longstanding and complex, especially as they relate to relational issues between Black men and women. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do think I have at least some level of understanding of these issues, and a degree of empathy for both sides. So in that spirit I offer some words to us all.
It’s futile to attempt to dialogue on the issue of single mothers, their children, and the men who fathered those children, without speaking truth into the situation. So from that point I begin.
Some Hard Truths
1. Strictly speaking, mothers are not fathers. This is true whether the parents are married and raising a child together, or separated. The truth of this statement lies not only in function, but in form. To insist that somehow mothers can be fathers is to ignore some very basic realities.
Fatherhood, like motherhood, originates and is defined not just by what a parent does, but also by who the parent is. So then, gender is a foundational underpinning of parenthood. Men are fathers; women are mothers. Acknowledging this truth in no way minimizes or detracts from the unavoidable reality that there are some women who do things that we would traditionally associate with a male role in a child’s life, just as there are some men who perform some of the actions associated with a female role.
But there’s more to parenthood roles than what we do; indeed what we do, and how we do it, is bound to be influenced by who we are. For example, I can teach my son to shave or tie a tie. I can show him a razor, explain how to put the shaving cream on his face, what to do if he nicks himself, etc. I can cover all the technicalities of the process. His father can explain those same things to him, using exactly the same words I use. But it’s not just about the mechanical process; it’s equally about the nuances that come out while father and son are going through this ritual. His father can tell him about the first time he shaved, who helped him learn how to do it, how it feels to get razor bumps. As a man, his father can help our son identify as a man who now does things that other men do. These are things that as a woman, and by virtue of the fact that I am a woman, I simply cannot do. We desperately need to come to terms with this because as long as we resist this truth, we perpetuate a number of undesirable consequences. These are just a few of those consequences:
• We short-circuit the identity formation and development of our children. It’s important for kids to understand how men and women function differently in families and in society.
• We potentially rob fathers of the opportunity to fully grow and develop in their role. Sometimes all a man needs to step up is for the mother to step back … even just a bit will often be enough.
• As women, we overtax ourselves trying to fill roles we weren’t designed to operate in. If we are indeed the only parent in our child’s life, then of course there are actions we must do. But we can do them while acknowledging that as a woman, there will be something missing because we are not a man.
• Sometimes people and resources that could fill some gaps in our child’s life go untapped because we believe that we are indeed mother and father. Simply put, we don’t look for what we feel we haven’t lost.
2. Mothers and fathers both need to determine if they’re really putting the needs of their children first. I know this one is challenging. So much hurt and pain often passes between parents that our emotional baggage piles up on our sons and daughters, and we often don’t realize what’s happening. When fathers are absent or uninvolved, it causes an incredible strain on everyone involved, including grandparents, siblings, and other extended family members.
But the strain is equally damaging when mothers are hostile, resistant, or overstressed. Let’s commit to being better parents. We must ask ourselves some tough questions, for example:
• Am I willing to let the other parent perform his/her role in the way he/she wants to and is able to? Or do I insist that my child’s father/mother parent like I do?
• Do I pray for my child’s mother/father, that they will be the parent my child needs? Or have I made it difficult to pray because I have unresolved issues that I can’t let go of?
• Do I consistently support the other parent’s efforts, no matter how small I think they are? Or do I instead focus on what I believe the other parent leaves undone?
• Do I make every reasonable effort to overcome obstacles that challenge me as I try to be a good parent? Or am I making excuses for why I’m not taking care of business?
• Do I accept constructive criticism and feedback from the other parent on how I could make our relationship and interactions as parents healthier, and then work diligently, and without resentment, to address those issues? Or am I more interested in being right and winning arguments?
• Do I have a martyr complex? Do I find reasons to refuse help so that my child will see me as the better, more committed parent, and therefore shower more love on me? Or am I actively seeking the other parent’s input and suggestions with a true intention to work with him/her?
Pray, Think, Talk
There are, of course, many more questions that will give us insight on the position of our hearts. But the ones shared here can at least get us started on a road that leads to more transparent, effective parenting. In a future column, I’ll outline some additional ideas to keep the conversation going.
So, what do you think?
Do me a favor. Read this article all the way through, and then put it aside for 24 hours. During that time, pray about what you’ve read and how you feel about it. Ask the Lord to give you insight on what applies to you and what He wants you to do about it. Then read the article again. Please share your thoughts by commenting at any point in this process.
Like roughly a quarter of Haiti’s children, 11-year-old Franchina has spent much of her short life without parents.
Her mother dead, her father in prison, Franchina was placed in a state-run orphanage as a toddler, remaining illiterate year after year and seemingly destined for a hard life in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
But this year, Franchina’s fortunes took a hopeful turn.
She has benefited from the newfound resolution of Haiti’s government to improve the deplorable status of the country’s children, and more specifically from a partnership between the state child welfare agency and several international child-service organizations.
In a country and region with no tradition of formal foster-care systems, they are recruiting and training Haitians who buy into the idea that being a foster parent is a noble mission.
“There’s a certain satisfaction to it,” said Jeannes Pierre, 61, a Baptist pastor in Port-au-Prince who is now Franchina’s foster father. “It’s doing something extraordinary.”
In her orphanage, Franchina shared a bunkroom with many other children. Now she has a bedroom to herself, small and simple but enlivened by a colorful stack of books. To her delight, her foster parents taught her how to read within weeks of her arrival.
“It’s like removing the darkness from the eyes of a child,” Pierre said.
The Pierres do not know how long Franchina will be with them. “We want to keep her as long as possible,” Pierre said. And Franchina, it seems, would agree.
Asked what she likes best about her new life, at first she was too shy to respond.
Many of Haiti’s youths live on the streets; hundreds of thousands are domestic workers in other families’ homes. Franchina was among the 30,000 or so consigned to orphanage-like institutions ranging in quality from adequate to abominable.
By itself, foster care won’t come close to resolving the plight of Haiti’s children. Long-term solutions are needed that for now are beyond the government’s financial reach — notably, better educational opportunities and social supports so poor families don’t feel compelled to place their children in orphanages or domestic servitude in the first place.
But the new program is cited by Haitian and foreign experts as evidence of the government’s determination to modernize and strengthen an array of child-oriented policies and practices — and lessen reliance on foreign-based charities and mission groups.
“There’s no magic bullet, no one solution,” said Marc Vincent, who heads UNICEF’s operations in Haiti. “But it’s important to recognize the steps the government is taking — it is passionate about making things better.”
Some of the changes derive from the island’s devastating 2010 earthquake, which fueled a surge of international adoptions, primarily to the United States. Some Haitian children were airlifted to the U.S. even though they were not approved for adoption; an Idaho church group leader was convicted of arranging illegal travel after trying to take other children out of Haiti without government approval.
Such incidents prompted Haitian authorities to sign an international convention setting ethical standards for international adoptions. Regulations were tightened and the number of international adoptions from Haiti fell sharply, from more than 1,300 a year to around 300 or 400.
The child welfare agency — known by its French initials, IBESR — also is trying to beef up oversight of Haiti’s roughly 750 orphanages. Most are privately run and financed, operating with little or no government regulation to rein in abuse and neglect.
Thus far, just a few of the orphanages have been shut down, but IBESR officials say about 400 are targeted for closure unless they meet a deadline for swift improvements. Large-scale closures will increase pressure on the government to reunify affected children with their biological parents, and to find foster homes when reunification proves impossible.
“We can’t go on placing kids in institutions,” said Vanel Benjamin, IBESR’s foster-care coordinator. “The answer is family.”
UNICEF estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the children in orphanages have one or two living parents. Lumos, the nonprofit founded by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, is among several groups seeking to reunite some of those children with their biological families, but the work is slow and the orphanage operators — often recipients of donations from well-meaning foreigners — are not always cooperative.
“They don’t want to change,” said Eugene Guillaume, the Haiti program manager for Lumos. “Orphanages are their business.”
Even at competently run orphanages accredited by IBESR, heartbreak is the norm, as Dallye Telemaque Bernard, director of the Nest of Hope home in Port-au-Prince, makes all too clear.
She oversees the care of about 50 children, ranging in ages from 5 months to 13 years. Some are brought in by government social workers, or by police who find them in the streets. But most are dropped off by their impoverished parents.
“Some children come here very sick, from families in very bad economic situations,” said Bernard. “Ideally, there should be a program to help the children stay with their own families, but there isn’t.”
Sections of her orphanage are cheerful, including a courtyard where children take art classes around brightly colored plastic tables. But the upstairs bedrooms, with sets of four or five bunk beds lining the walls, are spartan — including one bedroom set aside for infants.
Bernard said the babies generally arrive from Port-au-Prince’s largest shantytown, Cite Soleil, dropped off by heartbroken mothers.
“It’s difficult for them,” she said. “But they don’t have a choice.”
Over the years, the goal for most children at the orphanage has been to arrange their adoption by families in Europe or North America. On a bulletin board in the entryway, there are photos of children posing with their adoptive families in France, Canada and elsewhere.
With Haiti now cutting back on such adoptions, Bernard wishes there were ways to reunify more children with their biological families — and she’s also intrigued by the new foster-care program.
One recent visitor was a 23-year-old woman from Cite Soleil who had placed her son in the orphanage six years ago, when he was 2. He was adopted by a family in France last year, and the mother, Kenia Tunis, came by to see some photographs of her son sent to Haiti by his new family.
Tunis began to cry as she told her story, glancing at the photographs. Someday, she said, she hoped she might see her son again in person.
Would she have preferred him to be adopted by a Haitian family? She chose not to reply.
The foster-care program began three years ago in Port-au-Prince and the southern city of Les Cayes. This month, at a modest resort hotel, about 100 government officials and social-service providers gathered to extend the program into the northern region around the city of Cap Haitien.
“Today is a day of victory,” declared Antonio Jean Louis of Children of the Promise, a Christian-oriented mission. “There’s now an option besides international adoption.”
Among the attendees was IBESR’s Vanel Benjamin, who said the program will keep expanding to other regions of Haiti, with a goal of having 200 foster families accredited by the end of this year.
International adoption “should be the last resort,” he said. “Foster care is a better alternative.”
In the United States, there’s a constant struggle to recruit foster parents even though they’re generally paid many hundreds of dollars a month. In Haiti, the plan is to build a foster care system exclusively with parents willing to take on the task at their own expense.
One of the groups recruiting and training foster parents is Bethany Christian Services, which for decades has been a leading adoption agency in the United States. Recently, it has helped countries such as Ethiopia and Haiti develop their own foster-care systems.
Bethany’s recruiting in Haiti focuses on a network of Protestant churches where pastors extol foster-parenting as a Christian act of love.
“People in the churches have responded positively even if they don’t have a lot of financial resources,” said Vijonet Demero, head of Bethany’s Haiti operations. “For them, it’s a calling, not a job.”
Jeannes Pierre and his wife Nelia have an adult daughter who recently became a physician. Over the years, they have provided a temporary home to other children on an informal basis. Never had they received the type of formal training that was required to become foster parents.
As the foster-care program took shape, some advocates for children expressed concerns related to Haiti’s huge population of child domestic workers. UNICEF estimates that roughly 400,000 children — called “restaveks” by many Haitians — live away from their parents in households where they’re expected to perform work on a regular basis in return for lodging and food.
Some of these children are treated well and included in the family life of the home; others suffer various forms of abuse, prompting some advocacy groups to depict such arrangements as “child slavery.”
Aspiring foster parents are screened to ensure they’re psychologically and economically capable of caring for foster children without exploiting them. Demero said the foster families recruited by Bethany are visited at least every three months — and in some cases every week — by social workers from Bethany or IBESR.
Terre des Hommes, a Swiss-based nonprofit also working on the foster-care program, said the lack of payment to the foster parents complicates recruitment efforts but serves as a deterrent to families who otherwise might sign up for financial gain.
Even in the absence of regular payments, foster families can be provided with emergency funds to meet medical needs or cover the costs of school uniforms and supplies.
Among the earliest batch of new foster parents were Ezekial Isme, 32, and his wife, Guerna, who heard about the program at their Port-au-Prince church, where Vijonet Demero is pastor.
“Our hearts were opened,” said Ezekial Isme, who teaches at a church-run school.
Two and a half years ago, when the Ismes took in a girl from a troubled orphanage being closed by the government, they had no children of their own. They now have two sons, 1 and 2 years old, along with Michelene, who’s now 10.
According to Isme, Michelene was 3 when her parents gave her to the orphanage. She was the youngest of her family’s nine children.
When Michelene arrived in her new foster home, she was very withdrawn and had a bothersome skin disease. With attentive care, she’s healthy now, and doing well at school, although still not up to the normal grade level for her age.
The Ismes would be willing to adopt Michelene, but don’t know if or when the government would allow that sometimes difficult process to begin.
“She’s our girl — she feels at home with us,” Isme said. “Our hearts have already adopted her.”
African-Australians protesting what they perceive as biased media coverage outside the Channel 7 studios in Melbourne last weekend. Ellen Smith/AAP
Just before Channel 7 aired a Sunday Night special devoted to Melbourne’s “African gangs” problem earlier this month, the race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, went on Twitter to criticize a promotion spot as “fear-mongering and racial hysteria”.
The same could be said of a string of stories in the Australian media in recent months on violent incidents committed by “African gangs” or people of “African appearance”. The death of a 19-year-old Sudanese woman at a party in Melbourne earlier this month was linked in some reports with gang violence – something Victorian police ruled out. Even a gate-crashing incident at a teenager’s birthday party this week was deemed a news story of national importance by The Australian due to the culprits’ racial identity.
Such media coverage is, sadly, something African-Australians have been exposed to before – it seems to have popped up regularly in some form over the past ten years, at least. Before this, it was the Lebanese who were said to be forming menacing gangs, and before them, the Vietnamese and the Italians. The Australian media have a poor record in dealing with difference and diversity.
The central issue here is not that violent incidents are being covered – it’s the media’s duty to report on issues of public safety. The problem is the disproportionate amount of attention focused on the so-called African gang problem in Melbourne and the way these incidents are being discussed.
Among the universe of labels available to describe these crime incidents in Melbourne, the media have, predictably, fallen back on the familiar ground of racial or national identity. Seemingly unconcerned with the great diversity that defines Africa, the label “African gangs” has become lazy shorthand for anyone of African descent. One wonders whether a white person from Africa would be included under this “African gangs” umbrella.
One of the questions many migrants have is why their nationality, race and cultural background has become such a defining feature in crime coverage when the whiteness of other criminal offenders is essentially ignored and rendered invisible.
As Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton perhaps inadvertently suggested last week when he railed against “a major law and order problem in Victoria” that wasn’t happening elsewhere, why haven’t the media blamed these incidents on “Melbourne gangs”?
Or, while we’re at it, why not call them “male gangs” or, as has sometimes been used in an attempt to include non-black offenders, “youth gangs”?
Of course, none of this would improve the media coverage of the recent Melbourne violence. These labels are just as useless in describing the complex mixture of social, cultural and economic factors behind these offences as a focus on racial identity. As the Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane has said, there’s not even consensus on whether “gangs” have been involved at all.
But at least these alternative labels would carry less of the injurious baggage that racial labels do.
Race equals identity
Not only do racial labels implicate all Africans in violent crime, they also keep alive that most pernicious of links between race and behaviour. If the race of offenders is the only part of their identity worth mentioning in news reports, then it stands to reason this has a causal link with their behaviour. Other complex factors that contribute to crime get ignored.
Journalists may argue that in the rush of their overworked lives, they seldom have the time to explore these types of stories in more depth. They certainly don’t have time to gather information on the offenders’ upbringing, background, education, socioeconomic status and their past experiences with violence and injustice – perceived or otherwise.
But why then consistently fall back on race and nationality? Perhaps it is something about these young offenders’ backgrounds – a source of “cultural incompatibility”, in the language of soft racism. But many of these offenders are legally Australian. Many were likely born in Australia or spent their formative years in Australia.
The damage caused by all of this is real, and the fact that politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, are buying into such narratives is a point of anxiety for Australians with African heritage.
This type of bias has been shown to have negative impacts on the wellbeing and sense of belonging of African-Australians.
Indeed, some Sudanese-Australians now live in fear of racially charged attacks due to the overwhelmingly negative media coverage. As one 19-year-old African-Australian put it at a rally outside Channel 7 last weekend:
The damage that it’s doing to our community is inconceivable. I want the wider Australian community to see the pain we are going through, and understand the pain. All we want is a fair go in this society. To show who we are as people and … not lazy journalism.
It seems inevitable this sort of media coverage will continue – it has a long history. It is also not simply the fault of individual journalists, many of whom are hard-working, intelligent and conscientious. Rather, it is the result of far more entrenched attitudes toward race in Australia, one that involves objectified notions of racial or cultural hierarchies and a newly reinvigorated politics of fear of migrants.
As researchers at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural in the UK pointed out 40 years ago, journalists do not sit outside their cultural and political contexts, but often reflect and reinforce them.
One way of changing the narrative is through social media, community media and ethnic minority media. Whether it be the subversion of the “African gangs” problem on Twitter, or in the media produced by people of African heritage, alternative interpretations do exist.
It’s also incumbent on mainstream media to give a voice to those in the African community who feel impacted by biased reporting. Some news outlets are doing this. But it’s equally important these media organisations take a hard look at their coverage of these issues and the power of the words they use. Media are not the cause of racism, but they do have the power to shift public attitudes and increase understanding in society.