I interviewed a group of very successful Black women in 40s and 50s and realized one trend among them: they were never married and none of them had children. Their careers were their lives and most seemed rather proud of that fact. It wasn’t until the third or fourth interview that I noticed the trend and found the courage to ask “why?”
“It just never happened for me,” my subject, who worked at the White House during Obama’s presidency, responded.
Her response really struck a chord with me, because I was frequently asked the same. When people ask me about whether or not I want to have children, the answer was often very short and quite simple: “no”.
“Why?” they questioned perplexed.
“I’m a career woman,” I responded.
That was the best response I could muster, because I know that for many, the real answer may fall far outside the realm of understanding. And perhaps I did not want to be as vulnerable, as my interviewee was when I inquired the same of her.
In truth, as a 26-year-old black woman, the institutionalized restrictions that have forced me to concede my very own reproductive rights cannot be simplified into a short conversation. Such restrictions are not singular and thus, an earnest response would require an effort on the part of the listener that I’ve learned not to expect.
However, I’m sometimes forced to concede to the truth. So why, don’t I want to have children? Well, as a college-educated black woman, I– like many other women in my position– often feel like I don’t have the right.
I am the third child of a hard-working single-parent, a Caribbean immigrant woman. She was employed as a live-in nanny for four years in New York City, before she was able to save up enough money to bring her children to America from her island home. For the duration of that time, the tenuous relationship between herself and her employers constantly bordered on abuse.
“I want you to vacuum the stairs,” one woman demanded as soon as my mother entered her home to begin her first job, “and when you are done, come meet the children.”
The blonde-haired woman in her mid-40s indignantly watched as my mother did the work, arms crossed and eyebrow raised. She didn’t hide the fact that she was in power and would wield that power to the detriment of her “help.”At that point, my mother was not yet used to such treatment. Within moments, she excused herself and walked out on the job.
She would find another job, but not the respect which she deserved. Back in her home country, Trinidad and Tobago, my mother attended a prestigious school. Her education there, combined with the prideful nationalism that she grew up with, always telling her to hold her head high, made her working circumstances in America practically unbearable. She was constantly dehumanized, relegated to a second-class citizenry, which was simply unbecoming. The dollars she collected were paid for with her dignity; she learned quickly that was the toll for passage into America for a black woman. But my mother was willing to pay it to ensure that her children would have better. That we would be comfortable. And most importantly, that we would be able to safeguard our own.
I now reap the benefit of that sacrifice. By the grace and perseverance of my mother, my siblings and I earned college degrees, becoming the first generation of college-educated people in our family. And because of that, I don’t need to get on my hands and knees to scrub someone else’s floor. I work at a desk in an office or at home.
Yet, I still occupy an inferior position in this society. One in which I must sacrifice my own fertility to enjoy regular comforts. The economic, social and political impacts of racism cannot be overcome in a single generation. That means that at any given moment, with any careless move, sickness, lapse in judgment or the birth of a child, all of the gains my mother sacrificed her humanity for could be lost.
There is a $100,000 median wealth gap between black households and white ones — a gap that has its roots in structural racism and the West’s history of slavery and colonialism. To further complicate matters, 70% of black families are headed by single-parent mothers. Typically, we have little finances. For the vast majority of the black community, we are poor and constantly on the verge of economic insolvency. No college education can immediately remedy that.
When I was 20, I read a book called Is Marriage For White People? In it, the circumstances of my female adulthood were laid out plainly: there is a shortage of marriageable black male partners. There’s clearly a numbers game and it’s rigged against me and all other women like me — especially those of us who have “bettered” our circumstances with education.
The reason for this? Partnerships outside of the black community are incredibly difficult to establish (many studies have found black women to be “the least desirable” in the dating market) and also riddled with insensitivity and the very racism that black women are constantly trying to escape. So our best choices lie within the black community, where 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated by 30 years of age and many more have been branded “felons” or have spent time behind bars. The high school graduation rate for black boys is about 50%. Most black men will be locked out of the labor market, leaving very few with the means to provide for a family. And to exacerbate these circumstances, black women are outpacing their male counterparts in both education and career advancement.
The relationship between black men and women is strained and broken by white supremacy. It is the decayed school system that failed those boys. The war on black people, disguised as a “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” has led to mass incarceration. For black women, a college degree cannot ameliorate the irreparable damage caused by these injustices. That paper makes us no less vulnerable.
Recently, my best friend told me she was pregnant. Only 24-years-old, she had already married the love of her life, finished college, purchased a new home and a car.
“I’m very lucky,” she said, explaining that her parents and her in-laws were both supportive and helpful.
They helped them put a down payment on a home, for example. And even though my girlfriend works incredibly hard, she knows she has people to turn to if anything serious happens.
Days before this friend was scheduled to deliver, she told me that her daughter had Downs Syndrome. “And she has fluids all over her body, so we aren’t sure what’s going to happen,” she said.
Anxiety came in waves for me as my best friend breathed through contractions and brought her first child into the world. A beautiful fighter, her baby girl battled for weeks for her life, before she was finally released to the care of her mother at home. My friend and her baby will undoubtedly face challenges — some of which may feel practically insurmountable — but she has the support structures that she needs to not only survive, but thrive. I expect that is precisely what she will do.
As I watched the emotional, psychological and financial hardships that she endured play out, I wondered: How would I have survived such circumstances?
Given the possibility that I find a suitable partner — which already stands against all odds — what would be the likelihood that his family could help us through hard times, since I already know mine cannot? Would they be able to provide us the financial support young people need to start a family, buy a house, and/or pay off student loan debt?
I am of the demographic who are shackled to the tortures of unending racism that has claimed an entire generation of the men with whom we were supposed to establish a life. The same racism that stole our homes, land — our wealth — while protected by legislation. The same racism that locks us out of high-paying positions because we are named “Lakisha.” Which takes the life of black women, men and children on a daily basis with no fear of consequence. Which refuses black children a decent education. The racism that forces us from our “hoods” turned first-class for people with a lighter pigmentation. The racism that will brand me a “welfare queen” in the event I need government assistance because these societal hardships are impossible to carry on a single shoulder or upon some illusory sheet of paper.
So that leaves me with an onerous task: My mother, one final burden to bear.
I must explain to her, and she must understand, the toll I am to pay America: Why racism has claimed my reproductive right to reproduce. And that I may very well have to sacrifice much of the comfort she fought to afford me if I am to reclaim that right.