Growing up, I pictured what my life would be like when I got older: I’d be married, well traveled, degreed, and have a banging career, a sexy husband, and two adorable kids. Basically, I’d be the 21st century Clair Huxtable. I carried these dreams in my head throughout my childhood, into high school, and tucked them into my back pocket during college. Even though I was a girl from South Central Los Angeles, I never doubted that I’d reach my goals.
And then it happened.
In January of 2005 I found myself downsized from my job, a semester away from completing my MFA, and pregnant.
Being a single mom was never an option for me. Even though I was in a committed relationship, my mother always raised me to wait until I was married to have sex, let alone make some babies. So when the pink lines materialized on the EPT test, and confirmed what I feared, I was shook.
It took me two months to decide what I was even going to do. I thought about abortion, not because I wanted to have one, but because I was scared to face up to being a “failure.” You see, I was always the good girl. The girl who kept her skirt down and her grades up. I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college, and was the first, period, to be working towards a graduate degree. I could see the flicker in my parents’ eyes when they told people their daughter was all the way in New York City getting her Masters degree. Could hear their pride oozing through the phone when they asked about school and the city. So telling my mother her little lady messed up was like admitting I was a fraud.
Recalling those feelings, the pain of letting my parents, especially my mother, down is still palpable. But in the end, I womaned up and told my family that I was pregnant. I was 24 and still cared as much about what my parents thought as when I was 12.
Last year, as I spoke to one of my eighth-grade students about telling his mother he had fathered a child, all of those feelings—being scared, worried about what my parents would say, unsure of how I’d raise a baby—came rushing back. While I totally understood his hesitance to tell his mother about his newborn son, I also told him that having a Maury moment on his front lawn wasn’t a good look either. Moreover, I reminded him that if he wanted to break the cycle of fatherlessness (he admitted on many occasions he hated his absent father), then he’d need his mother’s guidance and support.
The narrative about Black single mothers rarely sounds like mine, although my story is certainly not unique. When the discussion happens about Black women and the out of wedlock birthrate it usually ranges somewhere between, “Black women need to keep their legs shut!” and “Black women need to pick better men!” Either way it comes down to one thing: it’s all our fault.
But clearly, it isn’t.
To quote the old cliché, it takes two to tango. And when a woman gets pregnant—unless she stopped by a sperm bank on the way home from work—there was a man involved.
Whether the man is trifling, upstanding, still around, or breaks out once she tells him the news, he was/is there, and we need to stop pretending that women—especially Black women—find themselves in the difficult role of being a single mom all on their own.
Working with teenagers affords me the unique opportunity to not only catch a glimpse at how the younger generation thinks and feels, but also impart some of my well-worn wisdom. Because I’m not that much older than many of my students, we are able to have difficult (and frank) conversations about their lives. And one thing I’ve learned is that many parents are not having “The Talk” with their kids.
Unlike many of my students’ parents, my mother made sure we had “The Talk,” and in fact, we had them almost weekly. Even though I was always super embarrassed to discuss sex with my extremely religious mother, her advice, lessons, and words of wisdom definitely had an impact on my life. Despite having a baby before I was really ready, the truth is, I was grown.
While many of my peers lost their virginity before we picked our Junior Prom dresses, mine was intact well into my college years. Even though I tossed out the idea of waiting until I was married, I did vow that I’d wait until I was fully comfortable and in love. And that’s what I did.
For many young people today, the idea of waiting until you’re in love or married is just not apart of the equation. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve overheard with my male students when one of them has been chastised for still being a virgin or not yet receiving oral sex from a girl (at 14!). While many people still expect young women to be the gatekeepers of “No,” and not engage in sexual activity with young men, young boys are being encouraged and egged on to explore their sexuality.
And that right there is a recipe for disaster.
Shaming young women who think about or have sex, while high-fiving young men who “score” should be played out like Jeri curls and Eight-track players. Both teenage boys and girls need be taught that they are more than their bodies, and that unless they are ready to deal with all of the ramifications of sex—diseases, babies, emotional baggage—then they should stick to the DIY method of getting it on.
Did you have “The Talk” growing up? If not, how did you lean about sex?