A few days ago, I covered a story about a sister in Atlanta who had been paying rent every month to some scam artist who didn’t really own the property she’d been living on with her children — her 12 children — and as a result of that wickedness, she and her family were cowering under the inevitability of eviction and homelessness. It’s a situation that should illicit some level of disgust, maybe even outrage, especially considering the state was sniffing around for a reason to red flag her incompetence and wrangle her kids into foster care.

But a quick scroll through the comments section glazed over the preposterousness of the fraud and focused on another thing: the fact that she had birthed a dozen babies. How ghetto she is. How irresponsible her decision-making has been. How she’s a stereotype, a shame, and, basically, a bad representation of black womanhood. Now I’ll be the first to say that more kids than you can count on two hands is a whole lot of baby-makin’. But I thought, man oh man! Tough bunch. Not to be outdone here, on our very own pages of Clutch, a writer posted a piece about Nia Long’s cover story in the latest issue of Essence and the crowd proceeded to go wild, tossing judgments with devil-may-care abandon about women who bear children without being married.

The ubiquitous single mother took a serious licking that day because, according to readers, she should be wise enough to put her hand out for a ring before she pries her legs open to conceive. We (yes we, because I’m one in that number) got an eyeful of comments from the peanut gallery that let us know about ourselves, raw and uncut. I actually agree that single parenthood sucks and definitely shouldn’t be an intentional move (though Nia Long is a single woman who is co-parenting, which is a whole other animal than having to run her child-rearing operation solo). But more telling than splitting hairs about birth control oversights, I think, is the lack of empathy for other black women’s experiences, to the point where the conversations about each other cease to be constructive and start to be downright sadiddy.

There’s been a string of instances, as a matter of fact, that hint at a growing insensitivity for each other’s  life walks. Maybe education is partly to blame; the divide between the haves and the have-nots is highlighted when you throw a little college in there and the at least middle-class lifestyle that usually comes with it. The opportunity for higher learning and self-improvement may just have made us into cultural snobs, even as we lob barbs against folks from the same darn culture. There’s a prevailing “us” and “them” mentality that gives ladies who fancy themselves to be more refined carte blanche to build a pedestal and stand on it so they can cast downward glances at the women on the other side in the ’hood. It’s happening a lot. Classism is putting our sense of sisterhood in a choke hold.

Lord in heaven knows I would never want to have half a dozen children, much less a full one. Janelle loves the kids and all, but my goodness, that’s a lot of work and a lot of money and a lot of stretch marks and morning sickness and uncomfortable nights of sleep. That said, though, I also know there are dynamics at play that make women who’ve grown up in different sets of circumstances more likely to have a string of babies by a string of different baby daddies the norm. It’s not always low-income residents or women who live in the ’hood. Not always, but often. That’s because there are prevalent patterns at play that put themselves on repeat in certain communities. We all know that. It’s not happenstance that there are consistent outbreaks of the same social pariahs in some neighborhoods than there are in others.

And while many of us have broken free of them to change our mindsets and carve out a better way, there are plenty of others still engulfed in the rote mistakes that keep them in bondage, even if they don’t realize they’re caught up in a cycle. If all you see is broken relationships and babies born out of wedlock, it’s not a big deal to continue the pattern. It’s a norm. Add in the fact that many of us struggle with low self-esteem on some level — not just low-income women, but all women — but many don’t have access to the resources to improve it, and a mother with 12 kids and maybe even 12 fathers for those 12 kids shouldn’t be a shock. Or a reason to judge.

All I’m saying is this: Have some empathy and solidarity for sisters. All sisters. Poor sisters. Rich sisters. Sisters with 12 kids. Sisters who don’t want kids at all. Sisters who make six figures. Sisters who pull out their EBT cards at the grocery store. There is value in each one of our stories, across class lines, and opportunities to learn and grow from everyone, not just the ladies who walk a similar walk. Society has already pigeonholed us into a tiny corner of valuation, where we’re only relevant if we’re cutting up on a reality TV show or shaking it fast on a video set. The last thing we need, en masse, is to build a hierarchy for ourselves.

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