All our readers of a certain age will remember the tune written by Mac Davis and made famous by Elvis Presley, In the Ghetto. But not many of you will know it was originally titled The Vicious Circle. It comes to mind today because of a letter to the editor in Monday’s paper that entreated, “It’s time for parents to be parents.”
The letter, not unfairly, blames part of the breakdown in the society on those who abdicate their responsibility to their children on the grounds that they are “single parents.” And, not to let men off the hook (never!), but because most of those owning this label today are women, well, our attention was piqued.
It would be easy to become defensive and feel oneself martyred reading the letter; but if that is the only response single-parent women feel, then we would have missed the greater message. For much of what the letter writer says is true, especially the fact that single parenthood is a decision. There are thousands and thousands of us in this country who, in the face of all the reasons we should not have, blithely went about making the choice to have children that we could not afford, could not accommodate, and, in some extreme cases, could not even love.
And not always, by far, but in too many instances, the upshot of our careless and selfish decisions grow up to be somebody else’s headache, heartache, and heartbreak.
It has become almost a knee-jerk reaction to pity the mother struggling alone with the child or children; the woman juggling two and three jobs, or two and three men, to make ends meet; the sister who never has, or never has enough, to get done all that needs to be done in the absence of a husband or a father (or fathers) for her offspring. We denigrate the man who won’t take care of business, who doesn’t support his children, who “throw water” or “fling seed” and takes off. But, again, too often, we leave the woman out of the equation entirely, never stopping to ask her, “But, Sister, what were you thinking? Is that the kind of man you want as a father to your children?”
It is instructive to note the opening words of the song: “On a cold and gray Chicago morn, a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto … and his momma cries.” There’s never a mention, not one, throughout the entire song, of a father – either crying along or exulting. Instead we see a hungry little boy with a runny nose playing in the street as the cold wind blows. And as he grows, this hunger turns inward into an anger that sees him, first, roaming the streets at night, then learning to steal and learning to fight.
There is only one way that story can end … at the beginning. For as that angry young man, face down in the street with a gun in his hand dies – and his mama cries – yet another little baby child is being born to a crying mother, and the vicious circle continues.
The object lesson of all this comes in the middle, however, when the songwriter asks: “People, don’t you understand? A child needs a helping hand, or he’ll grow to be an angry young man someday… .” And that is where the letter-writer points us as women, as mothers, as a society in which the term “single parent” is as common as the shop-fly.
When did the status of parenthood fall so low that we began to treat our children like stock, trading in what ought to be their time – to love and nurture them; to instill manners, morals and the seeds of good citizenship; to teach them to remember their Creator in the days of their youth and to honour their mother and father that their days might be long – for the pursuit of possessions like laptops and flat-screen TVs and personal accoutrements like hair-weaves and nail extensions?
Single mothers are not new to our landscape or our culture, but when did women begin to think that it was all right to “drop” children and assume that the State would pick them up? That “they” – some nebulous authority figure, such as the politicians, the government, the school system, or the social welfare system, or even the criminal justice system – have a responsibility, an obligation, to raise their offspring by making sure the children have books, uniforms, meals, daycare, recreation, personal protection – and the list goes on – so that parents could have a free ride?
Old people used to say, “You can give a child everything, except a mind,” and everyone within hearing would nod sagely and agree. But let’s tell the truth for a change, people: Too many women are not giving the children anything at all worth having. And because of this abdication of responsibility, this callousness, this “your problem, not mine” attitude, too many good and great single-parent mothers are getting a bad name.
Ironically, we live in a society that attaches significant esteem to mothers – just wait until May and you’ll see – a society in which women who choose not to have children, for any number of reasons, are frequently derided and disparaged. But we have every measure of respect for those sisters who look about them and decide, “No. This is a two-person job, and I will not take it on alone.”
Parenting as it was meant to be done, by a mother and father, is a hard, hard job, and so many couples make a mess of it. If a woman decides, therefore, that it is an undertaking she can handle alone, then, please, handle it! It is simply not fair – not to the child and certainly not to the society – for you to sign the contract and then farm the work out to all and sundry while you take a holiday.
Again: Single-parenthood is a decision. Your decision. Don’t make the rest of us suffer the consequences.