author – activist – faculty – mom
I knew I would resonate with Tarja Parsinnen’s Salon article “We’re not meant to do this alone: American individualism is destroying our families.” She thoughtfully identifies the myth of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion as the internalized force that compels many contemporary US adults to raise kids far from their roots. The race politics of the metaphor are a mix: sometimes she compares the isolated parent to the wagon train, other times to Native people on the Trail of Tears. However, I think that race (and class) actually play a big role in how she and other white women have become invested in individualism, and I particularly notice it in contrast to my own story.
I was raised by a single mother, a Latina daughter of a Caribbean immigrant. While I did go away for college, I always aspired to raise kids in close proximity to my mother, and I now live near her. Yet part of the reason that I have invested in the extended family model is because, as a woman of African heritage, I haven’t grown up with the expectation that heterosexual marriage will take care of me. Black women are systematically devalued in our society. Too many black women are never married, divorced or widowed. So I have fought to develop a life in which my husband is a critical force of love, care, as well as financial earning (we both work outside the home). But the whole thing won’t fall apart without him.
Part of the process for me has been a very intentional decision to work on my relationship with my mother in the decades before I had kids. Three rounds of family therapy supported our relationship, and we needed a fourth after my daughter was born. I think part of the underlying narrative in individualism is actually coupleism: the romantic partnership is supposed to be the basis of the family. Historically this has been heterosexual, but same sex couples sometimes follow the same model. Yet for me, growing up with a single mom, I saw that her investments in community and economic independence paid off much more than her investments in romantic partnership. My mom’s life went well based on the community she built around herself.
Black women’s romantic partnerships have been systematically attacked in the US, from the prohibition against marriages under slavery to the more recent phenomena of welfare. So while all women receive the cultural instruction that marriage and a nuclear family is superior, black women also receive a very strong message that such a life is not for us. For this reason, many of us have a backup plan.
As it turns out, the extended family has probably saved my marriage. I love my partner and we both work hard on our marriage. But in the hardest of times, part of what keeps me balanced is knowing that my whole life won’t fall apart without him. It also helps that when a big, messy argument is brewing that I can take my kid over to my mom’s, which I have definitely done once or twice.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” is an African proverb. “It takes two middle class incomes and nothing else to raise a child,” is the default white, middle class proverb. I appreciate Tarja Parsinnen’s efforts to call out the dangers of this toxic American myth.