Mothers and Fathers: Poverty, Parenting and Privilege

A few weeks ago, I took my teen daughters to volunteer with a faith-based youth diversion program. Our primary remit was to assist the ministry by engaging with “vulnerable and marginalized” children.

Before our arrival, I made no assumptions about the moral state of the children we had been assigned to. I did not assume that because they lacked financial means, they were lacking in love, home-training or spiritual discipline. I did not know which children had fathers in the home or involved fathers who lived apart from their mothers. I didn’t know if they liked school, if they regularly attended church, or if they had come from abusive families. In my mind, their vulnerability (financial poverty) wasn’t the entirety of their story.

I would attribute the aforementioned lack of assumption to my own personal experience. As a school-aged child, I too had been classified as “low-income.” My Nigerian father, a doctoral student at Stanford, met my African American mother during his stay in the United States. After finishing his PhD, he returned to Nigeria to help raise his younger brother, a situation created when my biological grandmother was widowed for the second time. My parents were not together. I was the child of a single-parent household.

I lived in San Jose State University’s housing for students with families until the sixth grade, when my American-born mother graduated from college and transitioned to a career. For me, her student discounts had translated to a rich life. There were discounted tickets to ballets, operas and art exhibitions. My mother’s student wages meant I qualified for scholarships to summer camps. Campus life offered an abundance of lectures and panel discussions featuring authors, activists and world leaders. The public library was free. Books, musical recordings and movies could be rented free of charge. We always had books.

PBS provided Great Performances, Masterpiece Theatre and Great Chefs Of New Orleans. I suspect it was The French Chef Julia Child, however, that prompted the investment in Le Creuset cookware. International students, on-campus food fairs (and my newly immigrated schoolmates) had exposed my palate to cuisine from around the world—Vietnam, Iran, Cameroon, Mali and Mexico.

In all honesty, I didn’t realize I had grown up “financially challenged” until I was an adult. The richness of university life had somehow obscured the fact that I knew what a book of food stamps looked like. For a brief time during my childhood, we had used them.

I never questioned the absence of my father. The students he sent to Stanford were always keen to fill me in. He was a wonderful man who had taught them well, making their dream of following in his footsteps a reality. I was his child, whether or not he was physically present. The stories I heard—stories of chieftaincy titles and royalty had resulted in my father taking on an almost mythical persona.

His highly publicized battle with William Shockley was the stuff of legends. For this reason, the father absence narrative did not yet resonate with me. I had been allowed to imagine my father as flawless and busy, too royally important to be bogged down in American affairs. I was free to imagine a larger-than-life figure in a far off land.

When we finally made contact, shortly after my 18th birthday, I had no animosity—just questions. When we finally met face to face, I was quite surprised by how unassuming and small in stature he actually was. It’s been 30 years of relationship now, 30 years of emails, phone calls and visits — birthday parties, sports practices and conversations with his grandchildren. Policy positions aside, my story is undeniably Obama-ish.

When I was in high school, I was assigned a mentor. I was granted a college scholarship and the issuing organization assigned someone to offer additional guidance and assistance. One day, my mentor told me what he thought of “my situation.” He congratulated me on my acceptance to USC, but told me that I probably would not “make it out.” The statistics for “kids like me” black and raised with one parent weren’t good.

Despite the fact that I did not grow up in an impoverished neighborhood, didn’t have experience with gangs, crime or drugs—and had remained sexually abstinent throughout high school, my “blackness and fatherlessness” was determinative. There was a narrative attached to it…and it wasn’t good. My individual story was being replaced by a collective narrative that didn’t actually represent my experience.

In college, I would undergo a religious conversion that radically transformed my thinking. I became a committed Christian. Never before had I considered God’s design for families. When you grow up surrounded by a thing, it becomes normal. For me, this normalcy was the absence of male leadership. Never before had I thought about the necessity of men, the value of marriage, and the importance of fathers. There was a mindset that I had internalized, a mindset that needed to be unlearned. I knew how to study. I knew how to work hard. I was not yet “marriage material.” Years of small group discipleship, Bible studies and pre-marital prep would change this.

As The Radio Mom, I had an opportunity to interview Roland Warren, then President of The National Fatherhood Initiative. During the interview, I learned more about the importance of fathers and the initiatives aimed at helping dads be their best. Though my platform and activism had been focused on mother’s, I began to champion the cause of fatherhood. I would soon find out, however, that there was a voice I was “supposed” to champion (as the product of a single-parent household.) The importance of father’s wasn’t it.

I had “made it” to adulthood without the help of a father. In my mind, I had “made it” (by the grace of God) despite having been raised in a single-parent household. For some, however, I was forever indebted to single parenthood and therefore required to champion it as an equal and viable alternative to the two-parent household. I was supposed to convey the idea that single parenthood was empowering—even aspirational. To do this, however, would be disingenuous—even from someone who can appreciate a Gilmore Girls marathon.

This year marks twenty years of marriage. Last year marked 16 years of parenthood. I am thoroughly convinced that an actively involved mother and father can translate to privilege—a privilege I was unaware of as a child. When combined with strong faith, a healthy learning environment and high expectations, children can thrive, flourish and move toward reaching their God-given potential.


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