Unconditional Love

Single mothers agree that being a parent is a tough, but rewarding job

It’s not about the latest Jordans.

It’s about spending time together.

Some single South Side moms who’ve been meeting lately say time is what their kids need from a dad, not a gift. And time with the kids buys time for the mothers, too.

“Just spend time with her ᾿cause she doesn’t know who’s buying her sneakers or who’s putting dinner on the table,” said Naja Pitts, a single mother who recently was part of a panel with other single mothers at Syracuse Community Connections, formerly Southwest Community Center. “She just wants memories. Ten years from now, she can’t wear those same sneakers that you just bought. It’s more so, she’s gonna have those memories for the rest of her life.”

Naja Pitts with daughter Laila

Anthony Pitts, who is Naja’s father and the coordinator for the Healthy Start Fatherhood program based at the center, works with single fathers, helping them find support and resources. He invited single mothers to a panel held at the center to learn more about their needs so he could communicate it to the group of fathers. Pitts reached out to Naja and a few other single mothers to be part of it and to invite other women they know. Since then, they have met three times and hope to meet every month moving forward.

“When my dad first asked me to do it, I personally was going to support him but I didn’t think I was going to say much,” Naja said with a laugh. “I would not open up to everybody about how I’m a single mom, but I feel like once that conversation got rolling, I really enjoyed it.”

For the first session when Anthony met with the single mothers, Naja said he had five questions, but they got through only one “because everyone got so deep into it.”

She explained, “As a mom, you just learn to do it yourself. I don’t even think it’s a pride thing, it’s just more so like, ‘This is my kid, and I’m going to do whatever to make sure that they’re straight.’ So after a while, I just want you to spend time and be there for the kid.”

The women have a routine and schedule, but the challenges still arise.

“Most mothers are really looking for time because being a single mother is about the grocery store, running to the corner store, just getting gas,” said Myesha Britt, one of the mothers who was part of the discussion. “I gotta tie your shoe and his shoe? It’s just constant. It’s just always something.”

According to the Statistical Atlas, which uses U.S. Census Bureau data, 54.4 percent of all Syracuse households are headed by single moms — meaning they are either married with the spouse absent, divorced, never married or widowed. Just 9.4 percent of households are headed by single men. Census data indicates that nationally, this trend overwhelmingly affects African-American households: 74.3 percent of all white children under age 18 live with both parents, but the figure is just 38.7 percent for African-Americans. Even more stark: More than one in three black children in the U.S. live with unmarried mothers, compared to one in about 16 for white children.

Lameika Armstead is a work/life balance advocate and has studied how single, African-American working mothers cope. She published a dissertation titled, “Balancing the Life: A case study on single African-American working mothers.” She grew up an only child, raised by an African-American single working mom whom Armstead describes as her biggest cheerleader throughout her studies. She is now a doctor of philosophy in industrial and organizational psychology.

“From a mom’s perspective, it’s not about the things,” Armstead said. “Us women, of course, we’re far more nurturing, a little more in tune to emotions, so we realize the time spent and the memories having that connection with their fathers is what’s most important. … We just have a totally different perspective on that.”

Armstead discovered five main themes, plus a few smaller ones, that were universal among the women she interviewed. The most prominent was time — not having enough time in their day to do everything they needed to do.

“The byproduct of that is the dads weren’t spending enough time,” Armstead said. “However, their (mothers’) focus is more on, ‘I just need more time to do more things. I have a hundred things to do and have time for 50.’”

Having the chance to hear other single parents share their stories made the discussion at the center feel like group therapy in a way.

“I believe it’s a good group because you actually get different opinions,” said Dekera Ogletree, a mother who participated and who works at the center.

Dekera Ogletree with her children, from left: Daquan Jr., Ar’Queen and Amiya.

At the first discussion, there were a few faces new to some of the single moms who are at the center every week, providing more views and more opportunities to relate to one another.

“I thought it was going to be pretty good, like Dekera said,” Britt said. “You just get different scenarios because … the people that were in there are all single parents, but we all have different stuff going on. We’re single parents for different reasons, maybe ᾿cause one’s incarcerated, maybe ᾿cause one’s just not around … just different reasons.”

Hearing that they’re not the only women making it work, that others also want their children to have more than the mothers may be able to offer, is reassuring, they said.

“It’s like it could turn into a support group because everybody’s going through the same things and everybody’s trying to get to the next level,” Naja said.

Armstead, the advocate and founder and CEO of The Armstead Group, was encouraged to hear that the Syracuse men were willing to hear feedback from the mothers, and she hopes the women continue to meet.

She said that as an African-American woman herself, she was especially aware of what she called “implicit psychological neglect.”

Armstead added, “We don’t seek mental health. We don’t seek counseling. We don’t seek anything that has to do with trying to make our mental health better.”

Anthony said he admires the women on his side of the family, and notes that he wasn’t always on “the right side of society.” He said things “happened” in his life that made a change necessary, and he helped when his kids’ mothers were at work. He said he cleaned, did the dishes and cooked their food.

“I felt it was my job to lessen the load (for the mothers),” he said. “Everybody doesn’t have that sense.”

For the dads he’s working with, he said he makes sure he puts them in a position to succeed. When they’re writing down goals, he doesn’t let them get too “lofty.” They may set goals for the five-year plan, but he wants them to look at what’s going on now and with the three-month plan.

Anthony said a lot of the dads understand that moms need time.

“They understand because a lot of my dads have had the same disappointment from their dad,” Anthony said about the group of men he helps. “I didn’t set out to make the same mistakes my dad did. I set out to do the exact opposite of him and ended up in the same predicament as he did — almost identical. And he didn’t set out to make the same mistakes his dad did, but he did.”

Anthony said in his opinion, most dads stay away because of the embarrassment of not being able to do the things they think they should do for their kids.

“It’s embarrassing when you feel you can’t do the right thing by your child … then when they (dads) feel like they’re capable of it, of doing certain things, they’ll pop up and resurface. And then some of the time they get so caught in the habit of not being present that they just never be present. It’s like they’re running from themselves.”

In other cases, the dads may not be able to visit. Three of the dads of Naja’s, Britt’s and Ogletree’s children are incarcerated. For Ogletree’s two older kids, it’s something else.

“I think as mothers, we tend to try to keep our kids as busy as possible and to distract them, so they won’t have the thoughts of knowing they can’t get (to) their father or he can’t come to them right now,” Ogletree said. “So we do a lot of covering up. I have three kids. Two of my kids’ father is deceased; my youngest daughter, her dad is incarcerated.”

Her two oldest bring up their father at times. For Ogletree herself, the topic brought tears to her eyes recently.

“It’s situations like that,” Britt said as she, too, began to cry. “Her kids can’t see their father … that really pisses me off. She has to go through that every day, and her kids don’t get to see their father. When he was out buying them sneakers and stuff, that don’t mean anything.”

The father, Daquan Williams, was 21 when he was shot in the chest while riding in a minivan early one morning on Interstate 690 in 2009. He was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, where he was pronounced dead within the hour. It remains unclear who was involved and if Williams was the target. His two children with Ogletree are a son, Daquan Jr., who was 2 years old at the time, and daughter, Amiya, who was 6 months.

“That’s my cousin so I was around when all that was going on,” Britt said. “Her kids can’t see their father. Time is everything. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or today.”

Myesha Britt

For Britt, before having kids, having a job was not the first thing on her mind. Now, her kids mean so much to her, she wants to do more for them.

“It’s those small things,” she said. “My daughter will say, ‘I love you,’ and I’ll be like ‘awww.’ These small things. That is the most meaningful thing in the world. Your kid can say, ‘You’re the best mom’… I might not be the best mom but ‘You said it, OK, you’re my child so thank you,’” Britt said laughing. “I’m going to take that and run with that.”

Even with those humbling moments, feeling like there’s not enough time to get it all done, these moms say they do see where they’ve grown.

“I think I’m more motivated now,” Naja said. “I feel like I can take on the world. I’ve always been a procrastinator and now with Laila, there is not time to wait. She’s going to be 4 in November and my biggest thing is I want her to grow (up) in the house. I don’t want you to be 18 and I’m just finding a house. I want you to be able to grow up in it. So there’s not time to wait … working 10 times harder. It’s me and one other person waiting on that degree.”

Armstead said that so often black women have had to be the backbone in the community because of so many of the challenges and difficulties facing black men. The women took on that role.
“With that it was very loud and clear, and apparent in my study, that women didn’t have the time to sit around and say, ‘Woe is me … I don’t have this, I don’t have that.’ They just know they have to take care of their kids. They know they will get it done. They didn’t always know how, and they had a lot of stress around it, but the bottom line is that they were going to get it done.”

Britt mentioned that when it comes to the kids, as long as they’re “full, bathed, in a bed, as long as clothes are picked … nope, clothes aren’t picked up, but they’re clean,” she said laughing. “As long as everything is for them, you just forget about yourself.”
Ogletree and Naja agreed, chiming in about how they finally relax at bedtime — that is, if the kids don’t wake up. Even then, they laugh about how they love being called “mom,” even if it’s interrupting that downtime.

The women said a few dads from Anthony’s group sat in on that first discussion and weren’t the type who aren’t around. They have tried to be involved and want help from their child’s mom. Some of the men have been around since Day One, wanting to see a child’s first step and wanting even more time with their child. These women said that they can probably learn from those dads’ perspective, too.

Britt said now that their kids are older, they look at things differently. They’ve learned how to adapt and be content, no matter what support they have from the dad.

“If he doesn’t want to, don’t stress him, don’t nag him … if he doesn’t come, he just doesn’t show up,” Britt said. “And it is what it is. I’ll take you to Chuck E. Cheese.”

Each mom sees the importance of being positive, and they’ve learned to be patient.

“They take their own image and picture of the situation,” Ogletree said of the kids. “Once they grow older, they see what it is and what it isn’t.”

One of the men who spoke during the first meeting and has met with the women again since then is Timothy “Noble” Jennings-Bey. He asked them questions that made them think about their relationships. He broke down what love is and self-discipline.

“A big thing that he said that really caught on for me was when you decide to get in a relationship and love someone, you have to love yourself and be your own person, and they have to be their own person,” Naja said. “Then you all come together. You can’t find yourself within another person.”

The mothers agreed they still welcome these group meetings, to hear perspective, especially from dads who are trying to change.

“I’d like to hear from a dad that can admit, ‘I haven’t been around,’” Naja said. “For a woman, we can come up with a thousand theories in our head but to hear an actual perspective, to hear a dad admit he hasn’t been around … ‘but I’ve been going through this.’”

The dads that are part of these three moms’ lives are incarcerated. The women are focused on caring for their kids and letting the dads talk to them. Naja takes her daughter to visit sometimes, even though he’s not nearby.

“I’m helping by trying to make this stepping stone for you to be in her life,” Naja said of her attitude. “When you come home, be consistent.”

For Ogletree’s youngest daughter, her dad was helpful before he was incarcerated, and now since the parents aren’t together, Ogletree said she’s waiting to see how they co-parent when he gets out.

“I wouldn’t say it’s more so being patient because we’re not really waiting for them to do it, and you’re not going to close the door totally to your kid’s father, or whatever the case may be,” Ogletree said. “The door is always going to be open for them to be a parent, when they want to be a parent … so it’s not us waiting because we’re still doing what we have to do as a mother. We’re still going to get the job done.”



— Article and photos by Julianna Whiteway, The Stand Staff reporter

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