Finding Strength in Fragility

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

by Kortney Ryan Ziegler

I remember begrudgingly accompanying my aging grandmother to our routine food stamp interviews. Feeling embarrassed, I would sometimes disguise myself because in my neighborhood, no kid on food stamps wanted to be seen going to get food stamps, even though many of us ate because of them. She never seemed to mind and wasn’t ashamed because of it.

The office was usually crowded, filled with long lines and uncomfortable plastic chairs that my grandmother’s arthritic body never quite settled comfortably into. This made it my job to do the waiting but it didn’t bother me because I wanted to make the experience the least physically stressful for her as possible. At points when the waiting seemed endless, I would rush out to the car to meet with her, rub her swollen hands and munch on the snacks that I never saw her make but deeply appreciated when they appeared.

I often think back to our trips to the office and how we supported each other through the defeating experience, and I am reminded of how our relationship–as grandparent and grandchild–positively shaped the ways in which we practiced the act of love. Though we never discussed it, I knew that she, too, feared being seen. I might have had to shield myself from the shameful eyes of my classmates but it was her who carried the bigger burden of having to defend her right to access welfare as an unmarried black woman to the sneering eyes of the larger judgmental society. The intimacy that surfaced during our trips, however, helped to alleviate some of this pressure.

According to pro-marriage proponents, being raised by a single parent–let alone a single grandparent–cultivates an endless cycle of pathological dysfunction for the entire community involved. But for those of us who are products of non-traditional family structures, we know firsthand that such thinking is flawed because it doesn’t explore how our families engage in emotional, mental and physical acts of love and support. Despite this, there continues to be a wealth of resources given to studies that brand single parents and their children as inevitable failures.

One such study conducted by scholars at Princeton and Columbia Universities, called “The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study,” follows in this vein. Taking a cue from the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report, which blamed black poverty on households led by women, the Fragile Families study concludes that the increase of social impairment, specifically in communities of color, can be attributed to the growth of unwed parents and their children. The data implies that “fragile families” can be fixed with a focus on keeping birth parents together but there are multiple problems with this perspective since it doesn’t recognize that everyone hasn’t had the same access to the rights of a family.

Within the U.S. fabric of history, exists a legacy of policy and legislation designed to intentionally break up poor families and families of color. For example, black people haven’t always had the right to identify as a family due to our historical status as property from enslavement. Even my grandmother’s parents struggled to stay together during a time where Jim Crow laws robbed black families of basic rights, while other groups continue to fight for the right to be a family in the midst of a history of flawed immigration and deportation laws that repeatedly devalues their presence. The recent veto of the TRUST Act by California governor Jerry Brown, exemplifies the powerful influence of this legacy.

Another problem with the study’s pro-marriage stance is the idea that marriage is always beneficial for families, no matter the circumstances. From personal experience, I know this isn’t always true, as my grandmother chose to be single as a process of self-care. She willingly separated from an abusive husband with the hopes of creating some form of familial normalcy for her and her children. Like many women who leave their partnerships to escape potential harm, she understood that single parenting was a better and safer option and in my eyes, this is not a sign of weakness but a bold act of courage and marker of strength.

The new family that my grandmother created was not without it’s problems, but no family is. To make up for the lack of partner income, she worked long hard hours for little pay at the local post office and from what my aunts and uncles tell me, always did her best to maintain a positive sense of kinship–perhaps money was tight but love and care were abundant.

Balancing child rearing with full time work was not easy for my grandmother, and neither is it for other single parents. The Fragile Families study reports that mothers in this type of situation are at an economic disadvantage compared to those that are married but it doesn’t discuss the racism that excludes certain types of mothers from access to high paying jobs. For many single parents, this is a stressful reality that hinders the development of healthy relationships much more than the type of job itself. My grandmother might have been able to survive a blue-collar job to provide for her family but the little room of advancement such a position offered, only worked to heighten the stresses of poverty.

It has been almost 10 years since my grandmother transitioned into the spirit world and not a day passes that I am not grateful for her love. Her tireless attention to my healthy development pushes me to think about my own potential as a parent–whether I decide to have children with a partner or not. Being that I exist in the world as a transgender man, whatever family I decide to create will not come without unsolicited criticisms of what constitutes a “strong” family since the idea of marriage equality continues to be mysteriously excluded from pro-marriage rhetoric. Love knows no gender and the existence of alternative family structures that challenge the idea that only cisgender fathers can lead healthy families, is surely revolutionary.

If scholars are serious about producing research that attempts to influence policy change for all families, we cannot continue to “blame the victim.” Instead, research must account for the multiple social disparities that both produce and inadvertently sustain all types of families. Indeed, there is strength in “fragile” families and it is up to us to recognize it.

My grandmother and other loving single parents deserve it.

Dr. Ziegler is an Oakland based award winning artist, writer, public speaker and the first person to hold the Ph.D. of African American Studies from Northwestern University. More of his writing can be found at blac(k)ademic.