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What Are African American Single Mothers Teaching Their Daughters About Romantic Relationships?

The following guest post is from Johnitha Watkins Johnson, PhD Candidate at Texas A&M University and author of a new study entitled “I’m Right By Doing What My Mother Says…”: A Pilot Study Chronicling African American Single Mothers’ Influence on Their Daughter’s Romantic Heterosexual Relationships

Single-motherhood is a phenomenon that pervades families despite one’s age, education, social hierarchy, or even race. Nonetheless, the prevalence with which single-motherhood betides African American families is markedly significant. Currently, African Americans comprise an estimated 9,418,000 families across the U.S., 46% of which are led by single mothers raising their own children due to spousal death, divorce, or having never married. Between the years 2009 and 2010, 51% of the 11,155,000 African American children born were to single mothers. These mothers, averaging 35 years of age, gave birth at rates twice as high as their married peers. Thus, African American single mothers unquestionably bear the brunt of rearing the African American progeny.

Often deemed a conundrum, African American single-motherhood manifests through the interwoven notions of race, gender, and class. In contrast to her White peers, her job is cumbersome, given it often requires negotiating her oppressive characterization as Black, female, and poor coupled with parenting, working, and attending school.  Yet, this exclusivity cultivates the mother’s self respect, empowerment, and independence while raising her daughters to exemplify independence, and her sons to embrace egalitarianism. In short, mothers have learned to “raise” their daughters and “love” their sons. This distinction warrants the African American single mother to offer life lessons that are unique to her culture and her children’s likely life trajectory.

Having been reared in a single-mothered home during my secondary years, I garnered valuable instruction under my mother’s tutelage concerning heterosexual relationships, intimacy, and African American men. Provocative yet authentic, the lessons instilled self-assuredness, resilience, and high expectations for my prospective spouse. And until I met my husband, my mother’s distinct wisdom from years gone by allowed me to persist. Often, I’ve wondered if African American mothers who are single and successfully rearing children, offer a similar course of study to their daughters.

In an attempt to understand how other African American mothers influence their daughter’s romantic heterosexual relationships, I explored what five women assert their single mother directly and vicariously taught them about love and African American men. The article entitled, “I’m Right By Doing What My Mother Says…”: A Pilot Study Chronicling African American Single Mothers’ Influence on Their Daughter’s Romantic Heterosexual Relationships reports these adult daughters’ description and interpretation of their mother’s intimate relationships and demeanor, while comparing it to their own. Our findings indicate African American daughters may:

1). unconsciously replicate their mother’s romantic relationships.

2). subscribe to their mother’s lessons on men, love, and relationships.

3). imitate their mother’s behaviors in relationships.

4). unconsciously select mates whose affect and behavior parallel their father’s. See the excerpt below:

Amber recalled once observing her father’s infidelity.  She stated, “[My mother and I] were once in the car and looked over and there’s my dad in the truck with some other chick. I said I don’t understand…” Peering at the floor, Amber recalled feeling embarrassed for her mother, but reported her mother never confronted her father, as her father’s infidelity was a normal component of their marriage. Often times he would reside with his mistresses for weeks or even months; then at his convenience, return home.

 Amber indicated that even as a child she understood her parents’ marriage was unhealthy, and she vowed not to replicate it. However, Amber’s first serious relationship was synonymous with her parents’ marriage. With a broken tone and twiddling fingers, Amber recalled her first relationship, acknowledging he cheated on her and sparingly designated her as his girlfriend. For example, to a nonthreatening audience he introduced her as his future wife; if mingling with women who peaked his sexual interest he reduced Amber’s designation to “friend.” Amber also recalled this same boyfriend requesting her to “mind him” or follow his orders without questioning him. She smiled and stated she tried but was unable to meet his expectations. Therefore, he informed her that she was not conducive for his preferred lifestyle. While reflecting on this relationship, Amber passionately stated:

“I was really trying to get someone completely opposite of my dad, mom and myself. And instead I constructed another version of that reality. It was really profound for me because after they broke up and I broke up we [Amber and her mother] talked about it and my mother and I were saying the same things. I condensed her 36 years into a two year disaster. I was a concentrated version of her. I tried to create one that was different but it was the same.”

Raw and a bit controversial, it is our hope that this humble study serves as a catalyst to arousing discourse concerning the power of single-motherhood, further analyzing what African American mothers teach their daughters about romantic heterosexual relationships, while also offering a meaningful contribution to understanding the African American culture in general.

Thank you Dr. Elsa González y González for your tireless advising throughout the article writing and publication process!

To learn more about Johnitha Watkins Johnson, look for her on LinkedIn.


Paul C. Brunson

Mentor, Entrepreneur, & Television Host. My goal is to help you live your best life. I’m the world’s most influential matchmaker, founded and exited three businesses, host two television shows, spent nearly a decade working directly for a billionaire, and share my experiences by mentoring through Knowledge Share