Last week, I was invited to speak with the Male Caregivers Advocacy Support Group, an initiative of Health Services for Children with Special Needs (HSCSN). It was truly an honor and pleasure to be surrounded with black men that are committed to being strong support for their loved ones with disabilities. It brought tears to my eyes because, personally, I struggle with providing male support for my boys. And while I harbor some guilt due to the breakdown of my union with their father and, at the same time, am frustrated with the fact that he lives out-of-state; I am solution-oriented and determined to find other ways to accommodate for the many signs that having healthy male presence is in the best interest of their growth and development. So, once I got to call from HSCSN to address an audience of male caregivers, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.
This invitation also came shortly after I read a recent article in USA TODAY entitled, “Male teacher shortage affects boys who need role models”. The piece notes that, “A male role model figure is a key person in many of…boys’ lives, especially if this person is someone who listens, who’s a giving person and patient…[a]nd there may be boys who might be afraid to ask questions to a female figure or may be more comfortable with specific questions geared for men.” While as a mother, I work very hard to be present for my sons – especially because they have developmental disabilities – it is not easy holding masculine and feminine positions in their home lives. So, in reading this I felt both gratitude and guilt that a such deeply private and personal subject matter has surfaced to peak the interests of popular dialogue. Yet, if I am to be honest of my observations of my own sons and how differently they act when encountered with men versus women, my guilt is tempered by my gratitude that these inner thoughts are being aired out so I can more thoroughly confront and unpack the emotional layers of this truth. I can’t speak for everyone’s child(ren) about the impact of an interaction with an energetic and engaged man but from my observations of my sons, encounters of this nature are undeniably powerful and positive.
Image taken from the USA TODAY article that notes that, “According to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, only about 24 percent of all teachers in 2012 were male, with just one in 10 men teaching elementary school students.”
The guilt I feel mostly comes from having a failed union and also not being very successful at co-parenting. There is also another layer of this guilt caused by societal pressures felt from the fascination in popular media of the marital status of African American women – to the point where our procreation and singleness is always being monitored by laymen and social scientists alike. Mind you, I am also sort of gender-bender and don’t promote identification with any one gender – especially as such definitions are defined within the context of Eurocentric patriarchy. Furthermore, as a social scientist in my own right, the concepts of “maleness” and “femaleness” have fascinated me so deeply that I dedicated my dissertation research to investigating how cultural values from precolonial African matriarchal systems offer possible solutions to the devastated political economy in war-torn regions such as the town of Goma, known as “the rape capital of the world”, located in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet despite my personal position on gender, or even my aspirations to restore matri-focal values to guide a redistribution of wealth and restore of economically devastated communities through gender equity, at the heart of it all, I am a single mother raising two boys with mal-adaptive behaviors that seem to flare up more in the presence of women than they do with men caregivers. This is a fact I cannot deny and must estimate fairly when I think of what’s in the best interest of my children’s development.
The USA TODAY article also references a federally funded initiative at the University of Notre Dame called TRiO, whose director, Ethan Zagore, attributes the shortage of male teachers to both conscious and subconscious gender bias of the role of an elementary school teacher as better suited for women. Similarly, the health care related professions, such as nursing, are also noted as a female-dominated field. And for many medically fragile children with disabilities, healthcare professionals are as prominent in their lives as educators. So, if education and healthcare professions are female dominated, what impact does this have on delivery of care?
Additionally, in 2016, the US Census attributed 23% of all family arrangement as children living with single mothers, while another study by the Kids Count Data Center finds that since 2011 the rate of single black or African American families is 66% to 67%. Additionally, a 2014 Washington Post article notes that, “half of all children will live with a single mother at some point before the age of 18,” and that a black child is more like to be born to a single mom, or a mom without a college degree, than a white child. So, doing the math and being honest in my subjective observations of my sons, I am cautious to not be zealous in a support for male teachers and caretakers because that articulation can easily be skewed and lead to more workplace oppression for women workers. Yet, it is important to not overlook my personal observations as a truth about my sons and begin investigating the benefits of recruiting and sustaining male caregiver and educator roles for all children, with special consideration to its influence on complex layers of care for children with disabilities.
In fairness, I am still unpacking the layers of taking such a position on this issue. In so doing, it is has been important for me to consider that if there is to be an increase in the recruitment of male teachers and caregivers, what impact would this have on an already skewed and gender imbalanced labor force? Women on average earn less than men in every single occupation for which there is sufficient earning data for both men and women to calculate an earning ratio. Not to mention, recent studies show the median wealth for single women of color to be only $5. And while in my case, raising two boys with Autism, my experience with my sons show that male caregivers positively impact their behaviors, this is not the whole story on the layers of gender oppression even in terms of accounting for children with disabilities.
A recent article in The George Washington University Magazine offers insight in the fact that despite studies show that boys are more likely to receive such a diagnosis than girls, there should also be cause for concern on the gender bias against the textbook definition of Autism (i.e. receptive behaviors, impaired communication and social interactions) are skewed measures that only identify how this spectrum developmental disorder might show up in girls. Keeping all these in mind, I temper my sentiment on if labor and other economic factors should bend towards increasing its recruitment efforts to attract and retain male teachers, for example, as the USA TODAY article notes. My subjective desire to offer more men for my children to be influenced in school and healthcare settings is not articulated in ignorance of real oppressions faced by women and girls, even in the realm of Child Find, where girls are identified as having a developmental disability or delay at lesser rates than boys because it shows up so drastically differently.
While still internally interrogating these layers to inform my support of initiatives to increase the role of male professionals in the field of education and healthcare for children, I am still very proud and honored to have spent some time last week with the HSCSN male caregivers group. I also feel that I, as a single mother, was a good candidate to address this group of men within the context of advocating for the rights of children with disabilities. It is important for me to articulate here, as it was to address this with the male caregivers, that women in my position as head of households are not the problem in education or healthcare for black children, as respectability politics might suggest when assessing the problem with the contemporary black family. Yet, in truth, I cannot raise my children alone, and I have no intention to do so, but even in my acceptance of needing others to join in helping to expose my children to positive men and women role models and caretakers, I wholly acknowledge that the heavyweight of childcare cost and management rests with the mothers. And that this reality requires more gender-balanced analyses of the economic, medical, social, emotional and academic impact of children of all abilities, with respect that even in childhood there are layers to gender based oppression and marginalization.