Mothers, Sons Going It Alone: Single Women Agonize Over How Their Boys Will Become Men

July 19, 1992

Their faces are weary. Their voices are tense. They are women talking about the weight of raising sons alone.

Can a mother rein in a teenager who is taller, stronger and willing to fight her? Who will teach their sons how to walk like men? How does a single mother protect a son in a neighborhood so tough that even her shy daughter has to fight to survive?

These were among the most troubling questions raised by some of 19 single mothers interviewed over two months. The women all have sons between 9 and 14, the pivotal age range, specialists say, when boys begin to embrace or reject their parents’ values.

These mothers live in urban and suburban neighborhoods across the Washington area and are of different races. They say they have watched other boys fall prey to drugs, violence and other social ills and have become convinced that the male children in their households are among the most vulnerable.

When Jacqueline Henry lived in an apartment building in Sursum Corda, a high-crime neighborhood in the District near Union Station, teenage boys sold drugs and told their mothers how to behave. Henry had moved here from California and taken one of the first apartments she could afford. She said she never anticipated what her children would be up against.

During the three years she lived in that neighborhood, she watched her daughter, a shy ninth-grade honor student, turn into a bitter street fighter scared into carrying a knife to defend herself.

“My daughter didn’t seem to be able to rise above it, and I felt I had to get my son out of there,” said Henry, 40, the director of family social services at the Edward C. Mazique Parent-Child Center. “He would have had more to contend with. He was a bright 5-year-old who was seeing boys selling drugs, fighting, dropping out of school and going to Lorton. It was too dangerous for him to be outside.”

Henry had used a baseball bat more than once to rescue her daughter. But she said she was not capable of taking on the type of boys she expected to eventually challenge her son. So she moved the family to Forestville in Prince George’s County.

In her garden apartment in Forestville, Henry no longer is afraid to approach neighbors’ children. From her living room window, she can watch her son, Michael,, play and has instructed him to come for her if other youngsters pick a fight with him. “I didn’t want him hit,” she said. Once she overheard Michael, now 9, tell a playmate: “My momma is badder than your daddy.”

Single-parent families such as Henry’s are the subject of much hand wringing. Numerous reports warn that life is more difficult for everyone in a household that is missing one parent. There’s more of the economic and emotional stress that afflicts some two-parent families as well.

There are 126,080 single mothers raising children in the metropolitan area, about 23 percent of the total number of families with children. As of last year, 10.1 million of the 35 million U.S. households were headed by one parent, the vast majority of them women, according to a Census Bureau survey. That is nearly triple the number two decades ago.

The 19 mothers who were asked to discuss the challenges of rearing sons alone often had trouble fitting interviews into days and evenings already scheduled to the wire. All but one work full time, and they have incomes ranging from $18,000 to more than $45,000.

“Parenting is a joy,” said Debra Byrd, 37, of Rosslyn, a divorced mother of two sons. “Single parenting is frustrating, especially when you don’t have resources. I have all the worries. I love them, discipline them, pick them up, drop them off. . . . You start running on a treadmill. You can never think about what you’re doing because it becomes depressing.”

But once the mothers began talking, their worries about sons tumbled out.

Among the mothers, black women in particular -- in the cities and the suburbs -- worried that the odds were greater that their sons would become victims of violence. But many white mothers also cited safety as their number one concern.

For example, Deborah Weinsheimer, a divorced Fairfax mother, shares a secret code word with her 9-year-old son, Michael. He knows that he is not to accept a ride with strangers unless they know the code. A former police officer who retired on disability, Weinsheimer also has bought an extra measure of comfort by teaching Michael to command her fully trained police dog. She also believes that her decision not to work provides an added sense of security for her son.

“I see so many parents who have to work and cannot be there for their kids,” Weinsheimer, 41, said. “I can’t bring his father back, but I can be there when he comes in the door at 3:20 in the afternoon. I know that is something positive.”

Although fears are common to two-parent families as well, many of the 19 single mothers said they believe they worry more.

A basketball court, a park or a neighbor’s home pose threats, the mothers said. They ask for telephone numbers of friends’ parents. They pick up their children at the subway stop rather than let them walk a few blocks home. In addition, they worry that their sons will succumb to peer pressure to do anything from skipping school to using drugs.

Mom, the Protector

Until two years ago, Arnita Thurston, 51, spent much of her time trying to schedule every free moment to shield her son, Baratunde, from their Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

At first, she did not hesitate to charge out of her house, pointing her finger and “preaching like a crazy woman” at the men kicking each other about like soccer balls on her small front yard. She even lectured the spectators drawn by the combat. “I was afraid that they could come and watch something like that happen to me and my child and not come to the rescue,” she said.

So when Baratunde was not in school, he was at the young astronomers’ club, or the talented and gifted program, or the youth orchestra, or the Boy Scouts.

“There was not much he could do in the neighborhood and be safe,” said Thurston, a computer analyst. “All the activities served to insulate him and placed his encounters with people in a controlled setting.”

Rather than allow Baratunde, now 14, to attend a neighborhood junior high school, Thurston enrolled him in Sidwell Friends, a private school. She sold her house and moved to Takoma Park.

Now that she has reduced her basic concerns about his safety, she focuses on more intangible things. “There was a time in his early years when I was scared,” she said. “I felt like I had to do something about this male presence.

“Who was going to show my child how to walk?” she asked, explaining that boys need to carry themselves in the confident, masculine way that she believes only another man can teach.

Baratunde learned that lesson and many more from the men who gathered at a weekend program to teach young boys about manhood. “They helped me understand responsibility to myself, my family and the community,” he said. “It was different hearing it from a man. I’m so used to what she {Thurston} is going to say.”

The role of a man also becomes an issue when discipline is involved. Some single mothers interviewed decried their lack of the traditional weapon: “Just wait until your father gets home.”

Olga Silverstein, a New York-based family therapist, is writing a book about women raising sons. She said ambivalence prevents mothers from handling the discipline problem. If they succeed in gaining obedience, she said, they fear they will create “passive, complacent” males; if they don’t succeed, they are certain they will be saddled with sassy, uncontrollable sons.

Up Against a Gender Gap?

Many of the 19 single mothers said they seem to see things differently from their sons and attribute some of that to a gender gap. They are baffled at their sons’ notion, for example, that doing the dishes means washing the plates and leaving the glasses. They are exasperated when their sons expect no consequences from stretching a curfew.

They cannot quite explain why they consider such behavior a gender gap. But when pressed, they said that when they were little girls they did not go to such lengths to stretch and reinterpret instructions.

Weinsheimer said her son has “an independent streak” that leads him to question everything, including her very authority.

“Sometimes I think about having arrested men who were 6-foot-6 and I got this little kid driving me nuts,” said Weinsheimer, who once worked in one of the District’s toughest neighborhoods. She seemed amazed herself as she said, “This little 9-year-old kid tells me ‘No,’ and I think, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ”

Sometimes the stakes are higher. Eileen Johnson, 30, for example, worries that her son’s outbursts at home and school could bring disaster if repeated elsewhere.

“He disrespects me and his teachers, {but} the fellows on the street are not going to stand for that,” said Johnson, a federal worker who lives in the Minnesota Gardens apartment complex in Greenway, a Southeast Washington neighborhood north of Fort DuPont Park. Several young men have been shot to death in Greenway this year. “I worry about him being on the basketball court, getting into a fight with his temper and getting killed.”

Some of the mothers interviewed are engaged in a major debate about whether spanking is an effective way to enforce rules. But they agree that at some point they lose the physical presence that makes such discipline have an effect on rapidly growing sons. Most said they turned to lecturing or denying privileges. No television, no visits, no Nintendo and no telephone headed the list of punishments. Such punishment, they said, often is a price boys will gladly pay.

In the District, where more than 34,700 single mothers are bringing up sons, some institutions are seeing evidence of desperation.

The D.C. Superior Court has encountered several cases in which mothers have been charged with physical abuse. “They want to prove to the sons that they are still in control, so they are using belts, broomsticks, throwing irons and anything they can get,” said Wanda Starke, a supervisor in the court system’s juvenile services branch. “They are disciplining the kids excessively out of frustration. There is a fear of losing them to the streets.”

As a last resort, some single mothers regularly call the police department. Lt. Winslow McGill, of the 7th District, said they want him to convince their sons that “their behavior can get them hurt” and that they “are still children.” They plead for information about what they can do to keep their sons out of jail or the morgue.

Some specialists insist that single mothers will encounter fewer problems if their sons spend more time with their fathers or male role models. Boys, they contend, begin to think they are supposed to be the opposite of their mothers and acquire exaggerated images of manhood from other boys. The result, they say, is that some boys are becoming excessively violent.

“It is politically correct thinking to believe that a mother should be able to show a male child how to be a man,” said Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist. He has worked with families for 20 years and is writing a book on the role men play in the lives of boys. “But politically correct thinking has absolutely nothing to do with reality, and it is a cruel hoax to try to reassure women that it will work out okay,” Pittman said.

Some mothers scoff at that notion, pointing out that many successful men were reared in homes headed by women. Still, the mothers are anxious.

Byrd, the Rosslyn mother, a tall, athletic woman, coached one of her son’s Little League teams and is a den leader for a Cub Scout pack. “I don’t worry whether my sons will be wimps,” she said. But nagging questions remain.

“I wonder sometimes, do moms see it differently?” she asked. “What is this male thing? I am unsure of whether they will feel like there was something they missed when they get to be 14 or 15 or 16 and explode in anger.”

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