HOUSTON – One recent day at Dr. Natalie Carroll’s OB-GYN practice, located inside a low-income apartment complex tucked between a gas station and a freeway, 12 pregnant black women come for consultations. Some bring their children or their mothers. Only one brings a husband.
Carroll does not rush mothers in and out. She wants babies born healthy, so Carroll spends time talking to the mothers about how they should care for themselves, what she expects them to do – and why they need to get married.
Seventy-two percent of black babies are born to unmarried mothers today, according to government statistics. This number is inseparable from the work of Carroll, who has dedicated her 40-year career to helping black women.
“The girls don’t think they have to get married. I tell them children deserve a mama and a daddy. They really do,” Carroll says from behind the desk of her office. Diamonds circle Carroll’s ring finger.
As the issue of black unwed parenthood inches into public discourse, Carroll is among the few speaking boldly about it. And as a black woman who has brought thousands of babies into the world, who has sacrificed income to serve Houston’s poor, Carroll is among the few whom black women will actually listen to.
“A mama can’t give it all. And neither can a daddy, not by themselves,” Carroll says. “Part of the reason is because you can only give that which you have. A mother cannot give all that a man can give. A truly involved father figure offers more fullness to a child’s life.”
Statistics show children of unmarried mothers of any race are more likely to perform poorly in school, go to prison, use drugs, be poor as adults, and have children out of wedlock.
Most talk about the 72 percent has come from conservative circles; when influential blacks like Bill Cosby have spoken out about it, they have been all but shouted down by liberals saying that a lack of equal education and opportunity are the true root of the problem.
Even in black churches, “nobody talks about it,” Carroll says. “It’s like some big secret.” But there are signs of change, of discussion and debate within and outside the black community.
Research has increased into links between behavior and poverty, scholars say. Historically black Hampton University recently launched a National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting. There is a Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, founded by a black woman who was left at the altar, and a Black Marriage Day, which aims “to make healthy marriages the norm rather than the exception.”
There are simple arguments for why so many black women have children without marriage.
The legacy of segregation, the logic goes, means blacks are more likely to attend inferior schools. This creates a high proportion of blacks unprepared to compete for jobs in today’s economy.
The drug epidemic sent disproportionate numbers of black men to prison, and crushed the job opportunities for those who served their time. Women don’t want to marry men who can’t provide for their families, and welfare laws created a financial incentive for poor mothers to stay single.
Sitting in Carroll’s waiting room is Sherhonda Mouton.
Mouton, 30, works full time as a fast-food manager.
“My children are what keep me going, every day,” she says. “They give me a lot of hope and encouragement.” Her plans for them? “College, college, college.”
On Mouton’s right shoulder is tattooed the name of her oldest child, Zanevia. When Zanevia was an infant, Mouton’s drug-addled fiance came home one night and started shooting. Mouton was hit with six bullets; Zanevia took three and survived.
“This man was the love of my life,” Mouton says.
She does not see marriage in her future.
“It’s another obligation that I don’t need,” Mouton says. “A good man is hard to find nowadays.”
Christelyn Karazin has four children. She had the first with her boyfriend while she was in college; they never married. Her last three came after she married.
In September, Karazin, who is black, marshaled 100 other writers and activists for the online movement No Wedding No Womb, which she calls “a very simplified reduction of a very complicated issue.”
“I just want better for us,” Karazin says. “We’ve spent the last 40 years discussing the issues of how we got here. How much more discussion, how many more children have to be sacrificed while we still discuss?”
The reaction was swift and ferocious. She had many supporters, but hundreds of others attacked NWNW online as shallow, anti-feminist, lacking solutions, or a conservative tool.
Demetria Lucas, relationships editor at Essence, the magazine for black women, says 42 percent of all black women and 70 percent of professional black women are unmarried. “If you can’t get a husband, who am I to tell you no, you can’t be a mom?” she asks.
Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is white, argues that even though discrimination caused blacks’ present problems, only black action can cure them.
“Blacks as a group will never be equal while they have this situation going on … The 21st century for the black community is about building human capital. That is the undone business. That is the unmet need. That is the completion of the civil rights mission.”