A generic qualitative design was applied in the study to investigate the experiences of single African American mothers and their relationships with their adolescent sons, to address a gap in the literature by providing a deeper understanding of single African American women’s experiences as mothers of adolescent sons, including their interactions with the young men. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews were conducted to collect data from the eight participants who lived in a suburban area and were between the ages of 30 and 55. Data were analyzed using thematic analysis with inductive coding based on grounded theory categorization approach.
Four themes were found in the data: (a) the mother-son bond, (b) perceptions of parental roles and responsibilities, (c) emotional challenges, and (d) racism and discrimination. Mothers live in constant fear that their sons might be harmed or even killed by the police. The participants attempted to address these concerns by educating their sons about anti-violence ‘algorithms’ of behavior, survival instructions if they were stopped by police. At the same time, they are not educating citizenship position in them, thus reassuring negative social stereotypes hindering social mobility of young African Americans.
Single parenting is among the most acute and increasingly raising common phenomenon in the United States. According to Elliott et al. (2013), recent statistics showed that single parents raise about 50% of African American children. The authors also showed in their research that 70% of single parents are mothers. According to official figures, poverty rates vary greatly across ethnic groups. Among non-Hispanic whites, it is 9.7%, among African Americans – 27.2%, among Hispanics – 25.6%, among Asians – 11.7% (Baradaran, 2019). Deep-rooted, multi-generational poverty is characteristic mainly of the African-American community, and this phenomenon in retrospect of recent decades is in some way connected with the collapse of the nuclear family in the African-American ghetto (Baradaran, 2019). Thus, external social factors play the role of a catalyst for the exacerbation of the problems of single-parent families in which the mother is raising her children alone.
It should be especially noted that major challenge of single parenting is raising adolescents. As Leech (2016) notes, adolescence represents a sensitive stage in human personality development. For a single mother, parenting a teenage son can be crucially challenging. Even while financial needs may not be a problem, a lack of socio-emotional preparedness is observed, that is part of the phenomenon (Cohn, 2016; Snyder, 2016). Namely in the stage of adolescence, child’s personality formation enters its final but the most important phase. In adolescence, the results of upbringing are most clearly manifested, and relations with the mother move to a new stage.
At the same time, a gap in the literature should be noted regarding the subject of single African American mothers parenting adolescent sons. The studies showing the experiences of a single mother, but they did not specifically provide enough details about the single African American mothers’ experience. While the studies outlined the existing problem, they are not suggesting fundamental and, all the more so, practical basis for attempts of its solving. This defines relevance of presented study, with the aim of identifying African American single mothers’ experiences of their relationships with their adolescent sons, with expected results that can serve a contribution to helping single parents manage their situation, in particular from an emotional perspective in the conditions of systemic racism in the USA.
Single parenting represents one of the currently discussed topics in the discourse of African American community problems and challenges in modern America. The number of American children born out of wedlock has reached record proportions in US history. Turner (2020) notes that already in 2005, for every ten babies born to two-parent families, there were almost four children born to single mothers. The data of National Center for Medical Statistics show that single mothers accounted for 37% of all women who gave birth to a child in 2005 (Turner, 2020). Accordingly, today, these children are adolescents, at an age when the parenting approaches adopted by their mothers are especially critical for their socialization and their future in American and global society.
A range of factors is noted in literature as the reason of high percentage of single mothers in the USA. According to Wu et al. (2015), a variety of factors such as divorce, separation, having a child out of wedlock, and death of male partner represent the dominant reasons of single parenting in the USA. Moreover, factor of the lack of preparedness, and deriving socio-emotional and economic burdens are constituents of the array of defining factors (Cohn, 2016; Snyder, 2016). Maynard et al. (2015) consider high possibility of single parenting becoming more common for women as they continue to strive for and achieve economic independence. The acuteness of the problem is aggravated by the fact that numerous scientific studies show that in two-parent families, children grow and prosper better than in those where fathers are absent (Brooks, 2015). In single-parent families, children run the risk of spending their childhood in poverty, ruining their health and not getting a good education (Aning, 2016). The share of couples living below the lowest income line upon marriage is reduced from 19.5% to 16.1% (Boothe, 2018). In addition, it is known that the appearance of emotional disorders, behavioral disorders such as maladjustment, addiction, and many psychological problems is associated with a number of adverse events in childhood (Brooks, 2015). Family conflict, lack of love, the death of a parent or divorce, parental abuse or inconsistency in the reward and punishment system can become powerful traumatic factors.
Experts studying the problems of family education note that in an incomplete family it is a more complicated matter and fraught with a number of difficulties that sooner or later every single parent will have to face (Brooks, 2015). Obviously, a single mother will experience the difficulties and mistakes of upbringing, which is likely to be an obstacle to the successful socialization of the child in society and his further socio-economic prospects.
There are various reasons for the change in the relationship, consisting in the characteristics of a teenager’s mental development, sexual identity, level of emotional well-being, etc. (Williams et al., 2017. As a result of gradual changes in society, it is important to reconsider the topic to understand the steps that have been taken for achieving positive result, but also to address areas that continue to need the society’s attention (Pachankis et al., 2015). In general, available literature did not completely address the experiences of single African American mothers who were raising adolescent sons. Past studies explored possible causes of single parenting, the socioeconomic impact, and how the affected individuals dealt with their situation, but did not address specifically the category of single African American mothers (Weinrath et al., 2016). At the same time, studies show that the majority of single mothers preferred having girls instead of boys (Evans, 2014). Researchers have noted that parents may not only worsen relationships but also deny adolescents the affection they needed from the parent. Other single mothers believed it was more challenging to “raise adolescent boys because of their rebellious nature” (Johnsen & Friborg, 2015, p. 750). Another challenge that single mothers face while parenting adolescent sons is the inability to offer them advice based on personal experience.
Excessive foster care is becoming one of the most common features of maternal upbringing in single-parent families. The mother tries to pay more attention to her son, surround him with more care, regardless of her interests and desires. In such conditions, the child weaned from independence and initiative, becomes indecisive and fearful (Lareau, 2011). If such overprotection significantly limits the sphere of communication with peers, the child becomes uncommunicative and constrained. However, the teenager begins to be weighed down by such boundless maternal love, as he has other interests. Growing up, the conflict of interest leads to quarrels, during which the son expresses reproaches, insults and even abuses the mother. For her, this is stress, plunging into a state of shock, leading to hysteria. Ultimately, mother and son begin to experience emotional alienation towards each other, sometimes turning into open hostility (Lareau, 2011). Not finding understanding in the family, the teenager seeks it from the outside, which, especially in disadvantaged urban areas where African Americans are densely populated, not affected by gentrification, often leads to involvement in criminal groups.
The absence of father’s authority negatively affects the formation of self-esteem and identity of the adolescent. This problem is exacerbated by the phenomenon of racism, which latently still exists in the United States. Daryanani et al. (2016) emphasize that racism impacts both single African American mothers and their adolescent sons. African American children struggle to get admitted to good schools, primarily because of a system that favors Whites over Blacks (Elliott et al., 2018). The economic inequality and initially different social conditions for the majority of White and Black children also created an environment in which African American adolescent boys may find it desirable to manifest deviant behavior, engage in drug abuse, drug commerce, and other criminal activities. Discrimination is a common challenge that African American adolescent boys face, especially at school, and these adolescents may have to contend with direct verbal attacks from their peers because of their race (Liang et al., 2019). Moreover, according to psychologists, the poor performance of African-American students is largely due to their low self-esteem, imposed on them by the stereotypical attitude of others (Boothe, 2018). Breaking this vicious circle without proper family education is extremely difficult. At the same time, it is unlikely possible to formulate any sound propositions regarding effective measures to improve the current situation without a deep comprehension of the essence and causes of the phenomena under consideration. Thus, it seems appropriate to formulate the research question: “How do single African American mothers experience their relationship with their adolescent sons?”
In the process of research, various theories such as Black psychology theory and family systems theory were addressed to. In particular, Elliott et al. (2013, p. 363) defined Black psychology theory as a concept that can be used to explain the “beliefs, behavior, attitude, interactions, and feelings of African Americans.” This theory focuses namely on the challenges that African Americans experience in the USA – it explains why African Americans are disadvantaged, studies their life strategies to adapt to living in unborable conditions. The scope of Black psychology theory also includes social and psychological consequences of these strategies application. In a number of positions, the significance of Black psychology theory goes far beyond the African American community and concerns the entire American society as a whole. Overall, the field has contributed to the development of afrocentric models of research, at the same time advocating for a greater race justice.
Systems theory, as a transdisciplinary tool, was also relevant for this research. A family unit is one example of a system that could be guided by principles explained in this theory. According to Brown (2016), every member of the family, as a subsystem, has a role to play, and the individuals’ experiences largely depend on how well each person observes own responsibilities. Under normal circumstances, it is expected that every member will meet the expectations of the rest of the family members. Naturally, interaction between family members can result in synergy effect (at functional relationships) and entropy (at dysfunctional relationships). In a family headed by a single mother, the uniqueness of her role is not supported by male role fulfillment – thus, the functioning of system is disrupted.
General philosophy of the research is built on the paradigm of interpretivism, the purpose of which is to identify key interpretations and meanings shared by individuals and social groups. From the point of view of interpretivism, social reality is, first of all, a set of shared ideas and interpretations, on the basis of which social actions are carried out. Any social structure exists insofar as people adhere to stable models of interpretation and act in accordance with these models; accordingly, sociologists must study the meanings that people put into their actions, and the ways in which they interpret the surrounding reality.
A generic qualitative approach was applied as the most appropriate research method for the research, as “generic qualitative methodology can be used to identify the experiences and perceptions of external phenomena, which, in this research, dealt with African American mothers’ experiences of their relationships with their sons” (Kahlke, 2014, p. 42). Qualitative analysis with inductive reasoning was considered to be an appropriate way of capturing the experiences and perceptions of single African American mothers’ relationships with their adolescent sons. A qualitative approach of research design was chosen due to its ability to provide foundations for deep understanding of the phenomena with their roots, consequences, and interrelations (Percy et al., 2015). An ontological assumption was that participants would provide accurate information during the semi-structured interviews regarding their experiences of the relationships with their adolescent sons, which may be different from the reality of another individual (Corbin & Strauss, 2015). The level of diversity of this experience was beyond the scope of the study. Semi-structured interviews enable receiving valuable data from respondents, giving them freedom to express their experience which then will be categorized and analyzed with the tools of grounded theory.
The population consisted of single African American mothers who had an adolescent son between the ages of 14 and 19. A purposeful sampling method was applied, and inclusion criteria given below were developed for participants (Creswell, 2012; Palinkas et al., 2015; Suri, 2011). The research reached data saturation when eight participants had been interviewed for the study. Description of sample is given in the table below.
Table 1. Description of Sample
|Participant #||Age||# of Children||Age of Adolescent||# of Years Being Single|
The following inclusion criteria were applied:
- Be a single African American mother between the ages of 27 and 55;
- Reside with at least one adolescent son in the range of 14 and 19 years old; and
- Reside in the U.S.
The following exclusion criteria were applied:
- A mother undergoing mental health treatments,
- A mother who has a history of delinquency,
- A mother who is not living with her adolescent sons,
- A mother who is not living in the United States,
- A mother who has been divorced for less than one year.
Participants protection was ensured, according to the overall sociology research ethical standards and Code of conduct.
Processing of interview results showed interesting findings, though quite rational for today social environment for African Americans. Collecting data on the experiences of participants was a base for determining emerging themes with the tools of grounded theory (Creswell, 2012). The themes and appropriate results are presented below. Data analysis was conducted using a coding method to identify themes in the transcribed data (Campbell et al., 2013; Chenail, 2012; de Casterlé et al., 2012; Hilal & Alabri, 2013; Percy et al., 2015; Pierre & Jackson, 2014; Smith & Firth, 2011). Due to small sample size, coding was performed manually by highlighting segments of transcribed text. The coding process was carried out by connecting common phrases or patterns and assigning similar codes across interviews.
The mother-son bond refers to the process of creating a deep-rooted interpersonal relationship between a mother and her child. This theme emerged as the mothers described the development of the relationship with their sons over an extended time. Analyzing transcripts of interviews allowed concluding that mother-son bond represents a broad concept that can be characterized by closeness, affection, spending quality time, having open communication, admiration, and feelings of pride. Each respondent perceived effective bonding as an opportunity to connect on a deeper level with their sons, while simultaneously striving to develop a healthy and secure attachment within their relationship.
Closeness was emphasized by the majority of participants. Mainly, mothers achieved a close relationship with their sons, and they will not allow anything to interfere or come in between their relationships. One of the participants noted that her son is her primary focus in life: “My son is my whole world; everything revolves around him. We are so close, we always support each other as a team, and no one comes in between us or interferes.” This phrase, in fact, represents opinion of several other participants. However, a small number of participants experience difficulties in developing close mother-son relationships due to the necessity to maintain the family financially which requires long hours of work
The next element of mother-son bond expressed by participants, was affection. Some mothers described their affection as a form of love or fondness experienced when caring for their sons. Participants perceived their affection as an approach to developing a sense of confidence and esteem within the mother-son relationship. The mothers noted that they give affection both emotionally and physically to their sons. In particular, Participant 6 said “I tell my son that I love him, I hug him a lot, give him kisses,” which is indicative for other participants.
Quality time also appeared to be a constituent of mother-son bond category. Some mothers emphasized that they made strong efforts to be available for their children to spend quality time with them. Participants consider that spending quality time with their sons allows them to develop a deeper connection by getting to know each other through their mother-son relationship. Some participants said that quality time also enabled them to build valuable trust. Participant 8 designates time out of the week to spend quality time with her son on an individual basis: “We have mother-son days, one day out of the week: it’s just him and I.” Participant 7 also mentioned, “Once a month we choose fun activities to do together.” Many participants try to get involved in their son’s interests or activities, even if it was not a shared interest between both parties. Thus, for example, mother watches football together with her son, not in fact being interested in sports, trying “to do whatever makes him comfortable.”
Open communication is also important factor in developing mother-son bonds. Each respondent focused on developing open communication and identified this as an important element of effective conflict resolution as a way of developing a healthy relationship over time with their sons. The participants noted that they created a space for their son to communicate their feelings and concerns openly. Some mothers expressed that if their sons had a problem, they would collaborate to find a solution to his problem. The women talked about open communication as a collective experience between mother and son.
The last element of the category of mother-son bond, which was revealed during analysis, was admiration and pride. Some mothers were pleased to discuss the admiration their sons had for them, and they tried hard to maintain these images of courage and strength to reassure their sons, while simultaneously masking their negative emotions such as fear and stress. Participant said: “I am his superwoman. To the end of time, I am going to keep that image up for him no matter what I feel like.” Participant 6 also described her determination to maintain an image of strength; she never reveals to her son when she feels weak because she does not want to worry him. At the same time, mothers verbalized pride for the accomplishments of their sons, being proud of their sons’ growth and development. Participant 5 expressed, in fact, the position of all the participants latently sounded in their answers: she said that her son respected her highly, and he did not want to disappoint his mother. “One day he said to me what I think every parent wants to hear from their child. My son said, ‘Mom, my greatest fear is that you would ever be disappointed in me.” In general, the results of constructing and interpreting the category of mother-son bonds indicated that a significant amount of African American mothers developed a close and affectionate relationship with their sons.
Perceptions of Parental Roles and Responsibilities
The participants described their perceptions of parental role and responsibility as a broad concept that can be characterized by providing, protecting, supporting, giving guidance, establishing necessary boundaries, and maintaining multiple roles and responsibilities. Each mother considered effective parenting to an opportunity to nurture their sons to become productive adults, while simultaneously developing a healthy mother-son relationship. The first distinguished element in frames of this category was financial support. All participants stressed their strong readiness and willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to maintain their families financially. A significant number of participants had stable jobs or careers, and the majority received a college education. Although a small number of respondents struggled financially, all were committed to their responsibilities. Participant 3 discussed having to maintain multiple job placements to provide financially as a single parent, “I go to work every day, working two and three jobs to provide.” Participant 2 expressed she provides financially for the family as a single parent. However, her work schedule sometimes prohibits her from attending her son’s sporting events that she desires to attend. These results seem to be quite natural and expected given the data obtained for the first category.
The next, even more important element of the category was protection. The participants see protection of their sons in various manners as a critical part of their parenting role. Participant 1 shared, “I am not going to let anybody harm him… I’m going to protect my son no matter, I would literally lie down life for him.” Participant 6 discussed the same experience, “I have to always protect my son because I am not one to back down, and I will fight to the death for my son.” In fact, all participants expressed the same attitudes.
The third factor which needs to be mentioned is support. All the respondents mentioned that they do their best to support their sons in various ways, in particular emotionally, socially, physically, and educationally. They perceived supporting their sons as an effective approach to secure attachment within the mother-son relationship. Participant 1 explained she is her son’s biggest support system. The mother’s goal is to ensure that he is healthy emotionally, mentally and financially literate. Moreover, she would like him to become a productive individual with good morals and values. While this was the most egoistic attitude, with the perception of support rather as personal ‘virtue’ than just normal duty of the parent, other participants expressed more mild approach. For example, Participant 5 talked about the importance of making her son aware that he is loved and supported: “It’s imperative that my son knows that he is loved, someone cares for him, and that I am rooting for him.” Participants 2, 3, 4, 7, and 8 were characterized with similar experiences. At the same time, Participant 6 manifested the most weighted and conscious approach, supporting her son’s overall health and fitness, as well as educational level. She also mentioned that she enrolled her son into a private school to receive a quality education. “I enrolled my son into private school because the education level is different versus public school. My son gets more help from his teachers, and he is in smaller classroom settings.” Thus, she does not ‘praise’ her son but instead facilities that she is able to provide to him.
Each participant sees herself as a guide for son, being a kind of ‘truth of last resort.’ Each mother stated that they gave sons guidance within the home, school, and community setting. The mothers expressed they were the primary source of instilling good morals and values within the home setting. Participant 5 mentioned, “When it came to his standards and values in life, I wanted to be the chief in that area.” Thus, African American mothers are assuming the role of some categorical imperative, not allowing their sons to apply own critical thinking to ethical and moral issues. However, at the same time, some participants use productive ways to instill ethical attitudes and behavior in their children. In particular, the mothers used different types of additional support systems, such as local mentoring programs, and placing their sons in a healthy environment to reinforce positive behavior. Participant 1 said, “I had to figure out a strategy to place him in an environment with good productive people. I decided to enroll him in a mentoring program.” Participant 8 explained that she kept him involved in activities and surrounded by positive influences. She ensured he was well behaved and displayed good manners when he is in the community: “I always try to keep him busy and around positive people. I wanted to make sure he knows how to behave well when he is in public places.” Moreover, some respondents gave spiritual or religious guidance.
Establishing boundaries appeared to be the next important element. The mothers explained that establishing healthy boundaries was essential to develop a healthy relationship. Participant 4 explained, “We set different boundaries as new issues arose, and boundaries were put in place to avoid him from behaving inappropriately.” She added, “I always reinforce boundaries.” Participant 5 mentioned she established clear rules for his conduct, “I was very strict, rules were established, and I was not dogmatic. I ensured that my son understood me and that it was clear to him that there are consequences for his actions.” Participants 1, 3, and 7 described similar experiences. Participant 8 mentioned: “I am always a mother first and not his friend.” Participants 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 shared similar experiences. The mothers shared their responsibility to establish boundaries, set rules and guidelines, and to reinforce mutual respect. A number of the mothers stated they were “always a mother first and not his friend.” They believed that a “mother’s love” is irreplaceable, and a mother should always have her child’s best interest, being his ‘center of the Universe.’
Maintaining multiple roles and responsibilities also appeared to be important element of perceptions of parental roles and responsibilities. The participants explained that maintaining various roles and responsibilities for their sons was an effective approach to developing a strong sense of security and a healthy mother-son relationship. Participant 1 said, “I had to wear a lot of hats; it is imperative that I am a protector, provider, nurturer and disciplinarian. I did this to make sure that I met the needs of my son in every area.” She admitted that “wearing many hats” was pressure, and at times, frightening as a single parent, “I was scared. I had to wear many hats as a single mom.” Participant 2 echoed this sentiment, “I have a lot of roles and different responsibilities as a single mom. I have to wear many hats to help my child.” Thus, even idiomatic expressions used by participants are characterized by similarity, indicating common vision of single parent’ role fulfillment by single African American mothers. It should be said that, despite the absence of the fathers, mothers felt dedicated and committed to their roles and responsibilities, with the hope that their sons would transition from an adolescent into a productive adult.
This category was formulated as mothers discussed the various challenges that led to arising of feelings of anger, frustration, inadequacy, and fear. Anger and frustration were distinguished as the first element of this category. A small number of mothers felt angry that their son’s father was not present to assist in parenting their son, which caused them to become frustrated in some cases. Participant 6 felt anger due to the father’s absence in their son’s life. She stated, “I was angry, his father and I were married, we had this child together, and then he decided that he could not stop doing drugs for the sake of his family.” Some mothers felt responsibilities caused them to become exhausted as a result of fulfilling parenting obligations alone, which caused frustration in them. Participant 2 said: “If one parent has to raise a child by themselves, it is difficult and draining.” Participant 6 added, “I did not conceive my son alone, and I expected his dad to help me parent him. I am tired, but I do not have the luxury of being tired.” Evidently, motherhood in a single-parent family is associated with a number of difficulties in life, both social and personal. Single motherhood causes certain life difficulties for women and members of their families, which are characterized by the appearance of various behavioral reflections and states of personal difficulties
The other indicative element was inadequacy. Each respondent considers both the role of the mother and father as equally vital to their sons’ growth and development. A small number of mothers felt a sense of inadequacy associated with relating to their male child. These mothers believed that if a father or male role model were present, he could have provided their sons with a fatherly perspective, and the sons could potentially better relate to a father figure about male-driven topics or situations. The opinion of the Participant 2 can be called representative for all participants: “I feel my son needs a father or man role model present because I cannot teach him everything he needs to know about being a male. A man can teach him about sports, how to be tough, and so on. I can only teach him what I was taught growing up and my perspective as a woman.” All mothers believe that their sons feel that father could understand them better than mother could. They express doubt in their abilities to ‘substitute’ father when it is crucially necessary, in their opinion: “There are some things I may not be able to explain to him as a father or male would, but overall, I do not think that has anything to do with my abilities to raise him to be a successful, and phenomenal Black man.”
The other associated revealed factor was fear. Some number of mothers had a fear of their sons being influenced by “negative” individuals or misled by society. A significant number of mothers shared fear of son becoming a victim of police-led violence. Participant 1 noted, “I have fear because my son is a Black male. I worry about my son encountering police.” Participants 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 shared similar experiences. It was evident the mothers experienced at set of emotional challenges that influenced their experience. Thus, when being feared about possible negative social influence that can lead to manifestation of deviant behavior in their sons, participants clearly, albeit latently, express concern of systemic racism such as police violence towards African Americans, which, unfortunately, is in the top of public discourse in the USA during last two decades.
Racism and Discrimination
The single mothers spoke about their continuous effort to protect their sons from racism and discrimination. The effects of these shameful phenomena of American society are far-reaching when it comes to African American mothers’ psychological health and their relationship with sons, according to the respondents. This category was formed when mothers discussed that they worried about their sons being stereotyped and falsely accused of crimes or being victims of social injustice and inequality. This category is linked with previous one and should be considered integrally. The participants explained that they lived in constant fear that their sons might be harmed by police-led violence.
The following elements were revealed for this category: 1) stereotyped and being falsely accused; 2) social injustice and inequality. Participant 5 concluded, “Being a mom [and] knowing that African American males struggle more than other races, and they are held to a different standard, I wanted him to be prepared for him to be able to navigate throughout life.” In fact, mothers are not attempting to instill striving for strong citizenship position and legal struggle for their rights, but instead try to teach their sons to ‘survive’ and adopt in hostile and aggressive environment, as if in the wild nature.
The respondents discussed the obstacles they faced as single parents, the ways these challenges affected them, and the approaches to overcome the challenges. They also realized they had to become educators, for they had to teach their sons how to manage the difficult aspects of life the young men would face in today American society. Mothers expressed their inner feelings of anxiety and anger, both connected with the lack of fathers’ participation in raising sons and with the negative phenomena of systemic racism which make the ‘external environment’ to significant extent hostile to young African American males.
The specific factors impacting single African American mothers’ experiences in their relationships with adolescent sons were revealed in the process of empirical study, which helped to outline core patterns of the existing situation and corresponding challenges. These findings are significant because the information presented may help to identify critical findings of parenting (Williams et al., 2017). Moreover, the findings contribute to the study of problems of systemic racism in the USA and its impact on African American families. This situation limits the social environment of the child’s development, disrupting the natural course of many processes, since, as Vygotsky wrote, the social environment and all the child’s behavior should be organized in such a way that every day brings with increasingly and more new combinations, unforeseen cases of behavior for which the child did not have “ready-made answers” (Vygotsky as cited in Derry, 2013 p. 208). In the situation of upbringing in the single mother family, the child’s social experience is rather limited.
‘On the surface,’ the data showed that, overall, that the African American women described positive experiences, for they developed close and affectionate relationships with their sons. In order for these mothers to develop a strong mother-son bond, they offered their sons affection, spent quality time together, practiced open communication, and provided for them financially. Experiencing hardships due to the necessity to play double parental role and substitute fathers in their usual roles in raising and educating sons, they protect, support, and guide their sons but also established healthy boundaries, maintain multiple roles, and meet their responsibilities as single female heads of households. Each mother offered guidance to ensure that their sons chose a positive path in life. The mothers shared that they gave sons guidance on home, school, and community settings. They wanted their children to follow those guidelines and to avoid getting into trouble (Abramovitz, 2018).
However, as the analysis of the results shows, single African-American mothers often manifest overprotectiveness towards their sons, create an overly “heroic” and “infallible” image of a mother in the minds of their sons and try to educate in them the perception of life, including the ethical principles of the mother as the only truth. The women considered themselves to be the primary source of instilling good morals and values within the home setting. Despite the fact that single mothers try to become for their sons a source of knowledge, life experience, friends and advisors in solving difficult life problems, these actions are latently suppressive – thus mothers try to protect their sons from external influences on the formation of their life attitudes. It seems that such a position is likely to lead to difficulties in socializing African American adolescents in the future, when they will have to fully enter “adulthood” in college or university, as well as workplace. In addition, while justifiably fearing the possible unfair persecution of their sons by the police due to their race, single African American mothers are at the same time transmitting into the minds of their sons the stereotypes that have become established in the African American community, which, however, are highly detrimental to full participation of young African Americans in community life, quality education, pursuit of life-long learning, and social mobility.
Racism and discrimination were major concerns noted during the data analysis. The single mothers discussed their continuous efforts to protect their sons from racism and discrimination because these very real concerns impacted the African American mothers’ psychological health and relationships with their sons. This theme emerged when mothers discussed stereotypes, the fear that their sons might be falsely accused of crimes or could become victims of social injustice and inequality.
The participants feared that their sons might be racially profiled; this fear was as a result of the extensive history of police brutality in the United States against African American boys and men. Snyder (2016) reported that such fears were based on statistics that showed such brutality existed. A few of the mothers feared that their sons could be influenced by deviant individuals and groups or misled by society’ attitudes and beliefs. It was evident the mothers experienced various emotional challenges, and the most common emotion seen among the mothers was fear regarding police brutality, racism, and discrimination.
Snyder (2016) indicated that even for the African American mothers who were not directly affected by police brutality, the trauma of witnessing reoccurring brutality on victims who resembled their child could affect them psychologically. Indeed, young Black men were more likely to be killed by police officers than other ethnic groups in America. The mothers in this study explained that they lived in constant fear of their sons possibly being harmed or killed by the police. A small number of the mothers had experienced their sons being racially stereotyped. As a result, they were falsely accused of crimes they did not commit. Participant 1 experienced her son being stereotyped and falsely accused; the police threatened to come into her home and “drag” her son outside. Cases where innocent African American teenage boys are arrested arbitrarily in the United States are common as Cooper (2016) observed, and it was a frightening experience for these single mothers. The African American population has been historically a subject of racial injustice in the United States, and the mothers reflected on this social injustice and inequality. Some participants shared they felt that the overall social and, in fact, political system is not designed to help them African American mothers or their sons (Zhang et al., 2020). However, instead of instilling normal ethnic/racial proud and sense of citizenship in their sons, participating mothers teach them to ‘survive’ in hostile external environment. The mother’s survival instructions for their son were as follows:
- Answer the police officers, “Yes sir or no sir.”
- Do not talk back or disrespectful.
- Always keep your hands up in the air, do not reach in your pocket for anything, or make sudden moves.
These findings confirmed the arguments presented by both theories: Black psychology theory and systems theory regarding the challenges faced by African American youth today. The finding of presented empirical research can contribute to further multidisciplinary investigation of African American families practice in the conditions of systemic latent racism in the USA. It can become valuable standpoint for developing recommendations to improve the situation, based on development and introduction of special programs for African American single mothers and their children, especially for single-parent families raising sons.
Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
It is important to note that when conducting this study, some limitations were encountered. One limitation in the study was that the sample size was small – it consisted of eight participants. According to Patton (2017), the United States has over 13.6 million single mothers raising more than 21 million children, and a significant number of this population is African Americans. This study only included women; there was no gender diversity. It would have been desirable to understand why some men chose to desert their families, but that would be an entirely different topic of discussion. The choice of research design, a generic qualitative design, meant that the study did not involve statistical analysis of data that could be used to do a data-driven study of the problem within the country. As a result, calculation of the prevalence of a given issue when using this method was not carried out. For instance, racism was a major concern among the single African American mothers in this dissertation research. The method employed was not effective in determining the prevalence of such feelings and experiences among a general population. As Damaske et al. (2017) explained, although the method is effective in explaining a phenomenon, it lacks the capacity to demonstrate the magnitude of an issue. Despite this limitation, a qualitative method was effective in addressing the objective of the study and answering the research question. This is due to the fact that the scope of this research implied outlining the social problem under consideration, and not conducting wide-scale research. However, broader research can be conducted further with the bigger samples and extensive set of questions for interviews or surveys. Moreover, further research could distinguish participants by their social and educational status, which will allow achieving deeper understanding of single African Americans mothers’ relations with their sons in the process of raising and education, and implication of these practices in socialization patterns for young African Americans. It would be desirable to investigate the experience of single mothers of other races as well, which will allow concluding if complexities of these challenges and experiences are unique to African Americans.
Implications and Applications
The results of the study presented may have significant implications to future scholars and practitioners, as well as for regulatory bodies engaged in social policy development and implementation. Moreover, the practical significance of the study is determined by the fact that the findings can be used as a theoretical and methodological basis for training specialists in social work and the activities of various social services to optimize the life of single mothers.
Scientific significance of the study is determined by the fact that its findings can serve for revisiting Black psychology theory applied to modern conditions. Today systemic racism differs from racism of the Civil Rights Movement era – mainly, in its latent but at the same time not less acute but even more dangerous nature, and, thus, different approaches are needed to confront it. The study can also contribute to overall social and psychological studies of single-parent families and associated challenges of raising children in such families, features of personal development and behavior of adolescent boys from single-parent families.
Abramovitz, M. (2018). Regulating the lives of women (3rd ed.). Routledge.
Aning, D. (2016). Fighting black poverty: 7 Ways African-American men can escape the cycle of poverty. GRIN.
Baradaran, M. (2019). The color of money: Black banks and the racial wealth gap. Belknap Press.
Boothe, D. (2018). The U.S. child support system and the black family: How the system destroys Black families, criminalizes black men, and sets black children up for failure. Full Surface Publishing.
Brooks, B. (2015). Black single mothers and the child welfare system. Routledge.
Brown, J. (2016). Commentary: Separations: A personal account of Bowen family systems theory. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 37(3), 340-341. Web.
Campbell, J. L., Quincy, C., Osserman, J., & Pedersen, O. K. (2013). Coding in-depth semistructured interviews: Problems of unitization and intercoder reliability and agreement. Sociological Methods & Research, 42(3), 294-320.
Chenail, R. J. (2012). Conducting qualitative data analysis: Qualitative data analysis as a metaphoric process. The Qualitative Report, 17(1), 248-253. Web.
Cohn, A. (2016). Juvenile focus. Federal Probation, 80(1), 64-70.
Cooper, S. M., & McLoyd, V. C. (2011). Racial barrier socialization and the well‐being of African American adolescents: The moderating role of mother-adolescent relationship quality. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(4), 895-903.
Corbin, J. M., & Strauss, A. L. (2015). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (4th ed.). SAGE.
Creswell, J. W. (2012). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (4th ed.). Pearson.
Damaske, S., Bratter, J., & Frech, A. (2017). Single mother families and employment, race, and poverty in changing economic times. Social Science Research, 62(1), 120-133. Web.
Daryanani, I., Hamilton, J. L., Abramson, L. Y., & Alloy, L. B. (2016). Single mother parenting and adolescent psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44(7), 1411–1423. Web.
De Casterlé, B. D., Gastmans, C., Bryon, E., & Denier, Y. (2012). QUAGOL: A guide for qualitative data analysis. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 49(3), 360-371. Web.
Derry, J. (2013). Vygotsky: Philosophy and education. Wiley-Blackwell.
Elliott, S., Powell, R., & Brenton, J. (2013). Being a good mom: Low-income, black single mothers negotiate intensive mothering. Journal of Family Issues, 36(3), 351-370.
Elliott, S., Brenton, J., & Powell, R. (2018). Brother mothering: Gender, power, and the parenting strategies of low-income Black single mothers of teenagers. Social Problems, 65(4), 439-455. Web.
Evans, T. (2014). Help and hope for the single parent. Moody.
Hilal, A. H., & Alabri, S. S. (2013). Using NVivo for data analysis in qualitative research. International Interdisciplinary Journal of Education, 2(2), 181-186. Web.
Kahlke, R. M. (2014). Generic qualitative approaches: Pitfalls and benefits of methodological mixology. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 13(1), 37-52. Web.
Johnsen, T., & Friborg, O. (2015). The effects of cognitive behavioral therapy as an antidepressive treatment is falling: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 141(4), 747-768.
Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. University of California Press.
Leech, J. (2016). Beyond collective supervision: Informal social control, pro-social investment, and juvenile offending in urban neighborhoods. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(3), 418-431.
Liang, L. A., Berger, U., & Brand, C. (2019). Psychosocial factors associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress among single mothers with young children: A population-based study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 1(242), 255-264. Web.
Maynard, B., Salas-Wright, C., & Vaughn, M. (2015). High school dropouts in emerging adulthood: Substance use, mental health problems, and crime. Community Mental Health Journal, 51(3), 289-299. Web.
Pachankis, J., Hatzenbuehler, M., Rendina, J., Safren, S., & Parsons, J. (2015). LGB-affirmative cognitive-behavioral therapy for young adult gay and bisexual men: A randomized controlled trial of a transdiagnostic minority stress approach. Journal of Consult Clinical Psychology, 83(5): 875–889.
Palinkas, L. A., Horwitz, S. M., Green, C. A., Wisdom, J. P., Duan, N., & Hoagwood, K. (2015). Purposeful sampling for qualitative data collection and analysis in mixed method implementation research. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 42(5), 533-544. Web.
Patton, S. (2017). Spare the kids—Why whupping children won’t save Black America. Beacon.
Percy, W. H., Kostere, K., & Kostere, S. (2015). Generic qualitative research in psychology. The Qualitative Report, 20(2), 76-85. Web.
Pierre, E. A. S., & Jackson, A. Y. (2014). Qualitative data analysis after coding. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(6), 715-719. Web.
Smith, J., & Firth, J. (2011). Qualitative data analysis: The framework approach. Nurse Researcher, 18(2), 52-62. Web.
Snyder, H. (2019). Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines. Journal of Business Research, 104(1), 333-339. Web.
Suri, H. (2011). Purposeful sampling in qualitative research synthesis. Qualitative Research Journal, 11(2), 63-75. Web.
Turner, B. (2020). Voices of African American single mothers of young children in child care. Archway.
Weinrath, M., Donatelli, G., & Murchison, J. (2016). Mentorship: A missing piece to manage juvenile intensive supervision programs and youth gangs? Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 58(3), 291-321. Web.
White, D. E., Oelke, N. D., & Friesen, S. (2012). Management of a large qualitative data set: Establishing trustworthiness of the data. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 11(3), 244-258. Web.
Williams, A., Ryan, J., Davis-Kean, P., McLoyd, C., & Schulenberg, J. (2017). The discontinuity of offending among African American youth in the juvenile justice system. Youth & Society, 49(5), 610-633. Web.
Wu, J., Appleman, E., Salazar, R., & Ong, J. (2015). Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia comorbid with psychiatric and medical conditions: A meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(9), 1461-1472. Web.
Zhang, Y., Edwards, R. C., & Hans, S. L. (2020). Parenting profiles of young low-income African American and Latina mothers and infant socio-emotional development. Journal of Parenting, 20(1), 28-52. Web.