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Merle Robillard

Meet Doreth Brown

Single. Mother of three. Determined to do more than just get by.

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Downstairs at Toronto’s Metropolitan United, the men are on tenterhooks. The queue for a hot breakfast is unusually long this bitter March morning. A few stand stiffly and mouth a prayer, while others — drug addicts and alcoholics mostly — jerk their heads and hurl their arms. Along this lineup, a woman wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and a no-nonsense haircut moves without hurry or effort. She greets every other “fella,” listening to their rumblings of discontent. Approaching one man who appears downcast and ill at ease, she softly hums a tune of her own making. “And how art thou?” she inquires, with the slightest Jamaican inflection. To another sprawled across the floor, she gently asks for a little courtesy, and he returns a disdainful stare. “Oh, we’re all smiles today, aren’t we?” she says, laughing uproariously. Having done this type of work for two decades, she is able to keep a healthy perspective: her toil is not only for the city’s down-and-outs, but also for her own kids.

Doreth Brown is many things: a social worker, a black woman, a 47-year-old, a single mother of three. Having been divorced twice now, with little or no support from her ex-husbands, she holds down two jobs in social services. Combined, she earns a middle-class salary, but it means long hours in often-cheerless surroundings as well as much time away from her family — sometimes to their detriment. Her oldest, Andre, 23, is still “trying to find his way” after serving time in prison for gun possession, she says. Meanwhile, her stepson Mario, 20, and daughter Tianna, 17, are coming to grips with young adulthood themselves. “I don’t like talking this way, but honestly, it’s been really hard for us,” Brown says matter-of-factly. “We do more than just get by, but it’s been a lot of work if you want to know the truth.”    

The theme of single motherhood runs like an undercurrent through reports of troubled black youth — those whose fathers are in and out of their lives or have never been there at all. Children reap plenty of benefits from their single working mothers, but some disadvantages, too, given the limited time and money these moms can provide to their kids. The end result for many young people: shattered self-esteems and sometimes forays into street crime. Also, between raising their children and keeping their jobs, mothers like Brown often neglect their own mental health, sometimes with serious and sad consequences. Brown’s isn’t the whole story, of course: no single narrative can capture the experience of lone motherhood. But in its own way, her story provides an insight into the unique challenges facing single black mothers in big cities everywhere.

Brown was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, and raised by her store-clerk father. When she turned 18 and discovered there weren’t enough good jobs to go around, she migrated to Toronto to live with her mother and siblings, who had left Jamaica when she was a child. The family lived in overcrowded public housing in the troubled Jane and Finch community. “It just wasn’t what I wanted for myself,” she says.

Rather than descend further into poverty, Brown strove to rise above it. She decided on a career in social services, becoming a health-care aide for the aged and later a nursing clerk, as well as a program support assistant at a group home for teenagers. As Brown’s career grew, so did her family. Andre was born soon after her first marriage, which lasted only a couple of years. Tyana came six years later, but her father — Brown’s second husband — also left after a few years of marriage. Mario, who is the son of Brown’s second husband from a previous relationship, came to live with the family when he was in his early teens — a decision that was right for everybody, Brown says. Supporting three children has forced her to work longer hours, though. Since 2002, Brown has worked the night shift at Seaton House Men’s Shelter in Toronto. In 2005, she took up a second job during the day, joining Metropolitan United’s community services team.

Her daily routine is hurried, regimented. She awakes at 6:30 a.m. in her Mississauga, Ont., townhouse and has two cups of black coffee; prepares lunch and dinner meals; readies herself for work; and then contends with rush-hour traffic on her way to her daughter’s high school and then Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto. Here, Brown, a former Pentecostal, provides outreach to the homeless alongside other community-services counsellors. Often, she’ll lend a hand in the kitchen before lunch and make a run to the Daily Bread Food Bank, too. In mid-afternoon, it’s off to Seaton House, where she counsels more clients — at times over a cold cafeteria dinner — and inspects the dormitories before lights out. Perhaps there’s time to cross paths with her children when she returns home late at night or watch a snippet of one of her favourite TV dramas.

Recent statistics illustrate the continued decline of the nuclear family across the country. Single-parent families now comprise 15 percent of all Canadian households — up from 12 percent in 1990 — according to Statistics Canada’s 2006 census. More than 80 percent of lone parents are women. And anecdotal evidence suggests that black women are shouldering far more than their share of the parenting burden.

The story is much the same south of the border. In the spring 2005 issue of the Wilson Quarterly, David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers University, reported that nearly 50 percent of American children went to sleep each evening without being able to say good night to their dads — three times more than in 1960. The decline of fatherhood, he wrote, is a major force behind youth crime and delinquency, pregnancy, depression, substance abuse and alienation. It’s also a factor in the growing number of women and children living in poverty.

U.S. president Barack Obama wrote about his own absent parent in his autobiography Dreams from My Father. In June 2008, on Father’s Day, then senator Obama sharply assailed absent black fathers at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception,” he told the crowded congregation. The speech was striking for its setting, a predominantly African-American church, and for how Obama directly addressed one of the most sensitive topics in the black community: whether absent fathers bore some of the responsibility for the social problems affecting African Americans.

Back in Canada, Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, the director of Dalhousie University’s school of social work, has been studying black men and fatherhood. Bernard explains that life is already scripted for many black males, and that lack of opportunity eventually leads some away from their families. “The intersection of race and class has a huge impact on the family structure for blacks,” she says.

As Brown begins her rounds as a client service worker at Seaton House Men’s Shelter, she recites the inscription on the front of the building: “There are only three kinds of men: somebody’s father, son or brother.” The words bring her perspective even on the hardest of nights. Straightaway, she’s greeted by male clients ambling in the main corridor, where the scent of air fresheners and industrial floor wax compete with the smell of strange body odours and alcohol. Brown takes on the temperament of a street-corner preacher when working with an elderly man who swerves and speaks nonsensically. She’s the same with others who are intoxicated or high on drugs.    

Reynaldo Martinez, a shift leader at Seaton House, has worked with Brown for more than four years. “Upon intake, she’s able to examine each person — looking down below the surface — and figure out what’s really going on with them,” Martinez says. “She’ll quickly look over to a colleague at Seaton House and say, ‘Yo, this guy really isn’t on the level,’ and move swiftly and accordingly.”

Brown’s colleagues see the irony in a single mother working with down-and-out males. They’ve quietly wondered how she feels about those who have abandoned their own families somewhere down the line. But there appears to be no prejudice on her part, and no ill will either. Says Brown: “I don’t hold any resentment toward men because I’m doing the single parenting thing.

That just wouldn’t be fair. These men of Seaton made their mistakes, true. But they have regret. They talk about their families, their lives, how they’ve lost everything.”

Brown knows the perils of parenting alone, though. When Andre was 18, he was charged for the second time with possessing a firearm. He was arrested along with two other young men while joyriding in his mother’s car and served more than a year at the correctional centre in Penetanguishene, Ont.

Andre, according to his mother, had been a serial collector of resentments leading up to his incarceration. He had a doting mother to convince him he could accomplish anything, but an emotionally distant father who was seldom a part of his life and provided no financial support. As a result, Andre became a caricature of black male adolescence, posturing mannishly while denying his own frailty. Today, he works for a temp agency after attending community college and briefly working at an electronic parts company. Brown is now encouraging him to find a job in the trades.

“You know, I was working too hard to put bread on the table for [my children], and I just wasn’t around that often to supervise my oldest son,” she says while sitting in the upper pews of Metropolitan United’s main sanctuary — a place of solace for Brown at midday. “Maybe if I spent enough time with Andre when he was growing up, he wouldn’t have got into trouble.” But that’s a lot of “what ifs.” And she’s partly consoled by the various letters Andre wrote to her while in prison. In one correspondence, he observes, “Mom, you raised us good. It wasn’t you; it was me.”

Single mothers often alternate between feelings of pride and feelings of shame, according to Kerry Daly, a University of Guelph family relations professor and director of the Father Involvement Research Alliance. And with good reason. In his paper “The Family Time Crunch,” Daly writes, “With a kind of sacrificial tone, many parents talk about the importance of family time in order to make the children happy. But the discordance between their ideals and reality mean that many parents are living in a state of chronic guilt. They express guilt for working so much, for using babysitters and for not spending enough time with their children.”

Because stress and mental illness are inherently linked, it’s no surprise that more than 10 percent of single mothers reported symptoms of major depression — more than twice the level found among married or co-habiting mothers, according to the 2006 Canadian Community Health Survey on Mental Health and Well-Being.

Brown sometimes shows the wear and tear of a single mother with two jobs. But mostly her exhaustion is masked by a broad fixed grin. “Resilient, positive, yes, I’m those things. I just don’t believe in giving up in this life. People go on about having a bad day. Well, there’s no need to talk about that nonsense.”

Still, Brown often talks about black children — not just her own — getting shortchanged, and men — not just those she’s estranged from — needing to “step up to the plate.” It’s a worn-out pronouncement, perhaps, but one echoed by parenting expert Wanda Bernard, who underscores the need for other men — relatives or friends of the family — to mentor children in place of birth dads who have died, left the family or were never there to begin with. “Such positive black men are best-kept secrets,” she writes.

Without the benefit of other men, Brown spends every minute of her weekend with her kids. This is when the family converges for trips to the mall. Some housework. Some homework. Plenty of preparation for the long workweek ahead. It’s when she hears the rhapsodies of praise from her kids. “Mom, whatever happens, you’re not about to give up on us,” they’ll tell her occasionally. Other times, they’ll offer, “Without you, there’s really no us” — words all too soothing to Brown. That’s when her eyes will light up and her smile grows ear to ear, and she knows the fruits of her labours have been realized.

“It’s awfully good to hear compliments from my kids now and again,” Brown says haltingly, trying to find the right words to convey both pride and self-effacement. “Yes, I guess it sounds just about right.” 

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