WILMINGTON — Lakiesha Fields sees the looks when she has her six kids, ranging from 11 years old to a one-year-old, in tow. Sometimes it’s a look of pity. Other times it’s judgment.
These strangers write the story of her life in just a glance. But only Fields, 30, knows the reality. Only she knows her children gave her something to live for.
Fields’ oldest son was born with a disability. She learned of it four months into her pregnancy. At 18 years old, she left the street to find an apartment and a job to support him. “I was going to have to help him,” she said. “I knew I’d have to be a role model. If I didn’t have these kids, I wouldn’t be serious about my future.”
Ever since her son was born, she has felt compelled to work toward a brighter future. In May, Fields bought a cleaning business and is in the process of getting her real estate license. She has several small business ideas and continues to pursue education opportunities and certificates. “Every time I got pregnant, I knew there would be more on my plate,” she said. “I’m not looking for a reward. I’m just doing what I have to do.”
Every day in the Cape Fear region, single mothers – both Black and white – juggle work and family. But few are forced to overcome more obstacles than the single Black mother ranging from social stigma to medical and economic disparities.
Four of ten single mothers in the Cape Fear region are Black, according to Census data. A Black single mother is one and a half times more likely to live in poverty compared to a single white mother.
The medical data is worse.
Compared to white mothers, Black women suffer a higher rate of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, among other diseases, according to the Department for Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health.
“The health of Black women is measured in their disproportionately poor health outcomes, but it is a result of a complex milieu of barriers to quality health care, racism, and stress associated with the distinct social experiences of Black womanhood in U.S. society,” concluded a February 2021 paper in the Journal of Women’s Health. “Racism and gender discrimination have profound impacts on the well-being of Black women.”
Port City Daily talked to five single Black mothers in Wilmington who are starting businesses, working middle-class jobs or running their own small business every day to make a better life for their families. And they are doing it facing steep barriers to success.
Tarsha Mills, a 42-year-old mother of three, said the data doesn’t tell the whole story. “They don’t see the sacrifice,” she said. “They see numbers. You can’t walk with numbers over your head.”
The obstacles facing the single Black mother are staggering, but the data – while illuminating – only shows the struggle and leaves out the resilience. “As a Black mom, there is more of the negative side of being a single parent,” said Tameca DeVone, the mother of two boys. “If you’re going to tell the story of the Black single mom, you have to tell it from the positive and not just the negative.”
Mira Ferrell, the mother of two boys, moved to Wilmington four years ago after her divorce. A special education teacher, she has two children – 18 and 8. Her oldest son is now in college. Being a special education teacher, she works in a program for troubled students.
“I see when the kids don’t have support at home,” Ferrell said. “I see what [path] they can go down.”
All of the women talked of time management concerns, financial restraints and health issues. But none of that stopped them from not only creating an environment where their children strived, but so did they.
“Way before I had kids, I had a dream I was going to be successful,” Fields, the mother of six children, said.
DeVone was working full time, going to school at UNCW and taking care of two boys when she was diagnosed with cancer. Unable to juggle treatment, work and raising her family as a single mother, she took some time off from school. That didn’t stop her from raising both sons and graduating with a degree in criminal justice in 2018.
“It took me longer for schooling but I did what I set out to do,” said DeVone, 44 years old. “I didn’t want them to see me giving up. I needed to think about the same words I tell them. I just want to be the person that they can look [up] to that didn’t give up no matter what.”
Many of the women interviewed came from single-parent homes and credited their own mothers for showing them how to succeed.
“I never saw my mom quit,” said Ferrell, the mother of two boys. “She pushed on through. I had everything I needed.”
Mills, a mother of three, remembers watching how her mother juggled work and home to provide for her. Mills called her mother an inspiration “That’s where I got my drive from,” Mills said. “You’ve got to get out there and make it for yourself.”
Like the others, Mills wants her own children to learn the same lesson from her. “I have to show them what they need to do when they get into the real world,” she said.
Candace Doe, 34, is raising two children. She was also raised by a single mother. After a couple of years in college, she joined the Navy. Following two enlistments, she went to nursing school after leaving the Navy. She now works at the Wilmington Veterans Affairs hospital. Doe said being a single parent doesn’t define you.
“Never judge a book by its cover,” she said. “Open it up and read it. Being a single parent is challenging but it doesn’t mean you’re struggling. As long as you’re happy and your kids are happy that’s all that matters.”
On a day celebrating motherhood, few mothers do more for their children, their community and themselves. “All paths are different,” DeVone said. “But we all kind of have the same mindset to push for our goals and push our kids to do better. Never let someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes dictate to you how your life is going to turn out.”
Kevin Maurer is a freelance journalist. Learn more about his work.