How a young black Brooklynite found fame as an outspoken opponent of unwed parenthood — then wondered if she had it all wrong.
Two years ago, I couldn’t even leave the house. I made myself invisible as a means of survival.
I was at the center of a media storm related to my landmark event, Marry Your Baby Daddy Day (MYBDD). I produced an all-expense-paid mass wedding for unmarried parents, with the works, from cakes to rings to custom-designed wedding dresses. At the peak of my career I published several novels with a major publishing house, sat with Soledad O’Brien and John Stossel, and basked in the kind of publicity money couldn’t buy. I successfully rallied businesses, community leaders and sponsors to help me strengthen two-parent homes in urban communities.
Like any good idea, it all started in a basement.
In 2005, I was in my late twenties, and after living in Florida for a few years, moved back in with my mom in Brooklyn. St. Martin’s Press was just about to publish my third book “Marry Your Baby Daddy,” a novel in which three sisters stand to inherit a small fortune from their grandmother, but on the unusual condition that each must marry the father of her children no later than six months after reading the will. I had written two previous novels on women in unconventional relationships, including a set of short stories called “Sex and the Single Sister.” My most recent book, while fiction, addressed what I had come to see as a real and very serious problem in my community.
In my own life, I had a pattern of dating older men who had children but had never married the mother of their child. It became an intriguing part of my dating experience, as the men consistently vented their frustrations to me. While the plight of single mothers is well told, I got another side of the story, and learned that these men were often in just as much pain as the women. Talking with girlfriends of mine, I realized this wasn’t uncommon. I met many couples who had children together and lived together, but were not married because the women settled for a verbal commitment instead of something more. Through further research, I found that there were many women who wanted to be wives; they just didn’t know to get there.
While I was researching the book, I came across a ridiculous statistic: Seventy percent of births in the black community are out of wedlock. I couldn’t believe it. Digging a bit deeper, I saw possible reasons, like lack of money, time and motivation, but I felt there was more. When I met and interviewed couples, I learned that it was simpler: Women and men were simply not communicating. Something had broken down. A bigger reason was the lack of a cultural stigma. Unlike in the past, when black people married in droves, these days there is little pressure from family and peers to do so. The topic of my book, and the indescribable passion I felt for the real social issue at hand, drove me towards this issue.
I had also recently broken an engagement of my own, to a man I had thought was the love of my life. Newly single and living at home, I wanted to give others what I didn’t have, and send some good vibes out to the universe. It was never about taking a religious or political stand. I wanted to celebrate love and make sure children had healthy, stable, two-parent homes. As a former educator, I saw firsthand what broken or unhappy homes can do to children. My book gave me the chance to change the lives of ten families, and I jumped at it.
* * *
At three a.m., I sent an email about my big idea for a mass wedding with the title, “This Is Not A Joke.” Forty-eight hours later almost every major media outlet that mattered called me for the details. I had no couples, no venue, nothing.
I pushed up my sleeves and got on the phone. Email was not a sufficient channel to properly explain what I had in mind for a mass wedding of “baby mamas and daddies.” It couldn’t be just any mass wedding, either. It had to be sexy – good dresses, good food, attractive couples, fun and romantic. I pulled a team together, including a wedding planner. A story in the Daily News attracted sponsors, partners, and the couples who would be wed. Many of them were already engaged, but had put “getting married” on the bottom of their priority list, with work and money issues as their main concerns. Eventually, I vetted the thousands of calls from couples and narrowed it down to ten. Meanwhile, media interviews gave me a chance to express my opinion and show the positive attitude among many unwed parents that I thought was under-covered. I spoke often about how many unwed parents do want to get married, but were unsure if it mattered anymore. I wanted to show them, and myself, that it did matter. I also needed to believe in love again.
The wedding day was a bright, colorful fall morning, without a cloud in sight. When a venue fell through at the eleventh hour, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz helped arrange for the wedding reception to be held in the rotunda of Brooklyn Borough Hall, a landmark building with wide white columns and winding staircases. The entrance was adorned with ten delectable red velvet, coconut and pineapple cakes designed for each couple by Brooklyn’s own Cake Man Raven. It was important to me that the wedding look stylish and upscale to contradict the “ghetto” wedding some had imagined because of the name.
The distinguished Reverend Dr. Herbert Daughtry of the House of the Lord Church officiated the ceremony, with grooms dancing their way down the aisle followed by their children. Ten brides in couture-style, white, pink and gold wedding gowns streamed into the hall for their first dance to Shalamar’s “This Ring.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was a dream come true for the couples, their families, the vendors who contributed their valuable goods and services — and me. I only spent $116, a tiny fraction of the six-figure value of such a massive undertaking.
Surely, I had to do it again. An encore was in huge demand after the intense media attention. I held another “Marry Your Baby Daddy Day” in 2009 at the Riverside Church in Manhattan to much fanfare.
I had picked up over twenty million media impressions nationally and internationally. I was featured on ABC News, 20/20, NPR, The New Yorker, Essence, CBS Early Show, Newsweek and CNN, among others. NBC Nightly News chose me as their “Making A Difference” person of the week. Meanwhile, countless bloggers and radio show hosts blasted my idea and criticized its purpose. The common question among the naysayers was: Why are these unmarried couples with kids getting married now? My response was always: Why not now?
I thought I was on the verge of a personal and career breakthrough. My couples got the wedding of their dreams, the children got happy parents, and I got…well, what did I get?
* * *
After the excitement settled down, I had only press clippings to show for it. With each day, even those got less relevant. Publicity didn’t pay the bills. Producing the mass weddings had become a full-time job, only it didn’t pay. I was unemployed with no viable options for lasting income.
My life was not looking the way I wanted it to look. I wanted what my couples had: security, a family life and stable income. Instead, I was single and still living at home.
I got a call from an editor of a major women’s magazine for a “woman of the year” award. By the time they interviewed me on the phone, it was too late. I was bitter. I talked myself out of it and told them I did not plan to do Marry Your Baby Daddy Day again.
I worked temp jobs to tide me over until I figured my life out. I slowly pushed away one of my life’s greatest achievements: giving children a healthier, more stable family. By 2008, I was on food stamps, and soon after declared bankruptcy. I stopped writing and doing anything that would bring me too much attention. I didn’t want to speak about anything related to MYBDD. I chose something safe and taught as an adjunct for a while.
By this time, I was in my mid-thirties and still unmarried. Surprisingly, the idea of having a child outside of marriage had started to seem like a suitable option. I was hearing from women in their thirties and forties who had chosen to do so, and I understood why. I was growing more compassionate, more self-reflective – and older. Why did I want to shut off my options? I was moving in the opposite direction of what I had become known for, but I decided perhaps it was time for a new identity that demonstrated where I was in my life as a grown woman.
That same year, I started a blog called Alphanista, which represented the complete opposite of the conservative marriage and family values I’d previously championed. Instead, I touted the alpha female perspective on life, politics and relationships. It was all about unpacking issues that went against the grain – and yes, maybe even getting pregnant without marriage.
In 2009, I started to look for a full-time job so I could move away from temp work. I came close to scoring lucrative positions with second and third interviews, but never quite made it to the offer. I got a little paranoid and blamed it on MYBDD. I didn’t expect the average employer to understand.
Television producers contacted me with reality show ideas and the movie rights for my book actually sold. But nothing ever happened. I was burning inside with disappointment again, seeing my dreams dwindle. I was hoping for an editor job at a magazine, a radio show, a TV correspondent spot or magazine column that would help drive my book sales and support myself financially. My life had become a constant wait for something. I’d wait for emails and voicemails that held the power to change my life, or so it seemed. How could I have it all and then nothing?
I got married, thinking it was an answer to my prayers for love and companionship. I moved out of state into a new home and community, and looked forward to a chance to reinvent myself. But I had attracted a dark situation that threatened my emotional and physical safety. I filed for divorce and returned home to Brooklyn.
When I married I thought I had achieved one of my highest values. Instead, I learned several things: Sometimes not having kids is a good thing. Marriage does not ensure love. Children are sometimes safer when parents are apart. My divorce made me hopeful about marrying again, but I vowed to choose wiser.
After I divorced in 2011, I was embarrassed. I lived my worst nightmare everyday back at home – childless, with no prospects or money. No little girl imagines her life that way. I know I didn’t. It was painful. I was ashamed. I was tired.
I had a choice: surrender, or start selling my panties on Craigslist for income. I chose surrender.
Surrender meant no more plotting and planning. I had to give up my old identity, an identity that had kept me trapped in an old story: giving up my needs to fulfill the needs of others. There was also another identity, the one I showed the world: a smart, confident, witty, bright, lucky woman who had it easy. I didn’t look like I needed anything, so no one ever asked.
I let myself get out of control. I had no container, no support to help me create my life consciously with intention.
It took a few years of soul searching, spiritual retreats, new friends, and moving back to my mom’s house to give up what I thought my life should look like.
* * *
On New Years Day 2013, I stared at my computer – surrendered and all – and had a spark. I had always used my teaching skills to supplement my income, but the adjunct market paid too little to get my own apartment and keep up with bills. After some online searches, I found an opportunity to teach abroad. I was aware of these types of jobs for some time, but never had the guts. I applied for a job in the United Arab Emirates — a country with a thriving economy, high salaries for teachers and a booming job market for expats.
I applied and forgot about it. It was the “craziest” thing I could do and I thought it probably wouldn’t happen anyway. It hadn’t dawned on me yet, but my life was changing.
I still had very little money and few opportunities. Frustrated, I did what any self-respecting woman would: I got dressed up and went out for a drink. I took my last $40 and made the most of it (train fare included) at the St. Regis, a bastion of luxury in Manhattan. That night was a turning point for me. I laughed with strangers who supplied me with drinks and food. I shared my love of art with an Italian businesswoman, politicked with a CEO of a green energy company about ideals, and talked shop with a magazine editor. That night, I came for a drink, but my willingness to go out of my head for a minute bought so much. Talking to those people, but also being cared for, and attended to, was welcomed. I was humbled by that night, and can’t explain how we all came together, each with our own sorrows.
Not sure about taking the train home before the room stopped spinning, the CEO kindly put me in a cab. That meant I’d have to leave my car parked in downtown Brooklyn until the next morning. I always had nightmares of losing my car and not finding it. But that night, I left the car and I slept like a baby because I had finally let myself have some fun, and let go of being in survival mode. I woke up the next morning with a sense of lightness I hadn’t experienced in months. If I can let the car go, I thought, I can surely let some other things go, too.
I began donating my clothes, selling my old cell phones, and anything I could do to make some extra cash. I was ready to go — anywhere. The teaching agency hadn’t contacted me for months, so I stopped waiting. I took the time to process my deepest fears with a compassionate therapist, meetings with my Buddhist group, and time alone. I cried, I kicked, I wrote, I exercised, and I painted. I went through a spiritual, physical and emotional overhaul that left me in warrior mode.
When I finally got the official job offer, I had three days to decide. To stay would have been living out my old story, afraid to try something new out of fear it would not work out like I hoped. To go would be creating a new story from a place of abundance, and 10,000 miles away from anything familiar. It was a three-year contract in a faraway country. What if I wanted kids? How would I get in a new relationship in a country where sex outside of marriage was illegal? I hadn’t had sex since 2011, and surely I’d be dooming myself to celibacy for three more years. It seemed like one part of my life was about to take off, while the other would get snuffed. I’d be starting over, yet again.
The moment I stepped on that plane with only $500, I knew life as I knew it would change forever. This was more than a job. My life had finally opened up. I was no longer in a holding pattern, reliving an old, painful story everyday. The dreams I had became new again. I asked new questions of myself. Did I even want kids? Do I need to be married to have them? I wasn’t twenty-eight anymore, and I understood that we all must walk our own journeys. My divorce showed me that I had another chance at life. I was open to what the world had for me. I didn’t have room for any more rules, or worrying about the way others were living their lives.
Abu Dhabi is a family-centric place, and it’s easy to be reminded of your single status, but my visits to nearby Dubai have taught me a lot. I meet with a group of professional women there every few months, and we pitch ideas and support each other on our unique paths. I hear their stories, frustrations and celebrations. I meet with another group of female writers who helped birth my sixth novel, “This Life.” I’ve met single women who have set up their own businesses, are well into their thirties and forties, and live independently. They are childless and contribute their own value to the world. There are many ways to live life as a single woman, even in a conservative, marriage-based culture like the Middle East.
Living here holds me up to myself like a mirror. Finding community and connection has been my greatest success since moving. In the past, I created the community. I didn’t join anybody else’s. Now I get the chance to be part of several communities that feed my business, creative and spiritual selves. I coordinate events, laugh with others over long, lazy brunches, or have a glass of wine with a friend and share our disappointments with compassion. A few years ago, I didn’t have a friend to call on a whim for a cup of coffee.
I can see it all from a different lens now. I had waited all along for stability, thinking that then I’d be happy. I was looking for something outside of myself to make that happen. But nothing outside of myself should ever have that much power.
When I got on that plane, leaving behind everything I knew and the network of support I had created, I was starting over on my own terms. I was alive, vibrant, and engaging with the world on a whole new level. Maybe that was what Marry Your Baby Daddy Day was all about: giving others what I wanted for myself — a new start.
* * *
Maryann Reid, award-winning author of several novels published by St. Martin’s Press, has a passion for writing stories that unveil the lives of gutsy women on the brink of self-discovery or disaster. Find out more about her here, or check out her latest novel, This Life.
Corinne Mucha is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Chicago.