In a season of ardent partisan clashing, Americans seem united in at least one shared idea: Single mothers are bad. A Pew Research Center poll on family structures reports that nearly 7 in 10 Americans think single mothers are a "bad thing for society."
Conservatives obsess over moral decline, and liberals worry extravagantly - and one could argue condescendingly - about children, but all exhibit a fundamental lack of imagination about what family can be - and perhaps more pressingly - what family is: we now live in a country in which 53 percent of the babies born to women under 30 are born to unmarried mothers.
I happen to have two children with two different fathers, neither of whom I live with, and both of whom we are close to. I am lucky enough to be living in financially stable, relatively privileged circumstances, and to have had the education that allows me to do so. I am not the "typical" single mother, but then there is no typical single mother any more than there is a typical mother.
It is, in fact, our fantasies and crude stereotypes of this "typical single mother" that get in the way of a more rational, open-minded understanding of the variety and richness of different kinds of families. The structure of my household is messy, bohemian, warm. If there is anything that currently oppresses the children, it is the idea of the way families are "supposed to be," an idea pushed - in picture books and classrooms and in adults' casual conversation - on American children at a very early age and with surprising aggressiveness.
At 2, my son, Leo, started to call his sister's father, Harry, "my Harry." When he glimpsed Harry's chocolate-brown 1980s car coming down our block he would say, "My Harry's car!" To me this unorthodox use of "my" gets at the spirit of what we're doing: inventing a family from scratch. There are no words for what Harry is to him, but he is definitely his Harry.
The other day Leo brushed his mop of blond hair in front of the mirror and announced, "Now I look like Harry." People are quick to tell me that this is not the real thing. But is it necessarily worse than "the real thing"? Is the physical presence of a man in the home truly as transfiguring, magical and unadulteratedly essential as people seem to think? One could argue that a well-loved child is a well-loved child.
To support the basic notion that single mothers are irresponsible and dangerous to the general order of things, people often refer vaguely to "studies." I am not a huge believer in studies because they tend to collapse the complexities and nuance of actual lived experience and because people lie to themselves and others. (One of these studies, for instance, in order to measure emotional distress asks teenagers to record how many times in a week "you felt lonely." Is there a teenager on earth who is a reliable narrator of her inner life? Can anyone of any age quantify how many times in a week they have felt lonely?) But since these studies provide fodder for those who want to blast single mothers, it's worth addressing what they actually say.
Studies like those done by the Princeton sociologist Sara S. McLanahan, who is one of the foremost authorities on single motherhood and its impact on children, show that conditions like poverty and instability, which frequently accompany single-mother households, increase the chances that the children involved will experience alcoholism, mental illness, academic failure and other troubles. But there is no conclusive evidence that, absent those conditions, the pure, pared-down state of single motherhood is itself dangerous to children.
PROFESSOR McLANAHAN'S studies over the years, and many others like them, show that the primary risks associated with single motherhood arise from financial insecurity. They also offer evidence that, to a lesser extent, particular romantic patterns of the mother - namely introducing lots of boyfriends into children's lives - contribute to the risk. What the studies don't show is that longing for a married father at the breakfast table injures children.
And Professor McLanahan's findings suggest that a two-parent, financially stable home with stress and conflict would be more destructive to children than a one-parent, financially stable home without stress and conflict. There is no doubt, however, that single motherhood can be more difficult than other kinds of motherhood. In France, the response to the added difficulty is to give single mothers preferential access to excellent day care. Here the response is moralism disguised as the concern and, at other times, simply moralism.
The idea of "single mothers" may itself be the convenient fiction of a fundamentally conservative society. In fact, women move in and out of singleness, married parents break apart, men and women live together without marrying, spouses or partners die, romantic attachments form and dissolve. Those who brandish research like Professor McLanahan's ongoing Fragile Families study and Paul R. Amato's 2005 paper on changing family structures to critique "single mothers" conveniently ignore the fact that such investigations rely on shifting, differing and extremely complex definitions of the households involved.
What gets lost in the moralizing conversation is that there is a huge, immeasurable variety in households, and there are great ones and terrible ones, arduous ones and inventive ones, drab ones and exuberant ones, among families of all structures and economic strata.
It's useful and humbling to remember that no family structure guarantees happiness or ensures misery: real life is wilier and more fraught with accident and luck than that. If you think that being married ensures a good life for your children you need only enter a bookstore and open any novel, or go to the theater and watch practically any play, or have dinner with nearly anyone you know. Suffering is everywhere, and married parents, even happily married parents, raise screwed-up or alcoholic or lost children, just as single parents raise strong, healthy ones. What matters most, it should go without saying, is the kind of parent you are, not whom you sleep with, and even that matters only up to a point.
With the steep rise of children born to unmarried parents, America's prevailing fantasies of family life no longer match the facts on the ground. But as the children born to unmarried women under 30 come of age in the majority, these faded archetypes will have to evolve. Our narrow, constricting, airless sense of the isolated nuclear family has not always, if we are honest, served us well, and it may now be replaced by something more vivid and dynamic, and closer to the way we are actually living.
All of the liberal concern about single motherhood might more usefully be channeled into protecting single mothers, rather than the elaborate clucking and exquisite condescension that get us nowhere. Attention should be paid to the serious underlying economic inequities, without the colorful surface distraction of concerned or judgmental prurience. Let's abandon the fundamentally frothy question of who is wearing a ring. Young men need jobs so they can pay child support and contribute more meaningfully to the households they are living in. The real menace to America's children is not single mothers, or unmarried or gay parents, but an economy that stokes an unconscionable divide between the rich and the not rich.
The writer is a journalism professor at New York University. www.nytimes.com
Leave Your Comments