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.
She goes on to say that she dislikes “studies’ (scare-quotes hers) and tends to disregard them. Which is fine, but “studies” have actually shown that the reason children of single mothers tend to have more problems than children of married mothers is because of financial and familial instability. Which, duh. And while Katie might think that single mothers are just as varied as married mothers, the truth is that disproportionate numbers of single mothers are low-income, and face significant challenges. I’m on board with her arguments that single motherhood isn’t a bad thing and marriage is definitely not the solution to the problems faced by low-income moms, but whitewashing the reality in favor of discussing her own situation isn’t really helping. I will give her credit, though, that she’s right here:
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.
Well also single mothers need basic support systems: health care, day care, protection from discrimination, fair wages. Roiphe’s set-up here again places mothers as care-takers for children who are financially dependent on men — it’s young men who need jobs to pay child support, not women who also need fairly-paying positions (and federally mandated parental leave). If the problems are stretched finances and familial instability, there are pretty easy fixes: Make sure that every American can cover the basics (health care, day care, rent) and quit using “get married” as a solution to all of womankind’s problems. “Get married,” if it takes precedence over “take care of your family, whatever that family looks like,” encourages women to stay with crappy partners who don’t pull their own weight and who contribute to the exact instability that’s damaging to kids. Marriage isn’t a panacea. It’s not a problem-solver. In the aggregate it often means two incomes, which means greater financial stability, which often does mean fewer fights and fewer day-to-day stresses, but that doesn’t make married parenthood automatically better than single parenthood for all or even most couples. A lot of single mothers are single for a reason, and not just because they couldn’t trick a man into putting a ring on it. Maybe start supporting all kinds of families — and not just the ones who are Bohemian and charming enough to make it into the New York Times.