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The subject of single mothers


Single Mother:
The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual

While Jane Juffer's intensely academic analysis of single mothering may not appeal to average readers, I was intrigued by the concept of "domestic intellectuals," and the implication that single mothers are uniquely suited for the job. Unfortunately, after taking the long, strange trip through "Single Mother: The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual," I am no closer to understanding how domestic intellectuals will use their acquired knowledge to collectively transform society, or why single mothers have special access to this brand of intelligence.

Single moms, Juffer explains, "put together everyday life at the complex conjuncture of social, economic, political and cultural forces" and therefore function as "domestic intellectuals," "operating within the usually denigrated realms of child care and house work to rearticulate these realms as ones of political, economic and social possibility." Why married mothers, paid caregivers and the growing number of men who spend part of their lives submerged in the "denigrated realms of child care and housework" do not automatically qualify as domestic intellectuals is never fully explained, although Juffer eventually concedes "there is nothing essentially true about mothering -- it is constituted through the cumulative practices of everyday life, in which anyone can share." If there is nothing essentially true about mothering -- a premise I find entirely plausible -- it stands to reason there is nothing essentially true about single mothering. This proves to be a constant stumbling block for the author as she tries to craft a workable theory of single motherhood as a potentially subversive status.

According to Juffer, the decisive difference between partnered mothers and self-sufficient single mothers is that single moms must search out or invent new opportunities to redistribute the moral and material weight of caring for young children. It is through this process, she suggest, that single mothers are prepared to envision "the conditions in which woman can chose to remain single mothers if they wish because they feel fully supported in their everyday lives." From the author's perspective, communities in an ideally supportive society would be structured around the "shared recognition that mothering is indeed work," an orientation she finds painfully absent in the "highly individualized and isolating work practices" of the academic community, in which she herself is located. Indeed, Juffer seems somewhat stunned that her scholarly colleagues are so insensitive to her maternal reality, and feel no obligation to lighten her load.

Few mothers, single or otherwise, will disagree with Juffer's conclusion that acknowledging carework aswork is the first step to reforming institutions and attitudes that keep mothers down. Yet I grew impatient with the author's hypothesis that lone mothers have a more sincere claim to support for their mothering work -- particularly since in every instance, the policies and best practices that would improve conditions for single mothers will benefit caregivers across the board. Juffer tends to idealize motherhood without marriage for its potential to dismantle the patriarchal family, but the few mothers she selectively interviews seem vastly more concerned with the immediate problem of getting by -- and for the most part do not resist marriage on principle, only marriage to specific men.

Juffer's analysis is frustratingly incomplete on other levels, but she gets credit for introducing several concepts from the field of cultural studies which are useful to articulating the social experience of mothering. These include the concept of "spaces" -- both real world and intellectual -- that support or conflict with caregiving as the normal outcome of relational attachment, and "mobility" as variable of everyday life. If the practice of caregiving is defined by the embodied needs of particular humans, Juffer reasons, how does the relationally-inscribed responsibility to care affect single mothers' mobility and inclusion in different communities? For contemporary mothers, the level of mobility required for any degree of self-sufficiency invariably relies on transferring a meaningful chunk of caring work to someone else -- and depending on how communities are organized and what they value, single mothers encounter different barriers to full inclusion.

Juffer also offers a provocative critique of the troublesome category of "choice mothers" or "single mothers by choice." Citing the support organization Single Mothers by Choice as an example, Juffer concludes "there is a danger that their insistence on the right to choose to become single mothers is contingent on at least a rhetorical denial of the capacity of other single mothers to choose" (emphasis in original). She notes that middle-class mothers who self-identify as single "by choice" take considerable pains to distance themselves from the far greater population of divorced mothers and low-income women who similarly reject marriage as a precondition for childbearing.

Samples from the purpose statement of Single Mother by Choice tend to confirm Juffer's doubts about the moral construction and exclusivity of the SMC identity:

The word "choice" in our title has two implications: we have made a serious and thoughtful decision to take on the responsibility of raising a child by ourselves, and we have chosen not to be in a relationship rather than be in one that does not seem satisfactory.

Single motherhood is ideally for the woman who feels she has much to give a child and who has adequate emotional and financial resources to support herself and her child… The majority of us have completed college, are well-established in our careers, and are able to support a child without recourse to public funds.

Juffer asserts that SMC's coupling of elective motherhood with class privilege "undermines the potential for alliances with other single mothers as well as the possibility that their work might help change the political-social conditions shaping mothering and the general act of caring for others… [Theirs] is a counterproductive and contradictory rhetoric: they reject the support for caring that they and other mothers could use because they fear being stigmatized as dependent." Moreover,

The problem with "choice" is that it quickly slides into personal responsibility and individual wealth. If it was your choice to have a child, then it must be your responsibility to care for him/her, and if you can't, then you must be a bad mom. The ethical challenge for feminism, then, is to work toward conditions in which all women enjoy reproductive freedom, including the choice to become a single mother and raise your child in a situation which is, as much as possible, a life of freedom.

Unsung Heroines

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