The defining characteristic of single motherhood in the contemporary United States is that it is not easily defined. Women who mother without partners may be very young or mature adults. They may be high school drop-outs or have advanced degrees; separated, widowed, divorced, or never married; desperately poor, barely scraping by, or financially secure. An unknown number of married mothers also experience extended periods of sole responsibility for the practical and emotional work of keeping their families going, including wives with husbands in the deployed military and those whose partners work long-distance or travel full-time.
Despite the diversity of lone motherhood in America, media reporting tends to concentrate on three groups: teen mothers, portrayed as jeopardizing their futures by becoming sexually active too soon; "welfare mothers," who may be depicted as scamming the system or as hardy survivors who manage to beat the odds; and the new breed of affluent "single mothers by choice," self-determined professional women who suspend their quest for a suitable life partner and become mothers through donor insemination or adoption. Of the approximately 10 million single mothers in the U.S., relatively few conform to common stereotypes. For many women, single motherhood will be a transitory or shifting state as they marry, re-marry or cohabit with partners who assume parenting and economic roles in their children's lives. For others, single motherhood will be a long-term project as they raise their children and grandchildren, alone.
There's little doubt, however, that single mothering is an especially risky undertaking in a nation that has not made poverty reduction a priority and lacks basic social supports for maternal employment. Of the 10 percent of U.S. children living with a lone, never-married mother in 2006, 4 out of 5 lived in poor or low-income households, as did 3 out of 5 children living with a lone, divorced mother or a lone, never-married father. (Overall, 23 percent of U.S. children under 18 live with a single mother; 5 percent live in single father households.)(1)
Several recent books try to untangle the variations and meanings of single motherhood in the United States, but each provides only a glimpse of the complex whole. Jane Juffer's "Single Mother: The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual" (New York University Press, 2006) attempts to theorize the central experience of single mothering as rooted in the practices of "everyday life." In "Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream" (University of California Press, 2006), sociologist Ruth Sidel seeks to correct the "harsh, hostile, often erroneous, sometimes venomous stereotypes about single mothers, endlessly reiterated by pundits, politicians and members of the media." "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage" by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (University of California Press, 2005), examines social and cultural pressures contributing to high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing among young women in low-income, urban communities, and concludes that marriage promotion is not an effective substitute for addressing the economic and structural conditions that discourage marriage among the poor.
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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.
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Single Mothers and the American Dream
In "Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream," Ruth Sidel offers a more down-to-earth appraisal of everyday life for U.S. single mothers: "Not only do single mothers have the sole or primary responsibility for feeding, clothing, housing and nurturing their children, often with grossly inadequate social resources, but they must function in an environment in which they are constantly being judged and criticized -- a social context in which they are systematically stereotyped, stigmatized, and even despised."
Sidel collected the personal narratives of fifty women who, at some point in their lives, were single mothers by circumstance rather than choice. Her interview subjects include mothers who were widowed, divorced or legally separated from their children's fathers, and unmarried women whose motherhood resulted from unintended pregnancies. Although racially, ethnically and socio-economically diverse, all the mothers in Sidel's study lived in New York City or the surrounding metropolitan area. This is a critical distinction, since single mothers in non-urban and rural communities normally do not have the same access to services, transportation, living-wage employment, and child care as those living in high-density cities and suburbs, and may have fewer close-to-home options for pursuing higher education.
Sidel intends to show that rather than being a negative force in American society, single mothers embody the highest American values. (As Juffer remarks about the proliferation of can-do single mom characters in popular film and television, "The single mother is represented as the Horatio Alger of the new millennium.") "When critics decry the negative impact of single motherhood on children," Sidel writes, "they generally overlook the courage and creativity, the resilience and risk taking needed by almost all single mothers to survive and the indomitable to thrive." In fact, most of the mothers Sidel interviewed were able to overcome profoundly adverse circumstances and "heroically" refashion their lives. Many accomplished this by seeking additional education, and the most successful earned advanced degrees.
The stories in "Unsung Heroines" lend weight to Juffer's theory about the critical role of care-positive communities in single mothers' self-sufficiency. Mothers who escaped being permanently derailed by their unplanned single status managed to devise networks of practical, emotional, spiritual and material reinforcement that enhanced their mobility -- a customized safety-net involving a combination of support from anyone willing to pitch in: parents, grandparents, siblings and other relatives, friends, sympathetic neighbors, older children, social workers and therapists, paid caregivers, professional and academic mentors, faith communities, and, in some cases, children's fathers. With enough and the right kind of help, single mothers were able to move forward and avoid the downward spiral toward isolation and poverty.
While Sidel acknowledges that the quality and pressures of everyday life differ for single and partnered mothers -- the same is surely true for mothers of diverse races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual identities, educational attainment and income levels -- she suggests it's a mistake to view single mothers' needs as unusual or unique. "Single mothers and their children have all too often been seen as a breed apart, a subgroup that requires its own analysis, norms, criticism, and punishment… while single mothers indeed have special problems and vulnerabilities, they differ little from the vast majority of mothers in the United States." Rather than setting single mothers apart as a distinct group with atypical needs, Sidel contends that lone mother families should be viewed as canaries in a coal mine -- households in which unmet needs and vulnerabilities affecting all American families are magnified: "People who are denigrated and marginalized are more sensitive to the dangers in the environment that have the potential to hurt us all." Paying attention to the struggles of single mothers, she concludes, will alert us to both "danger and promise" -- by sensitizing us to the critical shortage of services, support, security and mobility that puts all parents and caregivers at risk, and pointing us toward the right solutions.
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Promises I Can Keep:
Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage
Whether married or not, poor mothers -- especially poor mothers who diverge from middle-class childbearing norms -- are disparaged by pundits, politicians, and other relatively privileged folks who blame the poor for the persistence of poverty. According to Ruth Sidel, "One of the reasons that American society is so ready to blame single mothers for nearly all the problems faced by the American family is the myth that individuals are largely in control of their destiny -- that teenagers knowingly get pregnant, that most single mothers have made a 'lifestyle' decision to raise children on their own, that the impoverished are simply not working hard enough." But as David Shipler documents in his prize-winning book, "The Working Poor" (2004), the causes of poverty are complex and impossible to isolate. Poor people make poor life choices that increase their vulnerability, but do not have the same options and opportunities as non-poor people do, and have fewer resources to help them recover from personal or economic setbacks. To borrow from Jane Juffer's analysis, non-poor mothers and poor mothers inhabit different spaces and communities, and their everyday lives are markedly different. Poor mothers have some choices and mobility, but not the choices and level of mobility middle class mothers take for granted.
In "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage," Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas report the findings of their two-and-a-half year field study of 162 young, unmarried mothers living in Philadelphia's blighted urban neighborhoods. Although considerable research has been devoted to understanding the dramatic increase in non-marital child bearing among young women in low-income communities, Edin and Kefalas saw that the "perspectives and life experiences" of low-income single mothers were mostly absent from the body of scientific evidence. In the course of their interviews and interactions with the women in their study, Edin and Kefalas found that low-income teenagers do, in fact, "knowingly" become pregnant, and many consider early, out-of-wedlock child-bearing as not only a valid life option, but a mature and responsible choice.
"To most middle class observers, depending on their philosophical take on things, a poor woman with children but no husband, diploma or job is either a victim of her circumstances or undeniable proof that American society is coming apart at the seams," the authors write. "But in the social world inhabited by poor women, a baby born into such conditions represents an opportunity to prove one's worth." While the poor women they studied perceive marriage as a "luxury" -- "something they aspired to but feared they might never achieve" -- having children is viewed as a necessity, "an absolutely essential part of a young woman's life, the chief source of identity and meaning." And while the exclusive rhetoric of Single Mothers by Choice identifies the ideal single mother as a woman who has "completed college," and is "able to support a child without recourse to public funds," the young women in "Promises I Can Keep" express a high degree of confidence in their ability to be excellent mothers despite their disadvantaged circumstances.
If the stories in "Promises I Can Keep" have anything to tell us about the big picture of single motherhood in America, it that it's neither possible nor productive to try to interpret the experiences and expectations of young, low-income single mothers through the myopic lens of middle-class norms. "Middle-class beliefs about the right way to start a family are conditioned by a social context that provides huge economic rewards for those who are willing to wait to have children until a decade or more after attaining sexual maturity. …From this privileged vantage point, a disadvantaged young woman's willingness to bear a child well before she is of legal age is beyond comprehension."
The middle-class standpoint is an especially unreliable filter for understanding poor women's attitudes about unplanned pregnancy and abortion. "Abortion is sometimes accepted as necessary -- when a young woman's situation is deemed truly desperate," Edin and Kefalas explain, but "most do not view their own circumstances as dire enough to qualify."
Mothers who choose abortion when the have the means to avoid it are viewed as immature at best and immoral at worst, unable or unwilling to face up to the consequences of their own actions. But beyond the confines of this moral landscape is the fundamental fact that, for these disadvantaged youth, a pregnancy offers young women who say their lives are "going nowhere fast" a chance to grasp at a better future. Choosing to end a pregnancy is thus like abandoning hope. Whereas outsiders generally view childbearing in such circumstances as irresponsible and self-destructive, within the social milieu of these down-and-out neighborhoods the norms work in reverse, the choice to have a child despite the obstacles that lie ahead is a compelling demonstration of young women's maturity and high moral stature.
Obviously, demonizing low-income single mothers is dehumanizing and pointless -- given their circumstances and limited opportunities for self-determination, Edin and Kefalas write, "children offer a tangible source of meaning, while other avenues for gaining social esteem and personal satisfaction appear vague and tenuous." Yet it's equally problematic to romanticize the struggles of poor unmarried mothers as heroic or transgressive by default. Instead, those of us on the "outside" should strive for an objective understanding of the social and economic realities that shape the worldview of mothers whose attitudes about childbearing and child-rearing are, in many respects, profoundly different from our own.
Although young, low-income mothers "seldom view an out-of-wedlock birth as a mark of personal failure," unsympathetic political leaders almost certainly do. Rather than considering what a care-positive community would look like from the perspective of poor mothers -- whether single or partnered -- and what types of services and supports would enhance their mobility and self-sufficiency, public policies are presently geared toward discouraging out-of-wedlock childbearing among low-income women by increasing the opportunity costs (such as imposing work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits) and promoting marriage as a cure to systemic poverty. The problem, say Edin and Kefalas, is that policymakers assume it's possible to compel women to modify their behavior without addressing the structural factors that push low-income women into single motherhood in the first place. "Conservatives are acting on the premise that not being married is what makes so many women and children poor. But poor women insist that their poverty is part of what makes marriage so difficult to sustain. …As long as they have so few other ways to establish a sense of self-worth and meaning, early childbearing among young women in precarious economic conditions is likely to continue."
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Narratives of single motherhood in America are as much about marriage -- as a middle-class norm, as a remnant of the patriarchy, as an economic buffer, as the basis of social entitlement, as a way of ensuring families have an adequate supply of care -- as they are about mothering. The conservative nightmare, of course, is that more generous work-life reconciliation policies -- such as paid family and childbirth leave, paid sick leave, universal health care and a livable minimum wage -- will increase women's capacity for economic independence, and the venerable institution of marriage will crumble. Within the framework of heterosexual marriage as the ideal foundation for family formation, single motherhood can only be explained as a problem -- either a product of men's failure to take responsibility for their actions, or evidence of women's refusal to play by the rules. As with all else in American culture, when it comes to single motherhood women have limited power to define the moral meaning of their private experiences. Are single moms victims of bad luck or trendsetters? Self-determined survivors or sluts?
Jane Juffer sees single motherhood emerging "as a state of possible freedom: Freedom from marriage, freedom from the stigma of 'out of wedlock' births, freedom to have different sexual partners, freedom to raise children in an alternative fashion." Yet the freedom to be a single mother on one's own terms is dependent on fathers' cooperation. One of the more conventional avenues for self-selected single motherhood -- pregnancy resulting from a casual relationship -- is rapidly closing as fathers' rights activists demand legislative protection for men's right to parent their biological children, regardless of the circumstances in which those children were conceived. A woman who assumes she has a right to raise her child on her own may find herself legally bound to a lifetime of co-parenting with someone she barely knows and does not care for -- someone who may not share or respect her child-rearing philosophy, and may even treat her as an adversary. Even women who resort to the expensive alternative of anonymous donor insemination are not completely absolved of dealing with the father factor. Stories of teenagers who use DNA profiles to track down their sperm-donor dads delight the media, since they imply that even with today's advanced reproductive technologies, it's impossible to subtract men from motherhood.
Needless to say, freedom for mothers must include equal opportunities to mother freely in the context marriage and long-term partnerships. As Edin and Kefalas remark, "When people may have sex, live together, and even have children outside of marriage, and when unmarried women are no longer treated like social pariahs, marriage loses much of its day-to-day significance. But at the same time, the culture can afford to make marriage more special, more rarified, and more significant in its meaning. …While the practical significance of marriage has diminished, its symbolic significance has grown." As demographers have noted, marriage has increasingly become a middle-class privilege in America, yet Edin and Kefalas observe "there are few differences between the poor and the affluent in attitudes and values toward marriage" (emphasis in original). They also point out that even when other family characteristics are taken into account, social researchers find that children who grow up in low-conflict households with two biological or adoptive parents have better social and educational outcomes than those raised in single-parent and step-parent families. (That said, many children growing up in single mother families today will do just as well in life as peers who live with married parents -- social research can only predict trends, not individual outcomes.) The task ahead for the feminist project is not to do away with marriage as a meaning-making experience, but to ensure that all mothers -- not just the privileged few who can earn their way to economic independence -- live in a society where marriage does not aid and abet male dominance, and single motherhood is not a prescription for hardship.
mmo : april 2007