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.