I remember quite clearly a scene from when I was 10 years old or so and anxious to see a new movie. My mother went out that night with an older cousin of mine, to have a drink, to talk to men, to share jokes. There were no cell phones then and she didn’t call home. So I just kept walking by the window to see if the car had pulled up.
When she did come home I pummeled her with guilt. I didn’t say anything explicitly. I simply pretended to be much sadder and more disappointed than I was or had a right to be. I did so out of selfishness, not out of some deep wound. Even my grandmother who watched me when my mother was away played the role I assigned her. My mother suffered from a deep concern over me and an acute awareness of what she, as a single-working mother, couldn’t provide. I sensed all of this even then, and I used it against her. How dare my mother have a life apart from me, even for one evening.
This scene came back to me as I started reading a few things this morning. Over the weekend, the New York Times unveiled a huge article examining how single motherhood entails tremendous financial struggle and diminished opportunities for children of fatherless homes. It causes and exacerbates America’s growing inequality.
In response, Slate’s Katie Roiphe, asks the Times to stop, just stop.
The [NYT] piece, in tender, gloomy detail, compares the slatternly home of the single mother, all struggle and chaos, to the orderly, promising, more affluent home of her boss, who is married. The moralizing portrait that emerges is not surprising: The single mother and her children have a terrible life, and the married mother and her children have a great one.
Roiphe is exaggerating. (“Slatternly?” Really?) Her response is harsh and nit-picky. It ignores the raft of social science data and indicts the Times for classism and moralism. She pretends that the Times is describing the single-mother as slutty. “The New York Times is recycling truly retrograde and ugly moral judgements,” Roiphe writes. Roiphe asserts the dignity of these homes:
The anxious need to assert that the traditional two-parent family is better has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to run a story about the resourcefulness, energy, and intensity of these homes, a fair, open-minded exploration of these new family structures and the independent, tough women who run them, not yet another unimaginative comparison with a family whose dad takes his son to Boy Scouts. …
Jessica Schairer, the single mother at the center of all this outrageous moralism, put it nicely: “If you are an involved parent, whether there is one of you or two of you, your kids are going to feel like they can do whatever it is they want to do, whether they come from a family with money or a family with not much money.”
I agree with Roiphe to a point, on the dignity of these homes. I also suspect, as she does, that the New York Times noticing this trend is a function of the fact that the social class to whom the Times pitches itself is becoming more self-consciously conservative in their social mores, at least when it comes to parenting. I don’t find this development entirely unwelcome. But, pace Roiphe, the Times’ piece really wrings its hands over “inequality”, not the “slatternly” character of some women.
In any case, I don’t think either the Times in its obsession with socio-economic status, or Roiphe in her rearguard defense of the sexual revolution grasp with the subject at hand. And I can’t pretend to write the whole book on it here, but there are some things only a child of a single-mother could tell you about single motherhood.
I don’t think my behavior that one night was the sole cause, but some time after that my mother really stopped having a life outside the home. She stayed in and conducted no romances of significance. Judging from her diaries and letters, the few men she engaged in even a passing interest were not all that good to her. As a single mother, helping to take care of her parents and her son, she wasn’t in a position to make men be courtly with her. So she stopped trying. That was the sexual revolution for her. Men willing to sleep with her, but not willing to build a family.
By financial and emotional necessity, she became wrapped in a co-dependent relationship with her parents, who relied on her in their last years. And after they died and I became a teenager, our relationship in turn became more co-dependent as well. She tried being my friend as a teenager. But as I went on to college and beyond I was her entire immediate family. And as I was trying to fly the nest, she needed my presence more than I could give it. I thought she might die when I told her I was moving to Washington D.C. and she would have to make do without me, at least during the work-week.
Obviously all the social science the Times presents in its article point to a basic truth: broken homes divide and scatter resources. My father, not a U.S. citizen, sent over some money when I was a child, but it didn’t seem like much. They were never married and eventually he had his own household to look after, so there were no obligations to her specifically. He started sending money to me directly when I was a teenager.
Not having a father around meant I took on more student debt than I would have otherwise. It meant I would be recalled from college to do things around the house on the weekend, or I would come home just to make sure she was alright and make sure she spent time with someone. Instead of her helping me start life financially, I was helping her manage her mortgage payment, or paying for a new water-heater. I was happy to do so when I could. Though I often wondered where her actual inabilities were real, or when they were manufactured (even unconsciously) to bond me with her, even in hardships. In other single-mother households I knew, things functioned much less smoothly.
Helping her meant diminished resources for starting my own family when it came time. It also meant that there was no one else to manage things when she became sick and died last year.
My young childhood and adolescence (maybe my whole life) was wrapped up in searching for substitute father figures: uncles, neighbors, teachers, professors, priests, even God. I know I’m not alone in this. This state of life makes one especially vulnerable to peers and to predators. I survived just fine, others in similar situations don’t.
Did my mother live a life of dignity? Yes, of course. She fought so much for what little she had, and cared for me almost recklessly. I do not blame her for her behavior. Although, I think even Roiphe would have wished for her to have more of a life apart from her child than she did. There was an emptiness in her life as I became more independent. Having lost the social role of mother, she had few other roles to play and took worse and worse care of herself. Discarded by men, unneeded by her son. In mysterious ways, she became more immature as she aged. I’d like to think more innocent too.
I remember telling myself little fantasies as a child and a young man, that my home, peaceful and harmonious if strapped, was probably better than the bickering and arguing and likely divorce that came with having two parents around. As if the only alternative to homes like mine are ones filled with resentment, yelling, and domestic abuse.
Writing checks, delivering take-out dinners, and trying to fit in 20 minutes of quality time with my empty-nester mom shook those fantasies out of me. We told ourselves all sorts of things while I was growing up, but my mother would have been happier, healthier, and more secure with a man to love, and with one who loved her. She would have had more of that if she had more children too.
So do I wish there were more social stigma, the “retrograde and ugly moral judgements” that surround decisions about sex and family? Absolutely. And yes, it would have cost her something if she indeed fell on the wrong side of those taboos. And it would cost me something to be a “bastard” if that word could still wound. People are nasty about social taboos, and I don’t sanction that. But my mother faced plenty of indignities without those moral judgements. If we got do overs, I’d be willing to risk it.
From my perspective the sexual revolution liberated men to abandon the mothers of their children, defining fatherhood down to an alimony payment and maybe state-defined visitation. Women like my mother were expected to raise families entirely on their own emotional and financial resources, however meager. The answers given to the problems that this social revolution caused tend to be curt and unhelpful: contracept better. Or as my mother was ominously told by some upon my conception, “Just take care of it.” Those seem like the “retrograde and ugly” moral sentiments to me.
Just because I turned out fine doesn’t mean that everything is fine.