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Anecdotes, Data and Single Motherhood

Reading Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece this morning, I winced more than once with painful recognition. Dougherty is about ten years my junior, and he sounds very much like I sounded ten years ago. I’ve changed my tune a bit since then, though.

The details of our respective stories differ in various ways. I’m not the child of a single mother; I’m a child of divorce. My mother left my father when I was about seven years old, and I was raised primarily by her thereafter, but I saw my father most weekends and he was eager to remain in our lives. And my mother did not abandon her own life in order to raise us – she dated for a bit before settling on a new boyfriend, who moved in with us when I was ten and remained a part of our life thereafter (my mother married him several years ago), and throughout my childhood she traveled extensively and, indeed, adventurously. And I was not alone; I had (and have) a younger sister.

And yet many of the dynamics he describes are very familiar. We were poorer than we would have been had our family remained intact, for one thing; for a couple of years, my mother slept on a mattress on the floor, a bed being an extravagance she could not readily justify. The dynamic he describes of becoming his mother’s primary source of emotional support is painfully familiar as well. And those stories he told himself to make him feel good about his situation – I remember those as well. He told himself that he was better off without just one parent, because parents always fight, and eventually get divorced. I told myself I was better off that my parents had divorced, since when they were together they fought all the time (which they did). What I remember most strongly was a powerful need to take her side, to defend her, because I depended on her for care and because she was so obviously straining to keep our heads above water, all of which necessarily meant construing my own father to be the adversary against whom I was defending her. So the search for an uncompromised father figure is a familiar one to me as well.

When it came time to forge my own path in life, I turned much of my childhood understanding on its head, in an effort not to repeat my childhood experience. My mother walked out of her marriage – well, I would never do that, and I would not marry a woman who would consider doing that. I grew increasingly conservative in my own social views – I got more religiously observant, more committed to a vision of life anchored on somewhat traditional sexual roles. I sought a world that would reinforce, by social pressure, precisely the choices I feared I would not be able to sustain on my own.

It never seemed to occur to me that maybe I should ask my wife whether that’s the world she wanted to live in. Whether I might be creating precisely the conditions I was working so hard to escape. Whether turning my personal history into a Kantian universal might, in fact, be more a way of escaping myself than a way of understanding the world.

I am very skeptical, these days, of that move. I would like to understand myself better, because I think I will make better choices – better for me, and better for others – if I do. I would also like to understand the world. And I try to keep my eye on the difference.

Dougherty says he wishes there were more shame attached to out-of-wedlock childbearing, even though he’s the one who would have felt the shame had he been born in such a world. Well, there are parts of the world where social pressure against out-of-wedlock childbearing remains fierce, and where traditional sexual roles still predominate in the family. Japan and South Korea are the two best examples among developed countries. Rather than being characterized by the kind of families that predominated in America in the 1950s – early marriage and multiple children – they are characterized by low fertility, late marriage, and an increasing percentage of the population that never marries or has children. These societies are vastly wealthier today than they were a hundred years ago, but the cost of marriage and children in terms of social position has risen faster than per-capita GDP, and so marriage, and children, are in decline, notwithstanding the prevailing social conservatism.

And leaving aside the question of effects, shame is effective, in these cultures, because it has very deep roots. It comes, first and foremost, from families and communities, not from the virtual village of the media but from the actual village. There are places in the United States that have that character – Provo, Utah, say, or Monsey, New York – but, in general, that’s not the way our society is structured.

On the other hand, as Dougherty notes, whatever they may profess, Times readers live an increasingly conservative life. They marry, stay married, and devote perhaps too much zeal to the welfare of their children. They may talk a libertine line, but they tackle the really important decisions in life – whom to marry, where to live, what career to pursue – very conservatively indeed. That culture is the result of social pressure, not morals legislation, but that pressure comes from somewhere. It has a material basis.

It may be gratifying to duel in anecdotes with the likes of Roiphe – my best friend is a single mother and her kids are doing fine; well, I was raised by a single mother and it was no picnic – but if there is a basis for cooperation across ideological lines on what everyone agrees is a highly significant trend, and one that most consider troubling, that basis begins with a discussion of the material basis of marriage. And that’s a subject for data, not anecdote.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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