May 15 2012
In honor of Mothers' Day, The Atlantic ran a piece called "In Praise of Single Mothers." It's mainly autobiographical, the account of one woman and her hard-working, persevering mother.
Of course mothers - single or otherwise - deserve great praise for their endless support and 24-hour care for their children. More so than any government leader or political movement, mothers shape the future. It's true that "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." In the past, mother rocked the cradle, while father won the bread.
But today, many women handle both. The New York Times reported in February that the majority of births to women under 30 were outside of wedlock. The Times author wrote, "Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America." Single motherhood has become more and more popular and acceptable.
Recently, the firestorm over the Obama campaign's fictional "Julia" has raised questions yet again about the relationship between single motherhood and state dependancy.
So, to shoot back, and to stand up for her own mother (who, it sounds like was divorced from a violent man), writer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon penned a poignant defense of single motherhood in The Atlantic. Here's an excerpt:
What did we learn from these women who worked one or more miserably paid jobs while battling domestic turbulence, hunting for child support, hustling to pay rent, and forcing us to do our homework all on their own?
Perseverance, perspective, determination, the need to clean up your own messes and confront your own problems, no matter how difficult. Above all, resilience. And the importance of realizing how much you have, even when "much" feels like nothing.
I'm sure the author - like many people - takes pride in the way her family overcame obstacles. But my word of caution is this: While many women bravely piece together beautiful lives for their children out of broken homes, we should avoid esteeming single motherhood.
First of all, we should all put blame where blame is due. I'm sure many women didn't plan to become single mothers. Not only does it take two to tango, but in the case of The Atlantic author, it sounds like her mother escaped from an abusive relationship. Men who leave or abuse their families may really be the most responsible for ripping the "social fabric" that Lemmon discusses.
In a recent survey of young singles, USA Today reports that only 9 percent of people under 35 do not want to marry. Despite other changing attitudes about gender roles, most young people still hope to tie the knot. And this is a good thing. Research shows that stable, two-parent families are still the best environment for raising children, and getting and staying married is one of the best ways to avoid poverty.
People in single-mom homes experience a wide variety of conditions. Many live in poverty and rely on government assistance. It sounds like Lemmon's mother fought hard to keep her child from hardship, and relied - not on the government - but on a community of friends (in civil society) for help. We should encourage this choice over the welfare state. But we should also encourage people to avoid single parenthood altogether, when possible.
Life is complex, and often the unexpected happens. But insofar as we have the choice to do what's best for the next generation, we'd do ourselves a favor by being realistic about the benefits of marriage. I know single mothers deserve praise for their courage and their dedication to their children. But just because so many women can do it all alone doesn't mean they should. After all, Father's Day is just aroung the corner, and there's enormous value in good dads, too.