Hester Prynne Is Alive and Well and Living in New YorkRebecca Odes
Katie Roiphe is a single mother. She lives in New York, theoretically the most open-minded city in the country. She works as a writer, theoretically a discipline peppered with creative, liberal, and open-minded people. Ten percent of babies in the U.S. are now born to women without partners. Given these things, you’d think Roiphe’s choice to have kids on her own might not raise many eyebrows. But apparently, you’d be wrong. So wrong, in fact, that she was reminded of that classic tome about single motherhood and social ostracism: The Scarlet Letter.
“One might be under the impression that tolerant liberal New York bears no resemblance to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s windy Puritan New England town, but one would be wrong. Our judgments are more polite, more subtle, more psychologically nuanced; latter-day critics of the state are thinking, of course, of what is best for the child, what is the healthiest environment; they are not opposed to extramarital philandering per se, but there is still underlying everything the same unimaginative approach to family, the same impulse to judge, the same sexual conservatism, and herd mentality.”
Check out some of these tasty nuggets of off-the cuff social critique Katie has come across in her six years as a single mom:
A friend, when Roiphe was pregnant, “You should wait and have a regular baby!”
A novelist, pointing to Roiphe’s newborn in a stroller: “How did that happen?”
A colleague, seeing that Roiphe was pregnant AGAIN: “You really do whatever you want.”
Another friend proclaimed her hope of filling the space usually occupied by two parents “hubris”.
Maybe all of these things were meant in love, or in jest, Roiphe acknowledges. Maybe she’s being overly sensitive to meaningless, if unfortunate word choices—after all, she says, single moms are notoriously unhinged. Wouldn’t they have to be to take on this ill-advised challenge? The point is that while society may be more accepting of single mothers, acceptance does not equal approval.
“The submerged premise here is that there is something greedy, selfish, narcissistic, or anti-social about having a baby on your own. But is there? It seems to me that if anything a baby born in these conditions is extra-wanted. The fact that having that baby is not necessarily the obvious or predictable or easy thing to do at this particular juncture in life makes it all the more of a deep and consuming commitment.”
Roiphe’s kind of commitment doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s. Instead of sitting at home on the couch with the DVR at night, she goes to bars with men. There’s a whiff of defensiveness in the way she talks about her life and the lives of other single mothers. I don’t need to be convinced that there are freedoms and benefits that come with the single parent life. Partnership is a mixed bag, as is the lack thereof. The real question is why our view of good parenthood is still so narrow.
Is it really so impossible to live outside the little boxes and still be a good mother?