Or, “Single Mother-Shaming is Just Slut-Shaming Plus Kids.”
Single mothers! Ah! We’re sluts! We’re whores! We’re uneducated! We’re losers. We don’t know how to get a man and keep him. We’re poor. We’re too busy. We’re too stressed. Most of all, we’re an archetype to be talked about, written about, judged. We’re not whole people. Individuals with individual circumstances. Stories. Real Lives. We’re “single mothers.” We are a group. A homogeneous one, for the most part, unless whoever is writing about “us” divides “us” by class or race. Then we’re “black or Latina single mothers” and “more-educated single mothers.” (Read: white.) We exist in a vacuum, in a world where there are no fathers, even when there are fathers, because of course there are fathers. Last I checked you can’t make a baby without a father, unless you’re a “more-educated” (read: white) single mother who had a baby on her own with donated sperm, then you’re just an alien (especially if you’re “0ld”). Also, single women don’t choose to adopt children and raise them on their own because that would mean single women are independent, thoughtful, capable and caring, so if you did that, I hate to tell you this, but you’re not actually alive. My condolences.
There are articles written about “us” in The New York Times wherein single mothers are puritanically derided for having children out of wedlock. (Because we all had our children out of wedlock, and because marriage is totally the best.) Then there are the accusations, “children with two parents fare better than those from one-parent homes,” “Children from two-parent homes do more sports and are better looking,” “Children of single mothers not only use drugs, they are drugs. Stay away from these out-of-control little cracked-out monsters unless you want their illegitimate, poor, uneducated cooties!” The list goes on. The accusations are debunked by some research, but then always reasserted, because slutty women who function without a man around do not ever deserve to feel good or confident or capable or whole. (And yes, even though many of us are not even having sex, focusing instead on work and child-care, we are sluts. Because, duh, we’re women.)
Those NYT articles are followed by many response pieces on Slate wherein the nice white lady (as a guy I used to know would call her) says, “Hey, wait a minute. This is bullshit, I don’t like you dissing these women who don’t have a platform — the poor, black and Latina ones — and I don’t like you dissing me, either! Because I’m white and educated and I’m a single mom, too, and we’re actually all pretty awesome and inspiring for the most part, and you’re being really judgmental and reductive.”
I wouldn’t normally say that I “identify” with Katie Roiphe, the author of the aforelinked Slate articles, but we do have a lot in common. We both live in New York City, we’re both writers, we’re both college-educated, white single mothers. Roiphe’s much more elite than I am, though; she’s the daughter of a renowned feminist, she grew up in New York, went to Harvard and has a PhD from Princeton. I grew up in a small town upstate and have a BFA from a SUNY school. And yet we both feel compelled to draw attention to the fact that single mothers — the genre — keep getting shafted and shamed by mainstream media and that major news outlets use straight news reporting as a guise to pontificate about us and our “problems.” Single motherdom, it turns out, can happen to or be chosen by even the “best” of us.
The common thread that Roiphe and I share is that we are both divorced women with children. We don’t seem to really exist in this phantom world where single mothers are white teens or poor black ladies who can’t get their black baby daddies to marry them because (haven’t you heard?) there’s a “problem” in the black community where black people don’t seem to be marrying each other or barely literate Latinas who came here (probably illegally) and crapped out a bunch of anchor babies. Trash. Welfare Queens. This is what the world thinks of these women. Of course these women are not trash. These archetypes are so sad, so based in a need to deflect and project the shame of the world somewhere, and so just, well, boring at this point.
Not every black single mother is poor or uneducated or was never married. Not every Latina single mother is dumb but hard-working. Not every teen mom feels like she made a “mistake.” Lots of women are single mothers by choice. We are not fuck-ups. We are not cast-offs. We are not the by-product of pitiable circumstances. We are real people living real lives dealing with life and our children in the best ways each of us is individually able to. If you care about us and our “problems,” stop treating us like the other. We are not the other. Chances are we are your mother.
So it is with W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who insists in a piece on Slate that even though he was raised by a single mother and turned out well, “It’s worse to be raised by a single mother, even if you’re not poor.” Wilcox cites all kinds of research that says “boys are significantly more likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30 if they are raised by a single mother” (how much more he doesn’t say, but it’s significant!) and “one-third of girls whose fathers left the home before they turned 6 ended up pregnant as teenagers, compared with just 5 percent of girls whose fathers were there throughout their childhood.” The insinuation here is that this is due to the failings of the single mother, the fact that single mothers have to work so we can’t be there for our children. (Somehow, this isn’t a problem for working mothers who are married. Because they’re magical! Or the penis they’re married to is.)
Why are the sons of single mothers more likely to end up in jail than the sons of two-parent families? Could it be that perhaps the fathers of these sons are sociopaths — which is why they left for more exciting pastures — who have passed on their predisposition for criminal activity? Nope. Could it be because they turned against their upstanding upbringing and made a bad decision on their own? Nope. It’s their mothers’ faults. I mean, obviously. I have to tell you, I can’t wait until my daughter gets pregnant as a teen, since the numbers tell me she is absolutely bound for that destiny thanks to the fact that her father and I split when she was 3. It’ll be fun for us to be single mothers together! We can even go shopping for formula using our food stamps! Wheeee!
Yes, every time the child of a single mother fails to live up to the world’s expectations, it is his or her mother’s fault. (But when the child of a stable loving two-parent home fails, it is his own doing. After all, his parents tried!) And that blame and shame is our punishment for leaving unhappy or abusive marriages or for never getting married at all. For wanting autonomy. For being forced into autonomy. For choosing to go it alone. For having to go it alone. Because how dare we! Men can’t have children alone and god damn it why should we have anything they can’t have! Waaaaaahhhhhh!
That’s it. I’ve solved the problem. In order for there to be no more shaming articles written about single mothers, what we need to do is start a movement of single fathers! Oh, what’s that you say? There are all kinds of single fathers out there? But nobody writes about them. So how do I know they exist? But I guess it makes sense. I mean, like I said, except for the rare cases of adoption and sperm donor babies, for every single mother there is a single father out there. An ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend, an ex-lover, a one-night-stand. (Couples who are together but who aren’t married, you don’t exist, either. Oh, and two gay dads are unicorns! But you knew that. You’re two gay dads.)
The bottom line is, if you want to have kids, lady, you better damn well do it with a good man you are married to who you are never going to want to leave because if you don’t, you will be reminded of your “mistake” for the rest of your life. You chose poorly because you’re not a fortune-teller (why are we even wasting education on women if they don’t graduate being able to predict the future?!) and now your kid is going to be a failure. I’m sorry. That’s just what the numbers white guys who make a living defending marriage say. So, you know, it’s true, no matter what nice things you have to say about yourself and your kids and how proud you are of your family. It’s all lies. We’re not people. We’re a thing. We’re single mothers. And like all unmarried girls, we’re sluts.