The New York Times’ Smug Moralizing About Single Mothers

A column about life, culture, and politics.
July 16 2012 2:04 PM

New York Times, Stop Moralizing About Single Mothers

No, their households are not always sad and falling apart.

Happy mother with daughter.
Apparently there is a fine line between giving your children enough swimming lessons and too many swimming lessons

Photograph courtesy thinkstock/iStockphoto.

It is disheartening to see that the New York Times has run yet another puritanical and alarmist rumination on the decline of the American family disguised as a straight-news story. The 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.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

One of the most laughable elements of the story is that it hinges on the idea that the single mother’s children are suffering because of a lack of extracurricular activities: It lingers on the idea that the swimming class, and Boy Scouts meetings, and trips to Disney that the children of the single mother are deprived of will somehow turn them into dropouts and teenage parents. But surely, after Cheever and Updike and The Lonely Crowd, we have moved on from the facile ’50s, Norman Rockwell fantasy that camping badges can save our children from pain? Who knew that fraternizing with life sized Ariels and Cinderellas was so important, so pressing, in raising your children to be healthy, upstanding citizens? And what is so shocking to the reporter about the terribly deprived, endangered Steavon, the son of the single mother, is that he has to choose one extracurricular, and this year chose football, rather than getting to do karate and swimming and Boy Scouts.

What makes this particular bourgeois focus especially ironic is that it occurs alongside a contemporaneous cultural discussion of whether college-educated parents are spoiling their children, or over hovering. Apparently there is a very fine line between giving your children enough swimming lessons and too many swimming lessons.

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The innate self-congratulation of the Times piece, the smug sense that the average college-educated New York Times reader is enriching their children, insuring their mental health, while the sluttish, struggling, single mother is ruining theirs is— whatever the truth of the situation, which I humbly suggest is more complicated than that—extremely repellent. In the guise of writing a well-intentioned liberal piece—oh the poor single mothers! And their poor children!—the New York Times is recycling truly retrograde and ugly moral judgements.The idea that this unconventional, struggling household might sometimes be fine is so astonishing that the piece reports as news that the single mother, Jessica Schairer, sometimes records “happy moments on her Facebook page.” When she scrambles together to take her kids on a great vacation to Orlando, Fla., the piece, in its tone of doom, hastens to warn us that this was “more a break from their life than an embodiment of it.” (Unlike, of course, the vacations of the traditional family, where the trips to Disney are just an embodiment of their fun-filled, adventure-packed days, and not, you know, a break from the unremitting bleakness.)

This presumption of suffering colors the interpretation of the piece. For instance the reporter attributes the fact that Steavon’s birthday party was sparsely attended to the “isolation” he feels as a result of not being in enough extracurricular activities, because, implicitly, of his single mother and her failure to provide Boy Scouts and karate classes, rather than attributing it to the more obvious explanation that he has Asperger’s.

Regardless of this, however, the video that runs alongside the shameless piece tells a very different story. The single mother’s house is immaculate and clearly well run; the children seem a little wild at one point, while she is making dinner, but as anyone with three kids, or even two, will notice, that  does happen even in two-parent homes, and more importantly, she is smart, warm, funny, and lovely. There is no doubt that her kids are being well- and thoughtfully parented. (Which is not to say that it is easy, or that there aren’t struggles, or that on a practical level, another paycheck wouldn’t help, but that the quality of love in this house clearly shouldn’t be questioned or scrutinized, and that the tragic aura the Times is generating over this household is clearly misplaced.)

The demographic changes that are alarming the editors of the New York Times are unquestionable: In the middle class the family is breaking down, there is a steep rise in single mother households and women supporting their families, but the judgmental tone is outdated and wrong. 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. Moving into the future, the college-educated, traditional families will need to understand that, though of course it is easier to have money, money is not the only thing that matters in raising children well (nor are vacations or swimming lessons). They will also have to understand that they do not have a monopoly on joy or healthy environments or thriving children.

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.”