What’s Wrong With More Single Moms?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Feb. 20 2012 2:15 PM

More Single Moms. So What. 

The New York Times condescends to single moms.

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The majority of children born to women younger than 30 are born to single mothers

John Moore/Getty Images.

The New York Times may as well have headlined its most emailed piece this weekend:  Single Mothers Take Over the World. The point of the piece, with its peculiar moral undertone, was that the majority of babies born to women under 30 in this country are now born to single mothers, and in Lorain, Ohio, that number has climbed as high as 63 percent.

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.

Conservatives will no doubt be elaborately hysterical over the breakdown of morals among the women of Lorain, but they will be missing the major point, which is that however one feels about it, the facts of American family life no longer match its prevailing fantasies.  For those who have associated single motherhood with the poor and uneducated, and increasingly, with the urban very-educated (see the New York Times piece, the same day, on Casey Greenfield) they now have to confront the changing demographics of the vast American middle. No matter how one sees this development, and as a single mother myself I have my own views, one has to recognize that marriage is very rapidly becoming only one way to raise children. (And other countries are obviously way ahead of the United States in incorporating a rational recognition of the vicissitudes of love, and the varieties of family life, into cultural attitudes toward unmarried parents.)

One of the ways condescension makes its way into a neutral seeming New York Times story is the note the reporter chooses to end the piece on. Both of the two pieces on the single mothers of Lorain, Ohio, this weekend end with implicit judgments, with anecdotes that telegraph the unhealthiness of this new state of affairs, or whisper to the reader:  “How do these women think they can get away with it?”

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One ends with a freighted quote from a single mother saying she would like to do more with her daughter. (Actually it claims she would agree with a professor from Bowling Green State University’s vague conclusion that children born to married parents “experience better education, social, cognitive and behavioral outcomes”) Apparently she would agree with this professor because she would like to do more with her 6-year-old, but she often falls asleep after working full time and taking nursing classes. As if that feeling of wishing you could spend more or better time with your child is unknown to the married working mother, who of course never feels that she is too tired or distracted to do something she wanted to do with her 6-year-old, and anyway has a roast chicken in the oven, and a homemade pie cooling on the windowsill.

 The Times reporters’ analysis of the economics and sociology of Lorain is punctuated by a pat “meanwhile, children happen” that is perhaps not quite as respectful as it could be of the fact that these independent-minded, apparently hard-working women are making decisions and forging families, after thinking clearly about their situation. One of the mothers quoted in the pieces says that to her and her friends “marriage is just a piece of paper.” Meaning of course that it does not ensure eternal love, or even eternal security, acknowledging, perhaps, that the father in the home is not necessarily more happily or fruitfully involved than the father outside of the home. Others describe the economic realities of not needing a man to support children, feeling the men around are too childish, or criminal, or jobless to help much, and not feeling a stigma about having a child outside of marriage. (By the time one finishes these strangely inflected articles, they seem to be arguing that these women should feel a stigma about having children out of wedlock.)

Of course, one of the reasons children born outside of marriage suffer is the culturally ubiquitous idea that there is something wrong or abnormal about their situation. Once it becomes clear that there is, at least, nothing abnormal about their situation, i.e. when this 53 percent of babies born to women under 30 come of age in the majority, the psychological landscape, at least, will be vastly transformed.

Even people who are certain that the children of single mothers are always and forever doomed to a compromised existence, are going to have to await more information about a world in which these kids are not considered illegitimate or unconventional or outsiders, where the sheer number of them redefines and refreshes our ideas of family.

In fact, the tacit judgment of the New York Times-style liberal is in many ways more pernicious than the overt moralizing of conservatives on the downfall of family and marriage. It is easy to dismiss the Santorum faction for its cartoonishly old-fashioned view of extramarital sex, and this group is at least forthright about its view, whereas the subtle psychologizing put-down of the New York Times-style liberal, the slight hint of self-congratulation that they are not a single mother in Lorain, Ohio, bringing their son to the bar where they work, is more poisonous for its pretense of fairness and open-mindedness. 

This is a new world, and there are no studies or professors from Bowling Green State University, or subtly condescending  New York Times reporting, that can tell us what it will be  like for these children to live in it. 

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