Recently, the New York Times has once again put its shoulder to the wheel of promoting single-motherhood. Within 11 days of each other, the gray lady gave Katie Roiphe and Boise State Professor Greg Hampikian op-ed space in which to, among other things give a boost to what is one of the most socially destructive trends in American life – children being raised by single mothers. To put it mildly, it’s disgraceful of the Times to not take more seriously one of the most important issues of our day.
That’s partly because of the deep dishonesty of the two pieces. The simple fact is that many decades of social science show beyond serious doubt that children do better with two biological parents than in any other family structure. Of course it’s not impossible for a single parent of either sex to raise a healthy, well-adjusted kid. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule, and when people like Roiphe and Hampikian argue for single-motherhood, they don’t make those distinctions. Far worse, both op-eds actually attempted to recruit Princeton sociologist Sarah McLanahan to their cause, claiming, against all the evidence that her work says that the only thing wrong with single parenthood is the relative lack of income. Their pieces were so shoddy that McLanahan had to write a letter to the editor saying that the claims “do not accurately describe my work.”
That’s putting it mildly. Even a cursory glance at McLanahan’s writings would have told Roiphe and Hampikian that their claims were flat wrong. That they made them anyway speaks volumes about the level of intellectual honesty of the pro-single mother crowd. But then, even if they’d been right, just consider the ramifications of casually saying, as Hampikian did, that “the data” on children raised by women only “is good” and that “poverty is what hurts children, not the gender or number of parents.” Again, that’s flat wrong, as McLanahan explained in her letter, but even if he were right, yes, poverty hurts children. So how does that make single-parent child-rearing OK?
Here’s a fact that neither Roiphe nor Hampikian bothered to mention: nationwide, 41% of single mothers live in poverty and of course so do their kids. Here’s another fact: that’s over three times the national average. Children without fathers are at great risk of a range of social, psychological and emotional deficits. Children without fathers who live their lives in poverty are all the more so. And that, my friends, is what Katie Roiphe and Greg Hampikian are arguing for. You figure it out, because I can’t.
Roiphe and Hampikian of course will never have to experience what those children live with every day, but this article gives some idea (Houston Chronicle, 9/5/12). In its own way, it’s as subversive of good sense on the subject of single motherhood and children as the two Times pieces, but at least it gives some idea of what single motherhood is actually all about. I get the impression that Roiphe and Hampikian don’t have a clue.
So we’re introduced to Tameka Morris, 24, mother of three young sons.
Morris had her first child at 16 and lived with her boyfriend for three years. She earned a two-year degree in health sciences and worked as a medical assistant, earning enough money to buy a condominium and car.Those are realities that Roiphe and Hampikian discreetly avoid mentioning in their paeans to the wonders of single motherhood.
Her life changed in 2009 as Houston absorbed the effects of the economic downtown. Her hours at work decreased, forcing her to find another job. The commute to her new job in Montgomery County took time away from her children…
The single mother survives by working two to three temporary home health jobs. In a good month, she earns about $900.
“After paying rent, utilities and a few groceries, that’s it,” said Morris, 24, who does not receive any public assistance…
In June, Morris’ utilities were shut off and her pantry was bare. With $72, she had to choose between paying the utility bill or buying groceries.
She dipped into her emergency fund – a jar with loose change – and came up with an additional $15 to get the lights on and dinner for her sons, 9, 6 and 1.
But the Chronicle piece is just as bad, only in different ways. For example, its writer, Renee Lee, pays essentially no attention to Morris’ three sons. We know they exist, but that’s about it. How are they doing in school? Are they in school? What do they do when Mom’s at work? Who looks after them? What are their meals like? Who are their friends? We don’t know because she doesn’t tell us and she doesn’t tell us, I suspect, because the only thing Lee seems to see that’s wrong with single-mother child rearing is that the government doesn’t pick up more of the tab. She’s long on “collective responsibility” and state subsidized day care, but sniffs at the notion that there might be a moral component to having kids you can’t support. So it’s no surprise that Lee doesn’t say much about Morris’ kids now or what the future likely holds for them. Facts like those make it harder to sell the product.
At least Lee’s smart enough to ignore Sarah McLanahan instead of claiming she supports single motherhood. As most readers probably noticed, Morris lived with her boyfriend for three years when her first (and apparently her second) child was born. Interestingly enough, life was pretty good back then. Of course, the recession that seems to never end was a blow to Morris and her kids, but Lee overlooks what their situation might be if the boyfriend were still around. After all, he might have a job and help to support the family. So how is it that he’s no longer around. We don’t know and Lee’s keeping mum, but Sarah McLanahan has some good ideas about what might have happened.
McLanahan’s most ambitious research to date is called the Fragile Families and Child Well-being study. It’s been going on since 1998, and continues to produce data that researchers analyze with many surprising results. One of those is the process by which fathers in those fragile families get eased out of their children’s lives. In what’s called “parenting as a package deal,” a woman has a child out of wedlock, the dad is enthusiastic about being a father, but, as the mother moves on to other relationships, the child stays with her and the father becomes ever more marginalized in his child’s life.
Is that what happened in Morris’ case? Who knows? All Lee lets us know is that the guy’s out of the picture. Did Morris have something to do with that? I bet she did, but Lee’s all about supporting single motherhood, so she doesn’t let on.
What’s also a deep, dark secret, is exactly how those children were conceived. That absence of information is one of the salient features of every article on single motherhood I’ve ever read. What exactly did the mother and father say to each other about contraception? Anything? Did they consciously decide to have a child or did they just “let nature take its course?” Did he believe she was on the pill? Did the condom break? Once the child was conceived, what was her thinking about whether to carry it to term? Did she think about adoption? Did she know that, in 29 states, she can give birth and then give the child up, no questions asked?
It’s a strange situation. Time and again, articles discuss single motherhood, but don’t say a word about that most vital of all questions, “was the pregnancy planned?” I suspect that doesn’t happen because no one wants to be perceived to have judged the mother. In our culture, motherhood is still so close to sainthood that we easily give mothers a pass on some very questionable behavior, like having children they can’t afford to support and shoving the fathers out of the children’s lives. It’s all just taken as a given that no one is willing to question.
So it’s no surprise that 41% of children are born out of wedlock and that 35% of children have no contact with their fathers. As long as we as a society continue saying ‘yes’ to whatever mothers do, regardless of how irresponsible, this is what we’ll get. I’m not saying dads are without fault in the matter; clearly that’s not the case. But this culture has no problem blaming and shaming fathers for anything and everything and, as we know, they have little to say about who comes into this world and who doesn’t.
Single-parent child raising is one of the worst problems we face, and we’ll never deal with it effectively as long as our attitude toward mothers remains so unquestioning.