About a month ago, I had an op-ed in The Boston Globe about the rise of single motherhood and what it means for fathers — ironically, at a time when equal parenting as an ideal has been making a lot of inroads. A couple of days later, there followed this commentary from Shannon LC Cate on the Strollerderby parenting blog. I meant to reply to it sooner, but first I was busy with other things and then I decided to put it off until Father’s Day. So, here is it.
Ms. Cate’s post is titled “Unwed Motherhood on the Rise; Paternalists on the Warpath.” Evidently, to point out that in general, children are better off having a father (and that, among other things, the glorification of the mother-child family unit takes us back to the not-very-feminist notion of child-rearing as women’s work) is to be a “paternalist on the warpath.”
Ms. Cate also points out, in an unmistakably snarky tone, that I’m an unmarried non-mother, which presumably means that I have no real standing to comment on the subject. I wonder if she would have said the same thing had I written in defense of single mothers, or in defense of married women’s right to a career of their own.
Says Ms. Cate:
I do find her questions about where the unmarried (at least to these mothers) fathers of unmarried women’s children are, both in reality and in the discourse about the issue, to be refreshing. I think it is indeed decidedly unfeminist to go on and on about women and children these days with nary a reference to the men who, let’s face it, make single motherhood possible in the first place.
Well, as much as I appreciate the compliment, I have to wonder what planet she inhabits. Evidently, one where there are no campaigns to stigmatize deadbeat deads or billboards promoting “responsible fatherhood” — one of the few issues on which Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in complete agreement.
More from Ms. Cate:
The research shows that children with two parents fare better than those with one, not that children with parents who are married to each other fare best. Marriage per se does not provide a child with a functional parent and lack of a marriage certificate does not deprive a child of one. Rather, even in this recent research, it was found that a sizeable percentage of “unmarried” mothers are not, in fact single mothers, but mothers who co-parent with their children’s fathers either in the same home without benefit of marriage or in separate homes.
True. However, there are also a lot of data showing that unmarried couples are considerably more likely to break up. I have not seen data that separates out unmarried couples with children. If this trend holds for them, then unmarried co-parenting is not a fully co-equal substitute for marriage.
As for mothers who choose to to go it alone via unknown or at least uninvolved “fathers” whether sperm donors, ex-boyfriends or one-night stands, those children need not be deprived of the benefits of a multiple-parent home just because their mothers are not married. There are many ways to raise children these days including living in various forms of community or cooperation with others, including extended family arrangements.
Here, Ms. Cate makes the assumption that close friends and family members can replace a father. Sometimes, perhaps. In general, I don’t think this is true, and the studies do show that, all else being equal, father absence still has a negative effect. Among other things, Ms. Cate’s commentary displays a pervasive characteristic of a lot of “progressive” social thinking: what Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge (both of whom are sane feminists) call “biodenial” in their trenchant critique of women’s studies, Professing Feminism. In other words, the cavalier dismissal of biology as irrelevant. Of course biology isn’t everything. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have millons of loving and devoted adoptive parents. Still, it is useless and — well — silly to deny that biology forms a strong bond between parent and child. Adopted children, no matter how well-loved by their adoptive parents, very often have a powerful yearning for their biological parents. A British newspaper recently published the amazing, poignant story of a woman who recently reconnected with the son she had at the age of 14 after being raped by a stranger, and who was given away for adoption. Incidentally, his first question (particularly heartbreaking under the circumstances) was, “Who’s my father?” Where we come from, in the purely biological sense, is a part of us. It has something to do with who we are, not only in terms of inherited traits but also of personal identity. That’s a pretty incontrovertible fact.
I also have to wonder what percentage of these births to “unwed” mothers might have been to lesbian couples, whom most states do not allow to appear together on a child’s original birth certificate. (Birth certificates were used as the basis for the study.) Again, these are not really single mothers. (And am I the only one whose irony censor is bleeping away about the fact the on the one hand, we are told to encourage marriage among “unwed” mothers and on the other we are told that lesbians with a mad, raging desire to marry and support one another’s children can’t be allowed to do so?)
Lesbian couples are a very small part of the overall picture. In 2000, there were 7. 5 million unmarried mothers with children under 18. There were also an estimated 250,000 same-sex couples raising children, 60% of them (or 150,000) female couples. That’s 2% of the total. Actually, one excellent argument I have seen for same-sex marriage (from Jonathan Rauch, I believe) is that there are a lot of same-sex couples raising children together, and allowing (and encouraging) them to marry will send the message that marriage is the most appropriate environment for raising a child.
That said, and to open up a bit of a hornets’ nest: I do think that, at the same time, same-sex marriage makes it harder to answer the question, “Why wait to get married before having children?” If all you need is a partner in child-rearing and the biological connection doesn’t matter, it is not immediately evident to me that a romantic partner is the best choice for that role. The primary reason marriage and parenthood are linked for heterosexuals is that male/female relationships tend to produce kids. But that’s another issue for another day.
Ms. Cate wraps up her post with:
Rather than pulling out the rather musty notion that paternalism, and/or downright patriarchy is what these women and their children need, why not directly open our society’s resources to benefit these families? How? Universal healthcare access, generous family leave benefits to workers, better quality free schooling, and family law that recognizes families as they are rather than wishing for what they never were. Because regardless of how much society encourages marriage among parents, women will continue to get pregnant and bear children outside of marriage, just as they have from time immemorial. All the encouragement in the world will not make it go away.
A mother and her child is not a defective family unit. It’s just a family unit. Period. Recognizing that is the first step in making the road smoother for such families and most importantly, the many, many children growing up within them.
So there you have it: the idea that fatherhood is as important as motherhood is now not only “musty,” but denigrated with the pejorative term “paternalism.”
Let’s leave aside for the moment Ms. Cate’s idea that single mothers deserve to raise their children at the expense of other people (including, presumably, married couples, some of whom would probably be less able to afford the number of children they want with higher taxes — or, for that matter, other single mothes who made the effort to get good jobs). Or the inescapable conclusion that, in her view, female independence from men demands the growth of universal dependence on government.
The fact remains that Ms. Cate’s vision, which completely normalizes single motherhood, also institionalizes a huge gender inequality. The mother-and-child family unit becomes as normal as married-couple parenting. The father-and-child family unit presumably remains a marginal phenomenon. (While more divorced dads are now getting custody of children — generally over the opposition of feminists — for single fathers to receive custody is extremely rare. Even steps to make it easier for single dads to contest an adoption and claim their own children encounter widespread resistance; the common assumption is that a father who does such a thing is a creep trying to control the mom.)
What does this mean for our society’s attitudes toward women and men, and male and female roles? How does this affect the roles of mothers and fathers in two-parent relationships? How does it affect children? All these are important questions that need to be addressed, not brushed aside with glib comments about “paternalism and/or patriarchy.”
I am not saying that there are simple answers, or that it is always better to raise a child with a father than without. I know wonderful single mothers. I also know women who married “Mr. Not-Quite-Right” because they wanted a child and felt that the child needed a father; some of these marriages turned out quite well, others were a disaster for all involved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But there is a problem, and recognizing this is the first step in finding ways to reconcile and balance the competing values at stake.
And on that note — a musty and paternalist (but not patriarchal, please!) Father’s Day, everyone.