G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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At Slate, Katie Roiphe responds to the pair of New York Times articles which reported on single motherhood in the town of Lorain, Ohio where 63 percent of mothers under the age of 30 are single. Roiphe responds to what is, at best, a minor ray of sunlight emanating from the liberal Times on an issue that has historically been understood to carry many negative consequences. Roiphe starts:
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.)
Roiphe makes the fatalistic mistake of first accepting the trajectory of family disintegration which then causes her to excuse it. She’s throwing up her hands at the problem and ignoring the very real and observable problem lying before us. That demographics are changing does not mean that demographics have to change or that the change should go without derision. Those single moms who marginally replace two-parent families will place their offspring further behind the 8-ball.
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.
This is not a car purchase. The problem is that these mothers are employing short-term economic thinking, but they are not thinking long-term or big picture. They care about economic capital but not the increasingly important social capital that lays the foundation for raising children into well-adjusted adults.
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 there should be a stigma against having children out of wedlock. Should we pat single mothers on the back? Should we pretend that we don’t all think that they’ve just created a mess for themselves and the child they so selfishly brought into the world? There are at least two better options than doing this: not having children at all or only having children after insuring a stable father figure will be present. This should be the buoy towards which we should be collectively swimming.
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.
Most of the children brought up by single mothers grow up around other kids who are raised by single mothers. They are insulated from judgment – the type doled out in the olden days when “bastard” and “illegitimate” were used to shape social norms. But reaching this critical mass of psychological confidence does not address the root causes of all of the problems that these types of households face. Roiphe making this argument is like me saying that because anal sex had become the norm among homosexuals that it should be wholly and unqualifiedly embraced.
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.
But we’ve already run this experiment in this country. It’s called the black community. As has been hammered on over the past few weeks since the release of Charles Murray’s book, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the first to draw cackles in the midst of the sexual/cultural/civil rights revolution for publicly pointing out the drawbacks to a dearth of fathers and the attendant “tangle of pathology”. One wonders how much proof Roiphe needs in order to accept the truth that two parents are the family ideal. One also wonders if Roiphe has watched or read any of the first-hand testimony by gang members in the black community who openly admit that they turn to gangs because they serve the father function that young black males so desperately need and seek. Does Roiphe deny such testimony?
All of this speaks to Roiphe’s particular brand of elitism. She complains that the liberal New York Times is exhibiting its own “subtle” and “condescending” morality – a difference without a distinction from that pushed forth by the likes of a Rick Santorum. Roiphe, an upper-middle class academic and writer, is a single mother. This is part of what Murray criticized in his book. The elites observe the freedoms and privileges they have and assume that the non-elite poor have the social capital to handle the same inputs. But the elites, the wealthy, and the upper classes have many other tools to cope with risk. They have higher IQ which helps them better assess risk. In short, they handle risk, freedom, and temptation differently than do the types of people at the lower end who are more likely to develop a myriad of addictions and pathologies: tattoos, risky sexual behavior, drug use, smoking, alcoholism, gambling. What works for the middle and upper classes works less well for the lower. This truth holds across most behaviors.