The Difference Single Mothers Make

Last fall American cultural critic Katie Roiphe published her latest collection of essays, In Praise of Messy Lives, which both does and does not suffer from the chief weakness that has long undermined her credibility: a tendency to generalize her experience to larger, less privileged cultures.

Does and does not? How can this be so?

First, Roiphe has a longstanding rep for this flaw, sometimes called solipsism, other times plain old cluelessness. It certainly raged in her stunning denial back in the day that date rape was a real problem (yup – I’m old enough to remember that one). And it is true in this book when Roiphe decries the stereotypes faced by single mothers. Though she offers the caveat that she is writing about “myself and the handful of other single mothers I know,” she also breezily raises her encounters to the level of a “cultural climate.”

So, the unsurprising critique of Roiphe’s account of single motherhood has been that her life as a well-known author and journalism professor bears little resemblance to the struggles of the vast majority of single moms. Ergo, her opinions on this topic are not relevant. That might be true in certain ways.

But it’s also true that aspects of her account, revealed in two subtle essays, are strangely valuable precisely because they pertain to her privileged experience.

Reactions of Roiphe’s circle to her single motherhood were not glowing. In “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” she reveals how one friend urges her to wait and have a “regular” baby. Another gestures toward her newborn in a stroller and jokingly asks, right in front of Roiphe’s 6-year-old daughter, “how did that happen”? The author’s friend, also a single mom, encounters offensively personal questions from near-strangers, like whether the child’s father pays child support.

Roiphe’s conclusion: “when you are a single mother, strangers feel like they can come up to you and ask you anything. It is as if you have somehow given people who barely know you permission to say something intimate or invasive simply by having a baby without a man in the house.”

These stories ring true for me too, a single mother lucky enough to have had an education but barely scraping by much of the time.

Mostly entertaining now is what happened at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago: A man I had just met that evening had the gall to ask me at the dinner table “how it happened,” meaning how I became pregnant with my daughter. In other words, what was the exact nature of my sexual and relationship status at the time of conception? Talk about an icemaker.

Alas, we are not even Facebook friends.

Some people simply make no effort to hide their disapproval: In my daughter’s third year, I offered to care for a couple’s newborn so they could have some time to themselves. I put their baby in a carrier and walked to a nearby playground. There, I ran into a professor I know, barely an acquaintance. Like me, she is a mother and a feminist. Yet when she saw me wearing this baby, an expression of utter horror overtook her face. And she made no attempt to hide it as she exclaimed in great distress, “did you have another baby?”

On the opposite spectrum, people who think they know better than Mr. Nosy Thanksgiving Dude err on the side of silence: When I was pregnant, a well-meaning older colleague promised not to “tell anyone.” He assumed that even in the year 2007, an unwed woman must surely be mortified to be pregnant.

Another mother, in front of my 3-year-old daughter, quickly shushed her child after he asked where my girl’s father was. It never occurred to this person that in trying to look polite, she was in fact teaching the children that families like mine are shameful.

Roiphe’s similar experiences lead her to conclude that we are not as far from The Scarlet Letter as we might think, that “The single mother traipsing up the subway steps in heels with her Maclaren is not as many worlds away as you would think from Hester Prynne.”

Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. The point here is emphatically not that this is “the way it is” for all single moms just because Roiphe’s experiences happen to resonate with me. In fact, what struck me about Roiphe’s stories is that these things happen to her even though she is privileged and a notable public figure.

Why does that matter? And could recognizing it help improve things for lower-income single moms and their children?

I think the answer is yes.

Many people know that public discourse has long been full of wild ignorance and venom when it comes to single mothers, and not just on the right. The stereotypes are nasty and often racist, from Ronald Reagan’s invention of “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s bizarre debate gaffe linking gun violence to single moms. But even in reasonable publications like the New York Times, one finds sloppiness that does more harm than good, like this article from last summer that ignores class inequities and instead showcases marriage as a boon for single-mother families. Besides (once again) insulting mothers like me by ignoring the class issues that really drive our family struggles (but see this for Katha Pollitt’s great response) – not to mention the potential dangers of marriage – the article implicitly disses married fathers by valuing them as little more than a paycheck.

So how do we cut through the nonsense?

One way is to start paying real and close attention to single mothers from all walks of life. If we do, we might actually learn some valuable stuff. Example: imagine a study on 500 single-mom families; let’s say 450 are low income, and 50 are middle to upper-middle income. If the study finds that after controlling for other factors, most of the children of the 50 middle-to-upper-middle-income families have better outcomes (some studies have in fact already shown that income is the most important factor), that will begin to reveal some very important data about what kids really need to thrive. And it could help to inform policy affecting kids in low-income families.

On the other hand, if the study finds that social attitudes toward single moms do not necessarily depend on income (as Roiphe’s account implies), then we might also learn something very important – perhaps about the ideological nature of certain cultural opinions of women who raise children without men.

The point is that we can only learn these things by dropping the knee-jerk reactions and listening to the stories of all different types of single moms – by recognizing all class, racial, and other key differences as relevant to meet the challenge of helping everyone, especially those who are less fortunate. It will be much harder to learn these things by dismissing any groups as irrelevant.

And yes, we need to hear more stories from the less fortunate. That’s also why I’m writing this post.

Now, having said all this, I do find a problem with other assumptions in Roiphe’s book. To be sure, these essays are both enlightening and maddening, but for reasons perhaps different from the usual objections.

What are the deeper roots of the single mom stigma according to Roiphe, and what are the implications of her praise of “messy lives?” I explore these questions in my next post.

“I Don’t Know How You Do It”

This phrase leads a secret double life. Its day job is simple, normally an expression of praise and awe, a compliment to someone who deals with challenging life circumstances. The neighbor who cares for a disabled spouse while somehow holding down two other jobs, or the colleague battling cancer while raising a family and managing elderly parents.

When I first had my daughter, I heard these words often because I was parenting totally alone, finishing a graduate degree, and teaching – all at the same time and with no help from family. What’s more, my daughter’s first year was atypical: premature, poor weight gain, physical and speech therapy for nearly two years.

Like many new moms, I spent weekends talking to other parents on playgrounds, at play groups – the usual.

And that’s when I noticed that these words have a shadier life than I realized. That’s right, this phrase moonlights. It is bringing in beer money while the kids are in bed.

But sadly, the beer isn’t very good. It’s more like a stale wine cooler.

That’s because when people tossed out this apparent call of wonder – “I don’t know how you do it!” – they were generally not curious and not inviting conversation. In fact, the effect was more often the opposite: the phrase really served to shut down the possibility of exploration or connection. It was a way to sum up – and dismiss – my situation before the speaker had understood it.  A way of saying not “I don’t know” but “I don’t really want to know.” In some cases the vibe was disapproving, veering toward, “That’s crazy and wrong!”

So I began to understand that this phrase was living in disguise, not really a compliment but a coded sign of difference, exclusion.

The early parenting years are now behind me, and I’m lucky to have friends who really want to know how things are.

But the crucial point is how this tendency to reject other people’s experiences plays out on a cultural scale. Einstein’s words, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” is now something of a cultural cliché, but it’s worth probing a bit. As Einstein intended, the quote is widely applied to learning itself: Imagination (rather than knowledge alone) is a crucial ingredient for progress and evolution of many kinds.

Implicit in this idea is that imagination is necessary for new knowledge because discoveries, technologies, and species  – which eventually become conventional knowledge – depend on the exercise of imagination. So even if imagination is more valuable than knowledge, they are in fact interdependent.

The relationship might be more important than the hierarchy.

This idea has huge consequences for the social interactions that shape culture. Precisely because we cannot know absolutely the experience of another person, we can only learn more by taking the trouble to find out and using what we hear to imagine a life different from our own. Imagination, it turns out, is also a necessary ingredient of empathy.

Why does this matter? Because without empathy, there can be no social progress. Without some understanding of the experiences of others, it’s hard to justify policy supporting the needs of people in diverse societies.

Case in point: the news cycle has long discarded this story, but I’m still wondering how Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus, and Amanda Berry (and her young daughter) survived imprisonment in the house of monster for a decade. I’m not talking tabloid curiosity here. We need not indulge in bad taste and pry out the grim details. I want to know how these women survived and will survive the psychological fallout – and not in the broken-down catharsis of talk shows either – but in the basic sense of human suffering and the stories that human beings have told for millennia as a way to make sense of it.

Entertainment is not the goal, in part because this wondering encourages me to notice another important social fact: Ariel Castro, the deranged captor, had already escaped justice for the crime of domestic violence against his former wife, whom he had beaten so badly that she suffered a blood clot in her brain, among other injuries.

I want to know how that crime was allowed to go unpunished. And I want to know how we can prevent similar situations from happening in the future (for a great start, read this blog).

This type of empathy would necessarily change some of our everyday personal interactions. It would mean shifting from the fatuous, “I don’t know how you do it” (which is, after all, a given) to, “so, how do you do it” – an invitation to imagine and know.

The ethics behind this question might seem irritating, like a finger-wagging preschool exercise on selflessness. Ultimately, though, it’s about much more: If we’ve closed ourselves off to other people’s pain, we are also likely missing out on a lot of joy. Shutting out the kind of empathy nurtured by imagination is to live a muted company-guy existence  – a life no doubt fed by the stifling corporate culture that now runs much of the world. That culture goes out of its way to stifle how much we want to imagine – and hence know – about other people. The result is escape from the colleague’s dark hours of chemo, the friend’s demoralizing drug addiction, and in the worse cases, the awful suffering wrought by a neighbor’s insanity. But it also means exclusion from the joy of unexpected recovery, the hopeful life that appears out of nowhere.

I’d rather take the pain with the joy.

How do you do it?