The Economy of Messy Lives

In my last two posts, I’ve argued for two chief benefits to Katie Roiphe’s essays on single motherhood: her account potentially contributes to much-needed diversity in research on single moms, and she writes about the stigma of single-mom families with rare subtlety and courage. Hers is the first account I’ve seen that dares to suggest the benefits of such families.

The essays appear in the context of praising “messy lives.” Roiphe defines “messy” by way of contrast, describing the typical middle-class professional family as culturally sanitized, scrubbed clean of drama ­and all traces of creative energy by an obsession with children’s wellbeing that actually smothers the kids and turns the parents into slaves whose peak life moments include nurse-ins and satisfying deals on baby gear.

The submerged premise of this attitude is a fantasy that parents can somehow create a perfect environment – and by extension – a perfect child. This fantasy does real harm, and not just for the obvious reason of burdening kids with the cruel impossibility of trying to obtain something unobtainable. In Roiphe’s memories, some of a child’s most important self-defining moments depend on the opportunity for a certain idleness, “in the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves.”

The other key point is that this parental fantasy leaves no room for “true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling.” Hence the perceived psychological danger of single mothers I wrote about in my last post.

Roiphe implicitly exalts her own family of two children with two separate fathers in happy opposition to the parenting mania that defines much of the American middle class. And she argues that a bit more “mess” would make for a richer life and more independent, humane kids. The children will not be traumatized if they see mommy a little tipsy at the party. And so what if once in awhile they’ve had four pieces of cake?

Part of this makes great sense. Just as gays and lesbians reclaimed once-disparaging terms like “queer” in service of their liberation struggles, Roiphe is dislodging the stereotype of “mess” associated with single mothers – messy relationships, messy kids, messy houses, messy finances, a generally messed up life because you are a single mom – to reveal the value of a certain kind of disorder in modern family life.

The critics tore Roiphe to shreds over the class implications of her challenge. The relatively generous Molly Brown praised Roiphe’s writing style, but she too pointed out that many if not most single mothers don’t have the economic luxury to tout a bohemian life: “Roiphe and her demo are usually spared such monetary entanglements and their accompanying woes and disasters–the sort of messes that besiege most single mothers (and their children) in America.”

As I wrote in my first post in this series, the critics are partly right. But in pointing out this truth, they nonetheless unintentionally reinforce the link between “mess” and low-income mothers. In the eyes of many (I do not mean Brown specifically here), besieged by mess collapses all too easily with being a mess.

As someone who has yet to enter the American middle class, I don’t have the luxury to embrace messiness: Precisely because finances are sometimes precarious, I find myself making damn sure I am doing every single thing I can to give my daughter the best upbringing. No designer kids’ clothes at my house, but I can still schedule play dates, monitor screen time, and find decent classes at the Y. I know how it feels to be viewed as a mess, and I work hard to avoid it. Maybe I, too, inadvertently play into the trend of overparenting.

But here’s the key irony: In the rush to take down Roiphe and her privileged views, no one has really delved into the context of her celebration of well-heeled messiness: the colossal mess of the economy since 2008, the financial cyclone that so many of us are still trying to weather.

Given the astonishing chaos the banking crisis has created for so many Americans, a book telling responsible parents that their lives are too orderly takes on new meaning. So does the stereotype of messy single moms.

Financial mess now plagues even the most conventional types of families. But even for those who haven’t suffered money misfortunes, the fear of financial disaster actually reinforces the search for order. The quest for perfection may be partly a response to the fear of economic ruin.

It is fair to say that this fear is now operating on a grand cultural scale, humming like refrigerators in everyone’s house, taken for granted by now. And it is fueled by structural features, too. In addition to stagnant wages, we have the two-tier system, the insane practice of paying different people radically different wages for doing the same work. This system, which is illegal in many other industrialized countries, scorns merit and worships the bottom line of corporate profits. It’s a growing scourge that is increasingly making it impossible for someone with a decent education to build a career and economic stability.

It is this vanished opportunity, and the collective dawning of its reality, that makes our current mess so dire. One result is that as a stereotype, single mothers might represent more than the usual social and economic woes, more than poverty as it has been understood. Instead, we are primed to stand in for fear of a mess that now haunts virtually everyone, a mess that is utterly irrational, that could visit at any moment – no matter how smart or how well educated you are, no matter how secure you might feel in your land of reassuring sitcom jokes and good scotch.

Needless to say, this fear is intolerable. That is perhaps why the NY Times would prefer to publish an article about single mothers that blames misfortune on singleness rather than on the economic woes that plague most working people, married and single. And that is why, when Mitt Romney was questioned on gun violence, he chose to displace the collective terror of this violence onto single mothers. The deregulation of both the banking and gun industries – and the resulting damage – are rooted in a savage loyalty to corporate profits. That won’t fly in a presidential debate.

To be clear: This is no perverse audition for a starring role as scapegoat. Even if this cultural view of single mothers is operative, I am blessed to have friends who know and respect my family, and I don’t personally feel that my community on the whole views me in these negative terms.

The point here is what much of society believes. As I explored in my second post, to counter deep-rooted beliefs about single mothers will require awareness on many levels. When it comes to finances, let us begin by remembering forever that the colossal mess of this economic moment unfolded at the hands of those representing the pinnacle of American success.

Displacement indeed.