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.

Reading the Stigma of Single Motherhood

In my last post I claimed that progress for low-income single mothers depends on including the experiences of all single mothers – even privileged ones who might seem to have little in common with low-income families.

I referred to Roiphe’s essay “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” whose title is borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (“the alchemy of quiet malice, by which [we] can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles”). Roiphe claims that traces of the stigma that plagued Hester Prynne still linger in society’s views of single moms today, so that an “alchemy of quiet malice” fuels inappropriate comments about such families. This attitude is part of an “irrational, residual, pervasive conservatism that we do not generally own up to.”

Not all single mothers perceive a stigma, but some do. As my last post suggests, I have seen evidence of it, even among apparently progressive folks. And the political and cultural rhetoric around the issue supports this view.

But why does this conservatism persist? Roiphe subtly unravels the way that many progressive-minded people view single mothers as psychologically dangerous (she doesn’t mention the perceived sexual danger – perhaps because it is so obvious). Because single moms are unable or unwilling to ensnare a man, there is deep suspicion that we are flawed in some way: antisocial, selfish, greedy – fill in the blank. The irony here is that women who decide to have a baby on their own often show extraordinary commitment.

The other part of the perceived danger is more subtle according to Roiphe:

Part of what seems threatening or unsettling about the single mother’s  household is precisely that sense that the mother may be glimpsed as more of a person, that these children are witnessing a struggle they should not be seeing, that their mother is very early on a regular, complicated person, rather than simply an adult who is part of the opaque, semi-separate adult culture of the house.

But rather than apologizing for this perception, Roiphe simply rejects the “wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome, our enlightened modern version of shame.”

And she goes further, claiming that there just might be advantages to single-parent families, such as children who, precisely because they learn to view adults as human beings, become more empathic, “a bit more modest and humane” in an “age of imperious, entitled super-children” who are lost without constant schedules and organized stimulation.

But for Roiphe, there is another piece to this: part of the hostility some married folks feel about single moms might have to do with a bit of resentment that said moms are not making the same sacrifices, like having to “work on” a trying relationship, or worse, be stuck in a lackluster marriage.

This is courageous stuff in a cultural climate in which, just last week, an uncouth governor faced the bravery of Wendy Davis’s heroic filibuster by attacking (while pretending to praise!) her history as an unwed mother.

I have become good at deflecting the occasional awkward comments, which occur rarely in the town where I live and are more instructive than anything. Happily, enough of the people who matter in my daughter’s life do not stumble in this way, so she doesn’t experience blatant shaming.

What is much more pervasive is the “quiet malice” underlying both these occasional eruptions and (more often) the social exclusion that is clearly at work and makes a real difference in a small city.

Some married people really do believe their children are more “legitimate,” and because my girl has in fact been shut out of certain social circles simply because of her mommy’s undressed ring finger, I feel a bit of wicked delight when Roiphe dares to venture this in her essay on the term “love child”:

Stepping back, though, what is a tiny bit subversive and possibly appealing about the term is the faint suggestion that the love child has something more to do with love than the baby born in wedlock, who is in a certain sense just doing his job, fulfilling the natural and upstanding function of holy matrimony. On some level, the existence of the love child is testimony to some special energy on the planet, to someone doing something not necessarily sanctioned by the Bible, on his or her own time, out of some extra industry or aspiration.

This is, of course, mostly silly. Kids of married parents do not always dutifully roll off the marriage assembly line any more than children of unmarried mothers are little Venuses sprung from the sea.

Wall fresco of Venus, Pompeii

Wall fresco of Venus, Pompeii

But a good many people really do think of the “love” part of “love child” in terms of mockery. So amid the tired yet tireless scorn aimed at single mothers, Roiphe delivers a shot of cool defiance, a polite yet potent corrective. Especially to progressive hypocrites who really have no problem excluding certain children – as long as they’re subtle enough that no one can call them out.

This is more than catharsis. With these essays, Roiphe is moving the conversation forward on families headed by single mothers. The work isn’t perfect, but we don’t need perfection – just incisive thinking and courage.

In my third and final post on this topic (for now), I turn to the larger context of Roiphe’s commentary. What are the real implications of praising “messy lives” for those less financially fortunate than Roiphe and her set?

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.