On Single Moms Who Play it Safe in the Age of Economic Inequality–and Stay Unmarried

This great article by historian Stephanie Coontz explores the relationship between progress in gender equality and the rapidly growing economic inequality plaguing the U.S. Of particular interest is her take on the well-known gap in marriage rates between lower- and higher-income mothers:

Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry — even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expenses, and even if they have a child — is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

Their fears are justified. Chronic economic stress is associated with an increased incidence of depression, domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse and infidelity, all of which raise the risk of divorce. If a woman’s marriage breaks up or her husband squanders their resources, she may end up worse off than if she had remained single and focused on improving her own earning power.

She concludes,

Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families — at almost all income levels — than turning back the gender revolution.

Amen and thank you. It’s great to see someone talking sense about the actual risks and benefits of marriage, but the piece also offers excellent data on wages, marriage rates for various classes, and so forth. Read it here.

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On C-Sections and VBACs

This video from The New Yorker (which is offering free content for the next several months, so take advantage!) on rising C-section rates around the world is really well done. The stats are indeed alarming, but it’s not all grim––there’s also a sweet success story that brought tears to my eyes. Check it out.

On Kids Alone in Parks: We Need a Larger Collective Response

Responses to the arrest of Debra Harrell, a single, black mother who allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised in a park, are largely individual. Stories have focused on Harrell herself, obviously, so that we can understand her situation: unable to afford child care, she allowed her daughter to play in a park so that she could work her shift at McDonalds. She was then arrested, and her daughter was taken into protective custody.

People are rightly outraged at the injustice against Harrell, and have focused on how viciously U.S. society distorts children’s safety through the corrupted lenses of race and class. Jonathan Chait in New York decries Harrell’s arrest and tells of letting his kids play in a park unsupervised, with no consequences (he is white). In her lovely article ‘What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose,” Stacia Brown also shares her opinion and personal experience, to make clear exactly what is at stake when people report women like Debra Harrell.

We need these stories because they help to bridge the chasms of lived experience in U.S. culture. We will never resolve issues of race and class if people do not fully hear each other.

And I’ve got my own personal response filtered, of course, through my identity as a single, white mom. Like Chait, I, too, recently let my daughter play hide-and-go-seek in a park with another kid. Adults were watching from across the street, but later that day, my daughter told me that, while she was hiding under a bush, a cop walked by and asked if she was okay because he didn’t see anyone else around. She said she was fine, and that was the end of that. He didn’t ask where her parents were or come looking for me.

There you go, anecdotal evidence at its best. It’s not the same situation as Harrell’s, but for me, it confirms the double standard: a cop perceived my daughter, who is younger than Harrell’s, as sufficiently supervised, and his perception was at least partly informed by race.

The public outrage about Harrell’s arrest has spurred a crowdfunding campaign to help her to regain custody of her daughter (Harrell is reportedly out of jail now). This is a great idea because it will help Harrell with her immediate legal fees.

What interests me, though, is how virtually all the responses, rhetoric, and action I’ve seen (like here, here, and here) are limited to the individual realm. I found one article on Vox focused on the overall problem of childcare in the U.S. But mostly it’s, “Was Harrell right or wrong? What’s my experience with this issue? What can we do for Harrell?”

Again, these are necessary and valuable, but it’s also as if we can’t bear to raise the dire need for collective change, so we limit ourselves to the personal in both responses and solutions. Why? Do we feel too hopeless to advocate (again!) for reasonable, affordable childcare solutions for working moms, especially when we see things like yesterday’s Senate filibuster blocking the Hobby Lobby legislation fix?

Is it too tedious to repeat the obvious––like sending another email about how it’s time (right now!) to get big money out of politics? Is it too risky to repeat a larger truth that everyone already knows?

Individual stories and solutions are valuable but limited and, in a weird way, show how we’ve internalized the relentless privatization that makes the U.S. so hard on everybody, especially on working families. It will never be possible to crowdfund enough money for all the moms who are criminalized for living in poverty.

So I’ll be the uncool one and just say it: we need a collective, public response. We need to force this issue and demand legislation that supports working mothers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Partnerless Vacations with Kids

In her column at Daily Life, Andie Fox has written a wonderful piece about mothers vacationing with kids. The description of the community that emerges is lovely, as Fox portrays the children of different families roaming and mingling in shifting configurations, like “flocks of birds.”

For me, the most interesting part is what Fox begins to notice about family structure itself:

Something interesting happens on these holidays with other mothers. The boundaries between families collapse without the fathers there to keep them nuclear. The children roam from cabin to cabin. They eat together and sometimes sleep together. If I am lucky, one of the mothers will take my children with her into a shower and she will wash the salt and sand out of their hair for me while I find their towels.

This paragraph took me a bit by surprise, which might be ironic given that I’m a mother who parents completely on her own. Because I have never parented with a partner, I think I take this lack of nuclear structure for granted. The article reminded me that my family is not and has never been constrained in the paternal sense that Fox suggests.

It’s a freedom that I enjoy most of the time––the freedom to define parenting and family in ways that don’t involve the sense of property that is implicit in many two-parent, middle-class, nuclear setups.

Although Fox acknowledges that such holidays are “not all sharing and harmony,” she observes,

There is a sense of lost community in these holidays, and I wonder if there was a time when mothering was more like this. Are we simply rediscovering something mothers used to know?

Indeed. What did mothers used to know?

In the current U.S. cultural climate that vilifies single motherhood, degrading it as an unequivocally sad and pitiful state of affairs, it is wonderful to find gems like this article (and perhaps no accident that the writer is not American). Read the full piece here.

Review: The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman

Road trips in the U.S. are always more exotic in theory. The real thing generally means bad radio and fake food for three-hundred miles. In my view, any deliberate trip longer than two hours with small children is a concerning sign of masochism.

That’s why the best road trips are in stories. And the best story for kids (but really any age) I found this year is by Darcy Pattison, who gives us a trip that is wild and sweet and strangely haunting.

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman starts out with young Tameka writing to her favorite uncle, Raymond Johnson, begging him to visit her in California. Ray would love to, but he’s swamped with his carpentry work in South Carolina.

But Ray, it turns out, is no ordinary carpenter: Since he can’t visit in person, he builds a wooden man, Oliver, fits him with a backpack, and sends him off to “hitchhike” out west. Inside the pack he places a note ostensibly written by Oliver, asking whoever finds him on the highway to take him to Tameka’s house and to “drop a note to my friend Raymond Johnson… He wants to keep up with my travels.”

And so begins Oliver’s adventure from Rock Hill to Redcrest. Does he make it in one piece? And will Tameka ever get to see her uncle?

No spoilers here, but while the ending matters, it’s not what really matters in this book. What’s amazing are the people Oliver meets, the letters they write to Ray, and what the journey starts to mean.

Oliver’s rides go from ordinary to the right kind of kooky. We meet Jackson McCavish, a kind farmer who transports Oliver along with a bull named Bert, an amiable trucker headed through Texas, Miss Utah, whose grandfather discovers a lonely Oliver deserted on an Indian reservation, three retired sisters from Kokomo who have decided to blow their inheritance in Reno, and more.

In giving Oliver a lift, they all prove to be good Samaritans, but even better are the ways they adopt the wooden man as their traveling companion. In his note to Ray, trucker Bobbi Jo reports that he likes Oliver because “He never needs bathroom stops. He doesn’t care where we eat. And he stays awake with me all night.”

As the Kokomo sisters cross the Mississippi River for the first time in their lives, they relish their afternoon tea with “Mr. Oliver,” they write, who “has the loveliest manners.”

These characters have imaginations. They don’t just do Ray a favor by transporting a neat gift to his beloved niece; they all need in some way or other to make Oliver a part of their own stories, their own histories, however briefly.

And they all have totally distinct voices. A chaotic, fun brood in Arkansas tells Ray that “Mr. OK is OK.” Oliver “hung out with us for a couple of days, and all the girls liked him better than Quinn. So when Quinn’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt was leaving to visit her sick grandfather in Fort Smith, the guys loaded Mr. OK into the aunt’s station wagon and sent him on his way.”

After Oliver’s shadow scares away bears and saves a family camping in the Redwood Forest, the dad reports his discovery of Oliver in lawyerish prose: “Our family, currently on vacation, picked up the above-named person in what I thought was a misguided goodwill gesture. Little did I know how lucky that gesture would be.”

Pattison’s rhetoric is brilliant in another way too: the adventure is so absorbing that we hardly notice she has just slipped an epistolary tale under the noses of her elementary audience; the entire book is a series of letters, many exchanged by people who never meet in person.

The book is great for teaching everything from writing and rhetoric, to character analysis, to geography (there’s a cool map in the back showing Oliver’s cross-country route).

Sure, the book is idealistic and a little naïve. Oliver isn’t real, so we’re not really sending the message that hitchhiking is safe, kids! No worries here about meeting the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer with his freezer and vat of acid along your highway travels.

And the story assumes people are not just good and helpful but blessed with resources. These days, it’s more likely that Oliver would end up as fuel for an out-of-work family whose heat has been cut off.

But somehow the story doesn’t come off as entirely nostalgic or unrealistic, maybe because the characters seem real in other ways. The trucker Bobbi Jo could really use some company on late-night hauls; Miss Utah seems sort of bored smiling in parades; the Kokomo sisters have never traveled beyond the Mississippi River before. Now they get to gamble a little out west and they’re going to have fun, dammit.

These details make this road trip story feel both classic and hopeful, totally American in a way that seems familiar and comforting but – sadly – just out of reach.

This unassuming story, rooted in the sweet bond between a girl and her uncle, reaches far beyond the personal to imagine the whole country as a community. It’s about celebrating the best of who we might be in the U.S., people who make cool things for others and write letters and take brave trips and want to talk to (and even help) strangers. It sparked a little hope in me about a place I sort of recognize but can’t quite find these days.

Sort of like a lost key, inside the house. Maybe it’s here somewhere. It has to be, right? We used it to get in, didn’t we?

Pregnancy Loss in the Mainstream Press

Much buzz this week about two feature articles, Ariel Levy’s stunning account of her miscarriage in the New Yorker, and New York magazine’s cover story “My Abortion,” which includes 26 vignettes by women of various ages and backgrounds. It’s great to see these issues featured so prominently in magazines like these.

Levy’s account is brilliant and moving. As someone who has suffered a miscarriage, I can tell you that it is a strange and haunting experience in part because we have no culturally sanctioned way of grieving that particular type of loss. The first step toward making miscarriage less isolating is to tell our stories in public. Levy’s story is a gift to herself and to cultures everywhere that have yet to develop rituals of grieving and healing from miscarriage.

The New York piece is trickier, in part because it deals with the choice to end pregnancy, but also because it chooses quantity over quality. Its goal is to show just how common abortion is, in a culture in which – thanks to vehement politics and opposition – the level of rational public discourse doesn’t come close to matching the numbers of abortions that actually occur (approximately one women in three will have an abortion by the age of 45). In this sense, the choice to include many different stories makes sense.

But it does mean a certain loss of complexity and depth; the stories lack an adequate sense of the women’s emotional journeys, which is crucial for readers to develop empathy.

Most of the vignettes are also from the past decade, with only one from the 1960s and one from the 1980s. A wider sampling of the past 50 years would have underscored just how much ground we have lost in reproductive rights in the past two decades, how close we might be to returning to situations like the one represented from 1968.

Still, the piece is an encouraging step toward showing the diversity and complexity of our reproductive lives, and the women’s courage is admirable. Onward.