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.

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.

Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

Oh how I love Jeanette Winterson and most everything she writes. Along with her stunning novels and her ingenious 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she writes great reviews that are both brilliant and warm. Read her latest in the Guardian on Oscar Wilde’s book of fairy tales, The Selfish Giant and Other Stories.

What I love about this review is how she explains – and understands the need to explain in our current age of science-worship – the value of fairy tales and fiction in general:

Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means for understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love’s sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories…As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing.

Read the full review. Read Winterson’s stories. Read Oscar Wilde.

Critiquing “The Masculine Mystique”

This article in the current Atlantic is worth a read. Author Stephen Marche’s point is that progressive men who have embraced gender equity and who, like their professional wives, scramble in the gerbil run of “work-life” balance are strangely silent in public discourse about how to achieve such balance. It’s strange, Marche says, because these men are most definitely not silent in the private realm of family decision-making.

And this “mystique” is damaging because, “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided. The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money.”

There’s a lot of truth to this. And Marche is certainly right that “the solution is establishing social supports that allow families to function.”

I mean, it’s great to hear a man proclaim that day care “is the thing that enabled me to build a new career for myself. Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike.” Right on. By raising his voice, Marche will encourage other men to do the same. And he is right to say that progressive men bear the responsibility for their own silence (in contrast to MRAs and antifeminists of other stripes, who are not silent).

So far so good. Marche seems to have a good handle on some of the economic issues that working families face.

But his misunderstanding – and it is a dangerous one – of the complex intertwinings of gender and class emerges from what appears to be a strange wish to subordinate gender issues to economics. The result is a fair bit of confusion about both.

I can agree when Marche decries Lean In as a “capitalist fantasy” because it clings to the myth of pluck, the ideal that “hard work and talent alone can take you to the top,” against all contrary evidence on the ground. But his critique of Sandberg and others (like Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on work-life balance) as being part of a “plutocratic wave of feminism” is much more problematic. Marche asks, “do we want women emulating the egomania of the corporate male?”

In an ideal world, the answer to this question is obviously no. But in the world we have, it’s yes.

To understand why, consider another question that has already been settled: Do we really want women risking death and psychological trauma by serving in the armed forces just so they can have the same opportunities as men? I think few would disagree that women in the military have done at least something to advance women’s equality.

See, if women have equal access to crazy corporate power, then yup, you’re gonna get plutocractic feminism too, just like we’ll end up with some unfortunate women given that women now experience the trauma of warfare. And so on. That’s what equal opportunity looks like.

Attacking “plutocratic feminism” is a poor way to go after patriarchal values. Far better to go straight for those values, not women’s desire for capitalist triumph with a cherry on top. No, we should not exempt powerful women as we question societal values, but it seems a tad bit insincere to go after those values by attacking the feminism supporting them.

Perhaps Marche has written courageous articles critiquing male CEOs?

Then we have statements like, “The average working-class guy has the strange experience of belonging to a gender that is railed against for having a lock on power, even as he has none of it.”

Really? Marche should chat with some working-class women. I’ll bet they could name more than a few ways their male counterparts hold power in their communities.

And it is dead wrong to declare that “whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable.” I’m thinking that people stuck with the greater share might disagree.

Perhaps most problematic is the notion that “gender attitudes do not affect economic reality, but rather the other way around. The rise of women is not the result of any ideology or political movement; it is a result of the widespread realization, sometime after the Second World War, that families in which women work are families that prosper.”

Well, economic realities certainly do influence gender attitudes. After the Second World War, many middle-class women were pushed out of their jobs because these families could prosper without women working outside the home, and the husbands wanted the jobs. And stagnating wages, which began in the 1980s and have continued since, might well have fueled the idea that women can and should have careers.

But gender attitudes have profoundly affected economic reality. Just ask Lily Ledbetter.

Marche should read books like Lynn Povich’s The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. He would learn that it was precisely gender attitudes, not economics (the women were already working), that held women back in journalism. And in this case, women took the daunting step of challenging those attitudes in long and bitter legal struggles not because they necessarily needed more money but because they wanted to develop their full potential.

And here I cannot resist pointing out the lack of parity in journalism today, particularly regarding feature articles – including the very issue in which Marche’s article appears.

This discounting of political and social movements amounts to a stunning disregard for how progress and oppression actually happen. Because if we believe that gender attitudes depend only on economic reality, we imply that women have little power to improve gender attitudes as a matter not simply of economic but social justice.

And if gender attitudes simply depended on economics, progressive men might not suffer from a “masculine mystique” at all. It is fair to ask how “hollow” patriarchy can be if it still “keeps women from power and confounds male identity.”

Sadly, patriarchy is not doomed just because it’s expensive. Certain ideologies are very stupid. They keep on keeping on even though they’re expensive because they serve other interests. Destroying women’s right to reproductive freedom is perhaps the single most expensive patriarchal oppression ever. And yet, as the middle class shrinks at what seems like an exponential rate, reproductive rights have lost major ground in the past three decades. The last year alone has been alarming.

“The Masculine Mystique,” of course, alludes to Betty Friedan’s manifesto, which unfortunately ignored working-class women as Friedan advised their middle-class counterparts, among other things, to simply hire some help.

Marche does something of the opposite: Instead of ignoring economic reality, he simplifies it at the expense of the very real force of gender attitudes – attitudes that persist because they so often defy, not merely depend on, economics.

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.