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But rather than apologizing for this perception, Roiphe simply rejects the “wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome,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