This column is the third in a series about the realities, stigmas and outright lies surrounding single motherhood. Read Part 1, about being afraid to be called a single mother, and Part 2, about women who raise their children alone by choice.
When you’re deeply immersed in a project like I am in this one about single motherhood, you find yourself frequently falling down Google rabbit holes, some completely random and others more fruitful. It was during one of the latter that I came across “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.”
The book, released last fall, was written by Melissa S. Kearney, a researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, my alma mater. Through painstakingly detailed data, she explores what seems an obvious premise: Children raised in a home with two parents in a traditional, legally defined union have better life outcomes in almost every category because of doubled incomes, effort and energy.
My initial reaction? Duh.
Of course it’s easier to raise children with more resources, time and options! I assumed that I was in for another conservative screed about the evils of single parenthood, with an especially sternly wagged finger at mothers doing it on their own.
But I was wrong. Kearney approaches the issue not from a moral stance, but a factual one, with statistics and numbers that avoid a paternalistic diatribe about how single moms are out here ruining the world with our wanton blah blah blah. Ironically, it’s that moral agnosticism that has made her book a target of some on the right, who were excited until they realized she wasn’t piling on single mothers as bad people, and some on the left, who think she’s blaming people who are actually trying. Both sides want to know what the solutions are, which can be hard to parse when they don’t agree on what the problem is.
There are so many emotions, exceptions and feelings surrounding single parenthood, both for those families and those who feel some kind of way about it. But figures and finances are hard to argue with. “I wrote about the economics,” she explained.
Kearney admits “the naive read” of the situations posited in her book is just for more people to get married and raise children within that marriage. Early on, someone on the marketing team for her book suggested calling it “The One-Parent Problem.” Yikes. Fortunately, she was not into it.
“‘I will pull the project. Over my dead body will we call it that,’” she recalls saying. “The one parent present is not the problem! That one parent is the kid’s greatest asset. It sounds like we’re blaming the single mom, the one that stayed by the kid. That’s completely missing the whole point.”
While she uses the word “marriage,” Kearney said she’s referring to any committed relationship between people who are cohabitating. I know the benefits of this from personal experience. I’ve been a widow for most of my child’s life, and two years ago, when my mother moved out, I lost not only her financial contribution as a co-parent but someone to trade off bedtime and bath time with, and another adult to talk to.
I agree with her research and numbers, but I admit I found Kearney’s book challenging in parts, because there’s very little that I or most single mothers can do about it.
I was aware of the stigma that being a single mother carried — one I had to get over myself. I initially assumed I would marry again, because that seemed like what was “supposed” to happen. But dating in your 40s and 50s is stupid and as a single parent it’s even worse. Most of the people in my dating pool have their own kids or even grandkids and are ready to start the child-free, carefree portion of their lives.
I also am admittedly not who Kearney is mostly writing about: Women who were poor before they become mothers and are now set back even further, especially when the men they once might have married have far less opportunities for well-paying industrial jobs, making them less able to contribute equally as partners. I cannot claim to be disadvantaged financially because I’m a well-paid professional who still has a village to help.
Still, there’s so much about her approach that seems fair. She willingly admits that as a married professional woman who was raised in a two-parent household, “I was writing about a challenge that I had not had myself.” She’s also clear that marriage is not a cure-all for everyone, including abusive situations, or where the potential partner does not contribute to the household, financially or otherwise. I already support an unemployed person. He’s 10. I’m not looking for a second. Keep your broke ass over there.
The author said she’s also aware that most women don’t find themselves in a reality where “some wonderful man is just waiting to help me take care of my children.” THERE IS NOT. At this point, I’m fine dating someone who lives across town and has their own life and home, and can maybe befriend my child without having any moral or financial responsibility or authority over them.
Kearney sees this as “an equity issue” about why “women who are economically disadvantaged and more likely not to have the support of a co-parent or spouse in the household. Where is the second parent?”
I wondered if the solution might be that the second parental figure doesn’t have to be a spouse, or even a romantic partner, like with me and my mother, or on the ’80s sitcom “Kate and Allie,” in which two divorced best friends move in together to raise their kids as a family unit. Kearney liked the idea of “sharing resources” like this but said there was not widespread evidence that it was common.
Andrew J. Cherlin, professor emeritus of public policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Sociology, whose 2009 book “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today” Kearney cites as an inspiration for her own, thinks that sharing is more familiar depending on where you look.
Cherlin said he liked Kearney’s book and appreciated her approach of being “not moralistic,” but believes African American families “have a stronger network of extended family. Black grandmothers play a strong role in raising many grandchildren. They can call upon cousins and brothers and uncles even more than white families who are restricted to nuclear families,” he said.
This is my own history, with generations of children adopted — sometimes legally, sometimes unofficially — within the family. Modern couples, even happy ones, simply don’t consider marriage “the cornerstone” of a family like they once did, Cherlin noted. It’s no longer love, the marriage and the baby carriage, in that order. Sometimes marriage comes last, if at all.
“There’s nothing magical about marriage. Any stable two-parent family can do a good job. You don’t have to have that piece of paper. A lot of single parents do an equally good job,” he said.
Yeah, we do!
Although she makes the case for legal marriage as an ideal, Kearney is not moralizing about the institution. She suggests that formalizing that bond sometimes can make it seem more resolute and permanent, and then imposes more formal restitution and response regarding financial support for children should it fail.
Then again, that doesn’t always matter. As Cherlin pointed out, when former president George W. Bush pushed the “Healthy Marriage Initiative” to encourage such unions, “it didn’t work. What you do is give people a choice, and support them and allow them to live their lives without being stressed-out and poverty-ridden, and [they can] decide not to marry for themselves.”
So what are the solutions? In her book, Kearney writes that the key is increasing economic security, which makes these unions not only a help, but not a hindrance. She suggests taking marriage out of how income distribution programs and tax codes are defined, like the income tax credit, which married couples can lose if their income exceeds a certain amount. It’s so frustrating, because although society still dictates that marriage is the goal, it makes it harder to flourish financially. “I can see how it feels like a plot,” she said. “It’s hard to work and marry into the middle class.”
At the end of the day, Kearney said, society must meet families where they are.
I found myself nodding in agreement through most of her argument, until a truly flabbergasting record-scratch moment. Kearney suggested that even if parents were not romantically together, they could cohabitate and care for their kids as a unit.
“Maybe the optimist in me thinks that some could make it work,” she said. “Setting aside situations of violence or harm, kids would benefit if more parents at least tried.”
I took a deep breath before answering, because I’m a professional and you can’t yell “NOPE!” in an interview. I told Kearney that I did not personally know one single mother, besides the ones who purposely became solo parents through artificial insemination or adoption, who had not at some point intended to be in a long-term, committed relationship with the father of their children. They tried plenty. But it didn’t work.
I also reminded her that, fair or not, the onus and blame for whatever happened with those children is with the mother. Always. Kearney listened graciously. She’s not trying to chastise single mothers — she stopped that terrible single parent-blaming book title. She’s just making an argument for stability and support, which I get.
I’m just not sure what we can do about it in a society that seems designed to punish rather than provide solutions. It might not be a plot, but it sure can feel that way when it’s just you and your kid against the world.