Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shattering Solidarity: Once More the Single Mother

Law professor Richard Stith has an article at First Things which, while primarily about abortion, suggests an explanation for the more-or-less open scorn for single mothers professed by some devout Catholic women bloggers (an attitude, it goes without saying, that circumvents God's explicit instructions not only to have mercy on others but also to defend the widow and the orphan). Because abortion is legal, Stith posits, it has become a default solution to a problem pregnancy, and its legality has changed the ways we think about women and maternity in stark and basic ways. “When birth was the result of passion and bad luck,” he writes,

some people could sympathize with a young woman who was going to need help with her baby, though the stigma of bastardry was genuine. If money or a larger place to live were going to be necessary for her to stay in school, a sense of solidarity would likely lead friends and family to offer assistance. The father would feel strong pressure as well, for he was as responsible as she for the child. He might offer to get a second job or otherwise shoulder some of the burdens of parenting.
But once continuing a pregnancy to birth is the result neither of passion nor of luck but only of [the unexpectedly pregnant woman’s] deliberate choice, sympathy weakens. After all, the pregnant woman can avoid all her problems by choosing abortion. So if she decides to take those difficulties on, she must think she can handle them.

Birth itself may be followed by blame rather than support. Since only the mother has the right to decide whether to let the child be born, the father may easily conclude that she bears sole responsibility for caring for the child. The baby is her fault.

Stith suggests that before the option of legal abortion existed, families and communities rose to meet the challenges presented by the single mother. This was true for my own mother, who, though she had to drop out of high school when she became pregnant, later moved in with her father and her toddler son so she could go to college at night (she got a full fellowship to graduate school, where she met my father).

It would appear, though, that the existence of legal abortion has affected the thinking even of those who oppose it, to the point that “we make [the unexpectedly pregnant woman] alone to blame for how she exercises her power [to bear the child or not].” This unequal apportioning of blame for bearing a child that no one, including some devout Catholic women bloggers, seems to welcome would explain these bloggers’ virtual silence on the responsibility of single fathers. “Nothing,” Stith asserts, “can alter the solidarity-shattering impact” of legal abortion. When the acceptance of abortion has turned even devout Catholic women away from seeking solidarity with their single mother sisters, more’s the tragedy.


Enbrethiliel said...


It really is a very complex issue--and even when someone is being very rational, it's clear that strong emotions are involved.

I think that a lot of the anger towards single motherhood these days actually has very little to do with children possibly becoming a tax burden or being more likely to turn to crime when they grow up. (Those make good reasons because they can be supported by numbers, but I doubt they're the real reasons.) I suspect this is a backlash against a certain kind of Baby Boomer parent, the kind who'd selfishly ask children he has just devastated, "Don't you want me to be happy?"

There are a variety of reasons today's single mothers are taking the brunt of this emotional backlash, when it's really yesterday's parents (single or otherwise) who brought it on the world. (It was also their generation, incidentally, which lobbied hardest for "abortion rights.")

Pentimento said...

This is an interesting point, Enbrethiliel. As the Stith piece suggests, the notion of children as a choice that can be brought to fruition or not is a legacy of that era. However, if you happen to spend any time in America, you'll see that there's a mounting rage about taxes that is, I suppose, the natural outcome of the ethos in which this nation was founded, and one of the bloggers to whom you linked in that post a few weeks back mentioned the tax burden.

I do not mean to imply that the Catholic women bloggers who vituperate single mothers would have wanted them to have abortions -- certainly not! But there is a certain gaping lack of compassion in their apparent "you made the bed, now lie in it" attitude. How much can you scold a woman -- and it is the women who are being scolded -- for the sadly common sin of having sex before marriage once she's pregnant and alone? At that point, a different response is required. As the members of Christ's mystical body, we can do better.

Enbrethiliel said...


Interestingly, one of my American readers has suggested I write an article on single motherhood for a certain eZine he regularly reads. He wanted me to focus on the economic aspect. =P

Now, I don't know if I could write something like that because money and the idea of imposing "burdens" on the rest of society was never the crux of it for me. Having been raised by a single mother, I always saw it from the point of view of the deprived child.

So I suspect that the reason single mothers receive the brunt of the censure is that it is they who spend the most time with their children. We don't really see the effects of a negligent and irresponsible father, but we can observe even the best mothers lose their tempers, give in to frustrations, and make some poor choices. Unfair? Of course--because a) all parents occasionally show their worst sides to their children, and b) the fallout from a father's deliberate absence (or even rejection) must be a million times as catastrophic as slip a single mother could make.

Pentimento said...

Interesting, Enbrethiliel. Are you going to do it?

For some reason, the economic outrage over single motherhood strikes me as peculiarly American. One of the salient features of our culture is the notion that my money shouldn't be used to help you (hypthetical I and you here) if you made a bad decision. Poverty is still tainted with the Calvinist idea of personal culpability in it, and, while surely that must sometimes be true, I think that to assume we have the choice to be rich or poor is once again a peculiarly American fantasy.

As for absent fathers, well, we see the results of their abandonment in that very cycle of poverty -- since 75% of female-headed households have incomes below the poverty level -- as well as in increased crime in boys and high teen pregnancy and dropout rates in girls. That's too big a crisis, obviously, to pin on single moms alone.

I don't know what the answers to this dilemma are. Some commentators on the right have suggested that the social problems associated with single motherhood began when the loose sexual morals of the upper classes trickled down: a woman of the wealthy educated classes could handle the fallout of bad decision-making in the form of an illegitimate child without being cast into poverty, but when lower-middle-class to poor women imitated this behavior, they did it to their utter financial peril.

I am not entirely convinced by this argument of defining deviancy downward, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, I don't know if I will do it. I'm trying to draft the article now, just to see what will happen, but I also know that I don't want to write about just single motherhood. I keep coming back to that sense of entitlement that has been corrupting modern culture for some time. Single mothers may have become iconic targets of critics of that sense of entitlement, but to focus on them exclusively is just "too easy," if you know what I mean.

Pentimento said...

Have you heard about this recent book? I'm going to request it at the library:

The truth is, I think single mothers are not going to be able to avoid being a target of cultural discontent right now. I'd say they're next on the list. The sad thing is that they are so vulnerable, most by virtue of their youth, poverty, and lack of education and the most rudimentary knowledge of how to control the chaos of their lives.

In the USA, as you may be aware, they are also not a new cultural scapegoat. The Clinton presidency made it a point to change the way that aid was given to single mothers in poverty, partially because of a huge cultural animus againt the single mother as "welfare queen."

But . . . something unique about American culture is that class in America is in some ways inextricably linked to race. The stereotypical single mother is poor, young, and black or Latina. But based on demographics, undoubtedly most single mothers in the US are poor, young, and white.

It's a complicated phenomenon indeed.

Enbrethiliel said...


I had not heard of that book, but if it's as gripping and eye-opening as the reviews are, then it should be a worthy read.

Last night I spent some time trying to draft that article. Needless to say, it didn't work out. =P I ended up writing something about female villains in fairy tales and the sad fact that modern media for children doesn't reflect that. LOL! If I'm wrestling with anything right now, it is the tension between extending a Christian response to a single mother and her children while making it clear that out-of-wedlock motherhood really is a horrible thing for everyone concerned . . . but there's no post or article coming out of that.

So it seems that I'm done with the issue, though, of course, I always enjoy discussing it with you. =)

Pentimento said...

There's a wonderful book -- actually it's on my "favorites" list here -- called Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, which explores the lives of two single mothers in the Bronx in the 1990s. I don't know if it would be pertinent to your argument, but it was bashed by both the left and the right when it came out (by the left for being clear-eyed and unsentimental about the disastrously poor choices made by poor women, by the right, I suppose, for the fact that the women were humanized).

Back in New York I was quite close to some of the Sisters of Life, an order created by the late Cardinal O'Connor with an apostolate focused on the unborn, on women at risk of abortion, and on post-abortive women. The women whom the Sisters of Life help are overwhelming (though not all) young, poor, undereducated, and Black or Latina -- i.e., as a whole they are the poster child for a scorned underclass. (Where I live now, however, most single mothers -- and, not knowing how to drive yet, I see many in my perambulations -- are young, poor, undereducated, and white, often with mixed-race children. In most cases, their lives couldn't be further removed from the lives of those who accuse them.)

A lot of conservative Catholic voices bring up the idea of "justice" when it comes to caring for single mothers and their children -- i.e., it is unjust that taxes (however little) that are subtracted from my paycheck go to help people who by all rights should suffer for the bad choices they made. The Sisters of Life, however, have an entirely different attitude. Though also conservative Catholics, they strive to be Mary to Elizabeth. They help the moms with everything, including directing them to those who can help them apply for food stamps and welfare benefits if they or their children qualify. Legislation passed by the Bush administration required that hospitals report illegal immigrants who come for treatment to the Immigration and Naturalization Service; the Sisters circumvent that ruling by taking the expectant moms to Catholic hospitals, which refuse to comply with it.

These sisters are by no means "liberal." One joked to me that it's the only order you can get into with a criminal record, since many of them had been arrested for abortion clinic protests before entering. But they don't talk about "justice." They talk about Mercy. As a matter of fact, I learned from them how to say the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; they have a special devotion to it.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that, consecrated or not, and of whatever political stripe, we are called on to bind up the wounds of our sisters and brothers to the extent that we can, and to welcome the stranger. It gets my back up -- have you guessed? -- to hear Catholics scolding other, more obvious sinners. But you probably know this already ;)