Wednesday, June 15, 2016
The "Epidemic" of Single Parenthood
I've recently returned from a week-long trip to the Pacific Northwest. I was pleased to have the opportunity to see a different part of the country I had never before visited. In the time I was there, I observed the many distinctions between the West Coast and the East Coast, asking natives and current residents alike their impressions of the area. Most were glad to answer my questions, but many displayed a lack of introspection regarding their home that I found curious.
I’ve lived in DC for eight years and have become something of a mini-Chamber of Commerce for the benefit of tourists and newcomers. It struck me as strange that many did not seem to care one way or another about the particulars and the superficial statistics. Native Southerners like myself have a way of playing to the crowd, like a skilled impressionist. The level of disengagement was notable, and I found it challenged my understanding. Was this due to modesty or were such issues thought to be unimportant?
Aside from the obvious differences in general attitude always cited, I viewed an area of the country largely dominated by whites, with a smattering of Asians drawn in by their proximity to the Pacific Rim. Underneath the Portland transplants and the hipper-than-thou milieu of the city is a somewhat washed out, working-class attitude even naked bike riders can't quite conceal. Strip away trendy donut shops and highly competitive brunch restaurants, and one sees something of the essential character of the region.
I could never be confused as a conservative in any form, and never a social conservative. I have no unwavering allegiance to the cult of the sanctity of marriage, nor how God ordains that such an arrangement ought to be composed of exclusively one man and one woman. Moreover, this post is not an attempt to raise a purely racial argument aimed squarely at the black community. What I saw in eight days of constant motion made little to no exception for race or class.
Instead, I saw instance after instance of mothers raising children alone. Most of them I noted only in brief. While stationed there for the duration of my trip, I did have the great fortune to keep company with two single mothers. One was in her mid-thirties, separated from the biological father, and raising three children on her own. The second was in her mid-forties and divorced, having waited as long as possible to have even one child. The subject did not change very often to the absent father in both instances, and if it did, it didn't linger very long beyond the perfunctory. I gathered the topic was still a very sensitive one and I did not press it.
Back home in DC, I live in an affluent blue enclave, full of yuppie parents and double strollers. Privilege and wealth are in prominent display. Here it is manifest in two-parent households, usually opposite-sex in makeup, though not always. Children are expected to be high-achievers in every station in life, eventual candidates for expensive, exclusive private schools. They are fed on food and drinks from the local Whole Foods. I'm sure for some that the same is true in Portland, for example, but priorities and goals are often very different from coast to coast.
Never was this more in evidence than a trip that took me 2,500 miles northwest and six hours by airplane. It may have taken a change of surroundings to amplify and illuminate the unreality of my home, the bubble I can sometimes convince myself exists everywhere. Single motherhood was in plain view everywhere my travels took me, reminding me that it is an inordinately difficult job and all too commonplace. Being privy to instance after instance of it made me pause to count my blessings
I am quite fortunate to have been raised by two parents who, forty-one years later, are still together. My mother and father have only been married exactly once, betrothed to themselves and no one else. Many of my classmates and friends growing up in the Eighties were children of divorce, part of that moral panic that may have been overstated but was nevertheless more prominent than it needed to be. Midway through their childhood or adolescence, they were often forced into compromise measures. Yours, mine, and ours families are not always a comfortable fit. Anyone with a half-sibling and a step-parent can tell you that.
I do think that two-parent families are the most stable, most solid pairings. Should one parent grow exhausted with routine duties, another can step in to take over. That, for no other reason, is cause enough to opt for raising a child with a partner. Having said that, I do recognize that the situation is not that simplistic, nor as easily fixed. Absentee fathers are prominent, and, in my opinion, we've been far too culturally lenient, demanding financial payments and custody arrangements from one half of the equation, not time spent in the company of offspring. Children don't need fathers like piggy banks or sporadic trips to Disneyland, they need the moderating influence of active parenting.
I'll tell a brief anecdote. About ten years ago, I was in a relationship with a woman who was much older than me. She had two kids from a previous marriage, both boys. The youngest kid was a bit rebellious, something of a behavior problem. Though I pushed away from him, uncomfortable with the attention he lavished upon me, the idol-worship he made plain, and the void I filled, I could tell he craved my company.
One night I arrived home late from work and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Having read somewhere that letting manual toothbrushes drain upside down was more sanitary, I'd turned my brush bristles in that direction, facing towards the basin. Returning late from work, I discovered that someone else had turned his bristles downwards towards the basin as well, right next to mine. I have to admit I shed a few overwhelmed tears once I observed his behavior, as I was nowhere near ready to be anyone’s surrogate father.
This might come across only as a sweet story. For me, it was evidence that my very presence was more prominent and influential than I had even dreamed. But it also reveals more about the compelling need for fathers, or at least the need for more than one single parent. Married or partnered same-sex parents can replicate the same loving household dynamics. Provided the relationship between partners is stable, regardless of sexual orientation, I have no reservations. Children demand better.
I recognize that some may choose to criticize me for these remarks, to seek to spot a few holes in my argument. Single parents might believe that they have an adequate grasp of their duties without needing to rely on anyone else. I know of single parents who do an excellent job rearing children on their own. I don’t seek to criticize their hard work. It is also true that I have no children of my own, nor intend to have any myself.
But even casual observation, on one level, is sufficient enough. Spend enough time around airports, on board public transportation rails, or shifting uncomfortably on a bus and one can view ample evidence of good parenting and bad parenting. To be fair, one can also observe single parents, often single mothers, at the end of their rope, struggling massively with misbehaving and unruly children. Single parents of any gender may assert that conditions on the ground are fine the way they are. This may well be true. I seek not to challenge their intentions.
My experiences may not fit the norm. Sometimes bad behavior is not relegated only to children. I have known single mothers who have spit in their faces of their children when they wouldn't mind and cursed at them violently when they wouldn't get up in the morning. And I have called them friends and acquaintances. I don’t condone their behavior, but neither did I cast them aside. One of them had a child at seventeen who she came to resent, but tearfully confessed to me the nature of this offense. At what point does parenting become abusive or, at best, incorrect? It’s easy to make sweeping generalizations, and it’s equally easy to take a zero tolerance attitude when a child is not our very own.
I have also known single parents who agonize about striking a balance the best way, between raising children and dating, darting back and forth from A to B in the deepest of ambivalence. In my case, I observed her berating her children verbally when they wouldn't spring to action immediately. I was indebted to her as her partner, and I resisted reporting her behavior. Unlike some, she was well-connected legally and I knew nothing would be done. In addition, I wasn't sure it was my place to say right or wrong. It's easy to call out behaviors that some may say border upon child abuse, but often difficult to make them stick. One parent’s perceived discipline is another parent’s abuse. That was a difficult lesson to learn.
Divorce rates have actually decreased with time, but so have the rates of marriage. More people are living together for years at a time, many with no intention to say their vows. The question at hand should then be phrased a little differently. No one seems to understand if or why people marry for all the wrong reasons. And even then, marriage success is no guarantee. Problems with rearing children, particularly children with special needs, have proved the undoing of even the most stable marriages. What we are observing is, in part, fate, luck, devotion, and unrequited toil. But again, we can’t overlook the need for a two-person household. For some, it’s a paradoxical situation.
We're told to believe that things were more solid and stable in the past. This is not always the case. My father's parents stayed together, but theirs was an immensely difficult union, an arrangement put together by family members for the sake of the children. Few people were divorced in the Fifties, and each had a child from an earlier marriage. Mutual guilt has rarely motivated people to make sound decisions. My father has a step-sister from his father's first marriage who he has never even met. She has never made any overtures to connect with him, and, sixty years later, he doesn't expect it. My grandparents conformed to an ideal that was socially acceptable, but a bad fit for both.
A relationship that was the product of his mother's first marriage produced a half-sister, who hated her step-father. She and my father were estranged for years, and never reconnected before her untimely death by way of a premature heart attack. My aunt married five times before her death. The first was an effort to get out of her step-father's house at all cost. One disastrous marriage involved an ex-convict who proved to be an abusive sociopath. These are difficult issues to consider, as they strike at the heart of our personal development and understandings of self.
I may not have said my vows, but I have made substantial mistakes in relationships. When children become part of the equation, the stakes are propitiously raised. Parenting can be like a highly dramatic, incredibly competitive hand of poker, with all of the chips on the table, with a risk for great gain and great loss. Often, sufficient parenting is revealed years after the fact, not in the present tense. Children are not raised in isolation. They are raised by all of us, and it may indeed take a whole village.
Laid-back or Type A, granola or traditional, parenting is a reflection of who we are and how we ourselves were raised. My parents grew up in families where problems were swept under the rug and never confronted. They vowed that they would not take the same approach when it came their time to be parents. I appreciate the courageous stance they took, but have come to realize how many families simply do not follow this same basic model.
And that unfortuate lacking is clear in our governance, the patchwork of laws which are intended to maintain decency and morality. It is easier in the short term to not call things out, but it also encourages a kind of evasiveness that is not predicated upon honesty or trust. Having tried the old standards of mutual love and best intentions, I wonder what fruit truthfulness and integrity would bear. We may need to rethink our approach while recognizing the complications. We can't hide from ourselves any longer.