single motherhoodOn the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Katie Roiphe has contributed a rousing moving, and brilliant defense of single motherhood. She urges us to think more broadly about the meaning of family. I accept her challenge and will point to some possibilities that are even farther-reaching than the ones she described.

I am going to focus here primarily on the many important people in the lives of single parents and their children. Roiphe’s essay, though, says much more and is worth reading in its entirety.

Early in the piece, Roiphe says this:

“Conservatives obsess over moral decline, and liberals worry extravagantly — and one could argue condescendingly — about children, but all exhibit a fundamental lack of imagination about what family can be — and perhaps more pressingly — what family is…”

So what comes next in that sentence?

“we now live in a country in which 53 percent of the babies born to women under 30 are born to unmarried mothers.”

True, but that still hews to the conventional meaning of family. The U. S. Census Bureau, for example, defines family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” (The householder is the person “in whose name the housing unit is owned or rented.”) “What family is,” the opening promise of Roiphe’s declaration, builds to too small an ending. What family is today is so much more.

Roiphe nods at that bigger picture when she argues that our cultural conversations about single parenting, and even the academic studies on the topic, insufficiently recognize the fluidity in many people’s lives:

“In fact women move in and out of singleness, married parents break apart, men and women live together without marrying, spouses or partners die, romantic attachments form and dissolve.”

She is right. There is a shifting complexity in many people’s lives. The people who are important to us, though, go beyond spouses, partners and romantic attachments. Life-span scholars such as Toni Antonucci have shown that people have “social convoys,” networks of people who march alongside them over the course of a lifetime. The convoys are not completely stable over time: particular people can become more or less important over time, or even fall out of the inner circles of a person’s life, and some people do not join the convoy until many years, or even decades, have passed.

Still, there may be enough constancy to the convoy to provide an enduring sense of continuity and identity and support – more than most romantic partners, or succession of partners, ever offer.

Near the end of her essay, Roiphe notes:

“Our narrow, constricting, airless sense of the isolated nuclear family has not always, if we are honest, served us well, and it may now be replaced by something more vivid and dynamic, and closer to the way we are actually living.”

The way we are actually living now is the topic of my most recent project. (A survey is here if you want to participate.) I have been studying single parents and single people who are not parents – and, it turns out, even some couples and two-parent families who could go traditional but choose not to.

My research is just beginning, but already, in the category of single parents, I have talked to a number of people whose lives do not fit the stereotype of the lone mother and her children isolated in a single-family detached home or a small, smelly apartment.

An example of an alternative living arrangement I have visited is called co-housing. In those communities, the parent and his or her children live in their own home among a cluster of homes that includes a common house where residences share dinner several times a week. Co-housing is designed to foster community. Homes typically face an open, green space inaccessible to cars that is a safe place for kids to play and an inviting place for neighbors to chat. Co-housing is not just for single-parent families, or especially for them. The communities welcome singles and the wide variety of household inhabitants you might find anywhere else.

I also talked to a single mother I have known for a long time. When she adopted her daughter, she named twelve of the most important people in her life to be godparents. She created a social convoy to be there from the outset. As her daughter grew up, she added her own convoy members.

Multi-generational homes can also be comfortable places for single parents and their children. In our cultural imagination, these are mostly ethnic families. In fact, though, multi-generational living is not nearly so limited.

Thanks to a tip from April, I also plan to learn more about co-abode. As the website notes, “Co-abode offers a unique ‘matchmaking’ service to provide single moms with one or more children the opportunity to share housing, while pooling resources and finances with another single mom of their choosing.”

In case you are wondering, I am not a single parent (I’m not any kind of parent) and I was not raised by a single parent – my parents enjoyed their one-and-only marriage for 42 years, until the day my father died. I’m offended by the derision and sanctimony about single parenting not as a single parent but as a scientist who finds fault with the research, and as a citizen always rooting for the long arc of history to bend toward justice.

Note: Katie Roiphe advises that she is “not a huge believer in studies.” I differ from her there. I love research – I just want it to be high quality and interpreted accurately, which it too often isn’t. I have written research-based accounts of single parenting in a chapter in Singled Out as well as in blog posts on this site and elsewhere:

You can also find discussions of the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single parents and their children in Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.

Single mom and child photo available from Shutterstock