If you live a life that is different from what is most often valued or celebrated, you are probably living with the feeling – and fact – of being stigmatized. In the U.S., for example, marriage and nuclear family are held up as ideals. If you are a single person, you are, in many ways, cast as second-rate. You are the one who (supposedly) did not get a happy ending.
If you are a single mother, the story about you is even worse. You have, it is presumed, acted irresponsibly, and now your kids are doomed to a life of criminality, early pregnancy, and despair. And if you are a Black single mother, double or triple or quadruple that stigma.
An important new report, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All,” shows that the idealization of marriage and of one particular family form didn’t just happen naturally. More than a dozen well-funded organizations and institutions have been working for decades to promote their agenda of “marriage fundamentalism”: “the idea that a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family – especially for children.”
What the marriage fundamentalists never seem to acknowledge is the hurtfulness of their agenda. The harm can be economic, as, for example, when they succeeded in getting federal funding directed away from income support for poor children and poured into programs to encourage adults to marry.
It can also be psychological. Getting told that you are not a good mother because you are a single mother, or that your children just aren’t going to do as well in life as those kids from the “ideal” families, or that your family is “broken,” takes its toll.
It is not just the mothers who notice. Their kids do, too. A high school student and daughter of a single parent, when researching the topic of single-parent families, was confronted with the cruel narratives. She wrote to me about that:
“…throughout my research process for this paper I have come across many articles that stereotype children of single parents as delinquents and failures… these claims seem to be made without factual support. While these claims may not have support with facts, they have the support of the general public’s opinion and that is what is most hurtful.”
In one of the most popular TED talks of all time, viewed more than 17 million times, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned about “The danger of a single story.” One of the lessons of her talk is that we need to tell our own authentic stories. In the example I’m discussing of single-parent families, we need to tell real stories that counter the misleading and toxic narratives that have promoted so relentlessly.
A great example of a person who does that is Dani McClain, a single Black mother who was raised by a single Black mother. She is acutely aware that the family she grew up in, and the family she has created with her daughter Isobel, are considered “broken.” She doesn’t buy it. “As we are,” she says, “our family is perfectly whole.”
In a brilliant essay in The Nation, “As a Black mother, my parenting is always political,” and in her new book, We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, McClain shares true stories of her families and other Black families, stories that defy the shaming and stigmatizing accounts that the marriage fundamentalists have tried so hard to promote.
Do you believe that single parents are so frazzled by trying to raise their kids on their own that their children end up neglected? That was not McClain’s experience:
“None of the assumptions people seemed to have about families headed by “single mothers” applied to my life. As an only child, I was the focus of my mom’s attention and resources. That investment in my success and happiness was supplemented by the love, time, and money of other adults in our family, especially my maternal aunt, Pam, who lived with my mom and me from the time I was 7.”
Do you think that without a father in the home, the children of single mothers never get to see healthy adult relationships? Do you think that only bad things can result from the absence of a father in the home? That was not McClain’s experience, either, living with her mom and aunt:
“I grew up never threatened with “wait till your father gets home,” never seeing one adult’s needs prioritized over another’s. I saw two adults treating each other with love, respect, and humor. I saw that it was possible to be a whole, healthy adult without marriage and, in my aunt’s case, without biological children of one’s own.”
The Moynihan Report of 1965 infamously described a “tangle of pathology” that was supposedly passed down through the generations of Black families. Dani McClain knows, from the research, what really does get passed down:
“Patricia Hill Collins writes that growing up in a household like mine, in which working mothers and extended-family support are common, creates a kind of domino effect. Generation after generation, black women reject ideas that the patriarchal family—and, by extension, patriarchy in the broader society—is normal. …Instead, black girls grow up with a sense of empowerment and possibility that girls of other races don’t necessarily see modeled at home or in their communities.”
Not that they get any credit for that:
“But unmarried black mothers and their daughters aren’t lauded for holding the keys to resisting patriarchal oppression. Our reliance on extended family networks and collective approaches to childcare, our rejection of the nuclear family as the only way to organize our lives, has been consistently derided throughout history.” […We] “have been criticized by everyone from Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s to the American Enterprise Institute’s W. Bradford Wilcox today.”
Research on unmarried women over 65 shows that Black women are less likely than white women to feel stressed about their single lives. Maybe the same is true of younger women, if McClain’s experiences are any indication:
“Throughout my 30s, I was sympathetic, but somewhat baffled, as I watched some of my women friends struggle to make peace with their unmarried, unpartnered status. Many of them seemed to feel that kids were unlikely, since no partner was in sight, but their predicaments just looked to me like another way to do life. Because of my own upbringing, I felt liberated from the assumption that marriage and mothering must go together. Mainstream culture’s glorification of marriage leaves so many people feeling unnecessarily deflated and out of options when that type of union doesn’t materialize.”
If you are a single parent, or the child of a single parent, I hope you share your real-life stories, if not in writing, then in conversations with others. I’m not a parent, so I do not have stories of my own. What I try to contribute are my critiques of the relevant research as well as writings and guest posts that spotlight the stories of others.