The single mother myth

Women's inequality is a persistent feature of U.S. society--but contrary to the New York Times, the answer doesn't lie in turning back the clock, writes Jen Roesch.

A single mother with her son in New York City (Ed Yourdon)

INEQUALITY IS glaring and growing worse in U.S. society, the New York Times admits. But don't think that mass unemployment or the destruction of union jobs or the colossal enrichment of Wall Street are to blame. The Times has a handy scapegoat: single mothers.

That's the message of a major feature in the Sunday edition of the Times on July 15, titled "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do.'" Armed with statistics showing a rise in the number of U.S. families headed by single mothers, the article offers a set of sweeping generalizations about the consequences of single-motherhood.

Several economists claim in their quoted comments that between 15 percent and 40 percent of the increase in income inequality is the result of changes in family structure caused by the "marriage gap." "Falling blue collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay" are referenced in one brief sentence--before the author proceeds to recycle yet more patronizing stereotypes about single mothers.

Married couples, readers are told, do things in the right order: get their degrees, settle down and then "invest" heavily in parenting time. Single mothers, on the other hand, have children with multiple (usually worthless) men, are less educated and live chaotic, unpredictable lives in which "men with ambiguous parenting roles come and go." The article paints a bleak picture in which children of single mothers are more likely to "act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school."

And along with the simple scapegoat, we're offered a simple solution to all our problems: marriage.

The Times article profiles two mothers, both of whom make similar incomes working at a day care center, but who have vastly divergent lifestyles. The author blithely declares: "That is the essence of the story of Ms. Faulkner and Ms. Schairer. What most separates them is not the impact of globalization on their wages, but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin."

So if your paycheck doesn't stretch until the end of the week and you're worried about whether you're going to be able to put food on the table; if you have to decide whether to send a child to school sick or stay home and miss a day's wage; if you can't afford afterschool activities for your kids and worry about them at home by themselves while you're still at work--don't worry, the New York Times has a solution that you probably never thought of: go find yourself a Kevin.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHILE THE Times article is insulting in its broad generalizations and stereotypes about single mothers, the actual story it tells reveals the depth and continuing persistence of women's inequality--and the multiple ways in which women who attempt to live up to the societal ideal of the nuclear family are punished when they fall short.

The two women featured in the article are single mother Jessica Schairer and married mother Chris Faulkner. Both work at a day care center--Chris as the director and Jessica as the assistant director.

Despite having an associate's degree, six years of experience and two promotions, Jessica is still on an hourly wage, making around $25,000 a year. She has no paid time off and has to rely on food stamps to make ends meet. We aren't told exactly how much Chris is paid, but it seems to be a similar amount. What makes Chris' lifestyle different is that she is married to a man who makes almost two-and-a-half times what she does.

The obvious question, which the Times writer never manages to ask, is why the two women in the story make so much less than the man, despite similar levels of education and experience. This wage gap is not an aberration. Forty years after the women's liberation movement, women still make 77 cents to a man's dollar.

Equally importantly, women tend to be concentrated in professions that offer lower wages and more precarious working conditions. As day care workers, both women are part of the so-called "caring professions." Workers in this sector make an average of $21,000 a year compared to an average of $42,000 for workers in other sectors. This is a reflection of how little worth our society attaches to what has traditionally been considered "women's work."

The consequences for Jessica are devastating. As a woman trying to raise three children on poverty-level wages by herself, she faces difficult choices. She does not have the $5,700 to spend each year on extracurricular activities that the Faulkners do. She buys generic cereal and worries about whether she will have enough money to make her grocery budget. When she wanted to chaperone her child's field trip, she lost a day's pay. And when she got cancer, she was forced to return to work after only a week because she could not afford to take the six weeks of (unpaid) leave recommended by her doctor.

But the other side of this story is that Chris and her children are only protected from this fate by her marriage to a man who makes significantly more than she makes. While most married mothers don't face the same levels of poverty as single mothers, their lives are also shaped by this inequality.

Because women make less and their jobs tend to be less stable and thus more disposable, they are more likely to be the ones who take time off from work for child care reasons. Because women often bring in a lower share of the household income, they also tend to have less bargaining power when it comes to the division of household labor and child care responsibilities.

And, of course, because Chris is financially reliant on her husband for her family's stability, she literally cannot afford for her marriage to fail. This is the reality that keeps tens of thousands of poor and working-class women trapped in abusive relationships.

An article that seems to be all about the divergent results of different personal choices says a lot more about the ways in which those choices are greatly circumscribed by material conditions. This is not a story of a single mother's personal failure, but one of societal failure.

Actually, Jessica Schairer sounds like a modern-day hero. She pursued her education despite the obstacles; is respected by her employer and obtained multiple promotions; makes sacrifices in order to spend time at her children's school; and attempts to create meaningful childhood memories despite very difficult conditions. Yet she is one of a growing number of single mothers and their children who are falling behind. Her children are part of the 21 percent of kids in this country growing up in poverty.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE TIMES article is part of an entire genre that blames societal ills on the effects of the women's liberation movement. The deceptive "facts" come one on top of the other: the movement taught women they could "have it all; the "flood" of women into the workforce depressed wages; divorce is too easy; women have been pressured into working when they really just want to be able to stay home with their children; and on and on. Single mothers aren't the only target here, but they make a particularly easy one for scapegoating.

In a recent op-ed article, moderate conservative Times columnist David Brooks added to the shaming chorus with the suggestion that we need to bring back a sense of shame to being a single mother.

"A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs," Brooks writes. "Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world." In order to deal with this, we will have to "champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it."

Right. Because the one thing single mothers don't face enough is "moral toughness."

Actually, the real problem--one that the Times feature on single mothers doesn't understand, but nonetheless highlights--is that the women's liberation movement hasn't gone far enough.

As long as our society is organized around the existence of the nuclear family, no matter how mythical that ideal has become, those who live outside it will be punished. In our society, the entire cost of raising the next generation of workers is pushed onto the private family. This represents a massive savings for those who run this society. Women's unpaid labor in the home--in the U.S. alone--represents more than $1.4 trillion each year, according to the estimate of United Nations researchers in 1995.

This, too, is part of the explanation for the persistent inequality women face. As long as it's assumed there's a Kevin in the house, it's possible to justify lower wages for women. Moreover, because it's women who are expected to take time off for child care, they tend to be concentrated in lower-paid jobs that allow for this. And because "caring work" such as attending to the elderly and sick or raising the young are assumed to be private functions for which women are responsible, these professions continue to be devalued and underpaid.

Focusing on women's personal choices and on reestablishing marriage as a fundamental value are attempts both to keep the burden of child care and housework on the private family and to scapegoat those who live outside of such family structures.

In reality, the nuclear family as traditionally understood is disappearing fast. The Times article recognizes this much. A majority of births to working-class and poor parents take place outside of marriage. More than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. For the poor and working class, the nuclear family is more myth than reality.

The solution doesn't lie in rehabilitating marriage and the nuclear family. In fact, one of the ironies of the Times article is that Jessica's attempt to meet the nuclear family ideal was arguably at least part of her problem.

She got pregnant during her first year of college and considered abortion, but her boyfriend convinced her to "start a family." When that relationship ended, she invited a new boyfriend to live with her family. It's almost painful to read about her hopes, and especially those of her son, for a new male father figure--a figure that women are constantly told that children need. Within a year, the new partner had to be removed from the home by police.

As family therapist Betty Carter put it, "If any other institution in this country was failing half the people who entered it, we'd demand that the institution change to fit people's new needs, not the other way around."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE WOMEN'S liberation movement brought more women into the workforce; it made it easier for women to divorce and pursue independent lives; it gave women control over their own bodies and, as a result, greater freedom in their sexual choices; it raised women's expectations for what they want out of their lives, their relationships and their families. These are all good things.

The answer doesn't lie in turning back the clock, but in social policies that reflect and support these new realities.

We could start by eliminating the pay gap between men and women--so that more women have a shot at a Kevin-sized paycheck that would allow them to support their families, with or without a partner. We could institute paid parental leave policies for both women and men, to insure that parents aren't punished economically when they take time off for childbirth and infant care. We could subsidize quality day care programs to alleviate the currently astronomical cost. And we could rebuild the social safety net that has failed women like Jessica--like anti-poverty programs, and after-school and enrichment programs so that access to arts, music and sports is available to all children, regardless of income.

Only when we are able to gain such reforms will we really be able to talk about personal choices as choices.

The New York Times wants us to believe that what women need are a whole lot more Kevins. What we really need is a new and energized women's liberation movement that can fight for real changes in women's lives. We can start by rejecting the moralistic scapegoating that blames women for our personal choices and putting the focus instead on a society that has failed us.