New York Times, Stop Moralizing About Single Mothers
No, their households are not always sad and falling apart.
Yes, but, as sportswriter Damon Runyon said, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."
By Katie Roiphe
It is disheartening to see that the New York Times has run yet another puritanical and alarmist rumination on the decline of the American family disguised as a straight-news story. The piece, in tender, gloomy detail, compares the slatternly home of the single mother, all struggle and chaos, to the orderly, promising, more affluent home of her boss, who is married. The moralizing portrait that emerges is not surprising: The single mother and her children have a terrible life, and the married mother and her children have a great one.
One of the most laughable elements of the story is that it hinges on the idea that the single mother’s children are suffering because of a lack of extracurricular activities: It lingers on the idea that the swimming class, and Boy Scouts meetings, and trips to Disney that the children of the single mother are deprived of will somehow turn them into dropouts and teenage parents. But surely, after Cheever and Updike and The Lonely Crowd, we have moved on from the facile ’50s, Norman Rockwell fantasy that camping badges can save our children from pain? Who knew that fraternizing with life sized Ariels and Cinderellas was so important, so pressing, in raising your children to be healthy, upstanding citizens? And what is so shocking to the reporter about the terribly deprived, endangered Steavon, the son of the single mother, is that he has to choose one extracurricular, and this year chose football, rather than getting to do karate and swimming and Boy Scouts.
What makes this particular bourgeois focus especially ironic is that it occurs alongside a contemporaneous cultural discussion of whether college-educated parents are spoiling their children, or over hovering. Apparently there is a very fine line between giving your children enough swimming lessons and too many swimming lessons.
Considering the rate at which African-American boys (such as this white single mother in the NYT's three sons) drown in motel pools, giving your kids enough swimming lessons is important. You can also, no doubt, give them too many. The notion that the good life is typically found somewhere between too little and too much may be too complicated a concept for Ms. Roiphe, but guys like Aristotle and Confucius found it sensible.
The innate self-congratulation of the Times piece, the smug sense that the average college-educated New York Times reader is enriching their children, insuring their mental health, while the sluttish, struggling, single mother is ruining theirs is— whatever the truth of the situation, which I humbly suggest is more complicated than that—extremely repellent. In the guise of writing a well-intentioned liberal piece—oh the poor single mothers! And their poor children!—the New York Times is recycling truly retrograde and ugly moral judgements.The idea that this unconventional, struggling household might sometimes be fine is so astonishing that the piece reports as news that the single mother, Jessica Schairer, sometimes records “happy moments on her Facebook page.”
The contemporary mind, as illustrated by Ms. Roiphe's, has fundamental problems grasping useful concepts like "on average" and "tends to."
The demographic changes that are alarming the editors of the New York Times are unquestionable: In the middle class the family is breaking down, there is a steep rise in single mother households and women supporting their families, but the judgmental tone is outdated and wrong. The anxious need to assert that the traditional two-parent family is better has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to run a story about the resourcefulness, energy, and intensity of these homes, a fair, open-minded exploration of these new family structures and the independent, tough women who run them, not yet another unimaginative comparison with a family whose dad takes his son to Boy Scouts.
You go, girl!
Shouldn't Roiphe use the word "empower" somewhere?
Moving into the future, the college-educated, traditional families will need to understand that, though of course it is easier to have money, money is not the only thing that matters in raising children well (nor are vacations or swimming lessons). They will also have to understand that they do not have a monopoly on joy or healthy environments or thriving children.
But that's the way to bet.