On Single Parenthood

Posted on May 16, 2016


It’s not progress.

Some time ago, a favorite website ran a feature celebrating single mothers who have helped to change societal attitudes toward single parenting.  Certainly, there was a time when having children out of wedlock carried a definite stigma, divorce was frowned upon, and widows and widowers were objects of pity, and generally expected to remarry.

I confess that I was a bit put off.  The feature was heavily laden with celebrity single mothers, and the slant was that today’s women have proven that they can do it all – careers and families – without a man.  Let us be clear:  the fact that women today have choices on marriage, children, and careers is the progress.  Single parenthood, in and of itself, is not progress.

Single parenthood should be neither celebrated nor reviled. Every circumstance is different. Not everyone can do it all, and in fact single parenthood is more often a struggle with poverty than the life of a glam, put-together, wealthy celebrity who obviously can afford to pay for the help she needs.

Some children benefit greatly. Take Madonna’s children, for one famous example:  they are clearly much better off in her single-parent, blended family than in orphanages.  And thousands of ordinary single parents have done the same, lifting countless children out of near-hopeless situations and into a stable, loving family life.

But many children suffer.  Unfortunately, poor, struggling single mothers are much more common than those who can afford nannies, or even reliable day care.  And it is at this working-class level, or at the poverty level, that some truths become self-evident, although somehow, no one wants to acknowledge them:  1) There are only 24 hours in a day, so working single mothers must choose how much attention to give to their work, and how much to their kids.  2) No one really raises children completely alone. If there is no partner to provide full-time care, there must be paid nannies or day care or sitters, and this is a big factor in keeping single mothers and their children poor.

I have my bias.  My widowed father was a single parent with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. His job required him to move often, usually overseas, and was dangerous at times. His parents were dead, he had no siblings, and our mother’s family wanted nothing to do with us. He was our only caregiver, and constantly tense, stressed and gravely serious. The arrangements in case of his death, or an assignment to a hazardous area like Vietnam, were for his lawyer to take guardianship and put us into a boarding school. Thankfully, that was not necessary, but we were latchkey kids at an age where such is now considered neglect. I don’t wish that sort of uncertainty on any child.

During my Army years, I knew many single parents or “dual-career couple” parents, where both parents serve. It is their right, and many people manage it, but personally – because of my own experience – I don’t think it is the morally right choice for the kids. The parents routinely deploy for 30-day exercises, or for year-long combat tours, multiple times in their careers, as well as temporary-duty schools far from home that run anywhere from a week or two up to several months. Imagine going to war three times over six years, as many troops have, then throw in a few schools and exercises in the three years that you are “home.” You are an absentee parent. The children are shuffled off to live with someone else according to whatever arrangements the parents make. And the kids know that there is always a chance the parents may not come back.

The ability to choose single parenthood without societal condemnation is progress. But single parenthood, in and of itself, is not progress and I personally don’t think it should be a goal in its own right. Adults must be the responsible parties and choose wisely for the sake of their children (or potential children), according to their individual circumstances.