I am the quintessential single mother of America. Just check out
my stats: I'm white, I had my first baby when I was over 30, I've been to
college, I'm not on welfare. Although I am unmarried, I am not single in
the sense that I am alone -- I have a lover, and he is not the birth father
of my child. I don't receive money from my daughter's birth father. I am
self-supporting. Give me a few more thousand dollars a year and a blow
dryer and you could easily mistake me for Murphy Brown. My demographic
picture fits to a T the highest, fastest-growing group of unwed mommies
in the country.
The mainstream propaganda about single moms and their kids is quite a
different story from the statistics. If you were to listen only to Congress
and their ideological flacks, you would think that it's those without-a-dime-to-their-name black teenagers who are having so many babies with
no paternal surname. In fact, teenage baby rates are flat, and black
teenage motherhood is in decline. If you're going to start
throwing mud, I'm afraid it's middle-aged workaholic white chicks who can't
keep their legs or their wallets closed when it comes to having a
child of their own.
Black or white, wealthy or bereft, both kinds of women find themselves a
target of a morality smear -- a constant refrain in the schools, media,
workplace and courts that women carrying children alone are doing
something wrong, and that their character has to be examined for the flaws
that civilization must not repeat. Never mind the incredible class, age,
and power differences between the adolescent who's still carrying a $5.95
Tamogotchi virtual pet in her pocket and the yuppie who's just returned
from China with a tiny little girl who cost $20,000. The
church and the state, including President Clinton, still use the word
"illegitimate" to describe them all, with all the ugliness that implies.
Melissa Ludtke, a veteran Time reporter who had covered family and law
issues for years, has written a book that assaults the popular
stereotypes about unwed mothers with an enormous compilation of actual mom
voices from each side of the fence. It's called "On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America," and although
the cover features a fair-skinned woman, exquisitely made-up, holding her
little toddler, the actual text is filled with intimate interviews with
everyday women. Ludtke begins this research by admitting that she too would
like to be a mother and has become disillusioned with her marriage prospects
to any man who would want children as much as she does. By the end of the
tome, she is on her way to China to adopt.
Although the book has the personal angle of Ludtke's dilemma, this is not a
memoir, nor do we get close to her sexuality and personal desires. Her
training as a reporter is what shines through, her ability to sit and not
flinch or smother, just listen and observe closely to what women have to say.
Their confessions range from how they got pregnant in the first place to
what it's meant to love, discipline and teach their children every day on
their own, not to mention answering the question, "Where's daddy?"
Especially the "Where's daddy?" part. I think the whole book should have been called
"Where's Daddy?" -- it's poignant search for the perfect, and ultimately
absent, father is so painful and unrelenting.
And here's where I, the prototypical single mom, began to feel a little
less typical, or at least seriously underrepresented. As Ludtke describes
it, your average yuppie mom wanted to have a man, then a baby, in that
order. Having a baby on her own is a disappointing Plan B. The teenage mom,
on the other hand, has not spent many years in search of Mr. Right because, after all, her adult life has barely begun. Yet she too has the romantic
hopes that a decent guy will come along who keeps his promises.
I'm afraid their disappointment, their Plan B, was my Plan A, my ideal,
from the very beginning. I wanted a child, not a marriage, and it was plain
to me that motherhood offered a satisfaction and meaning in life that being a
wife, per se, could hardly hold a candle to. I'm not looking for a joint
checking account to further my decorating and fashion goals. Skip the man
(and being his surrogate mommy) and get to the good part -- that was my
idea. If there were going to be men in my daughter's life -- and as it turns out,
there are -- they would be connected to her through unlicensed love and
commitment, not blood and/or a wedding band, which I find highly
I know this is blasphemy to the great altar of the Nuclear Family. But I
feel in good company with many alternative families who have purposefully
rejected the Ozzie and Harriet norm. What blew my mind was that my
impudence, my rebellion, was nowhere in Ludtke's 450-page book. She has
examples of really mean mommies, self-centered mommies, mentally
ill mommies, exhausted mommies --- why wasn't there one example of the I-don't-give-a-shit-about-daddy mommy?
Or, more to the point, where were the dykes? Where were the activists, the
commune-makers, the tribe-reclaimers? I can't believe anyone could write a
book about single moms and not look at the cutting-edge conversations about parenting that are going
on in feminist, queer and other radical communities.
While it is certainly true that Ludtke covered the miserable middle of the
road, she did not speak to any philosophical leaders of single motherhood,
because it is there that she would find not only lesbians but other women
who have seriously challenged the notion of what a supportive, loving family
to raise your children in is all about. Any single parent would get more
juice and invigoration out of one slender issue of Hip Mama than they would an entire book by Ludtke.
When I asked Ludtke what her strategy was for empowering single
moms and fighting the political weather we suffer under, she wasn't quite
sure what I meant. She wants her book to be influential -- for the power people and elite to read it and feel moved. She also suggests that people
who care get involved in Big Sisters, Girl Scouts and other mentoring
programs that are designed to raise young women's self-esteem.
I felt myself sinking under the liberal wistfullness of it all. The
viciousness we treat teenagers and their kids with these days is nothing
short of eating our own young, and to throw the leftover at middle-class
moms is despicable. "Self-esteem" seems to be a code word for passing the
buck to the most beleaguered, with the treacliest of charitable
intentions. Individual generosity and trying to get a few tears flowing at
the right dinner parties is not going to cut it! We need role models, not
just victims, and politically we need a plan of action that kicks Big
Brother Daddy's ass.
I know Ludtke's book is a welcome dissertation on the plight of single
mothers, and in that sense it is unsparing. It will make you cry. But
what's missing from the pathos of plight are the ideas of how to fight,
how to empower children and teenagers and make a public commitment to the
families we actually live in, instead of our puritanical institutions and
exploding daddy mythology.
I can go into my idea for a Million Shit-Kicking Mothers March at another
date. For the moment, let me be a role model and an advisor, with the
requisite caveat that I am, after all, just a single mom in training -- I've
got many more years to go.
A single mom's kid gets two ideas about what a daddy is: one from you, the
mom, and the second, five years later, from school. The first impression is
by far the more important.
Children are not born asking for "daddy," nor do they have any idea what
daddyness means to their mother except through her own expressions. And it
is the mother's dreams or wishes for a daddy-figure for herself, not her
kid, that are going to make an impression on her young one.
What does "daddy" mean? To most of us, regardless of what our own birth
father was like, a daddy in the symbolic sense is someone who is the
ultimate protector, firm yet doting, strong yet tender; he "takes care of
you" in the role of the masculine nurturer. He's a lot like a good mommy
but he's got that positive-macho edge. And there's not one of us who hasn't
wished for that Santa Claus kind of guy to be there when we felt afraid
Now here's the important part: When you start fretting "my child needs a
father," you need to get a grip and realize you are speaking for yourself. You are yearning for someone to help you out, take care of you, pick
you up off the floor and give you a well-deserved piggyback ride. So go
find someone to do that, get the support and comfort you need instead of
ragging on your kid as if she or he were incomplete.
When you, the single mom, are broke or tired or bitchy, it's not because a
man is missing. It is because you are broke and tired, and the combination
is impossible. Ask any married woman if she is cash-happy, filled with
energy and just a bundle of love. They aren't sitting on Santa Claus' lap
either. The big secret about married moms is that most of them find
themselves in same situation as unwed parents --- struggling for support,
blaming themselves for not being able to do it all and struggling with the
expectations of the nuclear family test bomb. If their man is their
partner in that struggle, it's because he's revolted against the
distant-father/shut-down-husband role model, not living up to it. If
they're making a family together, it's because they're both playing "daddy"
when each other needs it.
Your kids need people to love them and learn from, period. Men, women,
whatever. Yes, if you are all alone and don't offer them any other adult
companionship and care, they are going to suffer from the isolation. You
are going to go crazy from lack of support -- notice that's a gender neutral
idea. But you can't expect to stick some male figure in the room and expect
a magical masculine euphoria. Don't introduce your kids to their absentee
birth father and expect that they are going to "relate." Don't look for
boyfriends who you think are "father material" -- look for lovers who can
love and take care of you, the mommy. When you, the mom, are tended to by
friends and lovers who can give you the daddy energy you need, your kid is
going to appreciate it tenfold.
"Daddies" come in all shapes, sizes, philosophies -- and genders. Some
women are more butch than the burliest male specimen. Some men are utterly
uninterested in teaching your child sports or how to use a urinal. Stop
asking people to live up to the worst gender stereotypes and let folks who can get to know and love your kid offer what they have. It doesn't matter if
they're men or women. It doesn't matter whether you're sleeping with them
or not. Your child's health, and your personal well-being, are dependent on
your faith and open-mindedness about what a family can be, not on some
nonsense about what a "husband" is supposed to live up to or what your blood
family is supposed to deliver. Instead of asking, "Where's daddy?" we should
be asking, "Where is love? Where is strength? And where are those qualities
in myself, so that I'll know the real thing when I see that remarkable
character in others?"