It’s not news that the traditional nuclear family is rapidly disappearing. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than half (46 percent) of children in the United States live in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage, and 41 percent of children are born outside marriage — a huge increase from 5 percent in 1960.
Despite clearly changing family structures, American society and many of its political leaders continue to harshly judge those who don’t fit a more traditional mold. For instance, we rarely see positive representations of single motherhood, particularly when it comes to women of color.
Single mothers are frequently used as a case study for society’s many ills, with many politicians quick to blame this vulnerable group of people. Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for instance, blamed the protests in Baltimore on “the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society.” On the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, made a speech suggesting single mothers were abusing welfare programs. According to him, in the 1960s the federal government enabled these women’s undesirable behavior by providing them financial support. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., recently condemned single mothers for “the decay of the American family” and has blamed the government for encouraging women to have children out of wedlock, which perpetuates poverty. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., another presidential candidate, said that single moms are “breeding more criminals” and are ruining the country.
Tanya Lane, 33, knows what this sort of judgment feels like firsthand. As a divorced black mother raising her son alone in Chicago, she said people often assume her 7-year-old son is the result of a casual relationship or one-night stand, though she was married to his father. She has a master’s degree and is financially stable in her career at an interfaith youth organization, but some teachers and administrators at her son’s school conclude that she is low-income and lacks literacy skills. “No one asks if I can come to school to volunteer at school or go to career day,” she said.
This kind of stigma against single mothers is associated with health problems. According to a recent study in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, single mothers have a higher risk of poor health and disability as they age. Much of this is attributed to the high levels of social isolation and insufficient support many women experience, making it hard for them to take care of themselves and raise healthy families.
There are more than 7.3 million families headed by single mothers in this country. In 2013 more than a quarter of these families — over 2 million — were poor, with almost 2.5 million more struggling to make ends meet. But we can’t blame this on women’s single status, nor can we expect marriage to be the solution to these complicated problems. According to research, children with two parents are better off in school and in their relationships than those with only one parent. But this doesn't mean we should shame single mothers. Our society is set up so that affluent, heterosexual couples with children are the kinds of families most likely to flourish. For instance, there are currently more than 1,000 laws — including tax breaks — that benefit people who are legally married. Though there are laws to protect workers from discrimination based on sex, gender and pregnancy, none prohibit discrimination based on family status.
Lane was fortunate enough to have her sister live with her and help care for her son, which enabled her to advance her career. “We should support how families are connected and supported,” she said. “We live in a world where people can’t understand that our family looks this way. There’s nothing in our financial structure that honors that.” She pointed out the lack of tax breaks for the kind of child care her sister provided.
For many of us women, our lives look neither like a 1950s sitcom nor like the more contemporary narratives (most recently brought to life in Kate Bolick’s popular memoir, “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own”) of privileged white women opting out of married life. Families come in all forms. Many parents are single or are in domestic partnerships. Some households consist of relatives and friends. Some choose to raise children by themselves, while others parent alone by circumstance. We need to respect all realities and provide support for struggling single mothers by addressing the wage gap and pushing for affordable health care, child care and housing — solutions that would improve the lives of all women and children.