(WOMENSENEWS)--Michelle Pinto gets a little testy when someone suggests that single mothers should, somehow, be blamed for their single parenthood.
"A single dad just shows up and he's a hero," said Pinto, the single mother of a 14-year-old son. "If a single dad serves a meal, it's a miracle. If I served the same thing, it would be, 'How come it didn't have more of a vegetable?'"
After 10 years as a single mother, Pinto has seen and heard enough.
"People will see a mother and ask, 'Are you married?' When they say, 'No, I'm divorced,' the other person says, 'I'm sorry.' I say, 'Why are you sorry? I'm not. I'm thrilled,'" the public relations executive said.
"Single mothers should stop apologizing. I've become almost militant that my son and I be treated as a family unit and that I should get the same amount of respect as a family with a father and mother."
But the reality is, she doesn't. In a society where the ideal remains the two-parent heterosexual family raising their biological children--despite the fact that label now applies to only 24 percent of American families--single mothers still carry a social stigma.
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A growing body of research shows that children of single moms are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier, to display violent behavior, abuse drugs and alcohol, commit suicide, have emotional and gender identification problems, perform poorly in school, drop out of school, commit a crime and go to jail.
The question is: Why? Is it the absence of a father, as some conservative policy wonks argue? Or is it the absence of a paycheck, as liberal wonks believe? Or is it a little of both, as a number of moderates suspect?
A growing body of research points to the paycheck as the biggest indicator of a child's success. So, feminists wonder, why is the public policy debate focused on finding a single mom a mate rather than improving her own income and bottom line? In addition, why are single mothers demonized while the absent fathers are left alone?
"There is something quite unfair about directing attention to the mother who is there, raising her children and struggling. People joke that what is needed is a three-parent family to share carpooling and responsibilities," said Deborah Weinstein, director of the family income division at the Children's Defense Fund.
"If there's just one parent, it's far more difficult. We should support the single mom and help her as much as possible rather than pointing the finger at her when it's another parent who isn't around, who hasn't been taking responsibility."
Louise Silverstein, a Yeshiva University psychology professor and co-founder of the Yeshiva Fatherhood Project, a qualitative research study of fathering from a multicultural perspective, offers a more direct explanation: "Never underestimate the power of misogyny in male dominant society."
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A treatise she wrote, "Deconstructing Fatherhood," set off a firestorm among politicians and fathers' rights advocates. In it, she and co-author Carl Auerbach argued that raising great kids doesn't require a father or a mother. It simply requires one adult committed to providing for the emotional, physical and financial needs of that child.
Michael Connor, a psychology professor at California State University in Long Beach who teaches a course on fathering, believes that single parents shortchange children. But he doesn't blame single moms for that, he said.
"This is not about blaming men or women, but about caring for the children," he said.
And that, say single moms, is exactly what they are doing.
"Are there stresses on me as a single parent? You bet," said Nancy Dowd, a law professor at the University of Florida who has written two books about parenting, "In Defense of Single Parent Families" and "Redefining Fatherhood."
"But do I feel that I sometimes have it easier? Yes, because I don't have another adult that I have to share decision-making with or have to care for. The plus of the partner thing is the backup. The minus is the additional burden--more laundry, more people to cook for, another relationship that needs time and energy," Dowd said.
She believes that single parent families should be praised for their strengths, rather than denigrated for the lack of a second parent. For example, she said, rather than saying that children in single parent families have "gender identification" problems, observers could look at single parent families and see a family where gender expectations are more equal. Both sons and daughters are expected to pitch in with housework; children see their mother as a worker and a caregiver.
That would require a sea change in social mores, Pinto said.
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Consider this experience from a recent Hebrew class attended by her son:
The rabbi was giving a lecture about when to question authority. In one example, a librarian was chasing out a homeless person who attempted to bathe in the bathroom of the public library. In another, a girl was kicked off a basketball team because she voluntarily missed practice to tend the children of a struggling single mom.
"I am very offended that the rabbi sees fit to lump the terrible plight of the homeless with being a single parent," said Pinto, obviously irritated. "It's like the fish and the bicycle thing (Pinto was referring to the Gloria Steinem quote that a woman needs a husband like a fish needs a bicycle): You're not as good a homemaker, you're not as good a mother because you don't have a husband."
Dowd believes there are two intersecting reasons why society is so quick to blame single mothers for their struggles rather than questioning why the fathers aren't doing more. One has to do with historical socialization, the other with a fear of women's success.
"It's that love-hate thing we have with mothers. If something goes wrong, it's mom's parenting that's to blame," she said in explaining the social basis for the single-mom backlash.
"Now, imagine if all these mother-headed families were successful. Think about what that would mean: It would mean that men aren't essential," Dowd said. "Suppose that women didn't need men in terms of economics, that they could raise healthy children without men being present in the household. That seems very threatening and very dangerous."
Free-lance writer Cindy Richards has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She has written about health care, children's issues, education and women's issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her coverage of workplace issues.
For more information:
Children's Defense Fund:
Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count data book: