(WOMENSENEWS)–At a recent event for my latest book about raising three sons alone with work and health challenges, a woman my age approached me. She said through tears that after reading my 1999 memoir, "I Closed My Eyes," she had often walked down my street in the Chicago suburb where we both lived telling herself that if I could leave my abusive husband–a handsome, charming attorney and father of my sons–so could she.
She did eventually leave him; she and her children are now thriving. As am I. As are my sons.
But you would hardly fathom that was possible from the implicit and explicit portrayal of two-parent families as optimal and thus the default that single parents are failures. With a consistent chorus touting that only Mom and Dad can together produce happy families, the damnation emerges for every deviating parent model.
What results is the profiling of those mothers and fathers who do not conform to the quaint heteronormative vision of one-size-fits-all parenting. It is little wonder we single mothers feel demonized. If not erased.
As a married father, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s initial wavering on his "spend-more-time-with- the-family" rationale for avoiding the leadership role as speaker of the house sent a shouting message that it is impossible to rise to the top as a parent, even with two adults at the wheel of the bus.
When Ryan did switch and jump in for the leadership post to be voted on this week, he said: "I genuinely worry about the consequences my agreeing to serve will have on [my children]."
That is code for if you are a single parent with ambition, forget about it.
I am not saying either parenting or rising to the top in the workforce in any field is a cake walk. But I am advocating for an inclusive vision of how our politicians, leaders and public policy makers view families. Because that means everything from pay equity to parental leave to education reform.
Carson Reinforces Myopic Vision
Republican candidate hopeful and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson recently reinforced the myopic vision in a SiriusXM radio interview: "It is very clear that intact, traditional families with traditional, intact values do much better in terms of raising children. So let’s stop pretending that everything is of equal value."
It is a hypocritical outcry as Carson was raised by a single mom.
And just when we think that there may be a gender division on this issue, key female contributors to the national conversation surprise us with a similar conviction.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, is often a voice of reason for family and workforce equity. But the former Princeton University law professor, who directed policy planning for the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton, recently reinforced the elite, two-parent ideal as the best choice for successful families.
"Many of us can’t make it without a lead-parent husband. Tell younger women that’s how you’re doing it," Slaughter, the author of the new book, "Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, told Fortune’s "Most Powerful Women" gathering in Washington, D.C., recently. "Be honest."
Honestly, I showed thousands of women in my classes at Northwestern University for 18 years that they can thrive as single working mothers in the face of challenges. You do not have to be wealthy and married to the perfect husband to achieve your goals professionally and parentally. And it is wrong to insist that you do.
No One Way of Parenting
Congratulations if you are, but not everyone is so lucky. There is no one mold of parenting; many of us did not pick Mr. or Ms. Wonderful and many others never intended to.
Certainly, Slaughter has far exceeded anything I can ever dream to accomplish professionally. She has a superior academic pedigree and has done far better than I have on spousal choice. But we are both mothers to sons. I have three; now at 27, 24 and 21 they are all doing well.
Still, her comment felt freshly offensive and brought me back a few decades to a Catholic pastor’s sermon about "the selfishness of broken families." I sat incredulous in a pew that Sunday morning in 1996, newly divorced and doing my best to raise good sons then 7, 5 and 2 while nurturing a career. I did not need then or now the finger-wagging shame from my church, a stance that some claim has shifted to invisibility.
The recent three-week Synod on the Family, a gathering of all Roman Catholic bishops in Rome, resulted in non-specific acknowledgement of single-parent families. Falling short of saying divorced Catholics can receive communion, compassion was on the menu.
"Special attention is to be given in the guidance of single-parent families, so that women who have to bear alone the responsibility of providing a home and raising their children can receive assistance," according to the bishops’ official document.
At the top of the Catholic Church is Pope Francis who claimed recently that in marriages "separation is inevitable" and "can even become morally necessary." He clarified that divorce is justifiable when extricating the family "from more serious injuries caused by intimidation and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by lack of involvement and indifference."
So if some organizations with views of family that have been narrow for centuries are now expanding, why are so many still proclaiming that a husband-wife team is the only way to nurture a family?
Shout Support for Single Mothers
I say shout from the rooftops that it can work well with single mothers — and single fathers– as well as with same-sex parents, parents absent for large chunks of time due to military deployment, illness or other necessities and circumstances.
It is undeniable that poverty, lack of opportunity, education and a host of other socioeconomic factors bombard many children raised in single parent homes and can contribute to tragic outcomes. But it is not the only outcome.
Success is not guaranteed for those raised in homes with two parents, who may also be reeling from the obstacles and roadblocks inherent in those factors.
Thirty-seven percent of American children, or an estimated 20 million, will grow up in a home without two biological parents, according to author Rae Simons in the 2015 young adult book, "Single Parents Families."
This is not merely an American issue. In a British study on breadwinners in Europe out this month from the Institute for Public Policy Research, 1-in-3 mothers in Europe– or 31.4 percent–are the breadwinners for families with dependent children. "The number of single-parent families – the majority of which are headed by women – has risen across Europe over the long term," the study states.
It would have been optimal that the man I married in 1986 would have been the good father I believed he would be. But wishing does not make it so. Rather, eliciting allies in family, friends and community is what made raising my sons a landscape less mine-filled and more positive; giving me the time and space to pursue my career. I filled in gaps with coaches, aunts, uncles, teachers and friends.
I am not extraordinary and I am not alone. Along with millions of other families for whom idyllic marriage never materialized or was never intended, we demonstrate that one good parent can be good enough. It would better serve us as a society if our political and economic leaders and influencers grasped a more accurate reality.
I know firsthand that in spite of the recurrent cultural refrain to the contrary, by doing our best for our families, we neither expect nor succumb to the worst.
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