In her NBC interview Octuplet mom Nadya Suleman was irked at getting pounded for being a single mother with fourteen kids. Or in her words, "it's not as controversial because they're couples so its more acceptable." She had good reason to be irked, but she should be irked at herself too for doing much to reinforce that stigma. For the past half century single mothers have been ritually dumped on by everyone from liberal sociologists to Christian fundamentalists and even self-promoting gabber Ann Coulter. They are the fall women for every real and perceived malady in society; poverty, crime, drug use, personal profligacy, welfare dependency, bad acting, and even worse performing students, and of course, family breakdown.
As for Coulter, she got hammered for beating up on single mothers in her new book while letting the guys who shove the women into single motherhood skip away scot free. This was more a hit against Coulter than a real defense of single mothers. The perception is just too deeply ingrained that single mothers create babies and problems for a momentary attack on Coulter to change that perception.
Suleman is naive, in denial, or blind to the power of the negative single mom image to think that her pleading for the bashers to knock it off will fall on anything but the tinnest of tin ears. If anything, having eight babies, on top of six, and then hinting that her over the top baby making is a good thing without a prospective father sighting anywhere, fuels public wrath over the folly of babies and single mothers even more. But leaving aside questions of moral right, ethical propriety or even Suleman's legal responsibility, all have been hotly debated, the truth is that single mothers do not cause a terrible society, but do fare terribly in society.
And there are a lot of single mothers. At last count nearly 40 percent of children are born out of marriage. In the majority of those cases the mothers will stay that way. The figures for lower income black and Hispanic women almost all Suleman's age or a decade or even decades younger than her are far greater than for unmarried white mothers. The number of single mothers are inching up after a decade long drop from the mid 1990s to 2005.
The demographic of who gets pregnant and is single is predictable. They're young, have multiple births, are non college educated, or even high school educated, and invariably poor.
In their Child Wellbeing Study, Princeton University researchers tracked 5,000 single mothers in who are charitably called Fragile Families. The women gave birth between 1998 and 2000 and all claimed that they wanted to get married.
The wish didn't get any further than a wish. In a follow-up survey, most did not get married and a fair share of them had more babies by multiple partners. They had done little to improve themselves educationally or boosted their income. The Princteon findings are not unique. This reinforces the belief that single mothers are inherently doomed to wallow in poverty and want, and that their children are doomed to be congenital gang bangers, drive by shooters, and drug peddlers and jail and early cemetery fodder.
Many single mothers swear as Suleman has that they will be good, devoted and loving mothers and that they will be able to foot the bill for their children's care and upbringing. That's not a small point in the furor over single mothers. The prospect that Suleman who's not only a single mother but an unemployed single mother who filed workers compensation claims, bankruptcy, and had a mountain of debt, might put the state (taxpayers) in hock for the medical care and treatment of the octuplets drew loud howls of protest.
This is not a totally unfair concern. Kaiser Hospital shelled out a reported cool million for delivery, treatment, and care costs for the octuplets. Few single mothers, and that certainly includes Suleman, have a prayer of paying this cost out of pocket. Suleman gave no indication that she had a clue that someone else will have to pay the staggering cost of their ongoing care.
This is not to pass moral judgment on Suleman's act, legions have already done plenty of that. Suleman may well prove her scoffers, bashers, and revilers all wrong. She may find a way to pay the freight for all 14 children, provide them with a warm, stable and loving home, and even stroll down the aisle with a mate. This would transform her from the poster single mom for irresponsible induced baby making to a true American motherhood success story. She would hardly be the first single mother to become a productive, paragon of achievement. Anything is possible.
Whatever happens, Suleman was right that single mothers do unfairly get beat up on for creating societal ills. Unfortunately Suleman insured that the beating will continue.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).