A Newsweek article this week (dated Nov. 5) reinvigorates the ongoing debate about whether it is good or bad that more single women are purposely replacing Mr. Right with a turkey baster in order to "knock themselves up."
The typical, and legitimate debate concerns whether children grow up happy and well-adjusted in this kind of environment. Some say yes, with their own experiences as kids raised by a single parent as example. Some say no, generally bringing up statistics or anecdotes about kids who were raised by single parents who didn't want the challenge (teenagers, abandoned or neglectful mothers).
Invariably what happens in many of these debates -- and I've seen several of them online in the past year -- is that women are derided by strangers as self-centered mothers who have impossibly high standards, or absent ones, in looking for Mr. Right. Many of them, interestingly, believe these women couldn't possibly have the best interests of their children at heart if they purposely set about to bring them into the world. (And most forget to acknowledge that roughly 10,000 single parents adopt in the U.S. each year.)
It's indicative of the infamous double standard to think that all women -- increasingly well-educated, well-paid, well-balanced, well-connected -- can be paired with a man who is good marriage and fatherhood material. That women who want to work AND raise a family can find men equally committed to the same. That a woman who is with a man who doesn't want to have kids, or play a role in raising them, should be faulted for not picking a better man in the first place.
But to put it bluntly, there are far more women who are committed to parenting than there are men truly able and willing to do the same. I've heard from many women who have the difficult decision of whether to leave a partner who doesn't want to have children. Or women who had a child with someone who didn't want to parent, and are then deciding to add a sibling to their single-parent family.
When Rachel Sarah wrote on the Washington Post blog (July 2006) about attempting to date as a single mother, she was blasted by those who labeled her an unfit mother. When Louise Sloan was interviewed recently on Salon for choosing to become a single mother, posts flew back deriding her choice as a "rich woman's" selfish decision that inflicts pain and suffering on her child.
As the author of a book called Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman's Guide, and moderator of a website of resources for this community that averages 1,500 visitors each month, I have spent a fair amount of time defending, supporting and helping to educate women who make this choice.
One of the questions I am commonly asked by those who are not yet familiar with the Choice Mom community is whether we're made up of women who find men irrelevant.
This is typically something I disagree with. But lately I'm rethinking that position. In a way.
In the nuanced world, women can hold two seemingly opposite views at the same time: 1) Men are important and often great role models for our kids, and fun, affectionate partners; and 2) That doesn't mean that marriage is the right answer for many.
A recent thread on my Choice Mom discussion board (600 members) was started from a woman who had suffered through many abusive relationships and had then made the decision to forego a partner in order to fulfill her dream of having a child.
In the outside world, she might well have been beaten up again for making "bad choices" in men -- with no regard for the fact that it was the men in her life who had been making the bad choices.
But on the discussion board, a wonderful thing happened. Women offered support and insight instead of derision and ridicule. Some messages urged counseling so that she could bring her future children into a world that did not feel threatened by men. Other women told their stories of how they felt weakened in relationships with particular men but had risen past that to build a happy family life, complete with male and female role models.
And then conversation started with some of the younger women on the board. I'd always been surprised to find so many women coming to the website and board who were in their 20s and early 30s, rather than those many women after the age of 35 who realize it's "now or never."
I started listening to women of the "new generation" who were describing a societal shift. One that did not dismiss men in general, but did not feel that they added to their lives in ways meaningful enough to sustain a long-term relationship. Many of these women (not all) were talking about needing a partner who would always be there for their child, in all ways, and deciding that they were too few and far between. Lesbians and heterosexuals alike were reporting their own views that parenting was simply too important to trust to everyone.
As Fiona, a 32-year-old woman (who gave me permission to reprint her comments) wrote:
"I currently have four friends around me who are also pursuing single motherhood by choice, all around my age. I didn't meet them through a single mother group. It just happens that we're all friends. I can't help but think we're experiencing a societal shift. These are extremely well educated and intelligent women who have not been able to find men who respect them or who are willing to share the load of a partnership. They are frustrated by the men they meet, even men with the same qualifications, who still expect that their wives will do most of the work. We haven't all spent 10-12 years in school to pick up after a man! Single motherhood is for most of us the ONLY decision. We haven't got here out of despair. It actually feels like the logical first choice. Put simply, men have not kept pace with women's societal progression and until they catch up they may be perceived as a burden to women who want a relationship based on equality and mutual respect."
Her views were echoed in an article I was recently asked to write about "how to raise sons to value women."
I interviewed a roundtable of mothers with young sons, most of them married. And it was a quite strong note that even those I had assembled who identified themselves as feminists (which we ultimately defined as simply valuing women as much as men) were surprised, and frustrated, to find themselves shouldering the bulk of household chores in a traditional way with their partners.
Most of their partners were strongly involved in the kids' lives, more so than many husbands. Many of them are close friends of mine, whose husbands I respect for being egalitarian and involved in many ways. Yet when it came to division of labor, many of the moms were concerned that they were modeling old traditions to their kids.
One woman I interviewed, whose 12-year-old son is highly aware of gender bias (he complained to the director that a line he had to say for a school play was sexist), indicated that despite all her efforts, she simply seems to care and notice housework chores more than her husband or son. Another engages her 3-year-old in "making breakfast" with his fake kitchen in the morning, which he enjoys, but realizes that her activist partner of 26 years continues to expect her to take care of house and cooking and this is something she's trying to correct before her son thinks it's the way things are.
Household chores are not the strongest measuring stick of our new values, but seems to be an indicative dividing line between men and women.
The end view of a growing number of women, it seems, is that if a man is unable to share the workload at home as well as in the office, what's the point? Why teach our sons and daughters that women are primarily here to serve?
Another post on my board put it this way: "For my mother's generation, partners were necessary. Then they were preferred. Now they're optional."
I don't personally think men are irrelevant (I've married two of the good ones). Nor do many Choice Moms I know. But a growing number of women do have changing views of how they should relate to each other in the home, and hope men will start to catch up to them on that view so that we can start re-coupling again.