Single mothers can have it pretty rough, both on the home front and in the media. Everything is their fault, after all. Statistics decry how their children fill prisons or are less likely to go to college. Republican politicians try to get them labeled as “unfit” and label their households as “abusive” simply by virtue of moms going it alone.
Even if a kid is acting up in the street, the first thing people ask is, “Where is your mother?” as if America’s single-parented kids are all born by osmosis or from someone splitting the single mom’s head open, with the child jumping forth to wreak havoc like the goddess Athena from the mind of her father Zeus.
This is a dangerous way, as it ignores, absolves, and overlooks half of the reason why a woman ends up a “single parent.” This was especially the case in a recent New York Times article about two women (one married and one single) and of their financial troubles. Not much was said of the single woman’s former fiancé with whom she’d had three children. The father bailed, not even paying child support on children he had claimed he wanted. The man in her life was treated as if he was just some summer storm that rolled in, thundered and rained, and then dissipated into the atmosphere.
From The New York Times:
Her first thought when she got pregnant was “My mother’s going to kill me.” Abortion crossed her mind, but her boyfriend, an African-American student from Arkansas, said they should start a family. They agreed that marriage should wait until they could afford a big reception and a long gown.
Their odds were not particularly good: Nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends.
Ms. Schairer has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often, and did no parenting. They lived with family (his and hers) and worked off and on while she hoped things would change. “I wanted him to love me,” she said. She was 25 when the breakup made it official: She was raising three children on her own.
Why did he leave children he claimed he wanted? Why did they spend years together, but those years never turned into a larger commitment? Once he had wanted to marry her; why did marriage never happen? This had much more to do with the woman’s borderline poverty and struggle to raise three children than pure economics, which was the focus of the story. What happened with him?
But they didn’t interview him. So we’ll never know. Men don’t get to be part of the parenting narrative, even though fathers and husbands are extremely important and vital. This isn’t just about who a woman chooses, but why we don’t expect more of men. Why do we shrug it off as if this is supposed to happen? Why do we simply accept it, instead of challenging this view that even in a marriage a father’s role as a parent is supposed to be limited, when his value should be equal in importance?
I understand why it’s easier to have a laser focus on mothers. Women – for good and bad – are present. Never have I heard a woman, after carrying a child for nine months, then pushing the wee one out, announce on some “maternity” episode on “Maury Povich” that she’d never seen that baby before in her life.
“He was messing around with everybody. That could be anybody’s baby!” she would shout improbably. “That baby don’t even look like me!”
And here’s a video to better illustrate the absurdity of this point.
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Who the mother is, is never up for debate, even if the mother is awful. She’s the mother. And society expects her to ride it out. Because of this even the worst of moms will still take a stab at ruining some kid rather than putting the child up for adoption, leaving him or her with family members, or doing anything responsible in regard to her own reproductive health.
But by only focusing on the few unfit mothers and placing all blame, responsibility, and expectations for child-rearing on women, we do ourselves a disservice. When I was growing up (and even today), people were quick to give my mother praise and credit. After all, she was my primary caretaker. She taught me to read and write and nurtured me as a stay-at-home mom. But it was my father who through his career created the environment where my mother – a former school teacher – could stay at home and teach me how to read and write long before my peers. He was also the one who encouraged my creativity and convinced me to go into journalism. He was the one who taught me how to make pancakes and to punt a football. And he was the one who demanded that I respect my mother, even when I felt she was wrong. He’s the one I still go to for advice and guidance on everything from negotiating a pay raise to dating. Even now, at 34, he still feels responsible for me, worries about me, and tries to help when I stop being stubborn and let him.
He’s extremely important — just as important as my loving mother. But even I feel like at times he has underplayed his worth out of his tendency to see mothers as more valuable to children.
It’s frustrating when you have both women and men pushing a narrative that men aren’t necessary. Almost everything related to raising children and maintaining a household (outside of wage earning) is labeled as women’s work. Even the most capable and loving of fathers have a tendency to downplay their role under the misunderstanding that mothers are the priority. But this only serves as unfortunate cover for the deadbeats of the world – where even well-meaning men expect so little of each other that it is much easier for the problematic ones to walk away from their responsibilities.
Everyone has to hold the disappearing father accountable, including other men.