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Dreams of Motherhood

Dreams of Motherhood
Women’s studies professor examines the maternal aspirations held by many single women.

Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women
Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and
Creating the New American Family

By Rosanna Hertz
Oxford University Press, 2006
304 pp., $26.00; ISBN: 0195179900 

There are few human endeavors that are as fundamentally personal, yet come with such far-reaching societal implications, as becoming a parent. As cultural barriers break down and technology advances, the circumstances surrounding the conception and raising of children become increasingly diverse, extending beyond the traditional nuclear family structure. This brings both new opportunities and obligations, and changes the demographic fabric of some communities for generations. As intercourse, conception, marriage and parenting become increasingly disconnected, public policy faces the challenge of understanding how the rights of adults, the well-being of children and the interests of society intersect.

While much of the resulting discourse has focused on the welfare culture often associated with single mothers, Dr. Rosanna Hertz reminds us that these are not the only voices of single mothers. In Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, Hertz offers an exceptionally rich view into the lives of 65 middle-class women who have embarked on a journey into single parenthood. Her study is a useful bookend to Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’s Promises I Can Keep, a study that follows low-income women into single motherhood. Both studies offer valuable qualitative accounts of the complex and diverse circumstances facing single-mother families. The studies fill the critical gaps in our understanding left by a rich but limited body of quantitative evidence.

The voices in Single by Chance give us a personal understanding of the maternal aspirations held by many single women, and the pitfalls within each of the various routes to parenthood available to them. While much of the literature has focused on the economic disadvantages of single parenthood, we learn that the complexities of helping a child navigate issues of identity are perhaps equally important. We see the level of dedication these single mothers bring in nurturing their children and the deeply traditional goals they have, even as they piece together nontraditional networks to ensure the elements needed to thrive as a family.

Few people would take great exception to a relatively small group of single women who intentionally dedicate themselves to starting a family and raising healthy, happy children, but what do we conclude from their stories in terms of the greater society? It is within Hertz’ own narrative, which she uses to frame these women’s stories and to suggest her own vision for the future direction of families, wherein lies perhaps the greatest potential to move the discourse on family structure forward. I say this not because I share her vision — in fact I found myself disagreeing with her on nearly every page — but rather because she lays a fertile groundwork for asking important questions that we have been reluctant to tackle.

Among the questions that Hertz’ book brings to mind: 

– Single by Chance describes the identity crisis experienced by children of single mothers as a legacy of our patriarchal society. Hertz applauds the creative efforts of single mothers as they try to adapt their original goal of absolute paternal exclusion to that of partial inclusion for the purposes of building a family narrative. She hints at the policy repercussions that might someday lead to better supports for the mother-child centered family. However, while this complex and carefully constructed narrative is important to consider, isn’t it also possible that her data simply reflect the intrinsic importance of fathers and the possibility that embarking on a path of single parenthood risks consequences to a child’s wellbeing? Is it realistic to feel entitled to an arrangement that expects a father’s involvement but only as strictly delineated by the mother’s needs?

– The women depicted in Hertz’ sample are middle class, with financial support from parents, trust funds and other sources. But almost half of all single mothers are mired in poverty. What does this imply for Hertz’ vision of mother-child centered families? Should this be a privilege reserved for women with economic resources? If not, should society then be obligated to support a path into parenthood that is otherwise not economically viable? 

– While Hertz insists her work does not suggest the complete displacement of men, the fact is, in some communities the traditional father has all but disappeared over the course of several generations. This is especially true of African-Americans, where nearly 70 percent of births are to single mothers. Does one’s view of single motherhood change if, instead of considering a few dedicated women embarking on a new path, we consider far-reaching and longlasting changes to entire communities?

While Hertz’ primary mission was to share these women’s aspirations and explore how they sometimes conflict with society — and with men more specifically — how might the narrative change if the primary focus were on child well-being?

—  Kelleen Kaye is an analyst and policy expert on family structure and family relationships for the New America Foundation.

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