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By: Sophie Geffros
I tend to view having a relationship with your biological father as being somewhat akin to owning a dishwasher. It’s nice, sure. It takes some of the work and pressure off of your primary caregiver, and a lot of people have them. But fundamentally, plenty of us grow up without them and do just fine. That said, nobody assumes you will be a criminal if you grow up without a dishwasher.
In July, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said, “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms … What we have is moms raising children in single-parent households simply breeding more criminals.”
I wish I could say that I was surprised. As one of four children raised by a single mother, I have spent my life being alternately outraged and depressed by these statements. I also wish I could pretend that this sentiment is simply a disease of the far right, and that good liberals are immune. However, I have heard the same poisonous sentiments from the left — they simply phrase it more gently. Liberals will praise the strength of single mothers while still implying heavily that being the wrong kind of single parent is a tragedy. That is, it’s very impressive if you are a white middle class woman in her thirties who chooses to have a baby by herself; but if you are poor or a teenager or a person of colour, it is the result of systemic failures. Often, single mothers and their children are thrown into debates on abortion in a way that feels distinctly eugenicist.
I often describe myself, semi-jokingly, as “not anti-dad, but certainly dad-critical.” As a society, we place minimal demands on fathers, and we applaud them when they satisfy the most basic of expectations. Married fathers refer to watching their own children as “babysitting”. Single fathers are treated with the kinds of accolades usually reserved for returning war heroes. Every couple weeks a story goes viral which could be summarized as “single father does bare minimum.” When men do their daughter’s hair, or play pretend, or tend to their children’s emotional well-being, we treat them as though they have done something amazing. A single mother is a whore, a single father is a hero.
Attitudes towards single parenthood are not benign. Aside from the damage it causes to children to hear the way society speaks about them and their mothers, it also forces women to stay in unhealthy relationships. My mother divorced my step-father when I was 12 after enduring years of domestic abuse. She has told me that she stayed so long because she wanted my little brother to grow up with a dad. She is not an isolated case. In the view of society, it is often better to grow up with an abusive or neglectful father than an absent one.
It feels distinctly radical to say that growing up with a single mother made me a better person. There is no better role model on earth than a loving single mother. She was determined that all of her children know that despite what we might hear, there was nothing wrong with any of us. She loved us enough for three parents, and she nearly killed herself with work to try and give us a better life. When she was my age, my mother was the sole caregiver of two small children. As of this writing, I have killed two ferns. She somehow found the time to teach us to read and ride our bikes while working two jobs and putting herself through school. I can barely manage to wake up in time for my 8:30 class on Wednesday morning.
When she was my age, my mother was the sole caregiver of two small children. As of this writing, I have killed two ferns.
Correlation is not causation. Rates of addiction and poverty are not higher in children of single parent households because there is something intrinsically damaging about it. The attitudes of Mr. Santorum and his ilk would be far better directed to the systems, which conspire to keep single mothers in poverty and abuse, which condemn their families to bad neighbourhoods and bad schools, and which demean families like mine as “trash”. Until they change targets, they can take a hike. That’s the other thing being raised by a single mother taught me; nobody talks shit about my family and gets away with it.