Blame intensifies when mothers defy convention. More often than not, the treatment of moms without husbands in the professional literature focuses on a mother's aloneness (translate: not with a man) or sexual preference (again, not with a man), rather than her parenting skills. Despite the relative prominence of many varieties of mothering families raising sons, both social scientists and popular opinion continue to make erroneous assumptions about the single-mothering experience and its impact on children. Single- or two-mother families are portrayed as deficient, inadequate, broken, or flawed. And judgment is cast as a result. When the experts look at the impact on kids' lives of having a single mom or two mothers, they see the numbers, not the people.
Remember the mantra of the first Clinton campaign -- it's the economy, stupid? That's what we're really talking about here. Social science data show that socioeconomic status is a stronger predictor than almost any other index of child welfare. Not marriage status. Not the number of parents in the household, or their gender, for that matter. Still, we persist in seeing single-mom families as wanting, two-mom families as unnatural, and both as threatening to a boy's masculinity. Instead of looking at those unconventional families that are succeeding, we focus on the stereotypes of the man-hating lesbian and the overburdened, stressed-out, isolated single mother who's incompetent and neglectful.
For as long as any of us can remember, parenting theory and popular culture have promoted the notion that Mommy and Daddy -- the traditional family unit -- produce the best sons. That message has become louder in recent years. In 1992, President George H. Bush announced that children "should have the benefit of being born into families with a mother and father," citing the number and the gender of parents and their biological bond as central to optimal family life. And his son has supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and thus protect the hallowed nuclear family.
Whether conservative politicians and religious leaders like it or not, the family structure has changed -- dramatically -- and the Bush definition of family seems, well, less than definitive. Across the country, a lightning bolt has split the trunk of the family tree, and it is growing in new and challenging directions. Some have labeled this a family crisis, though as Laura Benkov, Ph.D., points out in her book Reinventing the Family, "A careful look at other places and other times reveals [the nuclear family] to be but one of many possible human arrangements."
Further, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, "Families have always been in flux and often in crisis; they have never lived up to the nostalgic notions about 'the way things used to be.'" We cannot roll back history, nor -- once we tear away prevailing misconceptions about the American family -- would we want to. So get ready for a little myth-bashing reality check.
Myth #1: Families of the past didn't have problems like families do today. The reality is that desertion, child abuse, spousal battering, and alcohol or drug addiction have always troubled a significant number of families. Many of those perky housewives from 50 years ago depended on mother's little helper (tranquilizers, mood enhancers, and alcohol) to see them through their mind-numbing days. In other words, the good old days weren't what they are cracked up to be.