Sunday, December 13, 2015

On Single Mothers and Shame

Jeb Bush was recently asked to clarify his statements on single mothers in his book, “The Restoration of Shame”.  In an amazing feat of political acrobatics, Mr. Bush seemed to both back pedal and double down saying single moms face challenges in the world we are in today (presumably a world of reduced economic opportunities stemming from the collapse of the financial system at the tail end of his brother’s turn as president) that hurt the prospects and limit the possibilities of young people being able to live lives of meaning and purpose. 

Mr. Bush has it backwards.  Yes, being raised by a single mother reduces opportunity and possibility but the conditions that are limiting are due to public policy that is implemented specifically to censure and punish women for being single mothers. In a New York Times editorial, Charles Blow points out that we spend energy blaming births to unmarried women ( ).  I would say we blame unmarried mothers.  The way we treat them is part of the punishment.  Bush laments the flagging sense of ridicule and shame heaped upon the irresponsible conduct of unmarried mothers, but in the absence of shame and ridicule, what we have is the punishment of seeing one’s children struggle in penurious circumstances and reduced opportunities, all due to their mothers’ “poor choices”.  Meanwhile, our society, our culture, makes unintended pregnancies and births inevitable by limiting education about reproductive health and even more so, limiting access to reproductive health services – especially for poor young women whose future offspring will be most impacted by the reduced circumstances and opportunities.

We are in a tenuous cultural space where feminism and the sexual revolution have ruptured the former modified chattel model of marriage where women traded their reproductive capabilities and caregiving services for economic security for themselves and their children.  Women are no longer ostensibly tied to the father of their children, dependent on them for economic security, yet the organization of our society is such that women, especially mothers, are severely disadvantaged in the workplace, degrading the material well-being of their children and even more so the mental and emotional well-being of their family given the emotional stress of poverty. We have organized ourselves as a society in the worst possible way to support children and families.  We have the dual sides of the pincers crushing families with free market capitalist economic theory that pushes the cost of labor down to the lowest point the market can bear; and women will accept less because .72 on the dollar is better than .00.  At the same time, the free movement of capital to places with a lower cost of labor makes the competition for jobs fierce for men and women, but due to the rupture of chattel marriage many men no longer feel obligated to support their families and women no longer feel compelled to remain with men who abuse drugs and alcohol and are violent toward them and their children.  In Jeb Bush’s world, shame and ridicule would keep women locked in marriage and keep men feeling responsible for supporting their families.

What he and others fail to see is the interlocking vice grip of the free market capitalism that forced women into the workplace by gutting middle class opportunities gained by organized labor coupled with the freedom of women to flee unsafe or unsatisfying marriages.  Thanks to the global economy, men are no longer able to hold up their end of the chattel marriage negotiation and require a partner's income. Ergo, conservatives are in a pickle because on one hand, they want the cost of labor to continue to decline, but the decline in wages makes the “traditional” marriage arrangement untenable.
In our attempts to sustain traditional marriage, we make these macro policy decisions that punish some women for unwanted pregnancies and their subsequent children are punished along with them.  I am certain that fathers and men are punished as well for the “poor decisions” by being estranged from their offspring and missing out on the edifying work of parenting and building a family – but I was a single mother not an estranged father, so I can speak more authentically on my reality.  We do make poor personal choices, but given the circumstances, the options we choose from are limited and equally bad.  The greater sin is the choice we make as a society as we evolve from organizing our families in one way to another.

We can recognize that we are liberated from an arrangement based on women trading their caregiving for security.  That was never fool proof and many women and children were left the poorer for it, my own mother and grandmother included.  We should embrace that we are no longer subject to such an arbitrary and insecure arrangement.  We should embrace policies that recognize families, irrespective of their make-up, as the foundation of our culture, society and in this free-market capitalist democracy families are also the foundation of our economy.  A strong family is the foundation of a strong economy, therefore, public policy should support and strengthen families.
Seeing my friends with kids, I know that raising kids is the time when the stress of all the familial responsibilities can become too much to bear, leading to all sorts of ills; an increase in drug and alcohol use, abuse, violence, fractured relationships, anger, resentment or simply alienation.  These in turn can lead to divorce and to single motherhood – the scourge of modern society, according to Mr. Bush.

The lack of access to reproductive health services also contributes to unstable families.  Unplanned pregnancies can create families where there is no foundational commitment between the parents. Access to free, long term birth control without the slut shaming would reduce unplanned pregnancies and probably abortions.  But it would also take away conservatives’ most potent tool in controlling women’s sexuality.  Without the threat of an unplanned birth, women will be free to have sex with whomever they choose.  That’s the other side of the conservative vise grip – cost of labor on one side and the conservative, religious social mores on the other that fears women’s sexual liberation and freedom.

What Mr. Bush displays with his comments underscores the basic misogyny in our commonweal. Women's sexuality should be controlled and managed, women's reproductive rights should be controlled and managed and economically empowered women are more difficult to control and manage.  

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