After Baby, Now What?
“Where Do We Fit?”
By the time the ehild has trouble in life, you know, I’ll be dead. I’ll be long gone. By the time the kid’s out stealing cars, you know, Dad will be dead a few years.
—David Letterman, late-night talk show host
David Letterman used humor to shirk fatherhood’s responsibilities before his child was even born. Becoming a father for the first time at age fifty-six excuses him from his obligations as a dad to a teenager. Who could argue with death as an explanation for being emotionally unavailable? But behind Letterman’s humor lies a deeper reality. His comments bespeak a larger ideal concept of being a dad, an ideal that he may fear he cannot measure up to because of his age. In the stuff of dreams and parenting books, dads are there forever—or at least through the rebellious years of adolescence. The late-night humorist is nodding in the direction of what sociologists refer to as a “master narrative.”1
Master narratives describe something that may once have been real but which has, over time, grown beyond its original proportions to become both the stuff of legend and a powerful form of social control. Through repetition, master narratives insinuate themselves into the cultural fabric, even when the ideal is rarely seen in reality. David Letterman distances himself from the master narrative by turning his unborn child into a petty thief (another break with the usual wishes for our children) and draws explicit attention to a parental terrain unknown to Americans who have their children while in their twenties and thirties. Moreover, by becoming a cohabiting dad he has broken, on national TV, another ideal—that men marry the women who bear their children. In a few sentences,
Letterman reveals both what the American family is supposed to look like—its form and content—as well as his own personal failure to live up to those expectations.
Part II argues that single mothers are constructing new kinds of kinship to fit within the pervasive ideal of a particular kind of American family that is often assumed. While they can use the scraps of various legal precedents to become mothers, once the children arrive they cannot make a seamless fabric to protect their families from the same system that privileges two-parent heterosexual families. They may have chosen unusual routes to motherhood, but any celebration of that is trumped by their desire to have ordinary children—to fit in.
Single mothers are not out to change the world. In fact, as this next set of chapters shows, they work diligently on behalf of their children, patching together a life that resembles the so-called normal middle-class family. Like all mothers, they strive to raise an acceptable child and to organize an acceptable family life. In their eyes, an acceptable child is one who can explain himself or herself and family members to friends, day care providers, teachers, neighbors, and religious communities. Thus, while they may refashion the family through various routes to motherhood, they end up reaffirming certain kinds of kinship rather than challenging them. These women are agents in their own lives but lack power to transform the two-parent heterosexual family by themselves.2
As they strive to create viable families, single women confront the challenge of crafting an image and an identity of their children’s fathers. Even though these women have not married the men who fathered their children, “father” occupies a lead role in the master narrative of family life. Genetic and social parenthood are supposed to overlap, and having a genetic stake in a child automatically confers on the contributing individual the role of social parent. As a corollary, individual children are not supposed to have more than one mother or father at any given time.3
As Part II will illustrate, these single mothers are surprised by and unsure about how to contextualize the inherent gap between the assumptions that have shaped their lives up until the point when they crossed over the threshold and the reality of single motherhood. They too presumed, prior to crossing the threshold, that biological and social fathers would be one and the same. Each of the various routes to motherhood gives rise to distinctive dilemmas over the ways in which genetic parents and social parents relate to one another.
In chapter 4,1 explore how donor-assisted families construct an absent father to fit with the dictates of the master narrative that all children have physical fathers. It turns out that the women who most easily resurrect the father are those who conceive by known donors. They build into this agreement that the child will have at least a face for his or her father, even though this man is not expected to have a social relationship with the child. On the other hand, women who use anonymous donors have to construct these men from paper alone. The mother and child together fashion a suitable father, bringing an anonymous donor to life from a list of details.
When women chance pregnancy and decide to both bear and raise their children, as discussed in chapter 5, they do so blowing that their children have been created according to the deeply ingrained belief that two heterosexual parents create children out of intimacy and through intercourse. These children are aware that a physical father exists for them, despite how uninvolved he may be in the family’s life. Not unlike those women who have other kinds of alternative families, other men become substitute social dads for the biological fathers, resembling the increasingly common American stepfamily. Nonetheless, these stepfamilies retain both the original father and a new man who “steps in” to participate in the child’s life, even if he is a lesser parent.
Adoptive mothers do not linger over die question of genes the way that donor-assisted families do. Without a biological connection, the discovery of who their children are (personality and talents) is greeted as a welcome surprise. Some of the women, as chapter 6 discusses, have met the biological mothers (and sometimes fathers), but even then they do not focus on genetic inheritance. Adoptive mothers acknowledge an innate separation between the genetic and the social, believing that their (social) influence is critical to their child’s development. However, almost all of the adoptive mothers in this study spoke of ways their children might eventually trace their birth parents, highlighting their acknowledgment of biology’s ability to aid in their children’s quest for self-knowledge.
In short, the chapters that make up Part II underscore the power of cultural norms to define how families should be. Often norms are revealed only when they are broken. Single-mother families not only reveal deeply held beliefs both about family membership and family content but also offer us the opportunity to rethink the confusion surrounding genetic and social kinship in America, since there is no longer a tight fit between the two.