Between Marriage and Motherhood
In earlier generations, this sense of being stuck most likely would have resulted in spinsterhood—in becoming the “favorite aunt,” to use Joy’s words.21 Both Joy and Claudia believed that marriage and children would happen naturally and effortlessly. Joy was caught up in enormous professional demands that limited her social life. Claudia framed her story around ambivalent relationships, even though she also had a demanding career as a clinical psychologist. Joy would accept nothing less from a man than both marriage and children. Even after she had her first child, she thought it would take a man to make her family feel complete. Claudia met Carl at a propitious moment: having already filed the paperwork to adopt, she did not feel she had to choose between a hypothetical baby and a relationship. In both Joy’s and Claudia’s cases, it is possible to sense each woman’s dogged resolve to have a child and a family, even if it meant reordering the conventional sequence of events. Neither woman rejected marriage as a social institution; indeed, both honored it by exhausting virtually every route to marriage before electing to have a child as a single mom. Similarly, the lesbian women in this study embraced the idea of a stable partnership with the same fervor as the straight women; they, too, clung tenaciously to the ideal of motherhood even when the possibility of having a partner was remote.
As with many changing social forces, the idea that marriage is a prerequisite to having children remains dominant even as men and women put off marriage until later and later in their lives. Women are aware that the climate is changing and that their choices are quite different from the ones available to women in earlier generations. Ellen, thirty-one years old and with a toddler conceived through “benign neglect” of birth control use, made the point emphatically:
One of my very good friends who is ten years older than I am said to me, “You did what I could never have done, because the times weren’t right for me.” And it’s true. And I don’t think I would have done it ten years before that [in 1987] either. The time just wasn’t right. So it opened up the world to do things a little bit differently.
Ellen, like the other women I talked with, knew that her place on the generational timeline was important to her decision to become a single mother, yet women do not see themselves as part of a large shift spurred either by feminism or the times. In other words, single motherhood was not to the 1980s what bra burning was to the 1960s. Rather, single motherhood is a product of a historical patchwork of legal decisions in the beginning of the nineteenth century that changed the tightly woven and highly male-dominated fabric of family life. These decisions shook husbands’ unchallenged authority within marriage over their wives and the children they bore, yet also slowly bolstered men’s responsibility to children born outside of marriage. Initially, children born outside of marriage were not the responsibility of the father or his heirs. Without the status granted by marriage, these children were the children of no one. In an effort to evade responsibility, the state established the mother as the custodian, passing on the financial burden to her alone. However, by the twentieth century, laws governing illegitimate
children, once meant to protect men’s property and kin lineage from claims by out – of-wedlock children, were amended to protect children from the circumstance of their birth.22
Illegitimate children became eligible to collect survivor’s benefits, receive child support, and inherit.2-"5 The civil rights movement, political scientist Mary Shanley argues in her 2001 book Making Babies, Making Families, abolished all legal disabilities of illegitimacy, no longer distinguishing between children born in or out of wedlock.24 These legal enactments reshaped marriage by eroding patriarchal control—a system of rights and power that gave men familial control over women and children—and redefining parental responsibility to children as no longer dependent upon marital status. As a result, the legal stigma of illegitimacy was all but removed.
The legalization of birth control was another turning point as it altered women’s ability to decide when they had children. In Massachusetts, unmarried women were finally allowed access to birth control in 1972 with the Supreme Court decision oiEisenstadtv. Baird. Reproductive control removed much of the moral burden of single motherhood; women could now actively choose when to become mothers, and children born out of wedlock were no longer symbolic of a moral transgression that would make either the woman or child a pariah. The changes in family law that dissolved the concept of illegitimacy and granted birth control rights to women thus removed the pressure for women to have a child only within marriage. In short, a series of individual-rights-based legal decisions and social movements paved the way for middle-class women to have a child outside of marriage.
While the legal context for single motherhood may have been established by this time, the social reality did not catch up until two decades later. By trumpeting an intimate link between unmarried motherhood and poverty, social policy makers and the media stigmatized single motherhood just as it was gaining legal acceptability.2 5 A related backlash against unwed teenage mothers further slowed the erosion of the stigma attached to middle-class single motherhood. But for middle-class women who could distance themselves from unwed teen mothers by remaining financially independent, the moral boundaries surrounding motherhood changed. A contributing factor was the rise in the divorce rate, particularly among white middle-class women, which meant that more middle-class children were no longer living with two parents. Because they had once been married to their children’s fathers, divorced women were not seen as immoral mothers, and they opened the doors for other women to follow. The overall rise in the number of children raised outside of marriage kindled the possibility for middle-class women to have children without partners and still be accepted in their communities. Instead of branding single women who had children with scarlet letters, the broader community judged these middle-class women by their ability to support themselves.26 Maeve, a thirty-year-old woman with an eight-year-old and a recently adopted six-month-old, conceived the older child while changing birth
control pills. She explained how her presence was accepted in a way that it wouldn’t have been in the past:
Well, if it weren’t for feminism I wouldn’t be hired by a predominantly male institution. My landlord wouldn’t have rented me this apartment because it would have made his apartment complex look cheaper because I would have been stigmatized as white trash. I think that still exists, but not really. There are laws that protect me, and people at my job are wonderful. They would never dream of giving a shit that I am a single parent. It allows me to feel confident in the fact that I am a single parent and gives me the perspective to see it from that angle, even though most people don’t.
Maeve credited feminism with paving the way for her to have a good-paying job that enabled her to pay her rent. Yet she realized that the social norms surrounding motherhood had also changed; if they hadn’t, her landlord might not have been so willing to rent her an apartment, particularly if other tenants complained about her lifestyle.