METHODS AND SAMPLING
This study was triggered by a small but intriguing advertisement in a Brookline, Massachusetts, community newspaper.
The headline read “SINGLE ISSUES.” It went on:
Is single motherhood for me? 9 sessions on decision-making for women whose biological clock is ticking. Explore single parenting options vs. childfree living. Call Jane Smith at. . .
The ad piqued my curiosity. As a family sociologist, I had been following the data on the rise in single motherhood. Ever since the famous incident of then vice president Dan Quayle attacking the fictional TV sitcom character Murphy Brown for becoming a single mother and hence a bad role model, I had been keeping track of the mismatch between media portrayals and demographic reports on single mothers. I immediately dialed Jane Smith, told her I was a social scientist, and asked if I could observe her group. I explained that I had a child through marriage, but I was interested in finding out more about older women who were considering becoming or who had become single mothers. She recommended I attend a meeting of the local chapter of Single Mothers by Choice, which met once a month in a neighboring town.
I entered the building feeling the same sort of stage fright that overtakes my body each semester as I begin teaching a new group of students. Who would I find attending this meeting? Would they kick me out because I had a child and a
husband? Would they grant me permission to attend their monthly sessions? And how did they manage to raise a family and simultaneously hold down a job when two-earner couples struggled with the challenges of both?
I blew that this group might be able to answer some of the questions I had about the process that led women to become single mothers. The data I read told me only about outcomes; they didn’t tell me how women came to their decision to become a single mom. What did it mean to them to make this choice?
The meeting was just starting as I entered the room. This first meeting consisted of self-described “thinkers”—women who were trying to decide whether or not single motherhood was for them. They were meeting to discuss questions that the women who would attend the later meeting had already faced. The second of that afternoon’s meetings featured a panel discussion by experts and experienced single moms and included a mix of women in different stages of becoming mothers. Some women were trying various routes to motherhood; others were pregnant or in an adoption queue. Finally, there were the women who had children ranging from newborns to age twelve. The older ones played outside but joined in for the potluck dinner.
The women seemed a bit hostile when my assistant and I were introduced. We were not single mothers, and we told them so. They wanted assurances that we were not right-wing zealots or nosy journalists who might do them harm, intentionally or not. They wanted to know more than just my professional credentials and past publications; they wanted to know which side of the contested debates about family I supported. I suppose that my being a professor of women’s studies and a sociologist helped a bit, but their concerns were more personal. Could I capture their world accurately? Would I?
I left understanding that these women were different from me in more ways than I had anticipated. Most important was that I had not expected to find that these women made becoming a parent the primary focus of their lives. At the moment, this was what seemed to define these women in a way that I could not fathom for myself, as I saw parenthood as one of a number of identities I had, something that was an outgrowth of a relationship with another adult, not separate from one. I needed tounderstand why and howtheyplaced motherhood at the center of their lives.
The organization was interesting from a social science perspective because it operated as a focus group at each meeting. At least part of each afternoon meeting was spent discussing topics the women put together. For instance, a newly pregnant woman asked a lot of questions of the other mothers about their experiences with child care. Often my field notes were about topics common to all mothers. But impromptu panel discussions—where several women would volunteer on the spot to talk about their concerns—demonstrated unique issues they faced because of the route to motherhood. When did other women start to date again? a pregnant woman asked. Would a Big Brother program provide male role models for her children? another new mother wondered.
Ultimately, this local organization provided a wealth of information that we could turn into researchable questions for in-depth interviews.