Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Circumstances
I wanted a normal child to enter my abnormal life.
—Jennifer, known-donor route to motherhood
Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, based upon his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, posits a community in which “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” In this parody of the perfect American community, families all have extraordinary children who live ordinary lives. The women in this study have created families in extraordinary ways, and since these single mothers know there is no community where all the children are above average, they, like Jennifer, wish for children and families that will simply blend with their own average communities. These women may live their lives and create their families in nontraditional ways, but they do not want their children to suffer the consequences of those choices. They also want their children to live ordinary lives—that is to say, a middle-class, orderly life where their children fit. They do not want their children stigmatized by lifestyle decisions that they themselves have made about becoming mothers. However, the more agency that women take on in creating families on their own, the more fearful they become that their children will be marginalized by the dominant culture.
The concept of liminality is salient in the process of women’s decisions to go their own way, in terms of their respective routes to motherhood. As women leave the liminal state, they cross the threshold of what is socially accepted; yet, after crossing the threshold, they want their children to be seen as ordinary, separated from the extraordinary circumstances that brought them into their lives.
Once these hard-won children arrive, women confront institutions rooted in normative family structures. While these institutions might grapple with diversity and discuss alternative families, in fact the assumptions of the nuclear family are deeply embedded. For example, one child came home reporting to her mother that his teacher, tired of lining up the class by first or last names, decided to be creative and ask the children to line up for recess by father’s first name. The last thing single mothers want for their children is for them to be the odd kid out, and this situation brings to life that fear. It is for this reason that single mothers arm their children with information about imagined fathers in anticipation of an inevitable confrontation with this assumption. In the opinion of these single mothers, children just need enough information so that they can fall into line. The child in the class who did not have a dad but a known donor instead found his place in line because he knew his genetic father’s name was Marcus. Even though the child’s close friends in class know that he has a donor, the child is not outed to all as fatherless. For the moment, the child blended into the line, passing for no less ordinary than the other children on the way out to recess.
While American society has reached a new marital low point and has begun the reconstruction of family life, it has not seen the demise of the master narrative that still privileges the two-parent heterosexual genetic family. At the epicenter of the master narrative is the father, the patriarchal puppeteer of the family. Single mothers begin to cut die strings en route to motherhood, only to find themselves dancing, on behalf of their children, to the master narrative once again.