Single mothers are constantly asked about the men in their children’s lives. The implication is simple: men are essential to raising children. The reality revealed by my interviews is that—far from trying to create a world without men—single mothers and their children deliberately strive to include them. For this reason,
I will pay special attention to men’s involvement with single mothers and their children in this chapter. Having built small female-centered families, these mothers struggle, on one hand, to assimilate their families to a male-centered world, while on the other hand, they continue their reluctant revolution. While men as individuals can just be another friend to the family, on the whole they come loaded with masculinity and what it brings to children. Thus, before discussing the way in which women connect their families to men, it is important to first understand how women confront gender stereotypes while raising their children.
As much as women seek to incorporate men into their children’s lives, they also are vigilant about how they portray gender to their children. Women are looking to give their children the opportunity to develop both “masculine” and “feminine” qualities. They are especially concerned about providing positive messages for boys when they are young. They want their sons to identity as male (with men), but they want to broaden the definition through their own example as women. Without a manual, women are tinkering with existing formulas in order to create a world in which boys can be nurturers while also being able to throw around a football, all the while reinforcing masculinity through their recruitment of male role models for their children. Noted Abby: “I want him to know all sides of it and of life, male and female, and to make choices based on what he wants, not on what traditional roles tell him he should do.” Ellen echoed this: “I mean, we’re all affected by stereotypes, and that will always be true. But I would just hope that in some ways I could either eradicate or at least lessen the impact for her.” “He sees me going to work every day, having a career. If something breaks, he says, ‘Mom can fix it. ’ And that’s true, I can do most things,” said Annette.
These women are raising children at a time in which women are capable of providing their child with a full range of ways of being in the world, as the above quotes indicate. They are concerned about their daughters also, but when the children are younger it is the mothers of boys who most often remark without prompting about how men in their lives give their sons masculine behavior to model. In short, these mothers are still concerned that men be around as they raise their children. They respond to this pressure through deliberate inclusion of men in their social netw orks.6 It is not that they believe that men provide a critical difference in perspective that women cannot supply; it is more that their very presence signifies the continued importance of men in our culture. Single mothers are seen by the larger society as threatening the social fabric by making men outsiders to family life.7 In response, women seek out the presence of men for their children, with the emphasis on that mere presence rather than particular behavior models or skills.8
Raising Feminist Children: Male Privilege in the Way?
We live in a society that has a residual gender hierarchy of which single mothers are acutely aware and to which they feel they must respond.9 Therefore, as much as these mothers talk about raising feminist sons and daughters, poised to break through gender stereotypes, they bow to the pressure of the notion that masculinity continues to be privileged, prompting women to consciously cultivate men in their children’s lives. These women are a product of their social environment, having witnessed male privilege their entire lives, sometimes clashing with it in graduate school, the workplace, and their own family. To reject the normative perspective of male privilege would be to become more than the reluctant revolutionaries they are. At this historical moment, women know that male privilege is not inherent, but they are not willing to be the ones to strip that privilege away. Instead, these women opt to connect their children to that privilege, unwilling to risk making them a casualty in their gendered fight against the hierarchy.
While individual men might also believe in gender equality and relaxed gender roles, these mothers are aware that the broader culture continues to privilege men, valuing them and what they do over women and what they do.10 These contradictions reflect the broader conundrum that exists in our culture today— women cannot unravel the paradox of power while men (as a group) are unsure of how to share privilege. As is apparent in the words of the women quoted above, they want their children freed from gender stereotypes, but at the same time they do not want to fully reject the idea that differences between men and women may exist. Therefore, these women still buy in to the worship of masculinity, unwilling to shun men in the event that exposure to masculinity is the key to a well – adjusted child. This is contradictory, and women do not know how to reconcile this tension, especially as they raise sons who at times seem to be born with the innate vocabulary to describe every piece of machinery at a construction site. Perhaps more important, it may be easier to gain power and privilege than to give it up. Sons have more to lose in this regard, a struggle of which women are acutely aware. Further, they want their daughters to know male privilege when they encounter it and to be prepared to combat it. This dynamic of privilege is especially charged in the middle class, a group strongly invested in the class hierarchy with a tenacious foothold in the middle.
As much as male privilege may frame how they raise children, women, even those who take for granted feminism’s influence on their own lives, frequently mention how feminism influenced their views of child rearing, including the values that they want to give their children, starting with everyday small aspects of life such as balancing the “male” and “female” toys that they give children and making sure that when they visit the local firehouse both women and men are on duty.11 They have strong views that children, regardless of gender, should not feel pressured by gender role stereotypes. Mothers of both girls and boys express fear that the ubiquitous and subtle sexism that saturates our culture will creep into their children’s minds and affect their way of viewing the world. At times, women catch themselves perpetuating sexism; for example, two mothers talking one day realized that “the boy got the truck and the girl got the doll,” and they tried to fix it by reversing the gifts in order to create more gender-neutral play. However, as one frustrated mother noted, “What do you do when your son’s third word is back hoe, a word I never knew when I was young?” While not discounting that genetic tendencies may exist, these supporters of the nurture side in the nature – nurture debate believe that environmental differences can overcome nature, though at times they wish they understood better how genetics and social influences work together.12
As much as the women try to eliminate sexism, it proves more pervasive than they had originally thought. They are surprised by how often sexism crops up at day care and how young children pick up on it. Mothers thus become somewhat resigned to sexism as an inevitable part of child development and subsequent thinking. Claudia, whose son had just entered kindergarten, reported:
There was dais really hig thing going on in that classroom around “hoys are this and boys are that and we hate the girls.” And it is the first time I saw this division.
I want him to be able to be with both boys and girls and be comfortable. I would like him to be in both worlds comfortably. Maybe there shouldn’t be two worlds.
These mothers’ views about raising boys and girls are similar to those of many partnered mothers. Mothers of girls seek to teach their daughters that they can do whatever they want, and to instill self-confidence and respect. In the words of Ellen, “I want her to enjoy herself, respect herself and have faith in herself. I don’t necessary want to affirm her as a woman. I want to affirm her as a person.”
Mothers repeatedly speak of wanting their daughters to have positive images of female power and to see that women are capable. They are very conscious of their positions as role models for their daughters, as are the mothers of boys. Having careers and raising a family, they present a model of women as free to make whatever choices they deem necessary for their own well-being, while successfully coping with the pressures those choices entail. In addition to talking about employment, women tell stories that focus on learning new skills in order to show their children that they do not need to rely on men when performing daily tasks and so as not to perpetuate division-of-labor stereotypes at home. Gina, who reported that she grew up thinking that science, math, and anything spatial were her weak points, went to great lengths not to pass on this fear to her daughter.
I have literally stayed up until two and three and four in the morning to put together certain things—toys that require assembly and most recently a new bike—so that I did not rely upon my brother-in-law, and she really thinks I can do all that stuff. And she is great at it. She’s always improvising how to fix something, grab the tape, or whatever.
Setting an example that challenges gender stereotypes is often a priority for these women. Without taking on the feminist label, they are determined to present themselves as capable beyond gender expectations.
mother often play an active part in the children’s lives. Charlotte wove her male kin into her adopted daughter’s life, noting:
The male members of my family adore her, even though we usually see them only a few times a year because they aren’t local. Her grandfather is always on my daughter’s side, even in her most mischievous moments. She’s a very physical kid and my brothers like to rough house with her. My nephews are in their mid-twenties and they visit frequently and love to take her out. They are her favorite people. I’d say there’s little contact time, but on her part there is a lot of imaginative time with these family members.
Charlotte included the men in her own extended family, involving them as often as they could visit. She wished they lived closer so that their visits would be less sporadic and they could be a more routine presence in everyday life. These mothers are exercising considerable agency in deciding on what male kin members (both maternal and paternal, if available) are excluded or included. Genetics does not equal unlimited access to children. For instance, children’s fathers whom women feel they cannot trust with their children are not welcomed as providing “good modeling” for their children, and their visits with children are limited.
Women note that there are many opportunities to involve non-kin men in their children’s lives. Most women can easily rattle off a list of men their children see on a regular basis. Often this list include coaches, teachers, principals, religious educators, day care workers, after-school personnel, camp counselors, babysitters, and other extracurricular instructors from music teachers to martial arts trainers to theater directors. As more men enter what have been traditionally female fields of employment (though they are still underrepresented), women actively pursue them. ‘5 Women often request male teachers for their children if available in a given grade, hoping to provide their children with a caring male role model and positive interactions.’6 Some children spend more of their day in the classroom of a male schoolteacher than with their moms at home. Women believe that these men are sensitive to their family structure and go out of their way to develop special relationships with their children.
Rebecca viewed her daughter’s soccer team as an important structure that brought men into her daughter’s life, though she also deliberately volunteered as a coach herself:
Most of them have their dads out there, but she doesn’t have a dad, so it’s important she have a parent out there. This year I co-coach with two men who are clearly father figures for her. Clearly. She related to them in that way. And at the end of the year when she’s saying, “I’m gonna miss my teacher, Mrs. Richards, and I’m gonna miss them at after-school care. But you know who I’m really gonna miss? Brian and Eric.”
Big Brother organizations provide another institutional structure for boys and men to interact.17 The vast majority of male children in this study were involved at some point in this program, with the exception of those children who had contact with their fathers (children of women who chanced pregnancy). This is a voluntary institutionally mediated relationship, in which men agree to commit to being a Big Brother to a boy for at least one year; the woman owes the man nothing. (While some women with daughters are involved in the Big Sister program, this is far less common and, in these cases, women talk about their daughters having an older sister rather than a female role model.) Male children have had very positive relationships with these placements, as the organization deliberately matches children and men who have similar interests. The Big Brother program is premised on providing adult male friendships in children’s lives, and often the men remain involved with the children for many years, accompanying children to father-son school activities and otherwise acting as quasi-parents. Explained Hillary, whose son was a participant in the Big Brother program, “A classmate of his asked him when he was no older than seven, ‘Do you have a dad?’ He told his classmate, ‘Everybody has a father, but I don’t have a father that lives with me. I have a Big Brother and he does things with me like a dad would.’ ”l8
Men also are recruited within less formal settings as well. Women do not live in a sex-segregated world, and all have men in their lives as friends—either friends that the women met on their own or the husbands of their girlfriends. Friendships between men and women are rarely studied, even though the women in this study report strong ties to male friends going back to elementary school.19 Male friends are called upon in various ways and are consulted as part of the discussions that go on with close friends during the early liminal phase.20 Lori-Ann met Ned and his wife at a local self-help group years before she became pregnant. While Lori – Ann’s network is predominantly female, she attaches special importance to the role Ned plays in her son’s life. Ned began his relationship with Andrew when he and his wife, who had grown children from a prior marriage, used to watch him for a few hours after day care one day a week. But as Andrew got older and Ned’s wife’s hours of work changed, Ned began picking Andrew up one day a week by himself. Lori-Ann described their relationship:
Ned, in his earlv fifties, he’s never had kids at all, and he totallv loves Andrew. He has a truck and he picks up Andrew in the truck and that’s their thing—they go off on a truck ride. It’s been really, really good for them because they have this whole relationship that they wouldn’t have otherwise. . . . They’re pretty close. Because he’ll say—like, we’ve talked about safety issues and he’s not to go any place with strangers. And he’ll say, “Well, I’ll be safe with Ned because he’s part of my family.” It’s definitely part of his image of family.
Lori-Ann’s son extended the term family to include individuals who cared for him, and Ned was considered part of the family. Ned was particularly special for Andrew because they did “guy things.” Interestingly, Lori-Ann is typical of mothers who seek out examples of men or contexts that represent traditionally masculine behavior in order to explain to me how their children acquire intimate understanding of what constitutes male activities. Women are turning over the instruction of masculinity to either specific men or institutions so that their sons acquire some semblance of information about societally reinforced masculinity. This is a strategy that they use to ensure that their sons will have a foothold in the dominant culture that privileges men, even if they do not support that culture and are not perpetuating that privilege in their home. The irony of using these men to do “guy things” with kids is that it essentializes men in ways that directly contradict women’s wish not to define gender so rigidly.
Joy’s story is a direct example of this contradiction. Asked about male role models in her second interview, she mentioned that she sent her son to a boys’ camp, drawn by its large male peer group, the male counselors, and the male director. What happened on the ride home from camp the first summer exposed the contradiction between what Joy accepted in her home and what she exposed her son to. In the car, she noticed that her son had added lots of salty language to his vocabulary while he was at camp. She said to him, “I hear that you have learned many new things at camp, which is terrific. But when we cross the bridge into Massachusetts, I would like this language to stop. It is not language that I want in our home.” She knowingly exposed her son to “boy talk” but reined in this language, as it was not consistent with her family values. “Boys’ worlds” such as summer camps (and their girls’ counterparts) provide contained same-sex environments, fertile ground for gendered bonding activities that often involve trying on extremely gendered behavior. Joy’s son displayed the language on the ride home as a sign of newly acquired masculine knowledge. Yet while salty language might be fine at summer camp, it was not so in the middle-class suburb where they lived. In sum, even though Joy was pleased with the sports skills he developed at camp, she did not wholeheartedly accept all aspects of what he learned there.
Children also are active participants starting at very young ages in broadening opportunities for intimacy by inviting both adults and children to interact with their families. “She draws people to her,” said Erika about her daughter. Erika continued, “It has become a challenge to manage it all. They want both of us so we both get invited but they definitely want her.” Since these families include men and the mother-child family is easy to incorporate into the lives of other families, children have other avenues for knowing men up close (for instance, as a by-product of friendships, children become close to the dads of their friends). From early on, mothers become accustomed to their children acting as the conduits to other families, part of the way in which all families become tied through children’s peers. In a second interview, Nadine discussed the shift in her group of friends when her children entered elementary school: “My primary network of support includes both new and old friends, friends I knew before kids and new friends I have made through my kids. Recently, I have been switching alliances to the newer friends because the kids are involved and these are their closest friends.” The child is initially absorbed into the mother’s existing network
of friends; however, this changes as children form their own friendships with peers and spend time with their friends’ families.
Children’s peer groups, especially once they are in school, expand into larger webs of friendships that draw in their parents. Hillary used the relationships her children built with other families through elementary school not only as communal support but also as a type of male support for her child:
As my kids get older, their best friends have become very important in our lives.
Not only do we get together for barbecues and things like that. One of the fathers likes to include all the little boys in our circle when he gets tickets to a baseball game.
Children make connections and build friendships that are not restricted to just other children. Individual adults also become enmeshed in the lives of these children and their mothers in new ways. In some cases, these relationships start out as paid arrangements. For example, Susan hired a dog walker whom she rarely saw during the early years of his employment. When her daughter started tagging along with the young man on the afternoon walks, she began to talk at dinner about the fun she had had that afternoon with the dog walker. When the original afternoon babysitter graduated from college, Susan asked the dog wralker to pick up her daughter on Wednesdays, the half day of school in her town. The relationship escalated, and the dog wralker started occasionally going with the family to movies on the weekend and to cheer at the child’s sports games.
While many women can expose children to adult men from their friends and family, many also express regret that their children are not witness to a positive romantic relationship between their mother and another adult. Of course, a large percentage of women in this study do have romantic relationships that their children might have eavesdropped on, but the child’s ties to this person have limitations. In short, some women feel culpable for not having found a perfect mate, but as they explain to their children who ask about the absence of this partner, it is better to have no one person in that role than to have one person do it poorly.
Rebecca’s daughter, Sarah, actively asked about a missing dad during preschool, but she remained silent on the subject for several years afterwrard. During a second conversation with me, her mother told me how her daughter startled her wnth a more complicated question one day:
A year ago, when Sarah wras twelve, out of the blue at dinner we were talking and laughing about a recent trip to the beach when she abruptly changed the conversation and got this serious look on her face. She said to me, “Do you think my personality would be different if I had a dad?” I said to her, “That depends upon how much time a dad is around. And there are good dads and bad dads.” Then we talked about different kinds of dads and I told her again, “It is hard to find a good enough one.”
Rebecca was caught offguard by her daughter’s question. She carefully chose to focus Sarah’s attention on all the other men in her life, from the soccer coach to her close uncles, grandfather, two adult male friends whom they saw for a “family dinner” once a week, and her male teacher. Still, Rebecca did not know how a “good dad” might have made her personality different.
At one point Sarah, like many other young elementary-school-age children, started to come home from school with recommendations of men her mother might think about dating. Sarah hoped this would lead to marriage for her mom and, more important, a dad for her. At one point Sarah saw potential dates for her mom everywhere—the school bus driver, the mail carrier, and a real estate agent who was helping Rebecca find a house. About the last of these, Sarah asked her mom, “What’s wrong with him?” Rebecca pointed out his wedding ring, which they both knew made him ineligible as a potential date. This phase ended about the third grade, at which time Sarah stopped suggesting possible men for her mom to date. Rebecca felt sad that she had not found a suitable man to marry— maybe even more so for Sarah’s wish to have a dad than for her to have a husband.
Melissa also understood how her twin sons wished for a dad when they too came home one day and suggested that she might like their male day care teacher. She took a different tack, since they were younger. She tried to give them a sense of how the family dynamics might change. Over dinner she told them that she liked their day care teacher but that he was too young for her to date. She was not sure that her twins understood that a ten-year age gap was too large for her. But they did understand this part of the conversation:
“If there were a dad, he would be a dad for you, but he’d be a husband forme, and that would mean some changes. We wouldn’t have all the time we do together, for instance.” “Oh, okay, well, I don’t want a dad anymore,” one of the twins responded. But he will evolve out of not wanting to share me, I’m sure, and actually want somebody.
While Melissa would have liked her children to witness her in a loving relationship, she realized that her children were thinking about a dad for themselves, not realizing he also would have a separate relationship to their mom.
Mothers are expected to be the emotional center of family life, and not having a romantic love is a particular regret that reflects the entrenched belief that women are responsible for modeling all emotional behavior. While the literature on divorce warns that children suffer from watching parents who don’t get along, more research is necessary to understand the importance of romantic modeling in children’s lives.21
Men and masculinity become a piece of cultural capital offered up to children as an additional resource, not an essential component. Ironically, the fact that women seek out men as a form of cultural capital reinforces the very gender ideology that they hope to displace in raising their children. This dilemma may be an artifact of wishing to raise children in the middle—both in the middle class and in the middle of the cultural spectrum—not on the margins. To do so, women feel pressure to accept certain aspects of gender stereotypes in exchange for rejecting others. Women are caught between appeasing the dominant culture and raising feminist kids. Even as they try to raise their children to counter a gender-biased world, they are not interested in creating a world without men as a solution. The fear of marginalizing their children leaves these women stuck between the gender hierarchy of daily life, which they really can not control, while simultaneously encouraging their children to resist it.
Men are important recruits to the mother-child families. Unlike poor single mothers, who struggle to find men to involve with their children, these middle – class women expertly provide male companionship, using the same resources with which they provide other enrichment activities. Like music lessons, soccer camps, and language classes, men are offered up to children as an essential luxury that mothers can afford: essential in that men are seen as necessary to raise successful children, and a luxury in that it is women’s resources that ensure men’s involvement. They are the soccer coaches, the father of a classmate, and the dog walker, all certified to teach children whatever nebulous and intangible things men bring to children’s lives by their very presence. With nothing definitive about what men as a group have to offer, women struggle with the meaning of gender as they raise their children. However, they do understand that men as a group have privilege and therefore they must introduce their children to it.
In order to be good mothers, women perceive the necessity for integrating their families into larger networks of people who bring a host of ideas. Each individual brings an identity, a composite of that person’s history, and his or her place in the larger social world and its ideology. Connecting to these individuals, sometimes to other families, women graft themselves and their children to larger groups, forming alliances. In more concrete terms, they want other people present to share and celebrate their children and their families. Incorporating elements of the old and new, mothers embed their families into a web of people that will ultimately contribute to a child’s life as well his or her identity and success in the world.