Recycling and Reconstituting Families
The sun in all his light and glory was to rise upon a new world; in this world woman was to be free to direct her own destiny. . . . My hopes also move towards that goal, but I hold that the emancipation of woman, as interpreted and practically applied today, has failed to reach that great end. Now, woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation, if she really desires to be free. This may sound paradoxical, but is, nevertheless, only too true.
—Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation,” 1906
Having liberated themselves from the paralysis of childlessness, the women in this study are faced with integrating their new lives and selves with children into the world. This world is not as hostile to alternative families as it once was, yet it remains unyielding to the twenty-first-century needs of all families.1 The new world for women described by Emma Goldman at the beginningofthe twentieth century holds die same promise and contradiction as that facing single mothers today. Goldman expresses frustration with the reality of freedom, asking, “What has she achieved through her emancipation?” This question remains a century later.
Women who have managed to free themselves from the social norms of married motherhood have done so as reluctant revolutionaries. They did not set out to break new ground, but wanting a child before time ran out took precedence over following tradition. With a child in their arms, these women must again forge their own path as they organize their family’s daily life. They relieve themselves of the burden of chasing marriage, only to be shouldered with the new trials of single motherhood. The world in which they have freed themselves is still flawed—integrating their new family with their social life, their work life, and the world around them leaves them with little wiggle room. These women have what Goldman calls “external emancipation”—they have the job, the home, and the child. But larger forces premised on a particular type of job structure, home life, and mothering trap them in their emancipation. Essentially, these new opportunities for women do not form a cohesive package. In the United States, making it all work is left up to these women individually.2
Today, women can be single mothers as an alternative to the nuclear family, with one catch: making this choice means making a promise to stay below the radar. That is to say, as long as they and not the government finance their motherhood; as long as they make their children fit society, not force society to fit their children; and as long as they reshape their individual jobs, not the workplace as a whole, they can be single mothers. Further, they must yield to one final societal concern: they must now also work hard to include men they had initially excluded from their family’s formation. As single mothers, they are outside the bulkhead that continues to shelter the nuclear family, leaving them exposed to the storm of social problems that currently batters all families. As women are treading water, trying to keep their work and family life from capsizing, I recall Goldman’s question: is this really freedom? These women are directing their own destinies but navigating through the same quagmire.
Part III begins by examining the nuances of how these women are defined as single. When I initially began this study, I took single to mean unmarried and not cohabiting at the times of the first interview and the birth or adoption of the child. At the outset, I was more interested in routes to motherhood for middle-class women that did not entail marriage or living together, paying little attention to comings and goings of lovers or the exceptions of children with a second parent. In terms of the lay definition of single—not married—both lovers and parenting partners are relevant.
With the increase of motherhood outside of marriage (leaving aside cohabiting couples having children), today’s families have at their core not the adult couple but the mother-child relationship. Like the “housetop” tradition of quilting in which each quilt is built around a solid medallion of cloth, these women patch together a life for their family around the mother-child dyad.3 The centrality of this dyad as the stable foundation of middle-class family life is a recent phenomenon. For the majority of women in this study, this twosome is the most common family structure and leaves die potential to reclaim die nuclear family. Where does romance fit in the mother-child family? While it may exist, it is not the center of family life, often only a tangent to the mother-child twosome.
Nothing is more salient for these women on a daily basis than the drama between work and family. Chapter 8 illustrates how women streamline their employment to finance their mother time, sometimes turning to other resources when their paychecks do not suffice. But all women rely on good child care to make employment possible. Counting on their alliances with child care providers,
women form a long-term relationship with these individuals, enlisting them in their one-woman struggle against the American work-family dilemma.
What has happened to men in these families? If women are no longer in search of a man to make a baby, what role do men play in these children’s lives? Chapter 9 raises these questions, which so many people ask of single mothers. It explores the contradictory reasoning behind including men, seeking to reveal what is so special about what men offer to children. Regardless, women are including men. However, they further struggle with the conflicting messages of a gendered system, socializing children to fit in while aspiring to raise feminist kids.
Where do romance, work, and men fit in? Single mothers grapple with their freedom from marriage, attempting to answer the serious questions that arise with their new families. Ambivalent as to what children need, how they should be socialized as girls and boys, and how the “private” life of families interfaces with the public world, these women face dilemmas that highlight important issues that remain in question for families overall. These women bring to light what is not settled by either researchers or policy makers: what is best for children, families, motherhood, and men. Without consensus, these women must decide on their own what is best for their daily lives.
we were quickly released. Standing at 6 a. m. waiting for a cab to take me back home was really upsetting. I had this overwhelming sense of aloneness. And me, who thinks I have the most amazing support system—which I really do—felt so incredibly alone. And then I came home, and I said, “You know, I could have had a husband who was on a business trip,” and very quickly reality set in about how you’re alone no matter what. It was amazing. Really, I felt so pathetic. The sun was coming up—I’ll never forget it—here I am, standing with my daughter in my arms, taking a cab home! And probably there were a million people I could have called, and I just didn’t want to do it.
Jennifer acknowledged that a partner is not always insurance against these situations, but she also felt alone in a way that could not be ameliorated by supportive friends and family. Veronica described it in more abstract terms:
If you’re a single parent, it’s just different, and I think people who are single parents, who have another parent involved, also live a different life than those of us who are parenting 24/7, seven days a week, week after week, month after month after month, and not having the breaks that other folks get whose kids goes off with another parent, even if it’s one or two nights a week. It’s still one or two nights a week that you sort of have yourself back in a way that if you don’t have family or friends who are taking your kid for you regularly, it’s just different, a different life.
Veronica captures the undiluted responsibility of single mothers in this category. Jennifer may have called a close friend in the middle of the night over her daughter’s rising fever, but she did not ask her friend to accompany her to the hospital. That night Jennifer realized that it was not the absence of people to help that made her feel so alone, but her own unwillingness to cross the boundary of middle-class self-sufficiency to ask them. In response to the 24/7 life of the consummate mother, some women come to rely more heavily on social networks that challenge the do-it-yourself parenting model, to be discussed later in this chapter. Even after tapping social networks in creative ways, these women are still the only parent, and as a result, they find it difficult to make time to become romantically involved.
The consummate mother model, for all its intensity, is attractive in that it leaves a lot of room for both a romantic partner for the mother and a second parent for the child. It is this structure that can be most easily transitioned into the two-parent family model, and that is its allure. Even though the baby carriage came first, women still hope to find love and marriage. By guarding the mother – child dyad, most poignantly by keeping the genetic father at a distance, women free up their family for the introduction of a partner who is both lover and parent. Among the four variations of single mothers, these women show the most commitment to the two-parent family model, hoping to end up with the ideal package in spite of the less than ideal sequencing. Joy, a classic consummate mother, rationalized, “Anyone that I would meet would have to love kids anyway, so what dif-
For her daughter’s two dads, Alex and Ron, the other models of gay parenting that their friends had chosen did not interest them. They did not want to find a surrogate to have a baby for them and include the surrogate as an “aunt,” nor did they want to be known donors on the margins. As she put it, “They wanted the real McCoy—dads. They didn’t want to be supplemental caretakers.” It took almost two more years of talking and planning. Alex would be the genetic father, but he and Ron would become co-dads. With the help of an attorney, they drew up a lengthy agreement that laid out in detail parenting arrangements, spelling out the rights, obligations, and routine of the involved parties. The yet-to-be – born child would split her time between the mom’s home and the dads’ home.3 In some ways, Trish attributed the clear boundaries of her arrangement to her sexuality:
I actually thought this arrangement was much better for me as a gay person than it probably would be for most straight women, where there would be so much more ambiguousness, or there could be. Whereas with us, there’s no ambigu – ousness because both he and I had been gay for a million years, before we ever did this. So it was always clear that it was kind of a business relationship, in a way. It was really about the business of having and raising a child.
Having removed romance from the equation, Trish had a good working relationship with her daughter’s two dads. The three adults met to make decisions about their daughter at an important weekly meeting, including scheduling events and filling each other in on the week in order to make parental decisions.
Angie was about to order sperm from one of the banks and even had an appointment to begin the process of inseminating when she decided to answer a personal ad that caught her attention in a local paper.
The man said in the ad “wants a would-be mother.” “So I thought, “OK, I’m a would-be mother.” And then it went on about him and what he would offer. And he had decided that the only way he was going to have a child was to find a woman who already had a child [i. e., he was looking for a divorced woman]. We went to dinner [and Angie explained to him what she was planning]. And Jack said,
“Oh! Do you want a volunteer?” And I said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. We’ve known each other an hour and this is a thirty-to-forty-year project.”
The man Angie met had not thought of anything besides the usual ways to parenthood (marriage or remarriage). Angie told him of another way, and she was surprised when he jumped to volunteer. But she was drawn to Jack; she couldn’t really put words to what it was except to tell me that she liked him enough to consider his offer. A close friend with whom she talked at length advised her that another parent would provide “company and sharing,” a reason to pursue this offer. Unlike Trish, Angie said that she would have preferred a lover, but she settled for a transactional relationship.
Jack made clear from the beginning what he thought he wanted as a parent, and even though she had a different vision they went ahead with a limited partnership, which created a new sequencing to parenting. Angie winced at Jack’s swift, blunt, and sealed position, which he never shifted from:
At the beginning, Jack’s whole vision was “I’m helping this woman out.” Not “We have a child together.” Even though I answered his ad. But he was never simply a known donor. Now he considers himself my co-parent. He said, “I’m going to do this, but I want you to know, I will never marry you, I will never live with you, I will never be romantically involved with you, there will be absolutely no emotional romantic stuff between us.”
They signed an initial contract written with the help of an attorney, and later updated it.
In both Angie’s and Trish’s cases, the child rotated between two separate households. Angie, Jack, and their shared daughter spent Saturday afternoons doing some kind of outing together, and one night a week they might eat together. They were parenting as a unit but not living as a unit. While they had separate relationships with the child, they were also a family joined by this child. When asked if she considered her arrangement a family, Trish reiterated that at the base of this family wras a transactional agreement. There were moments when they did “family things” as three parents and child. However, they did not spend the kind of time together that Angie described. Alex and Ron were not Trish’s family, but they were her child’s.
There’s ways in which we function as a family, but I’m not even sure that we’re even good friends with each other, particularly. It hasn’t changed. It was never that way. We were never best friends. We were never close friends. I feel like our relationship with each other has really been about this kid. So I think wre’re family in that we do her birthday together. We celebrate some aspects of each of our birthdays together with her. I’ve done Christmas with them from time to time, Thanksgiving from time to time.
Trish did not feel connected to Alex and Ron outside the bonds they shared with the child, Sarah. However, they occasionally spent time together during family holidays, a symbol that their strong bond writh their daughter fostered a wreak tie to one another.
Trish still felt very single, especially given her wreak social networks and distant kin. Angie also felt single, and despite the many activities that filled her nights when her child was at Jack’s, she lamented the absence of deep intimacy that can come from a romantic partner but can also be supplemented by friends. While both these women were not single parents, they were still single in that they did not have romantic relationships. Having intentionally separated out romance from family, they strategically created a family for their child that included two or more parents, though they still lacked a partner for themselves.
Both Trish and Angie had actual contracts cementing their transactional relationships with their parenting partners. For Janica, her co-parent had no legal obligation and there was no document outlining their arrangement. However, Janica’s parenting partner was not a stranger to her—it was her mother A Unlike the other two women, Janica parented simultaneously with her mother in the same space. When Janica, featured in chapter 6, decided to adopt her first child, she was thirty-four years old. She described the adoption process and her mother’s involvement:
My mother was living with me. . . and she went with me to a lot of these things about adopting because she was living with me and she was going to be very involved. We talked about the commitment, prior to that, and she agreed to be a partner with me in this.
Since Janica adopted via a public agency, she was offered a choice among several children who needed homes, and her mother accompanied her to each appointment. Even though the child was given to Janica by the social worker, the decision to accept that child into her home was made by both Janica and her mother. Unlike Angie and Trish, Janica and her mother lived in the same household, parenting together under one roof. And though it was Janica, as the legal adopter, who later got a call from the adoption agency offering her the half sister of her daughter, an infant, for adoption, it was Janica and her mother who made the decision. While Janica did want another child, she had never thought she would have a baby in the house again, thinking that it would be too much for her mother to handle. She w’as so sure about the decision that she had given away her daughter’s crib and all baby paraphernalia. However, when the call came from the agency, her mother played a critical part in making the decision.
My mother said, “We’re talking about Sharon’s sister, so why don’t you just do it?” I said, “Ma, it’s a baby.” And she said, “I’ll have her walking around here in six months!” I said, “We don’t have anything. We’ve given everything away.” She said, “Then wre’ll just get it back.” So I went back into the other room and called the woman back and I said yes. I heard a stunned “Oh,” and she paused and said, “Well, are you sure?” And I said yes. So I just asked if she was healthy, and she said yes. So I said okay.
While formally Janica was the mother and the decision to adopt was hers legally, clearly parenting was a partnership between her and her mother. Janica retained her status as mom by being the parent who set the limits, established moral guidelines, and disciplined her daughters.5 She left each day for work as a high-level state employee secure that her mother was parenting her kids, meeting them at the bus after school, and scheduling their activities. Unlike in the matriarchal family that is part of the culture of poverty, Janica was solidly middle-class, educated in elite institutions, but sharing parenting with kin.6
four days a week, we have meals together. There’s an inside stairway so he goes up and down. And he plays with her. The first year, she’s a wonderful playmate.
So they would build things, and she reads to him, and works on letters and writing. It’s really great. And I think she plays in a different way than I do.
This arrangement had not been in place at her son’s birth. Barbara’s mother volunteered to be her parenting partner when the child was a year old and the stress of work and consummate motherhood became too much for Barbara. “It’s allowed me to do more things with my job, you know, like when I was climbing the ranks. So that’s changed things, and that’s been great.”
Barbara also had romance, a woman she met after her mother moved in downstairs and gave her some time for a social life of her own. At the time of the interview they had been together for a few years, but her girlfriend was still far from a parental figure to her six-year-old.
I think he kind of sees her as his friend. It’s interesting. She doesn’t parent—she helps out, but she doesn’t bathe him. . . she doesn’t really discipline him except inasmuch as something comes up while they play. She doesn’t put him to bed or get him up. She’s not really an authority figure or a parent. And I feel like that’s probably appropriate for right now, until we decide, or even if we decide, we’re more serious.
Barbara wanted a second parent who was not her mother but rather her lover. She had a current lover who did not parent her child. The lover was willing to take on parental responsibility, but there was a catch: the lover was seriously considering having a biological child. The lover wanted Barbara to co-parent this hypothetical child, joining their families. Barbara faced a quandary—while she would have loved a second parent for her child, she was not sure she wanted to become a mother again, and the decision was still up in the air at the time of the interview. Even though her mother’s presence gave her child another parental figure with which Barbara could share responsibility, still she wanted a romantic dyad to be the basis of parental partnership. Her mother was aging, and Barbara felt that ultimately she would be left alone with her child.
Mary, who chanced pregnancy, as described in chapter 5, expended considerable energy to foster a relationship between her daughter and the child’s father. As a result of her careful cultivation, she had a second parent for her daughter. They lived about an hour apart, but Mary delivered her daughter every weekend to spend time with him. Mary and her daughter’s dad had no formal contract outlining parental responsibilities (including distributing the financial burden), which was a deliberate move on her part in order to foster an emotional relationship between father and daughter.
Alary also had a man in her life, a boyfriend who came over regularly during the week and at whose house she spent the weekends. She said of her daughter’s relationship with this man:
He moved in, even though my mother, who is a little old-fashioned, was not happy. Even so, my mother had a good relationship with him and Sharon really liked him. I have to say, maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do. He was a little younger than me, but he was still very immature and a little selfish. So he wanted me, me, me and not us, us, us, although he was very good … I think he would have been a good father, but he needed to grow up a little bit. I didn’t have time for that. I had two kids, you know? I didn’t need three!
Concurrent with her adopting her second child, Janica gave her boyfriend an ultimatum: marriage, including fatherhood, or moving out. He chose the latter. Adding and then subtracting a romantic partner moved her briefly from a transactional family to a transactional family with love elsewhere and back again. Once again, it was the romantic partnership, not the parental partnership, that waxed and waned.
It is the rare case that an unforeseen parenting partner, without romantic intrigue, appears in these women’s lives. For thevast majority of women, the parenting arrangement that they had set in place at the point at which they became mothers remained constant. The women who struggled to make dads out of the men with whom they chanced pregnancy sometimes succeeded. Ellen, whose story opens chapter 5, and Mary, mentioned earlier in this chapter, both made dads out of men who initially had resisted paternity. By the time their children were two or three years old, it was clear whether or not the men were going to be involved and what that involvement would entail.
Known donors are constricted by contract and thus usually remain in the shadowlands, yet they too occasionally carve out a niche in the family, becoming what I have termed earlier “bio-dads.” Most women, however, are vigilant gatekeepers, not allowing the few donors who have an interest to develop more than a superficial relationship with their children. Often checking in once or twice a year is sufficient for mother, child, and known donor. Annette, who allowed John to escalate his involvement from known donor to dad in chapter 4, is an exception. They talked each morning about the child, who moved between their separate households. Annette and John provide a good example of an unanticipated parenting partner. Annette thought she would be a consummate mother, but instead she allowed herself to enter into a transactional family as the donor emerged from the shadows. As with other transactional families, such as those of Trish and Angie, the child moved between two households. However, Annette’s story is rare and was made possible only by her compliance with his wish to be an involved dad; it soon took another turn, which will be discussed in the epilogue. There is not much movement along the continuum of parenting partners—if anything, they are more likely to be lost than gained.
Exiting the rubric is an attractive possibility for many women. At the end of the first interview, many thought of themselves as only reordering the traditional sequence. They had yet to abandon the idea of the nuclear family. Now that they had fulfilled their dream of motherhood, many hoped that absent the pressure of aging without a child, they would find a partner in both romance and parenting to complete their vision of their families. Already mentioned in chapter 4 was Jennifer, a woman on the cusp of exiting the rubric when I interviewed her a second time. A consummate mother at the point at which she was first interviewed, at the second interview she was weeks away from her wedding and attaining the elusive nuclear family, even in a blended form. This marriage would make her a stepmother while securing a father for her daughter; she hoped he would adopt her child, conceived through a known donor. Despite the hope for adoption, Jennifer had not excluded the known donor, an interesting twist on her otherwise tidy ending. It is easier for some than for others to follow Jennifer out of the rubric of single motherhood. Without a parenting partner, the hope of finding that person in a romantic context is palpable. Even for women who have a parenting partner in the form of kin, they too can inject the romantic partner into a parental role, a possibility that Barbara revealed that she was considering. However, for women who have transacted family through a contractual arrangement, a substitution in any form is not possible.
built up. And it was like, “Oh, okay, I can do this.” My kid is in school in the daytime and then in the evenings when I work as a waitress she’ll go either upstairs to my neighbor’s house and she’ll spend one evening with my mother and I’ll pick her up on my way home from the club. I might sleep over my mother’s house too. Usually I work Mondays and Thursdays nights. It’s really hard. I have to be there at ten o’clock and I’m done working at two if I’m cocktail waitressing. If I’m working the door, I’m done at one-thirty, one forty-five. If I work until two, I’m not out of there until about two-thirty because we have to help the bar guys and we have to pick up the glasses and stuff like that. On the alternate weekends when she’s with her father, I’m cleaning cottages on the Cape. Not that her dad helps at all with the financial situation. Since I took him to court, I have to twist his arm to get the whopping $50 a week in child support that was ordered.
* * *
Work that once filled time now steals it away from family. The majority of single mothers do not have a parenting partner, and none has the luxury of a partner’s paycheck. There are bills to pay, and when savings run low, credit card debt can only help them to avoid more hours per week for so long. For every hour these women are home with children, they are trading money for time. However, they refuse to put a price tag on parenting—this labor of love is not about cost efficiency. Inevitably, they must confront their workplaces, changing the contours of their employment to fit their families. Whether they are career women or those living on an hourly wage, women creatively patch together the means to be a mother. However, single mothers struggling to establish their individual balance between work and family cannot afford to be isolated. The topics covered in this chapter discuss the struggle of primarily middle-class single mothers as they attempt to strike a balance between work and family.1 How do they finance their own mother time? How do they use their individual resources to make ends meet? How do they use the market for child care?
Dual-career couples often misdirect the tension between work and family at individual spouses when the real culprit is the historically gendered division of labor and a workplace modeled to reflect that division.2 Single mothers, with no partner to shift die focus, see clearly that their opponent is the workplace. Workplace cultures they once embraced now become an obstacle to their family lives. Most women reduce their employment expectations, using creative strategies as they cut back. Professional and managerial women are most able to place family first, resting upon the gains they made when their paycheck only needed to support themselves and they could labor long into the night. Less skilled single mothers often improvise more, as their work life is frequently unpredictable in a way that professional moms do not experience as readily.
However, all women strive to draw a boundary between hours of paid work and family time. This tension, a major fault line for all employed women, is especially salient for women who are on call as parents twenty-four hours a day, seven
days a week, with little relief. Even with help in various forms, women face a difficult task as sole provider and sole nurturer. While motherhood among middle-class women continues to presume that these women have an option to stay home, in fact few women, regardless of marital status, have the choice to do so.
These women operate within the capitalist market economy, generating income and paying for services. However, their paycheck is not their only resource. From the very earliest interviews, I sought out the hidden exchanges that purchase a middle-class life for these families. Almost half of the women in the study (thirty-two of the sixty-five) have income that is supplemented by gifts, rental income, or both. Women have to recognize the potential of their existing resources and redefine their use.3 In short, middle-class life is not simply supported by income from a paycheck alone—these women have paying jobs, space to rent, and gift givers in their lives. Regardless of the dollar amount attached to these additions to a paycheck, these gifts and exchanges are often mixed with friendships. Friendships may grow out of what starts as economic relationships, just as a monetary gift may be tangible evidence of intimacy.
Relationships also develop around areas of expenses, such as child care. Many women intentionally foster emotional bonds between the child care provider, their children, and themselves against the backdrop of an exchange of money for sendees.
Women bring new people into their lives and build relationships off economic exchanges. There is a huge gray area for these women between economic and family life, and in that space the boundaries of these families are expanded into a more permeable and fluid system.