THE BIG DECISION
shoe to drop, that kind of thing. Like the only person you could have a kid with was a romantic person, or to do it as a single person. You couldn’t construct another arrangement that would be as assured to work as the other two.
Prior attempts to change social policy that would have altered our present ideals of “good middle-class mothering” have failed, and the care of children remains an issue that is hotly contested. In 1971 a coalition of feminists and child care activists did try to pass national legislation that would have provided child care to all women, but this became a politically untouchable subject when universal child care was tarnished as a communist movement that would “lead to the Sovietiza – tion of American children.”28 In the time since then, motherhood has only intensified in its importance, exacerbating the tensions between work and family.29
Further, feminism is a moot point, according to women in this study. Feminism is the background, not the catalyst, for beliefs about having children outside of marriage. That is, it creates a context allowing these women to see themselves and to be seen by others as economically and socially capable. Children become something that women want to achieve once they have the means to achieve this goal without support, such as government assistance with child care costs. Women’s desire to parent has moved to the forefront of their lives unaccompanied by the ideology of a social movement. This is how second-wave feminism trickled down—as a silent contributor to the rise of a new motherhood.
Women of color tell a different story, more readily crediting the civil rights movement as a critical force—more responsible than feminism for the context that shaped them. Single motherhood is a reality with harsh economic consequences that these families know from their church communities, though as solid middle-class citizens they have rarely experienced it themselves. When Althea, an African American woman, gave birth to a child when she was in her late thirties, it was greeted differently:
My mom is older, she was about seventy-four at this point—and many of her friends were her age and even older. And their opinion was, “Althea’s finished her education, she has a stable job, she has a good head on her shoulders, let her do this. If she made this decision, it is clear that she must have thought long and hard about it, so it was a good idea.” Nobody had any trouble with it. My church community has been very supportive. You know, in the black community, it’s teen pregnancy that still riles people. But when you’re older, it’s generally accepted.
For women of color, particularly African American women, the legacy of a maleheaded household is not something they have to set aside.3° They all know single mothers who are their relatives and neighbors and church members. What middle-class women of color do worry about is the prospect of career stagnation due to raising a child. Althea, forty years old with a three-year-old at the time of the interview, shared the difference:
I knew lots of women who were single parents. God knows, there are a lot of African American women who are single parents. I did not know black women who were professionals and then made the decision. I did know many black women who were single parents and then later became professionals. But it seemed as though—I mean, one of the things I was kind of concerned about was would this derail my career? And I didn’t know anybody who was struggling with that issue.
When she became a mother over sixteen years ago, Janica, a contemporary of Althea’s, saw the right to adopt as a civil right. She credited the civil rights movement primarily and the feminist movement secondarily for the opportunity to challenge state and private adoption agencies for healthy children, even if single women remained second-choice parents. State agencies have become more open to helping unmarried women adopt children, as Janica pointed out:
We had a voice. It grew out of the civil rights movement and then the women’s movement. Before then you had to take what you could get. As Black women, the informality of adoption used to happen anyway. But as women entered the labor force permanently and as marriage did not have to be the ultimate goal—that afforded us to say “ I don’t have a husband. Why should that keep me from having a baby? And if I don’t want to physically have one or can’t physically, why should this keep me from adopting a healthy one?” The stigma was in my head when I signed those papers with my older child; I thought, “I just became an unwed mother.” But two years later when I adopted my second child I never thought about that. As the movement grows and as we grow we have become stronger and more defiant and we have made them make some changes.
Janica’s assertion of her right to become a single mother echoes the language of civil rights. Changes in adoption are another example of how social movements have made cracks in the status quo, opening up inroads for single mothers.
For the 17 percent of women in this study who identified as lesbian or bisexual, the social movement they credited for shaping their motherhood is the gay rights movement. This movement has very recently been evolving the relationship between lesbian women and motherhood. While straight single women having children challenged the link between marriage and motherhood, lesbian women had to dismantle the view of lesbians as sexual but not procreative women. Anthropologist Kath Weston explains in her 1991 book Families We Choose how “the term ‘lesbian mother’ presents an oxymoron insofar as it joins a procreative identity (mother) to a sexual one (lesbian) that is frequently represented as the antithesis of procreative sexuality” (p. 169). However, as the gay and lesbian movement shifts from a countercultural movement toward a more mainstream lifestyle, so do these women’s lives. Baby boom lesbians, “the decisive generation who remade lesbian life,” were influenced by the cultural and political shifts during the 1960s and 1970s.31 The American conception of the lesbian identity is moving from a narrow focus on sexuality into a normative identity—which includes partners, families, and careers. For example, the older lesbians I interviewed assumed that when they came out they forsook any possibility of mothering a child as a single mom. Veronica, forty-two years old with an adopted five-year-old, explained it succinctly:
It just wasn’t part of the culture, and I just have a lot of concerns about raising a child where other people would see our family as not healthy, and I didn’t want to raise a child in that kind of environment. But as it became more and more of a popular thing to do within the gay and lesbian community, it just seemed like it was an okay option.
Though the dividing line is blurry, it is safe to say that lesbian women who came out in the 1980s or prior experienced a very different level of social acceptance than those who have gone public with their sexual identity more recently. Enormous changes in the level of comfort and the extent of alternative community institutions separate these two groups of women.
The “lesbian baby boom” came about as women from two distinct generations, with qualitatively different experiences, began becoming mothers at about the same time. For women who are part of the historical baby boom generation, becoming a mother was the next stage of the movement. The alternative families they created grew out of the alternative health, legal, and social services lesbian women of this generation founded (and which often remain their employment). By contrast, younger women, under forty years old, always knew that coming out would not deter them from having children. While the gay rights movement has substantially shifted lesbian women’s path to motherhood, the assumption that they will be accompanied by a partner still holds fast.
For many women in this study, the influence of these different social movements was about intersecting identities. Barbara, who held several advanced degrees, discussed the multiple timelines that intersected to make her path possible:
My girlfriend and I often talk about what a remarkable time we live in! We talk often about how we would have lived in other times. Because I’m African American, I could have been a slave. My dad grew up during segregation and he went to segregated schools and so many racial barriers made for these really important stories in people’s lives. As a gay woman, it’s an exciting time. We have gay marriage in Massachusetts. I always think about which part of me—my being black or gay or a single mother—will surface in every place I enter in ways that people aren’t really conscious of. It plays out in different ways.
Barbara’s experience is also that of many other women, whose lives are partially products of their place in history. While women usually identify with one social movement, if any, that they as individuals stand upon, the reality for most is that their choices exist in the wake of multiple movements.
In the following chapters, women tell incredibly personal stories, often unsure of how their individual story intersects with the larger epic. Both a context and a structure, the backdrop of their stories is as important in the shaping of their choices as the women themselves. It is impossible to do any more than summarize the social forces (made visible through changes in the legal and political structure and in social norms) that constitute the foundation on which these women walk. Far from crusaders themselves, these women are undeniably part of the momentum of the feminist, civil rights, and gay rights movements. While a difficult force to measure, the presence of these movements and the legacy of accompanying legal decisions are visible in the lives of these sixty-five women. The agency that each woman exhibits, very real to her when faced with this decision, does not exist in a vacuum—it is the flyaway spark of the social explosions in the late twentieth century, an unanticipated but traceable end to marriage and motherhood as we know it.