Two sides of the same coin

Mary McIntosh

Over recent years, the media in the United Kingdom have been reflecting a concern about lone mothers that amounts to a moral panic. Even the broadsheet newspapers have articles like ‘Alarm over teenage baby boom’ (Sunday Times, 8 January 1992), which seems to assume that all teenage mothers are schoolgirls and unmarried. The BBC’s Panorama programme ‘Babies on Benefit’ (1994) abandoned all but a thin veneer of balanced broadcasting to jump on the bandwagon of stigmatizing lone mothers as benefit scroungers.

Respected academics like Norman Dennis and A. H.Halsey (Dennis and Erdos 1992) have lent the weight of apparent sociological evidence in support of the belief that the children of lone parents do less well in life and cause more trouble than those brought up by their two biological parents. While these British ‘communitarian’ sociologists have not given such a reasoned and systematic analysis as their American counterparts (Wilson 1993; Etzioni 1994), neither have they gone as far in their policy recommendations as Charles Murray, who sees illegitimacy as ‘the single most important social problem of our time’ (Murray 1993) and withdrawing welfare benefits as the only way to re-establish the traditional norms of married parenthood. These academics on both sides of the Atlantic can be accused of ‘feigning iconoclastic courage’ (Stacey 1994:56). They may indeed be a minority among sociologists, yet they have managed to win the ears of the political establishment as well as join in the populist chorus that derides their fellow sociologists as out-of-touch do-gooders. Apparently, ‘even President Clinton is on the record as saying that Murray’s analysis is essentially correct—though he said his solution was immoral’ (Bunting 1994). At the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, the Home Secretary Michael Howard had words of praise for a scheme in New Jersey to remove welfare benefits from lone mothers who

have a second or third child and the Housing Minister, Sir George Young, said that single parents under 21 had no right to local authority housing as their parents should be responsible for them.

All this concern is bad news for lone parents of all sorts. They are in fact a fairly heterogeneous bunch of people. Most of them (60 per cent) have become lone parents as a result of divorce or separation. Thirty per cent of all new babies are born outside marriage, ‘illegitimate’ children of formally ‘single’ mothers; but three quarters of these have their birth registered by two parents, mostly both living at the same address. And 16- to 19-year-olds constitute only 3 percent of lone parents. Nevertheless, any smears about any sub­group of lone parents can get thrown into the pot and stirred up into a toxic brew to be administered to all of them.

In Britain, the process of stigmatization has been diverted somewhat by the row over the Child Support Act, 1991, which set up the Child Support Agency to pursue ‘absent’ parents for maintenance payments. A vociferous and effective lobby of separated fathers and their second families distracted attention away from the lone mothers themselves and succeeded in painting these men, who are in fact but the other half of the lone-parenting picture, in rather glowing colours. To some extent, this row has normalized lone parenthood and brought public consciousness into line with contemporary social realities. In fact, 18 per cent of women are now divorced by the age of 33 and as many as 24 per cent have been lone parents for some period before they reach that age, overwhelmingly because of marital breakdown (Guardian, report on National Child Development Study, 31 September 1993). Single mothers are not a deviant minority who can be readily marginalized, though they are—on average—an economically disadvantaged minority.

One of the most fascinating things about the attempt to demonize lone mothers is the assumptions it reveals about married motherhood and the family. In 1982 Michele Barrett and I published a book called The Anti-social Family, in which we presented a socialist and feminist critique of the family. One of the things we argued was that ‘the family’ is as much a collective fantasy as a concrete institution, yet that the privileged place this fantasy gives to familial relations and the way in which other ties of intimacy and support are devalued and undermined mean that it has very real—and very negative—social effects. Kate Ellis (1981:17) has described ‘the family’ as ‘a metaphor for some private and public paradise lost’. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘return to Victorian values’ and John Major’s more mundane ‘back to basics’

are ways of expressing this backward-looking dream of a family that could meet all our personal needs and secure social harmony and national well-being at the same time. The current anxiety about lone motherhood is another expression of the same dream, and the social pathology of the lone mother is just as imaginary as the social desirability of the nuclear family.

Like all dreams, this one is full of jumps and narrative inconsistencies. At one moment, lone motherhood is presented as unnatural and married motherhood, by implication, as natural. The naturalizing of social phenomena is one of the commonest forms of ideological thought, here rendering monogamy as part of our human nature and adequately expressive of our natural psychological needs. At another moment, however, monogamy is seen as part of culture rather than nature. For Charles Murray, a central argument against lone mothers is that they cannot socialize the disruptive energy of their sons. Men are naturally unruly, but are civilized by their wives; only a father who is thus civilized can offer a suitable role model to his son (Bunting 1994).

Many of the negative stereotypes of lone parents have as their obverse the idealized images of married parenthood that feminists have exposed as dangerous fantasies. The idea of the lone mother as a benefit scrounger is the obverse of the married mother who turns happily and confidently to her husband for support. Feminists have pointed out that this economic dependence on an individual man has all sorts of negative consequences for women. It is associated with women’s lack of power in family decision making, with an unequal division of labour in the home and with women’s disadvantage in the labour market. What is more, women’s dependence on a breadwinner who earns a real ‘family wage’, sufficient to support himself and his children, is to a large extent a myth (Barrett and Mclntosh 1980). Among some groups in our society, particularly Afro-Caribbeans, such dependence has never been assumed. And even where it has been taken for granted, it has often been highly problematic; married women frequently have to look for paid work, not simply to supplement a shared ‘family wage’ but also to make sure that they have some income that is under their own control. If they are unable to find paid work, or cannot fit it in with their family responsibilities, they are thrown back onto a personal dependence that is often corrosive of spirit and self-esteem.

So critics who bewail the ‘culture of dependency’ among lone mothers should equally deplore family dependency. Some feminists have argued for the right of all non-employed people to some sort of independent income support benefit, regardless of whether they are married, cohabiting, living with other people or alone (London Women’s Liberation Campaign 1979). Others have campaigned for family allowances: that society should offer ‘direct financial provision for the maintenance of children’, as Eleanor Rathbone (1940: ix) put it. Either of these would go some way towards tackling the real problem of mothers’ dependence, which is dependence within marriage.

Giving the pejorative label ‘dependency’ to the claiming of state benefits is part of the whole pattern of the Conservative government’s social thinking. The idea is that individuals and families should take care of themselves much more and not turn to the state for support. Lone parents show up all too starkly the fact that this is simply not possible for everyone. Either it is being assumed that those living with their children ought to go out to work to support the family, which goes against the idea that small children need a parent at home. Or it is assumed that somehow ‘the family’ will provide support, as if ‘the family’ could operate as a kind of private welfare system throughout society. Yet lone parents often do not have an ‘absent parent’, or any other relatives they can turn to, and many ‘absent parents’ have too many people who are supposed to be able to depend upon them.

It is true that lone mothers are more often in poverty than others. The 1992 General Household Survey found that 42 per cent of them had a gross weekly income of less than £100 and the percentage was even higher for those who had never been married. This greater poverty is associated with the fact that in Britain they are less likely to be in paid work: only 22 per cent of lone mothers with a child under 5 had a job and only 8 per cent a full-time job, compared with 47 per cent and 13 per cent for married or cohabiting mothers.

The image of absent fathers may have been rehabilitated to some extent by campaigns against the Child Support Agency, but they can still be presented as irresponsible and feckless. The assumed obverse image is the ‘family man’ who is responsible and respected, which again is a long way from the truth in many cases. Husbands do not always share their income with their families; many wives have to manage on inadequate housekeeping money and some even feel better off when they leave home and go onto state benefits than they did when they were relying on their husband for support. There are structural factors at work as well: as the costs of raising children increase, the number of men with steady and predictable incomes from secure ‘permanent’ employment decreases, so women can no longer feel confident that their husband will be able to support them. In addition, of course, many men are unemployed or disabled and are not able to maintain their families. When they claim benefit for the whole household, it may appear that they are supporting them, but in fact their wives and children are no less dependent on the state than lone-parent families.

Perhaps the most serious charge against lone parents is that they are ineffective at bringing up children. A. H.Halsey gives academic credence to this popular prejudice when he writes of children brought up by parents ‘who do not follow the traditional norms’, such as lone parents:

On the evidence available, such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime and, finally, to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered.

(Dennis and Erdos 1992:xii)

The ‘evidence’ that such statements rely on relates to illegitimate children rather than to children of lone parents in general. It is also nearly twenty years old, coming from a period when lone parenthood was rarer and more stigmatized than it is now. More careful studies suggest that it is hard to prove any detrimental effects because we do not know what group these children should be compared with. For instance, if you set out to discover the impact of divorce on children, you should not compare them with all children of intact marriages but with children of unhappily married parents who have decided not to divorce (Furstenberg and Cherlin 1991). Only then can you learn anything that could guide social policy on whether divorce should be easier or harder to obtain, or that could guide parents who want to break up. Judith Stacey (1994:59) sums up the evidence very differently from Halsey: ‘Research indicates that high-conflict marriages harm children more than do low – conflict divorces.’ She goes on to say:

In fact most children from both [two-parent and lone-parent] families turn out reasonably all right and when other parental resources—like income, education, self-esteem and a supportive social environment—are roughly similar, signs of two-parent privilege largely disappear.

(Stacey 1994:60)

Louie Burghes, Chapter 9 in this volume, also discusses the current debates about the disruption that lone parenting causes for children. She argues, on lines similar to Stacey’s, that there is no evidence that children raised by a lone parent fare less well because these arguments are based on comparisons that are unreliable and biased against lone parenting. The problem is that the most disadvantaged one-parent children are being compared with the particularly well placed among those with two parents. Instead of exploring the reasons why they have problems, it is assumed that it is simply because they have only one parent and that the answer is to change the moral climate or the financial choices so that their parents are forced into marrying or staying married.

Married parenthood is far from being an ideal way of life. It is evidently a bad experience for the many parents who eventually divorce, but there is also a great deal of hidden ongoing disharmony, as we know from victim-report studies of marital rape, incest and violence between husband and wife, parents and children. This is particularly significant from a feminist point of view, as men are most often the perpetrators and women and girls the victims in these situations. Many relationships that do not have these frank forms of violence and abuse may be deeply unrewarding and lack any real intimacy or communication. The fact that a whole industry of family therapy has developed in recent years is testimony to the unsatisfactoriness of many family lives.

Within marriage, as well as outside it, women carry most of the responsibility for caring for children as well as any others who need looking after. The lack of child-care provision and state policies of ‘community care’ make this a heavy burden, especially in a period when our expectations for the quality of care, for both children and adults, are rising. Within marriage, much of this work goes unrecognized and unrewarded, and has to be combined with caring for the husband and playing the role of wife. Many women find that being on their own, without a husband, makes this work less burdensome. They can organize things as they wish and do not have to keep the children out of their father’s hair or keep an old man from getting on his nerves.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that some of the images of lone motherhood reveal a deep ambivalence about marriage. The single mother is free and irresponsible, sexually promiscuous and available to men. By implication, the married mother is trapped and tied down and her sexuality controlled by her husband. Those who want to reverse what they see as the rising tide of lone motherhood often recognize that the only way to do this is through some form of coercion. The ‘soft’ methods would be increasing stigma and making divorce more difficult, which while not preventing separation might make it a harder choice to make. The ‘hard’ method is the financial one of cutting lone parents’ rights to social security and tax breaks. As Judith Stacey puts it, ‘historically, stable marriage systems rest on coercion, overt or veiled, and on inequality’ (Stacey 1994:65).

But why is it women’s ability to survive outside marriage—albeit often by the skin of their teeth—that has led to a rise in lone motherhood? Part of the answer must lie in the fact that marriage is more disadvantageous to women than to men. When women are less constrained to marriage, they more often prefer to avoid it. So the greater freedom of the lone woman highlights the lack of freedom of the married one.

Many of the discussions of lone motherhood are concerned with a comparison between lone mothers and an imaginary ideal of the married mother or with the ineffectiveness of lone parenting compared with a supposed model of dual parenting. But there is another dimension to the current anxiety, which is the notion that lone motherhood and irresponsible fatherhood are part of a self – reproducing underclass. The main element of continuity, it seems, in the new ‘dangerous classes’ is not criminality and moral degeneracy, as in the nineteenth century, but the culture of dependency and ineffective socialization.

The other side of this is the role that the family plays in the reproduction of all the social classes in society. In The Anti-social Family, Michele Barrett and I argued that the reproduction of classes through family is a more significant social fact than intergenerational social mobility. Indeed, social mobility between generations is only worth talking about because there is an assumption that children will normally follow their parents and that higher-class fathers will be able to give their children more advantages than lower-class ones can. What we suggested was that the inheritance of wealth and the family support that helps children succeed in education are processes by which the family serves to reproduce the middle class. Many commentators see the same facts as evidence of the importance and value of the traditional family, since those children would not have done so well without it. But if we consider the family as a system throughout society, it becomes clear that it equally serves to reproduce the working class, where parents have no wealth to pass on and cannot give much backup to the children’s schooling. So it is equally true to say that the children of unskilled workers would not have done so badly without the family. Overall, the family as an institution is essential to forming class divisions and handing them down from generation to generation.

One of the things that a consideration of lone parents shows up in a stark light is the paradox of this macro-sociological view of the family. For if it is really true that lone parents are reproducing an underclass, stuck in a pit below even the lower working class, then it becomes understandable that people in the higher classes value their family life, are grateful to their parents and see the family as a ‘haven in a heartless world’ (Lasch 1977) and a bastion against a predatory state and economic system. The same paradox can be found in racial divisions: they would not continue from generation to generation if it were not for the institution of the family which passes on racial identities; yet the subordinated racial groups urgently need their families to sustain a culture of resistance to racial indignity and a practical network of mutual support.

The family is fundamentally a selfish institution, encouraging a morality of ‘charity begins at home’, which is the antithesis of collectivist or truly communitarian values. It not only reproduces advantage and disadvantage, but it even more seriously disadvantages those who have small or weak families. So if lone mothers are stretched and disadvantaged it is because the family is such a privileged site of caring and mutual aid. It not only makes the rest of society seem bleak and unwelcoming, it also weakens non­familial networks and institutions that might provide support and comfort. In The Anti-social Family we concluded that ‘caring, sharing and loving would be more widespread if the family did not claim them for its own’ (Barrett and Mclntosh 1982:80).

So we were not only pointing to the ‘dark’ side of the family, as many critics have done, we were also seeking to understand what is appealing about family life. The paradox is that both exist side by side. Some people have good experiences, some have bad experiences, but the overall effect of the institutional dominance of the privatized family is to weaken community ties.

This paradox must be reflected in feminist campaigns as well. Though it is important to demonstrate that lone mothers do a good job and manage to be effective parents under adverse circumstances, it is also important to argue this in a way that does not assume an implicit approval of the conventional two-parent family. The point is not that one parent is as good as two, but that there are many problems about marriage and dual parenting that are highlighted by the rise in lone parenting (Millar 1994b). At the level of individuals, we need to ask: Why are couples breaking up so much? Why are some young mothers reluctant to marry at all? Why are women, rather than men, taking so much responsibility for children? And at the level of society: Why are there no perceived alternative forms of household or support network?

Chapter 9