Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The father question (and Mary Cheney's baby)

My latest Boston Globe column deals with some of the issues raised by the news of Mary Cheney's pregnancy.

THE PREGNANCY of the vice president's daughter is not usually political news -- except when same-sex marriage is a divisive social issue, and the vice president's daughter plans to raise her child with her longtime female partner.

The news of Mary Cheney's impending motherhood has caused a heated controversy on the right. Some social conservatives have unabashedly blasted Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, as destroyers of traditional values. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America called their decision to have a child "unconscionable"; anti-gay crusader Robert Knight asserted that the baby was conceived "with the express purpose of denying it a father."

As blogger Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the cruelty of this rhetoric is especially
evident when directed at an actual, flesh-and-blood loving couple. And yet are there legitimate, non-bigoted reasons to worry about fatherless parenting?

The absence of fathers has been a growing trend in America in recent decades -- ironically, parallel to the trend of fathers in two-parent families being more directly involved in child-rearing. More children are also being raised by single fathers and gay couples, but their numbers are dwarfed by the increase in children without fathers.

Lesbian parenting is, of course, a tiny part of this trend, which is driven primarily by out-of-wedlock births and divorce among heterosexuals. (When some champions of "the family" focus obsessively on gays, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that their true motive is bigotry.) While there is much talk of irresponsible men, it is usually mothers who initiate divorces, and more and more women embrace unwed motherhood by choice -- often through artificial insemination.

Is this a bad trend? Some arguments for the importance of fathers rest on rigid gender stereotypes -- e.g., dads push toward achievement and growth, moms give unconditional love and comfort -- that often don't match the individuality of actual men and women.

Still, a male presence contributes something unique to a child's world, and a single mother's support network can rarely replace a father. Most research shows that, all else being equal, children with two parents tend to fare better in everything from academic achievement to psychological well-being. (Comparisons of child-rearing by heterosexual and same-sex couples remain inconclusive.)

Of course, a child's well-being is a product of many complicated factors. But there is another issue here: Single parenthood by choice almost inherently reinforces gender inequality: because of biology, it is far less available to men. (Partly for the same reason, gay male couples are far less likely to raise children than lesbian couples.) Celebrated by some as an expression of female autonomy, solo motherhood actually enshrines the sexist stereotype of child-rearing and family as a female domain -- a modernized version of Victorian "separate spheres." It also radically alienates men from the family.

Where does the Cheney-Poe household fit into this debate? In a way, the two women are upholding the ideal of the two-parent family. From a moral standpoint, I find a committed lesbian couple vastly superior to some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage. But if the cultural link between parenting and procreation is weakened, who's to say that a two-parent family shouldn't consist of two female relatives or best friends raising children together without fathers?

Similar questions are raised by a trend described recently in the New York Times Magazine: lesbian couples having children fathered by gay male friends who have some involvement in the children's lives, so that a child has two mothers and a father who is more like an uncle. What effect will such arrangements have on the children? Will they, as same-sex marriage foe Stanley Kurtz warns, lead to a push for legalizing some form of multi partner marriage? No one can say; social history is full of unforeseen consequences.

Sullivan notes that most people who condemn Cheney and Poe for "denying their child a father" would not advocate taking away the children of single mothers. Even legislative attempts to bar unmarried women from seeking artificial insemination have been quickly abandoned. True enough: Americans have an instinctive respect for individual freedom and privacy, and the majority will readily agree that discrimination and coercion are wrong. But, while respecting choices, can we also agree that some choices are less beneficial than others -- and that liberation often has its costs, some of them still unknown?

Andrew Sullivan's take on the issue is the cover story in the latest New Republic. (Free registration required.) I agree with much of what Andrew has to say -- for instance, about the absurdity of the myth, still enduring on the hard right, that homosexuality a freely chosen "perversion" rather than an innate sexual orientation. He also rightly skewers the moderate conservatives (such as the folks over at NRO's The Corner) who shrink from attacks on a lesbian mother who is one of their own, while either endorsing or condoning legislation that strips Mary Cheney's family of all legal protections. (The Virginia state marriage amendment bans not only same-sex marriage but the recognition of any legal partnership or status designed to approximate marriage.)

However, on the issue of fatherhood, I think Andrew ducks the tough questions a bit. For instance, in this post, which I referenced in my column, he writes:

If the argument is made that all kids should have biological mothers and fathers, adoptions would cease. If the argument is made that kids should always have a father and mother in the household, then single mothers would have their kids removed from them in order to give them to adoptive couples. Neither argument applies because we have a modicum of respect for mothers, and their right to bring up their own child as they see fit, as long as it is with care and love.

Of course single mothers don't have their children taken away; nor are unmarried mothers and out-of-wedlock children (thank God) relegated to pariah or second-class status the way they were once. Nonetheless, some social stigma surely remains attached to single motherhood, particularly single motherhood by choice and design; and few people (except for ultra-radical feminists who see any talk of the importance of fathers as a "patriarchal" mentality) would equate disapproval of single motherhood with bigotry. So it's somewhat odd to see Andrew invoke single mothers as a model of respect for gay parents -- particularly since conservative advocates of same-sex marriage, among whom I believe Andrew counts himself, have argued in the past that gay marriage would boost and even revive a pro-marriage culture that, among other things, stigmatizes single parenthood. (Indeed, in his seminal 1996 essay on gay marriage, Jonathan Rauch argues that singleness as such should be subject to some social stigma -- a position I personally find a little too extreme.) So I am genuinely curious to know whether Andrew Sullivan agrees that single motherhood by choice is a legitimate cause for concern or critique. And yes, I am fully aware that it is very difficult to criticize a social trend without appearing mean-spirited or callous toward individuals.

Again, my issue is not with gay couples raising children. It's with the widespread attitude that it's perfectly fine for a woman to raise a child without a second parent. I have been asked by quite a few people, now that I'm near the end of my fertile years and still have not met the proverbial Mr. Right, why I don't simply have a child on my own. And I have to say that I find such casual acceptance disturbing (as I do the sexist presumption that every woman craves babies). Of course a lot of father absence is due to paternal abandonment, not maternal choice; but if many women endorse the view that fathers are unnecessary, that's not exactly a good incentive to men to be responsible fathers.

I do think that gay and lesbian parenting presents an interesting conundrum (and to say this is in no way to question the love of devotion of gay parents to their children). Couples like Mary Cheney and Heather Poe are widely accepted because they essentially replicate the traditional heterosexual family model: you form a union with the person you love and raise children with them. In this model, the fact that the two partners cannot, biologically, reproduce together is of no more significance than it some heterosexual unions, one spouse is infertile.

And yet the inescapable fact is that traditionally, the reason child-rearing is associated with a martial (sexual) union is that sexual unions produce children. Without that, is there a rational basis for thinking that the best person with whom to raise children is your sexual and romantic partner? Why shouldn't two female friends pool their resources to raise a child together? Or, to keep men in the equation: why shouldn't two close opposite-sex friends who (whatever their sexual orientation) do not desire a sexual or romantic relationship have a child together, live together and raise that child while dating other people? Such partnerships might, in fact, be a lot more stable than many marriages based on romantic love. And what about the three-parent situations of two lesbian mothers and a gay dad described in that New York Times Magazine article? (In his response to Stanley Kurtz on this issue on November 20, Andrew zeroes in on the marginal issue of whether the idea of same-sex marriage originated with radical activists but does not address the more basic questions.)

Perhaps one reason many people are wary of redefining marriage is that, in an age when sex is separated from childbearing and the nuclear family from the extended family, marriage itself -- particularly modern marriage which attempts to fuse the very different goals of child-rearing and romantic fulfilment -- is in some sense an irrational institution which endures mainly out of habit. Pull out some of the bricks and encourage people to inspect the foundation, and the entire edifice just might collapse. At the very least, traditional monogamous marriage (heterosexual or same-sex) could come to be seen as just one of many equally desirable arrangements people could devise for caretaking and child-rearing.

A part of me, actually, thinks that maybe that would be just fine, given how many mutations the family has survived over the course of civilization. A "traditional marriage" the way it existed in many cultures -- one man with several wives and concubines -- was surely no more different from the modern two-parent family than a two-mother, one-father household, or a household composed of two companions and partners in child-rearing who do not have sex with each other and date other people. The other part of me thinks that giving up on the nuclear family as the cultural ideal would be a highly damaging social experiment with the potential to leave a lot of damaged children in its wake.


Anonymous said...

"To the first, we let parents make choices about what is right for them all the time, some of which you or I may disagree with."

Yes, but it is not all yes or no; there are choices that are inconsequential to the rest of us that we can safely ignore them - names for children, most religions - and others that we intefere with - religious choices that prevent otherwise defenseless children from getting medical care, one kind of genital mutilation - we make distinctions.

"specific cases merit their own choices."

Yes, but we need general principles to guide all those case-by-case choices, or else they will just be random, arbitrary or driven by persoanl preference of whichever authority makes that choice.

Anonymous said...

"Ok, but are these things -- failing to provide medical attention or genital mutilation -- really the same as being a single parent? "

No, of course not; that was exactly my point, and further that we need laws and cultural attitudes that recognize this.

Lets' look at a spectrum of situations - religious choices. IS FGM acceptabl? NO. Male infant circumcision then? Well........why? How about raising kids Protestant? (How does it threaten or incovenience me that they're going to hell, or whatever hysteria I might subscribe to?) No. What about Fundamentalists who send their kids to faith schools and then demand that these kids get into me school eventhough they don't accept evolution, or genetics therefore, or the whole rest of biology? Well......

Rarely does a woman actively choose to raise a child on her own, even when she has a support net of relatives to help, but I had a friend in the Army who did just that 20 years ago, and we all thought it was great - she was a big, strong officer and carried her load, and she was a very capable and devoted mother, and I am sure the kid turned out great.

But the fact that even very similar cases can differ by a lot does not mean that we can get by without devloping a consensus on these matters.

I know one thing - I want the consensus to accept the sensible an reasonable decisions of people like Mary Cheney and her partner.

Mercurior said...

kids need both males and female in their lives, as fathers, or uncles or cousins, or friends or brothers, os mothers, aunts, cousins, friends..

so they can see the opposite side of the geneder lines..

i have no objection to gays, or lesbians bringing up children.. so long as there is figure in those lives to show what its like to be male or female.

if a woman has a male friend who will be a mentor to the male child, thats fine.. doesnt matter about sex.. i beleive all forms of love are fine, so long as they are done with consenting adults..

women are the people who generally start divorces, theres stories about women "accidentally" getting pregnant as its an easy way out, look at the money they get, if they stop their kids from learning about different people /races/sexes, then they will be racist and sexist..

if you tell a boy all men are scum, he will become scum, if you tell a boy all men are rapists, then he will more likely become one.. if a boy gets told its ok to have these feelings, just dont see women are mere objects.. then you have a chance of bringing up a decent child

Anonymous said...

"Single parenthood by choice almost inherently reinforces gender inequality: because of biology, it is far less available to men. (Partly for the same reason, gay male couples are far less likely to raise children than lesbian couples.) "

It isn't "single parenthood by choice" that "inherently reinforces gender inequality", it's women having children without a male's involvement. A single woman using a turkey baster is indistinguishable from a lesbian with a partner using a turkey baster, if "gender inequality" is your concern.

And "partly" for this reason gay men are far less likely to raise kids than lesbians? Don't be absurd. Gay male couples don't have kids at the same rate as lesbians for the same reason that straight, financially stable, single males don't become dads at the same rate as their female counterparts: they don't want them as badly, and they're biologically incapable. If you have some bizarre opposition to biologically based gender inequality, then you have no rational basis for declaring lesbian rejection of men a superior choice.

"From a moral standpoint, I find a committed lesbian couple vastly superior to some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage. "

Religious traditionalists have a basis for declaring marriage superior to non-marriage. You have none. You're just frankly bothered by women who have kids without a dad, so you decide to declare parents with partners morally superior to parents without. After all, anyone who "power shares" and "compromises" in a personal relationship is just a better person than one who, for whatever reason, chooses not to have a relationship.

What's truly risible is that you fancy yourself more openminded than those nasty bigots who only want married men and women to have kids. By golly, they're just prejudiced against gays! In contrast, you just disapprove of people who make choices you find unseemly.

"Nonetheless, some social stigma surely remains attached to single motherhood, particularly single motherhood by choice and design"

Social stigma attaches to women who have children without the slightest interest or capability of supporting them. Well-off women who choose single parenthood aren't exposed to any more "stigma" than working mothers.

But never mind your illogic and inaccuracy. What possesses people to start cavilling about financially independent parents? With a declining birth rate and an increasing correlation between education and successful childrearing, we're not in a position to be choosy. Single mothers making in excess of $50K/year are going to have children that are exponentially more successful--and therefore, more societally desirable--than married couples making under $30K/year. That's the comparison that matters. Babbling about miniscule differences between like populations is nothing more than a thumb twiddle. Unless you want to argue that a maid married to her day laboring husband will have more successful children than a corporate executive with a turkey baster or a sperm bank, the "moral preference" of "compromise and power sharing" is so much yap.

Our society is built on the presumption that most people will procreate. I'm sure I don't have to point you to the host of articles pointing out the need for a healthy birth rate and the problems we risk if we don't get our birth rate moving in the right direction.

But more and more people are selfishly choosing to put their own needs first. They don't want the inconvenience of children. They can make noises about how they'd be lousy parents, or how they just haven't found Mr. Right, but the end result is that they are freeloaders, taking advantage of the labors (in every sense of the word) of parents.

In choosing not to have children, Cathy, you're showing yourself to be a self-absorbed, egotistical piker. You'll sure demand low costs and benefits once you'll retire, but you're perfectly happy to put the burden of providing the laborers to others. You have better things to do.

In that light, your moral judgments of women who take on the obligation you shirk seem pretty damn cheap.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a single mother by choice. I watched what the dynamics of a hellish marriage were doing to my child, and finally, the family split up. My three year old son is now almost half a world away from his father; I don't know when they'll see each other again.

I present an image of marriage and love as inherently good and right. My son also gets to see all sorts of partnerships between people: his grandparents are active in his life, my best friend and her husband have taken my son under their wing, and he is honorary big brother to their youngest son. One of his best playmates is being raised by two women. I have recruited male friends to step in and give a reassuring, male presence in my son's life. He is being raised by a tribe of grownups and older children who love and cherish him. Which was exactly what was missing in his traditional, two parent home.

I'd be interested to see what the socio-economic breakdown is of single mothers with problem children. I'm willing to bet that poverty and an absentee father contribute more to a child's welfare than the simple fact of being raised by a woman without a man.

Anonymous said...

"why shouldn't two close opposite-sex friends who (whatever their sexual orientation) do not desire a sexual or romantic relationship have a child together, live together and raise that child while dating other people?"

It seems to work pretty well for the Clintons

Anonymous said...

And yet, no one thinks of the child here. He or she will be born without a real father, as a close male friend doesn't cut it. No one to really call their father.

Stuff like this only makes the problem of fathers not being involved worse. I can't even imagine how screwed up little kids raised by gay men will end up without a real mother around them.

Mercurior said...

ok cal, i am a engaged male, and i am childfree i dont want children, i cant stand children.

religious traditionalists say gays and lesbians are someone defective, or evil and dont feel the same love as the rest of us. that their feelings are less important.

marriage should be between 2 loving people (or more), but you should never just have one point of view. have many, and let the kids learn about life and differences in it.

ok if there is a declining birth rate, how come america has hit the 300 million level, how come there are 6.4 billion people on this planet, from 3 billion 100 years ago.. the population will carry on growing and growing, until this earth cannot support everyone. its having a hard time now..

or is it the wrong type of people are having kids. moving it the right way.. ?? who says its the right way, the earth is beyond the self regeneration limits of nature.

so we are freeloaders, we who work more, and dont take so much time off for your kids, we dont get the tax breaks, as parents do, we cant claim child care.. and you call us freeloaders.

if we dont have kids i bet you would say we shouldnt be allowed to vote.

Anonymous said...

"I agree with much of what Andrew has to say -- for instance, about the absurdity of the myth, still enduring on the hard right, that homosexuality a freely chosen "perversion" rather than an innate sexual orientation.
Oh, wait, "recent studies show..." this casual aside may NOT be addressed as myth.
And where better to find a "troubled" childhood that one with a single gender of parental guidance?

Cathy Young said...

I'd like to thank everyone for their posts, with one obvious exception to which I will return later.

A few quick comments. I certainly never suggested that children of single mothers always fare worse than children of two-parent families, even "all else being equal." I am talking about statistical probability.

Now, does statistical probability of worse outcomes mean that a woman who has a child out of wedlock is doing something wrong? No. Nobody would condemn a woman for choosing a man with a tendency toward depression as the father of her children, even though the child of such a father is more likely to battle depression him- or herself. No amount of trying is going to make it a perfect world.

But does that mean the two-parent family should not be recognized as optimal? Opprobrium is too strong a word; I think that at the very least, we should send the cultural message that fatherless parenting should be a last resort.

Incidentally, I want to clarify my comment that I consider a committed lesbian couples superior to "some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage." I did not mean this to apply to all single women who become mothers via sperm bank. However, as this New York Times article shows, some single-mothers-by-choice rejoice in the fact that they don't have to deal with a second parent who may disagree with them about values, child-rearing methods, etc. Personally, I think that it's pretty unhealthy for a child to grow up in an environment with only one adult decisionmaker and no "checks and balances" of a two-parent home. I will say that I'm also inclined to be rather judgmental toward successful women who say that they cannot find a partner but won't consider "marrying down."

In any case: I also think that, regardless of child outcomes, the alienation of men from the family in large numbers simply is not a good idea. And yes, I understand that it's problematic to judge personal behavior based on its effects on larger societal trends (it's the same problem presented by criticism of women who drop out of the workforce to raise children on the grounds that their choices hold back the advancement of women in the workplace). But at the same time, the problem is there.

And now, on to Cal. First of all, after your revolting personal attack on me, I'd like to ask you not to post on this blog again. Your handle sounded familiar and looking at the Linda Hirshman thread about a year ago, I see that you made personal attacks there on a commenter whose personal choices you disapproved of (or rather, her alleged personal choices, because you presumed with no evidence that she was a mother with no gainful employment outside the home). I should have either asked you for an apology or banned you then, and not doing so was my omission.

You say:

And "partly" for this reason gay men are far less likely to raise kids than lesbians? Don't be absurd. Gay male couples don't have kids at the same rate as lesbians for the same reason that straight, financially stable, single males don't become dads at the same rate as their female counterparts: they don't want them as badly, and they're biologically incapable.

I'm not sure what you find absurd, because I was saying, in part, the same thing you were saying: that gay men and single men don't become fathers at anywhere near the rates of their female counterparts due in large part to biology. (Whether they want children less, I don't know and neither do you.)

I find it interesting and revealing that you condemn women who choose not to have children as egocentric and self-absorbed (because they're getting a "free ride" on the next generation). I don't see anywhere in your comments a condemnation of single or gay men who, as you say, don't have children because they don't want them as much as women do. So it's fine for a man not to want children but not for a woman? Elsewhere (in the thread I linked), you are also harshly critical of women who "live off their husbands" while raising children. (I don't see you criticizing men who would rather have their wives stay home than participate equally in child-rearing and homemaking.) I don't use the word "misogynist" lightly, but it does come to mind.

I do think that Cal's mindset, which seems to recognize reproductive and child-rearing obligations only on the part of women, illustrates one danger of the widespread acceptance of single motherhood. When the male role in bringing children into the world can be reduced to that of sperm donor, pretty soon some people will feel that this is all that should be expected of a man, and that a man can contribute nothing more and remain blameless -- while the woman can be expected to bear, care for, and financially support children, and be called selfish if she doesn't want them.

Anonymous said...

Re: Brad, "Seriously, explain it to me. Other than "all else being equal, children with two parents fare better." I'm sure that is also true for income disparities, etc."
If average incomes were to fall dramatically most people would not regard this as a good thing. Nor do many people regard a rise in single mothers by choice as a good thing. So where's the logical inconsistency?

There is also significant evidence to show that even if you take away income disparities children in two-parent households fare better on average.

The other issue is that in many countries single parents are heavily subsidised through welfare and other government programs. My view is that if a woman wants to have a child on her own, she should have the right to do so. But why should the rest of society be forced to subsidise a lifestyle choice that is not in its interests.

Anonymous said...

Re Cal, I agree that the personal attack on you was quite gratuitous. I also thought that his post was quite a bizarre rant, and it was hard to follow the argument.

However, I think it's unfortunate that you chose to throw the misogynist label at him. It didn't seem as though he was critical of women in general, only women who don't have children (who are still a minority). It's unfortunate because labelling someone a misogynist has long been a convenient way of shutting up anyone who questions the prevailing orthodoxy that men are to blame for all the world's ills and women are innocent and blameless.

As for being concerned that women may have to carry most of the costs of raising children, I think it's also true that women generally derive more benefit from having children and so it's not really such a terrible injustice if women have to make more sacrifices in order to raise children. For example, women live longer than men and so have more of an interest in ensuring that the next generation is there to support them in their old age. Also, women have all the other advantages of custody bias, reproductive rights, the emotional satisfaction of having greater influence over a child's development etc.

Anonymous said...

Brad, I don't quite get the argument that there is an inherent problem with equating optimum conditions with moral superiority. Surely morality is heavily tied in with consideration for the wellbeing of others. I also think that in some cases parents who choose to have children in cases where there is a strong chance of their offspring having very serious health problems should perhaps be subject to some censure.

"Well, yes. That was the "all things equal" meant. But all things equal, two wealthy parents will produce better outcomes than two poor ones."
The obvious difference between the rich v. poor and the single parent v. two parent divisions is that there is less of a tradeoff between the rich v. poor as there is between the single parent v. two parent. If more poor people have children, this doesn't necessarily mean that fewer wealthy people are able to have children. Yet if more women choose to become single parents this can only be achieved by having fewer two parent families and denying more fathers a role in their child's life. The latter scenario is more of a zero-sum game than the former.

Anonymous said...

Cathy, I won't post again, but you lead a restricted life if you think I was attacking you personally--and last year, my mild complaint about someone defining herself as someone's mommy has now been characterized likewise. Get out more.

You attacked people in your column--now you're retract...er,clarifying, but whatever--and it's okay, so long as you do it respectfully? It's fine to say "I find a committed lesbian couple vastly superior to some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage. ", because you say it politely? Or because you didn't say it to one particular person? On what grounds could you argue that statement is anything other than an attack? It was the nastiness of your comment that gave rise to my response.

I could care less whether or not you have kids. The point of my comment was to demonstrate (apparently too effectively) what it feels like when one's own personal motivations are judged.

As for my supposed "pass" to gay and straight men, two points: first, as mentioned, I wasn't engaging in a full-blown condemnation of the childless. I was criticizing your thinking for being completely clueless and hypocritical.

Second, to the extent that childless people are freeloaders, of course all childless are equal, although only women have an actual choice about it. Where did I give anyone a pass? But not all the childless go about denouncing the morals of people who put the work into raising future citizens, particularly ones that will almost certainly pay more in taxes than they'll ever cost the state. You're really not in much of a place to point fingers, from that standpoint.

So go get knocked up, toots. Then criticize away! (Add irony as needed.)

Oh, by the way: you shouldn't assume. I can't be misogynistic. At least, not entirely.

seran said...

Lies, damn lies and statistics:

First, I'd like anyone to name me a single study that controls for income level, education, age and premeditation to obtain the child that says that single parents are more likely to have troubled children. Children of single mothers tend to have more problems because single mothers tend to be young, poor and not single mothers by choice. The children of older, financially stable, single parents who became single parents by choice do not fare so poorly.

Second, the fact that troubled homes and homosexuality correlate is not evidence that troubled homes cause homosexuality any more than the fact that umbrellas and rain correlate is evidence that umbrellas cause rain. Perhaps children from "good" homes feel less free to upset their families by acting on homosexual impulses, and children from "bad" homes have less to lose in coming out.

Third, Cathy, I've been one of your biggest fans since I was a teenager. But, I'm one of those "successful women who say that they cannot find a partner but won't consider 'marrying down'" that you find yourself judging.

If by "marrying down," you mean compromising my values, mental health and sense of fulfillment, no I won't ever do that.

But, I will have a child. And I won't abide the assumption that I'm "experimenting." I have thought long and painfully hard about the disadvantages of not having a father in the home weighed against all that I do bring to the table. I have worked my fingers to the bone to get where I am. And I have waited long past the years most people rush into marriage and childbearing.

Neither strangers nor society as a whole are in a position to disagree with my conclusion that I am in position to provide a good home for a child.

If you are going to advocate social stigmatization to achieve purely social aims, at least be sure of the need to do so. Are you really that confident that -- even controlling for age, income, education, premeditation of parenthood, etc. -- that traditional marriages provide such better environments for the children??

Why not direct the social pressure where it belongs: at people who are too young, too poor, too unstable, too unhealthy, too immature, too isolated, too abusive, etc. to be good parents?

Trying to skip this analysis and just generalize that people who enter into marriages are less likely to suffer from these inadequacies is both lazy and factually inaccurate.

"Membership in a traditional marriage" is no more a substitute for "ability to provide a good home for a child" than "female" is a substitute for "ability to nurture" or "male" is a substitute for "ability to provide."


Cathy Young said...

brad: I think there are ways to suggest expectations of social norms without being rude or nasty to people.

At the very least, I think that it would be a good thing if society did not reinforce less desirable behavior. As I said before, several people have asked me why not have a child on my own. The active encouragement of single motherhood by choice bothers me.

Cal: first of all, I don't buy for a moment the idea that your personal attack was intended only to make a point about my being judgmental to other people. You attacked "anniesmom" in the Linda Hirshman thread without any provocation on her part, simply because you assumed she was a stay-at-home mom. Secondly, I think that how you say something makes a big difference. If you had said, "What about the negative societal impact of educated women like yourself choosing not to have children?", I wouldn't have reacted negatively at all. In fact, I often think about it myself, and I have very little patience with "child-free" people who grumble about the privileges society gives people with children.

My "misogynist" comment is also based on your comments to anniesmom as well as your comments here, and your being female (presumably) does not entirely change my mind, either. Because so far, all the negative judgments I have seen from you are directed at women and female behavior.

And yes, biologically, women are capable of having a child with minimal impact from a man but not vice versa. Which is why I think it's particularly important for society to support the connection between men and children.

Cathy Young said...

seran: just curious (since you brought up your age) -- how old are you? Because if you have been a fan of mine since you were a teenager, you can't be that old. *G*

I don't have the studies at my fingertips but there is in fact research controlling for income and education that shows children in two-parent families doing better. However, once again, that is not a predictor for any individual, and I certainly wish you the best of luck.

Oh, and re "marrying down": I certainly did not mean marry an idiot. I'm talking about women who do not consider someone who makes less money or has less status to be a suitable partner.

I realize that in discussing these issues we're talking about intensely personal choices. I know women who married men and women who married someone they weren't romantically in love with (but cared about as a friend) because they wanted a family. I also have a friend who strongly believes that marrying someone based on practical considerations rather than romantic love is morally wrong. I won't make that kind of judgment, but I do know that, for myself, I would never get married in the absence of romantic love; if that means remaining childless, so be it.

On the other hand, as I said in my blogpost, I do think that the linkage of marriage with child-rearing becomes inherently problematic as soon as we decide that romantic fulfilment is a key ingredient of marriage.

A few years ago, I read an article (I think it was in New York Magazine) about a single woman who knew that she wanted a child and had not found "the right man," but also did not want to bring a child into the world without a father. Her solution was to approach a male freind who she knew was interested in being a father but wasn't having much luck finding a wife and offering him to have a child together -- basically raising that child like a cooperative divorced couple, only without the divorce. Most of the people she knew, as I recall, thought this arrangement was "weird." Personally, I think that it's far worthier of encouragement than motherhood via sperm bank.

Cathy Young said...

Regarding that study linked by captdmo: I think it would be exceedingly foolhardy to draw any real conclusions from this. First of all, homosexual marriage rates are extremely low in proportion to the population in general, so even if we're talking about a 25% or 39% increase, these would be pretty tiny numbers and probably not high enough for statistical significance. Also, we're talking about rates of same-sex marriage (or civil unions since I don't believe actual same-sex marriage is legal in Denmark), not homosexuality. I think that, as seran points out, it is entirely possible that children raised in traditional families are less likely to express their homosexuality openly.

It is especially interesting that these supposed effect manifest themselves mainly in males, since it is widely believed that female homosexuality is more likely to be "situational" and has less to do with innate biological makeup than male homosexuality.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to note how many advocates for single mothers complain about the number of single mother households that live in poverty, and then attribute any problems to that. It's as if this is all the result of a vast conspiracy by the wicked capitalist patriachy to keep them down. It doesn't seem to occur to these people that if more single mother households live in poverty this might be symptomatic of broader capability failure and dysfunction within these families (i.e. that economic deprivation might be an effect, more than a cause). Essentially, there seems to be a Marxist analyis of society and the economy that says that economics is fixed by social classes and everything else stems from that.

Feminists have long argued that women are generally exploited and oppressed within marriage and relationships with men, and that women contribute far more to relationships and families than men. Yet if that is true then surely single mothers would be better off than married mothers because the former don't have a man to oppress and exploit them while the latter do. Then again, logical consistency and intellectual honesty are not exactly things that feminists are renowned for.

Seran, you say that most single mothers are not single by choice. If you add up all the single mothers who are single through a divorce or relationship breakdown that the woman initiated, as well as all the single women who choose to get pregnant through donor sperm or casual sex I think you would clearly find the majority of single mothers are single by choice.

Anonymous said...

"Beyond that, I am not sure that I agree with the zero-sum assessment. Are you saying there are no single parents that would otherwise simply not have children? Because that is what a zero sum means. I'm not sure how a single mother raising a child prevents anyone else from having families."
Of course there are some single parents who may choose not to have children altogether. This situation is not exactly a zero-sum game. But it is closer to a zero-sum game than the rich v. poor scenario that you proffer. I thought I pretty well made that clear.

"If you are arguing from outcome, I don't see what difference this distinction makes."
If you argue about the relative desirability of different outcomes, then it definitely matters to what extent less desirable outcomes can only be achieved at the expense of more desirable outcomes. If one can have more of a less desirable thing without reducing the amount of a more desirable thing, then surely this is less of a problem than if an increase in the less desirable thing can only be achieved through a reduction in the amount of a more desirable thing.

As for not being sure how a single mother raising a child prevents anyone else having families, it's pretty simple. There can only be an increase in single parents by creating more second parents who are prevented from having a part in their child's life. Until medical technology eliminates the need for two biological parents in order to create a child, this won't change. Also, if more women choose to become single mothers this must diminish the number of potential partners for men who want to have children.

"The first is that, generally speaking, there is one optimum condition. Everything else would then be inferior, and should be subject to social judgement."
Your argument seems to be that unless you are perfect you have no right to sit in judgement of others. But one doesn't have to be perfect to judge others. One only has to be not as bad as others. As far as equating morality with ideal conditions, of course one doesn't have to create perfect conditions to be morally acceptable. However, if someone deliberately chooses a course of action that evidence suggests is likely to have a detrimental effect on others (particularly children) then they should expect some judgement or moral censure. For example, if a family is poor because they have suffered some misfortune should we condemn the parents? No. But if the family is impoverished because the parents drink and gamble away all their resources the parents should expect some moral censure. Equally, if a woman chooses to become a single parent despite evidence showing her children are less likely to turn out well then she should expect some moral judgement.

"It's a dangerous business, treating individuals a certain way because of their demographic characteristics."
Maybe, but it's also a dangerous business to ignore harmful social trends simply out of fear of offending people.

"The second problem is that you are deciding that social knowledge trumps any possible personal knowledge. That is, with the little information that someone has chosen to be a single parent, you are deciding how much damage (if any) that is causing."
If by the first sentence you mean I am arguing that empirical evidence is more important than an individual's certainty that they know best and the critics can go to hell, then yes. As for the second sentence, I am not arguing that every individual who chooses to become a single parent is going to do equal damage. I am simply pointing out that there is potentially an increased risk of damage, and a responsible parent should take that into consideration.

Brad, I think I've comprehensively discredited every argument you've made. Why don't you just concede this one mate.

seran said...

Cathy: I will be 35 in March. I could have sworn I remember reading you in Reason Magazine as far back as my teenage years. Am I mistaken?

Nick s: I don't agree with including every parent who has initiated a divorce, "caused a breakdown in a relationship" (whatever that means) or gotten accidentally pregnant through casual sex in the category of "chose single parenthood."

Grouping them this way might have some political meaning, but in terms of research, those people are not meaningfully the same as people who actually set out as single people to become single parents by design.

For my own purposes and for purposes of the research I'm (vaguely familiar with), only people who obtained the child purposefully with the intent of being unmarried parents fit the definition. People who get accidentally pregnant or who don't intend to be single *at the time the pregnancy is initiated* don't.

As an aside, I'd be very surprised if many posters on this forum blame poverty on anyone other than the individuals involved or think that women are oppressed by men. I'm a capitalist myself and I don't think that women as a class of people are oppressed by anyone -- except to the extent that "oppressed" might be a word to describe the effect of socially constructed gender roles on all individuals.

Anonymous said...

Seran, if you are going to quote me could you please quote accurately.
You said:
"Nick s: I don't agree with including every parent who has initiated a divorce, "caused a breakdown in a relationship" (whatever that means) or gotten accidentally pregnant through casual sex in the category of "chose single parenthood." "
Actually what I said was
"If you add up all the single mothers who are single through a divorce or relationship breakdown that the woman initiated, as well as all the single women who choose to get pregnant through donor sperm or casual sex I think you would clearly find the majority of single mothers are single by choice."

Notice how I use the word 'initiated', not 'caused'. The question of who 'caused' a relationship breakdown is more subjective, while the question of who actually makes the decision to end the relationship is more factual and clear-cut. All the evidence suggests that women initate most divorces and end most relationships. I don't understand why you cannot argue that if a woman chooses to end a relationship with the child's father, and apply for custody, that she is by extension choosing to become a single parent.

As for arguing that all women who get pregnant through casual sex do so accidently, this is laughable. Presumably none of these women know how babies are made, or are aware of contraception. True, not all women who get pregnant through casual sex do so deliberately. But a significant proportion do.

My argument about the number of single mothers who live in poverty was directed primarily at you and Christina. The point is that you argued that many single mothers live in poverty and that this was a major causal factor in the problems associated with these families. Yet by treating poverty as an independent variable which in turn determines all other social outcomes, you are adopting a quasi-Marxist methodology (whether you realise it or not). In a lot of dysfunctional families poverty is more often an effect, rather than the cause, of a lot of other problems. If the family is not functioning well, this tends to exacerbate capability failure in economic matters.

seran said...


After giving it more thought, I'm a little embarassed to say that I may be confusing you and Wendy McElroy in my memories. I'm no longer sure when or how I became familiar with you. In any case, I've been a fan for as long as I've known about you, however long that has been. :-)


Anonymous said...

Seran, you argue that single parents who are financially better off and choose to have a child generally have children who fare better than poorer single mothers. Yet this ignores the fact that if these same successful women chose to get married their children would probably, on average, fare better still.

It's a fairly basic rule of social research that if you are going to compare the effect of a variable factor on something else then you have to, as much as possible, keep all other variables constant. Yet you choose to load the deck in your favour by taking another variable (economic resources) and adding it to your side. Surely it would be more valid to compare poor single parents with poor two-parent famiiles, wealthy single parents with wealthy two-parent families etc.

I don't really buy the argument that just because you may have some demographic variables on your side (education, resources etc.) that this somehow gives you enough credit to then choose another variable (single parenthood) that is likely to be detrimental.

I have to say that a lot of your analysis seems very flippant and superficial, and it's obvious that you haven't thought this through very well. If you still choose to have a child on your own, then you have every right to do just that. But if this doesn't work out as well as you believe it will, then I sure hope you accept responsibility for your decisions and outcomes in life. After all, you have been warned.

Anonymous said...

Brad, I have to say this is becoming rather tedious. I think I have addressed most of these points, and the logic of my argument is pretty clear. A lot of your debating points are rather pedantic and peurile. You seem determined to find minor holes in my arguments, while ignoring huge holes in your own. There is no way any of your arguments could stand up to the kind of empirical rigour that you demand of mine.

On the issue of whether or not you can only have more single-parent families by creating fewer two-parent families, I can only clarify what I've said. No, it's not exactly a zero-sum game. However, I still maintain that there is more of a tradeoff between the number of single-parent families versus two-parent families than there is between rich versus poor (or for example different races or other demographics).

Of course it's true that not all single parents are choosing between single parenthood and marriage. Some single parents undoubtedly choose between single parenthood and not having children at all. However, many undoubtedly also choose between single parenthood and finding a partner to have a child with. Are you arguing that there is no tradeoff whatsoever? You say that single parents don't dimish the number of two-parent families because they are by definition single. Yet this implies that none of them have any control over their single status, or could choose to have a partner.

"My biological father, for example, is now part of a two-parent family of three children. Having fathered a child was not an impediment to that." Really. The fact that one man still managed to have a family, despite previously fathering a child to another woman who opted for single motherhood, hardly proves that no-one is denied the opportunity to have a family through an increase in single parenthood. If your fathers' current partner, and maybe subsequent ones, all opted for single parenthood eventually he would have been left out in the cold.

The only way around the above problem is that if more women opt for single parenthood then more men may eventually have to opt for single parenthood as well (although this is more difficult). Yet if this were to happen it would only reinforce an increase in the number of single-parent families and a reduction in the number of two-parent families (so the tradeoff is unavoidable).

As for all the studies showing that single parenthood is fine, I have no doubt that these studies all come from university departments that have a strongly liberal feminist bias. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if there were a million and one studies purportedly showing that single parenthood is not a problem. Given the stranglehold that academic feminists have over the study of gender issues in most educational institutions, it is notoriously difficult for academics to maintain tenure and funding if they don't toe the party line.

"The findings suggest that in the presence of favorable maternal characteristics, such as education and positive child expectations, along with social resources supportive of parenting, single parenthood in and of itself need not to be a risk factor for a child's performance in mathematics, reading or vocabulary or for behavior problems," Ricciuti says.
By "social resources supportive of parenting" he probably means more government hand-outs. Yet if single parenthood is not a problem in itself then why do single parents need more societal resources to be given to them? And why should society be forced to 'support' something that is an individual's own choice and probably not in society's interests?

As far as empirical evidence goes, there is plenty of evidence showing a significant correlation between those raised by single parents and increased incidence of crime, (and other negative social indicators). I don't have any studies at hand, but there is plenty of evidence to support this. While correlation doesn't always equal causation, I'd be interested to see what other explanations can be offered.

You seem to have changed your argument slightly. Earlier you admitted that even if you hold other factors constant, like income etc., there is still a correlation between single parenthood and worse outcomes. Yet now you seem to be arguing that the evidence indicates that single parenthood, when other variables are held constant, is not a risk factor.

The argument that when you adjust for economic factors there is less of a risk associated with single parenthood is also questionable. That is because it assumes that economic factors are pre-existing and are not influenced by other family dynamics. If single parent families are generally poorer and also experience more social problems then it's not necessarily that poverty causes all the social problems. It could just as easily be that social dysfunction causes poverty. So by arguing that if you increase the material resources of single parent families the other problems will improve, one may be putting the cart before the horse.

Anonymous said...

Very contentious issues here, not sure anybody has the right answer.
All I know is that there are too many single parents being left in the lurch, and it's always the kids who suffer!

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