It was just last week that Katie Roiphe penned a piece for Slate that extolled the wonders of forcing unmarried fathers to legally support the mothers of their children during pregnancy. Her sole hesitation about yet another judicially-enforced transfer of wealth from men to women was that it, in some ill-defined way, might undermine women’s abortion rights. Roiphe never noticed that abortion rights are a matter of constitutional law and simply not subject to change simply because “we” can now see a baby’s fingers and toes on an ultrasound. Far worse, Roiphe betrayed not the slightest interest in or awareness of the fact that mothers already control whether fathers can assert their parental rights. Her enthusiasm for ever more men paying ever more money to ever more women apparently blinded her to the reality that doing so, without ensuring that men have some control over their parental rights is shockingly venal and utterly unjust.
But Roiphe has outdone herself with this screed (Slate, 7/17/12). In it she attacks the excellent article in The New York Times that I wrote about here. Or actually, I guess I should say she attacks what she apparently believes to be that article. It’s hard to tell given the fact that Roiphe’s description of the article renders the actual piece unrecognizable.
As you may recall, the NYT piece was about the many dramatic detriments visited on the children of single mothers and those mothers themselves. Those have been known for decades and need not be restated here. But Roiphe clearly has no knowledge at all of the many problems manifested by the children of single mothers, not only as children, but far into adulthood. That’s remarkable, because the Times piece she’s so desperate to discredit actually included a smattering of data on the matter together with quotations from highly regarded experts like Sarah McLanahan and Andrew Cherlin. Did Roiphe read the article?
Well, she must have because she talks about the two mothers – one married, one not, – whom the author used to illustrate the social science on single-parent households. So, she actually read the piece, but just chose to skip the parts that prove her thesis – that single mother households are fine and dandy – to be dead wrong. Roiphe’s modus operandi is to simply ignore the science and focus on the individual mothers. If she can show that the unmarried mom’s kids are really OK, then, according to her “logic” single motherhood itself must be as well. The fact that there are exceptions to every rule seems to have eluded Roiphe’s grasp. (As one of the commenters says, some drug addicts manage their addiction, but that shouldn’t recommend drug addiction to the populace generally.)
Most absurdly, Roiphe wants us to believe that the only real differences between the married and the unmarried mothers is that the unmarried mom’s kids don’t get to take part in as many extracurricular activities as the other’s. To take such a small part of a rather lengthy article and pretend that it’s the meat of the piece is, intellectually speaking, beneath contempt. Since Roiphe entirely ignores the science on single-mother families in favor of the individuals in the article, you’d think that she’d notice that, when the single mother had surgery for ovarian cancer, she was able to take only a week off work despite being told by her doctor to take six. But no, the inconvenient truth that the woman was simply too poor (she’s supporting herself and three children on about $25,000 per year) to take any more time off didn’t fit Roiphe’s glorification of single motherhood, so she ignored it. Frankly that strikes me as pretty cold on her part. Face it, doing things like going back to work in record time after major surgery is what single mothers do. They do it because they have to. They do it because there’s no one else to take up the slack in their absence. That Roiphe so strongly recommends that lifestyle for women poorer than herself shocks me at her contempt for them. Is that really how they want to live?
And that of course is the nub of the issue and the main point of the Times article – the economic devastation on women and children of the decision to raise children without a father. The article certainly touched on the injury done to children by single motherhood. Again, we’ve known that for decades whether Roiphe does or not. But the main point was the sharp economic divide between single-mother households and everyone else. The figures are alarming to anyone who cares about those mothers or their children, but Roiphe is happy to overlook all that, again I suspect, because they contradict her thesis.
More amazing still is her utter misrepresentation of the article itself. She claims that the Times ”disguised” the piece “as a straight news story.” It did nothing of the kind. It was obvious from the outset that it was a feature piece . After all, it reported no “news” like “President Obama announced a new initiative yesterday” or “Mitt Romney campaigned in Ohio.” So no one who’s ever read a newspaper would have mistaken the piece for news.
But what really puts a burr under Roiphe’s saddle is what she claims is its tone which she calls “puritanical,” “alarmist” and “moralizing.” Again, it was nothing of the kind. Indeed, it would have been better had it been more so, but in the event, the writer bent over backward to draw an even-handed, non-judgmental portrait of the single mother. As I said in my piece on the article, not once did it inquire into just how the woman had come to have three children whom she struggled to care for, by the age of 25. Given the state of contraceptive technology and abortion rights, she could easily have avoided the situation in which she finds herself, but didn’t.
I suspect the writer didn’t bring the subject up for fear of seeming “judgmental.” Me? I think we need more scrutiny of just how the decision to have a child you can’t afford to raise gets made, but the article demurred. For her part, Roiphe seems to never want that issue raised.
More shameful still is Roiphe’s pretense that the article’s questioning of single-parent childrearing is class-based. To her, it’s just the bourgeois (yes, she used that word) tut-tutting of the well-heeled looking down their privileged noses at the less fortunate.
The innate self-congratulation of the Times piece, the smug sense that the average college-educated New York Times reader is enriching their children, insuring their mental health, while the sluttish, struggling, single mother is ruining theirs is— whatever the truth of the situation, which I humbly suggest is more complicated than that—extremely repellent.
(Notice the tossing aside of fifty years or so of social science with the casual “whatever the truth of the situation.”) But, contrary to Roiphe, it is neither bourgeois nor condescending to point out the facts about single-motherhood and the children raised in those households. The constant threat of poverty and the undeniable detriments faced by children of single mothers cannot be reduced to “[a]pparently there is a very fine line between giving your children enough swimming lessons and too many swimming lessons” as Roiphe would have us believe. To pretend that it can be is to profoundly disserve women contemplating single motherhood and their future children.
And speaking of the bourgeois and well-educated, Roiphe seems not to notice that she’s both. Nor does she notice that, in advising women that single motherhood is, yes, “just another lifestyle choice,” she’s leading people, many of whom have nothing like her financial or intellectual resources, into situations that are neither in their own nor their children’s best interests. Katie Roiphe will never experience the everyday difficulties faced by the unmarried woman in the NYT article, but she has no compunction about recommending them to others.
Frankly, Roiphe’s piece is vitriolic verging on the unhinged, and that demands an explanation. ”The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.” And, like Gertrude’s apt observation about an actress, Roiphe’s overheated prose reveals her guilt. The fact is well known that single mother child rearing tends to be bad for children and mothers alike. It’s bad for society too. Feminists like Roiphe have been peddling their snake oil for a long time and the proof that it’s poison for all can no longer be denied. That’s why Roiphe doesn’t deny it – she can’t. What she stoops to is an intellectually vacuous sniping at a good and true article.
In case we missed the obvious, Roiphe’s parting shot is her reference to a video the article links to. Part of it shows the unmarried mother preparing dinner and her three kids whooping it up in the background. It’s a scene every parent, married or not, would recognize, and according to Roiphe, means everything is fine for unmarried child rearing. Not a word about decades of social science, but a single scene without domestic dysfunction, and Roiphe’s convinced.
Fortunately, no one else is.
Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.