by Nanette Elster, JD, MPH
Today on Father’s Day, as I miss my own father who has been gone for 17 years now, I am reflecting on my decision to intentionally become a single mother. I think about all of the ways my father shaped the woman I am today and how he is the one who gave me the courage to become a mother with or without a husband or partner. He is the one who gave me career advice, dating advice, took me to get my first prom dress (and even my first bra). He was a straight shooter, never mincing words or sugar coating things but always enveloping me in love and support. From him I learned that each and every one of us has the power to take any decision we make and turn it into a good one –hence, the choice to be a single mom. The plan was to do it with the help of both my mom and dad, but he passed away before I mustered the courage to face my infertility head on and seek out a reproductive endocrinologist. Thankfully, Mom was and is by my side every single day.
While I never have and never will regret this decision and the choice has, in fact been a good one, I sometimes step back and ask myself . . . how could I deprive my daughter of all that I gained from my father? How would we manage Daddy/Daughter Dances and, days like today, Father’s Day? These questions, however, seemed trivial when a few years back during an Obama/Romney debate, Mitt Romney said: “But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will — will be able to achieve increase dramatically.” My over-achieving, straight A, 10 year old took offense to this and holds a grudge to this day. I had no idea that she was actually paying attention, until she began her own rant about this comment. She could not understand why her opportunities would be any less than someone else’s just because she did not have a dad. How would being fatherless cause her to have lower grades? Make less money when she grows up? Be more likely to be a juvenile delinquent or substance abuser? Although the focus on much academic research has focused on the disadvantages of raising children in a single parent home, there has been calls for more academic research to focus on the resiliency and academic achievement of children raised in such homes. I reassured my daughter that this would not be her fate and that this statement was glossing over bigger socio-political issues such as racism and poverty.
Despite our heartfelt discussion and as much as I disagreed (and disagree) with this remark not just on an emotional level but on an objective level, I thought about whether my choice was putting my daughter at a disadvantage. The thought pervaded my mind yet again when recently, a similar sentiment was echoed by Jeb Bush who said: “We have a 40-percent plus out-of-wedlock birthrate and if you think about this from the perspective of children, it puts a huge — it’s a huge challenge for single moms to raise children in the world that we’re in today, and it hurts the prospects, it limits the possibilities of young people being able to live lives or [sic] purpose and meaning.” Hearing this same rhetoric, just on the heels of Father’s Day, made me think that instead of criticizing single moms and putting down their children, it might make more sense to recognize that families today come in all shapes and sizes and if we want our children to succeed, we as a society should not treat children any differently based on how they came into the world. This is increasingly important, given that according to the Kids Count Data Center, as of 2013, 35% children were being raised in single-parent households.
Unlike the over half of all pregnancies that are unplanned mine was very much planned. As Katy Chatel stated in a recent Washington Post piece: “There can be significant differences between children growing up in intentional families and those in unplanned families.” Planning for my pregnancy and subsequent child rearing allowed me to consider possible financial, emotional, and even educational needs of my child. I was not ever going to become a parent alone. I had friends (my best friend from college who is a key male role model for my daughter), family (especially my mother), and eventually a caring and loving husband–all not only willing to accept my choice but embracing my choice and helping me in any way that they could. Just the other day, my daughter said that she felt that she was as much a product of love as any of her friends born to married parents. I couldn’t agree more.
What limits the possibilities of young people is not that they are being raised by mom alone (or dad alone) but that mom or dad may not have enough support, that too many families are living in poverty, and that educational and housing opportunities are not equal across our nation. So, instead of criticizing single parents and stigmatizing their children, let’s look at Father’s Day and Mother’s Day as opportunities to help all kinds of families succeed no matter what their composition.