Before I plunge head first into the culture wars (a phrase I’ve never liked, but oh well), let me confess that I know gay parents, divorced parents, single moms, and just about every other, uh, “unconventional” family arrangement. I have not determined an inherent flaw in any of them, though I believe there are risks in some of them.
Writing at National Review Online, City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald calls our attention to a case in point:
Katie Roiphe’s full-throated defense of single parenthood should not really come as a surprise, given the iron-clad grip of feminism and the related prerogatives of the sexual revolution on the elite worldview. This proud single mother and NYU journalism professor, who is definitely not “too poor to marry,” is insulted by a New York Times article on the 53 percent illegitimate-birth rate among females under 30. . . .
But despite its overdetermined status, Roiphe’s Slate piece is nevertheless a sobering reminder of how great the abyss still is between those who understand the costs of family breakdown and those who see it as merely “refresh[ing] our ideas of family.” Roiphe concludes that there are no (annoyingly retrograde) studies on “what it will be like for . . . children to live in” the coming world without marriage. Actually, we know already. It’s called the ghetto.
Mac Donald is right as far as she goes. Roiphe’s views are fully consistent with the selective nonjudgmentalism that is an essential component of contemporary feminist ideology (selective because feminists are happy to stigmatize men–”deadbeat dads,” for instance–and women like Sarah Palin who reject the pieties of feminism). It’s also true that Roiphe is blasé about the effects on children, including children less privileged than her own offspring, of growing up without fathers. To her, the only risk worth worrying about is that they will bear the brunt of others’ censure.
My turn: Katie Roiphe is economically fully prepared to look after her children as an unmarried mother. (I don’t know about emotionally, more about which later, since I don’t know her.) I assume she has help, however, be it hired or family, as an Assistant professorship at NYU, plus writing gigs, must make demands on her time. Not everyone does. The single moms that I have known are rested and happy in direct proportion to the help they get. Nannies, grandmas—parenthood is a team game, though the team can be, I believe, composed of disparate members.
Heather Mac Donald’s “ghetto” comment takes Roiphe out of her comfort zone. We shouldn’t need to be reminded that living, breathing (and frequently crying, pooping, and hungry) children are the outcome of parenthood, and the emotional fulfillment of the parent is secondary to the emotional fulfillment of the child. (Ideally, though not always, the fulfillment of the latter should lead to the fulfillment of the former—but the opposite is hardly guaranteed.) However one defines ghetto (projects, tar shacks, or single family dwellings), single parenthood is too often a dead end for those kids (as the data confirm). Most of the success stories I am aware of (through sports) feature a strong second or even third figure (usually female) in the child’s life to keep him on the straight and narrow: a grandmother, aunt, etc. Without that support, the lures of drugs and crime often prove overwhelming.
But about Roiphe herself. I first became aware of her when she wrote The Morning After
“One of the questions used to define rape was: ‘Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?’ The phrasing raises the issue of agency. Why aren’t college women responsible for their own intake of alcohol or drugs? A man may give her drugs, but she herself decides to take them. If we assume that women are not all helpless and naive, then they should be responsible for their choice to drink or take drugs. “If a woman’s ‘judgment is impaired’ and she has sex, it isn’t always the man’s fault; it isn’t necessarily always rape.”
Let’s not get into an argument almost twenty years old. (Katha Pollitt leveled her guns at Roiphe in The New Yorker.) I’ll just observe that any definition of feminism should include being able to drink (or even take drugs) without fear of forced sexual intercourse.
I’m sure Roiphe would agree: she is a self-identified feminist daughter of a self-identified feminist. It is perfectly reasonable to expect a woman to be responsible for herself, but so is it to expect the same from a man. If her point was that there was an unreported epidemic of faked date rapes, the intervening twenty years have not been kind to her theory. (Even in the notorious Duke lacrosse case, the boys (men) were not guilty of the charges against them, but still behaved like pigs.) Although I’m a few years older than she, we would both remember the feminist phrase “a woman need a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. When I went to college, the co-eds were not girls (heaven forfend—and not “co-eds” either), but women. Referring to an 18-year-old girl now as a woman almost makes me feel like a dirty old man, so standards can change.
Anyhow, as James Taranto observes, sometimes a fish needs a bicycle:
Roiphe seems to want society to shed what standards it has left in order that she can feel good about herself. And this isn’t the first time she has issued public demands for acceptance of her personal life. In 2007, she wrote a piece for New York magazine that was subtitled: “Yes, I’m getting divorced. Yes, I have a child. No, I’m not falling apart. So why does everyone insist I must be?”
There’s another curious aspect to the story of the man who suggested that Roiphe wait and have a “regular baby”: The advice was completely unrealistic. According to yet another Slate piece on the subject, this child was born in July 2009, when Roiphe was 40, at most a few years from the point at which it would be impossible for her to get pregnant absent heroic medical intervention.
In Roiphe’s telling, her second child was the result of a pregnancy that was unplanned but not unwanted. She had a longing for another child. Whether or not she had acknowledged this desire, she did not take the usual preparatory step of getting married before getting pregnant, or at least before giving birth.
Not an insignificant number of affluent women who want children make the same mistake of putting off marriage until it’s too late, because of unrealistic expectations about men and about the duration of their own fertility. Some, like Roiphe, end up having kids in “irregular” circumstances. Many end up childless for life. Either way, it’s as much a failure of family planning as not taking the pill when you don’t want to get pregnant.
Oddly enough, this came up on the most recent episode of Glee. Even those who don’t watch the show may be aware of the character Sue Sylvester, played with gleeful malice by Jane Lynch. A woman of a certain age, Sue has decided to have a baby. With the help of hormone shots and an unknown sperm donor, she has become pregnant. We all are supposed to feel happy for her, and, whether due to the hormones or a change of heart, she seems almost human. I won’t dwell on a fictional character of a Fox TV series too long, I promise, but how human will she feel when the baby is up all night, or when she can’t get a sitter to attend a cheerleader competition of the team she coaches?
There is much about Glee that is “inclusive”: Sue’s late sister and her second in command both have Down’s syndrome, and she couldn’t be more loving toward them; one of the main characters is in a wheelchair (the actor who plays the role can actually dance his heinie off); there are Asians and Latinos and blacks—and God knows there are gays. But what there aren’t are babies. One character, a student (and a cheerleader) gets pregnant (falsely naming another student as the father, before finally confessing who the real father is), gives birth, and gives the baby up for adoption (to another character who is an occasional guest star); another character pretends to be pregnant to save her marriage (doesn’t work, as you might have guessed); and now Sue’s charade.
Let me conclude this half-rant/half-ramble by saying that if feminism is about defending the atrocities of single parenthood in the “ghetto” or the softheadedness of Glee, it’s a failure. If it’s about economically secure, emotionally emancipated feminists having babies “their way”, like a Burger King order, then fine. Who’s arguing otherwise?