For Single Mothers, Stigma Difficult To Shake

Guests

Rich Morin, senior editor, Pew Research Center
Mary Pols, author, Accidentally On Purpose: The True Tale Of A Happy Single Mother

There are still nuclear families in America, but there are also unmarried parents, gay parents, families without children, and single parents. Research shows that Americans are increasingly tolerant of all kinds of families, with one exception — single women raising children alone.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The American family has changed. The nuclear family in the house across the street is still there, but different kinds of families live on the block, too: unmarried parents, gay parents, people who choose not to have children at all and, of course, single parents.

A new Pew Research poll asked Americans about these trends and found almost 70 percent believe that single women raising children on their own is bad for society.

Of course, there is a wide array of single mothers. Some women choose to raise children by themselves. Others find themselves without a partner through divorce or abandonment. But when seven in 10 believe this is bad for society, it makes you wonder.

So we want to hear from single mothers today. How do people treat you? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour, an update on Libya and our last installment of Oscar-nominated documentaries: "Gasland." But first, Rich Moran, senior editor at the Pew Research Center, joins us today from their offices in Washington. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. RICH MORAN (Senior Editor, Pew Research Center): Thank you. Thanks for the invitation.

CONAN: And this survey, well, it's a little complicated.

Mr. MORAN: It is that.

CONAN: How did you go about it?

Mr. MORAN: Basically, we surveyed nearly 3,000 Americans, and we wanted to test what people really thought the consequences of some of the bigger demographic trends that have reshaped the American family in the last 30 or 40 years are.

And so we included things, as you mentioned: gay couples raising children, women deciding not to have children and single mothers raising children on their own without a male partner.

And we asked people did they think this was a good thing for society, a bad thing for society, or it really didn't make one difference one way or another.

CONAN: And broadly, the groups broke into three categories: accepters, rejecters and, in the middle, people you call skeptics. And it seemed to me, as I looked at the survey, the most interesting result was that a great majority of the skeptics were very tolerant of all those other things - interracial marriage, gay couples raising parents, that sort of thing - but they were among those who found problems with single motherhood.

Mr. MORAN: It really was fascinating to us to see that sharp division because you're right, skeptics account for about four in 10 Americans. And on most of these issues, in fact all but single motherhood, they're very accepting, very tolerant of changes.

But they draw a line in the sand when it comes to single motherhood. More than 99 percent said that was a bad thing for society.

CONAN: Why do you think so?

Mr. MORAN: That's a good question. We didn't specifically ask them, but people who study family dynamics have some answers. The big one is is that people know single mothers. And they read about single motherhood, and they see the consequences of it. They know and believe in their hearts that, really, children are better off being raised by two loving parents.

That often doesn't happen, and it doesn't mean that children who are raised by single mothers or in other arrangements somehow turn out inevitably wrong.

Then they look at things like gay couples, and they see children being raised by loving parents, financially secure. When they look at the outcomes of single motherhood, you know, they see increase in drop-out rate, increase in poverty and an increase in children who go - who have their first child before 20 without being married.

CONAN: Yet they also look at the president of the United States and realize he was pretty much raised by a single mother.

Mr. MORAN: Exactly right. It doesn't mean you can't grow up to be president. It just means that the chances - the likelihood that bad things will happen is increased if you grow up in a single-parent household.

CONAN: Did the same results obtain if you said: What if they're raised by a single father?

Mr. MORAN: Interesting. We did not ask - we didn't ask that. Since most single-parent households are by women, it's - the real issue is single moms.

CONAN: Well, we want to find out if those attitudes translate into the experiences of single mothers. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. How do people treat you? And we'll start with Paige(ph), and Paige is on the line with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

PAIGE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAIGE: This is very interesting to me, just from a sociological perspective and being a budding sociologist in school right now and raising two children, two teenagers as a single mother.

I do think that sociologically, it does have a lot to do with our culture and the way that our culture views women. I think that it's telling that the question didn't get asked of men raising children by themselves. And I think that part of the negative view of women raising children on their own is because of the view that our culture has of women.

And, I don't know, I'm wondering if the gentleman could say something about that aspect and the way that people do view women in our culture and that maybe they don't believe that women are capable of raising children on their own to be productive members of society or counter-culture. And I'll take the answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, Paige, thanks very much for the call. Rich Moran, is this sexism, pure and simple?

Mr. MORAN: Good question. One thing that we don't want to do is attempt to demonize single mothers or necessarily demonize the American public. I'm not sure that some of the motivation, negative motivations, played a role in, you know, in these judgments.

I don't know what the answer would have been had we asked about single fathers. Something tells me that it would have been different, but in the same direction, maybe not the same magnitude or maybe greater.

The issue is the outcomes that come from a child being raised by just one parent. Everyone agrees, or most everyone, that the best possible situation is a loving mother and father raising a child.

CONAN: Mary Pols is a journalist who reviews books and movies for Time magazine, also a single mother. Her memoir is titled "Accidentally On Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother," and she joins us today from Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland, Maine. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. MARY POLS (Journalist, Time; Author, "Accidentally On Purpose"): Thank you, nice to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder: Do you see these attitudes portrayed amongst the people in your life? Are you treated differently because you're a single mom, do you think?

Ms. POLS: You know, I remember when I was pregnant, one of my dear male friends said to me, you know: You are going to be alone in this emotional landscape. And I just thought: Wow, that's a really huge burden. And I don't feel that way.

I certainly do feel different, you know, a little bit out of the norm at school when I'm dropping him off or, you know, just among parents at play dates and things like that. There is this sense, which I think kind of reminds me a little bit of the way my parents, who were, you know, children of the Depression, they used to discourage me from playing with the children of divorced parents, as if, you know, I would just go over there and immediately start dropping acid because they were divorced parents, you know...

CONAN: The sins of the parents, yes.

Ms. POLS: Yeah. So I feel like maybe we've sort of moved into that category, that suspect category.

CONAN: It's interesting. We have an email here from Shel(ph) in Durham, North Carolina: I took that Pew poll, and I answered that single moms were bad for society. My reason was that I know how hard it is to be the sole economic and nurturing support and that our society does so little help.

And I wonder if you think she's right about that?

Ms. POLS: Me?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. POLS: Well, you know, I've had - I'm sort of a little bit of a freak of a single mother in that I feel like even economically, my life has actually gotten better as a single mother. And I think it's probably because I've been so motivated to raise my child in a good home and, you know, get him the things he needs and that I've worked much harder professionally than I ever did before.

So, you know, I feel strangely lucky, and I know that's not what the perception is, you know, that I think single mothers are sort of looked at as people who have failed on some very deep level, that they have not mated off with a man, or they mated off with a man, and then he said: Honey, I'm out of here.

So - but for me, it's been a very good and very positive experience, and, you know, I read something like this Pew study, and I think, as do I think a lot of my single-mother friends: Oh, that's so annoying. That's really irritating, and it's so not true of what we're feeling out here in the world.

But, you know, people are going to think what they're going to think, and you just kind of have to get back to doing what you're doing, which is working really hard for your child.

CONAN: Rich Moran, I wonder: Have you got any kind of database that can show whether attitudes have changed over the years?

Mr. MORAN: We can say with some degree of confidence that on a number of the other trends that attitudes have grown more tolerant over the years. This one, there does not seem to be any change, though we don't have data going back too far.

You know, informed speculation would suggest probably the number was larger in the past than it is now, but still, when you have 69 percent saying it's bad for society, that's a large number and a fairly clear judgment.

CONAN: Would you explain that - I'm sorry, Mary Pols, go ahead.

Ms. POLS: I was just going to speculate that maybe right before they got the phone call from the pollster, they were watching one of the reality shows about unwed teenagers or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POLS: That would probably cause me to teeter right over into the skeptic group myself.

Mr. MORAN: You know, that could be the case. But my best guess is that these attitudes are based on personal experiences and just what they see. You're in a very fortunate situation, and you are lucky, as is your son. But as you know, many single moms aren't quite as lucky to be as financially secure as you are.

And many women who were financially secure find themselves suddenly in a very different financial situation after divorce. And as you know, studies suggest the children pay the price.

CONAN: And studies also suggest that it's the educational achievements of the mom, no matter what, how many parents there are in the family, the determining factor of how well their children are likely to do.

Mr. MORAN: You know, and that is true, but Sara McLanahan of Princeton did one of the path-breaking studies in the '90s and actually controlled for the education of the parent and found that it didn't make a lot of difference.

CONAN: All right, Rich Moran, thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.

Mr. MORAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Rich Moran is of the Pew Research, and you can find a link to his survey and find a link to that poll at our website, at npr.org. He joined us from the Pew Research Center here in Washington, D.C. We're going to continue with Mary Pols, and we want to hear from single moms today. How do people treat you? Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

The American family looks a little different now than it did in the days of Ward and June Cleaver. Sometimes, parents are married, sometimes unmarried. Sometimes dads have - kids have two dads. Some couples don't have children at all. Some parents raise kids alone.

A new Pew Research poll found that among all those possible configurations, moms raising kids on their own are considered bad for society. So today, we want to hear from single mothers. How do people treat you? Tell us your story, 800-989(ph) is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation by going to our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Mary Pols, author of "Accidentally On Purpose," a single mom of her son. And boy, there's a lot of emails coming in. From Lynn(ph): I'm lucky in that I'm an older mom, 40 when I had my son. I don't feel I'm looked down on, but finding other couples, friends at my son's school is hard. Single moms are not invited to dinner or barbecues with other families. We can feel left out of social events.

And this from Jeanie(ph) in Washington, D.C.: I'm sure you're going to receive lots of emails that echo my sentiment, but I was raised, for better or worse, by a single mother. She worked two jobs, received her master's degree, is currently pursuing her Ph.D.

I double-majored in English and anthropology and graduated with honors from the University of Michigan. I'm currently in graduate school in Washington. I would say in the grand scheme of things, I turned out okay.

And I'm sure that there are a lot of people in Janine's(ph) - excuse me, category, but I wonder, Mary Pols, if you sympathize with Lynn. Is there some ostracism?

Ms. POLS: There is a little bit. I don't think it's - I definitely don't think it's deliberate. I just think that the way that couples socialize tends to be with other couples.

I was also older. I was 39 when I had my son, and I was just a month shy of 40. So I had a very strong, established network. But as a single woman, I was already sort of left out of the family events, you know, the camping trips that people went on in the summer and - or, you know, dinner parties where everybody was a couple.

So I feel like what happened for me as a single mother was basically kind of a continuation of that, and that's not to say that my friends treated me badly by any means but just that it is - it is a little awkward.

You know, I have one single-mom friend who says that she feels a little bit as though some people think: Okay, are you here to get my husband? You know, is that why you're at this party? Which, you know, obviously rare.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POLS: But - so I do think there is a - there's just - there is a problem. You know, where do I fit in? And honestly, I think that's part of the reason we tend to gravitate to each other.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Adel(ph). Adel's with us from Birmingham.

ADEL (Caller): Hello. I'm fascinated by this subject. I am a single mother raising a child. But I'm single in a category that rarely gets acknowledged. I'm a single mother because my husband died.

And my child was seven months old when his father died, and I have to say I heard your - one of your guests say that it's not an issue about demonizing, but there is - if it's unconscious or subconscious, there is a level of demonization that does go on, and it happens - I watch the single mothers with children that I know.

We live in an upper-middle-class economic, socioeconomic area. And it - the sort of demonization or marginalization happens not only to the mothers, but to the children, as well.

CONAN: To the children, as well.

Ms. POLS: Yes.

ADEL: That's my experience.

Ms. POLS: Yes, I think that's true. One of my son's friends at Montessori preschool, you know, he's just always asking: Can we have a play date with him? Can we have a play date with him? And I kept asking the parents, and I knew that they were, you know, they were very religious people, and I felt that when I had explained my situation to them, they had looked somewhat askance on me.

And I just had to conclude, after all these attempts at getting play dates and failing, that we just weren't really welcome at their house. And it made me really sad because my son loved this boy.

CONAN: Adel...

ADEL: I find it true in Cub Scouts, as well. And I'll give a for-instance. We went to a Campboree this past weekend, and when I registered my son, the man who was registering said: And are you registering his father? I said no, he doesn't have a father. So his father's not attending? No, he doesn't have a father. Well, then who's going to be with this child? I'm going to be with him. So you're going to register?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADEL: Question number four: Yes, my child doesn't have a father, and I will be - and I run into that I can't tell you how much.

CONAN: Well...

ADEL: Because a child without a father, you know, it's such an anomaly that it just doesn't even figure, much less for my son - it's a son - my son's experience in community sports. It's not been good.

CONAN: Adel, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ADEL: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Maria(ph): My son is now 19, but I learned pretty quickly from the reactions of others that my pregnancy was not a happy occasion. My news was often met with disdain by members of my family and advice from friends that I terminate my pregnancy.

I stopped sharing my news and felt intensely sad when I watched married pregnant women put on a pedestal. I had to earn respect by proving that I could effectively raise my son on my own. I devoted my life to being his mom. He's now a freshman in college. I'm often told what a good job I have done.

I wonder: Did you get that kind of reaction when you were pregnant, Mary Pols?

Ms. POLS: Oh, you know, I remember my boss - I was working at a newspaper in California when I was pregnant. I remember my boss calling me into his office, and we were talking about it, and, you know, maybe I was four months pregnant or something like that. And he said to me: So did you consider having an abortion?

And there was part of me that thought: Well, this is an extraordinarily improper conversation. And then there was part of me that thought: Well, this man has been sort of my friend and mentor, in a way, as my boss, and maybe he just wants to have a conversation. Maybe he's just curious about how a 39-year-old woman goes about such a decision. So I'll answer him. You know, I'll answer him honestly.

But, you know, I guess I have to say, you know, it's a pretty big question to ask someone in the office, right? So I think, you know, for me, I did the same thing. I decided: Im just going to own this. I'm, you know, I'm pregnant, I'm going to come in looking pregnant, and there's really nothing much I can do about it, and people are just going to have to roll with it the way I'm rolling with it.

And I'm going to be a good mother, and I'm so excited to hear that somebody's got an upstanding freshman in college, a single mother. You know, to me, I think a lot about the sort of lack of single-mother role models we have in our culture, and maybe because I'm a movie critic, I really latched on to the mother in "Toy Story."

You know, three movies, no dad. And it took me until the third one to really realize: No, he's not dead, or maybe he's dead, but they're not divorced. He's just gone. There's no dad here. And I loved the subtlety of the way that, you know, obviously Andy, I know he's an animated character, but he's a great kid, right.

And for me, it's like: Wow, here I am latching on to "Toy Story" as an example of a single mother celebrated in culture by doing a good job with her kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, being raised by Pixar, yeah.

Ms. POLS: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Alan(ph) on the line. Alan's with us from Fulton, New York.

ALAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Alan.

ALAN: I had the opposite. I was a single father who brought up a daughter. And I was in Michigan at the time. I got divorced from my wife, and they gave me, first, temporary customary, as they do in Michigan, and you have to wait six months to go back to see if you get full custody.

And during that time, everybody that I met said: Well, you'll never get full custody. They don't give full custody to men. And - but when I went back six months later, I did. And I raised her, raised her by myself, and...

CONAN: And what were people's attitudes like? Does this conversation about women raising children alone resonate with you?

ALAN: Well, single fathers run into some of the same things that I've been hearing on the show, that, you know, just the way that you can actually do that by yourself, you know, without a woman around, in your case with a single mom, without a man around and so forth.

I was very careful about dating and so forth until she was like a senior in high school because my main concern was to be a good father.

CONAN: But did you feel the stigma?

ALAN: More disbelief, I think, or wonder, you know. Well, how did you do that? You know, boy, you were really lucky. And comments like that, you know.

CONAN: Oh, lucky to win...

ALAN: Lucky to win custody, yeah.

CONAN: All right, Alan, thanks very much for the call.

ALAN: Okay.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Ashley(ph) in Anchorage. I am not a fan of single motherhood being myself a single mother of two small children. I wish I had time to myself. I wish I were able to count on someone else to make dinner, brush the kids' teeth, put them to bed, et cetera. However, I know I can manage it just fine myself, and it's very empowering to know that I don't need to count on anyone else.

Of course, I know others view me differently. I'm sure it has not helped me moved up in the business world. But as long as I'm generally happy and my kids are happy and healthy, I'm not concerned with what others think. My children's lives are much less dysfunctional than they would be if their father was in their life.

So you have to ask, compared to what? But I wonder about - has your decision, Mary Pols, has that affected you professionally?

Ms. POLS: You know, I - well, first of all, I just have to say to the woman in Alaska that soon they will start brushing their own teeth and putting on their own pajamas, which is really a wonderful thing. But, for me professionally, you know, I grew up thinking that Pauline Kael was - you know, the movie critic from The New Yorker...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POLS: ...was just a goddess. And at some point, I found this quote by her where - she was a single mother, and I think she may have had her child under somewhat unusual circumstances with someone who was a friend or something like that. But she said there's nothing to motivate you like needing to support a child, and so I took that on as sort of my mantra.

And, you know, when my son was about a year old, I applied for a fellowship at Stanford. I got it. I got to spend a year there studying film. I started working on this memoir, and, you know, ultimately, I feel like when I look at my life, it is better professionally.

I mean, I don't mean to imply that I'm financially secure or that I don't worry. I mean, I think about it all the time. Right now, I'm just wondering if, you know, the Downeast Oil Company had deposited $600 more of oil into my furnace today while I've been gone and I'll have to pay it, but things are better. I am stronger and I - exactly, I am empowered.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Cynthia(ph) in Billings. I was widowed when my children were in elementary school. People tended to either pity me or expect me to bounce back rapidly. I had to learn quickly not to pay attention to what anyone thought. The point was to raise my children. Well, parenthood and - under any circumstance has its challenges. Single parents should be respected for how they meet a greater challenge.

We're talking about a Pew survey that found attitudes towards single motherhood to be, well, about seven and 10 of Americans thought it was bad for society. We're talking with Mary Pols, who's the author of "Accidentally On Purpose: The True Tale Of A Happy Single Mother." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Shelly(ph) is on the line. Shelly with us from Chapel Hill.

SHELLY (Caller): Hi. I'm actually not a single mother, but I represent juveniles accused of crime in the juvenile justice system. And many of the children I work with are raised in single-mother households. And when I - you know, when I heard the Pew Institute study that single motherhood is bad for society, I found that statement really problematic as though it's the mother's fault.

You know, I think the system, our laws, our schools, our judges, are prejudiced against single mothers. You know, if a - one of my clients, you know, gets kicked out of school for getting into a school fight and has to go to court, the judge blames the mom, says you're not putting in the family structure in place to keep your child well-behaved, and that kid usually gets adjudicated delinquent, is on probation for 12 months, gets into another fight, and they're stuck in the system.

So when we say single mothers are bad for society, it's not the single mothers. It's the judges. It's the school boards. It's our bias against these family structures and not providing the necessary support for them.

CONAN: Those mothers - and I hate to lump them all into a category - but would you say that they were all financially challenged as well? That poverty may play a part in that too?

SHELLY: Of course. I mean, these are low-income families, and these - I mean, if you're a rich kid going to a private school, getting into a schoolyard fight is not a big deal. But if you're in Durham Public School, it lands you in court. And these mothers can't - they're working three, four jobs, have two, three children and can't provide the financial means to put their children in a position of privilege where they don't get in trouble.

And the other thing is a lot of the women I work - or the mothers I see, they're not single mothers by choice. I mean, some of their husbands have passed away. Some of their husbands are abusers. Some of their husbands are in prison. So I think our society is biased to the point that we've put these women in really difficult positions.

CONAN: I think that's what the survey was trying to find out. Anyway, Shelly, thanks very much for the call.

SHELLY: Thank you.

Ms. POLS: It's funny - if the survey had said, for instance, instead of, you know, do you think that single mothers raising children without fathers or without male figures are bad for society? What if it had said, you know, are absentee fathers good for society or bad for society?

I mean, obviously, it skews in this very interesting way because the sort of person of first responsibility inevitably is the mother in American society. You know, my son's father is, you know, he's in California. We're in Maine now. But he has been an active part in my son's life.

And, you know, every school that my child has been at has had both of our phone numbers. And for the last couple of years, his dad has been out of work. So I've made it clear that, you know, call him first if he's in the nurse's office or if he has taken a detour on the way to the bathroom and ended up in the janitor's closet doing something naughty, call the dad. But they always called me first - always.

And, you know, for me, I'm sort of I'm in the middle of movie screening. I can't come, you know, have his dad do something about it. But that is just the natural inclination - the mother - you know, because the mother is the one.

CONAN: Well, the protective one too, as well as...

Ms. POLS: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...the responsible one. Anyway...

Ms. POLS: Yeah. And not to say that there aren't wonderful, wonderful responsible fathers, but I think just our societal inclination is to say...

CONAN: Is to see it...

Ms. POLS: ...let's get Mom on the phone.

CONAN: Yeah. Get Mom on the phone.

Ms. POLS: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Anyway. Mary Pols, thanks very much. We appreciate your time today.

Ms. POLS: Thank you.

Mary Pols is a film reviewer and author. Her book is "Accidentally On Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mom." She works for Time magazine, and she joined us from Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland.

When we come back, we'll bring you an update on Libya. Moammar Gadhafi told Libyan state television today that the protesters - many of them young people -are motivated by hallucinogens supplied by al-Qaida. NPR's Tom Gjelten will join us with the latest, plus we'll wrap up our series on Oscar-nominated documentaries with Josh Fox, director of "Gasland." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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