The new census report showing a decline of the traditional nuclear family has unleashed a Niagara of punditry and a defensive howl from members of The New American Family.
Among the most defensive are single mothers, who feel misunderstood, undervalued and, as often as not, unwilling victims of circumstance. I don't blame them. Being a single parent of either sex is a Sisyphean exercise. If women know more about it than men, it's only because they "won" custody of the children. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) Of course, as one family lawyer put it to me years ago, "He who wins custody, loses."
It's a joke, oh ye scarred-and-weary veterans of the custody wars. Yet, indeed, winning custody conveys a burden that is unknowable to the inexperienced. Hell is the closest word we have to describe it. (END OPTIONAL TRIM)
As an erstwhile single mother, I judge no one. But neither do I pretend that single parenthood is the optimum environment for rearing children. To be defensive about the suggestion that children reared by a lone parent approach life with a handicap is an understandable response - who wants to think that his or her child might suffer? - but it isn't useful.
Defensiveness, after all, is the progeny of guilt. I know it well. During my tenure as a single mother following a divorce that left me with a 2-year-old boy, I learned to understand guilt for what it was. Neither punishment, nor blame, but information.
The information about children from some single-parent homes is disturbing, which is why we try to look the other way. By now we can recite the litany of risks for children who grow up without fathers: more likely to commit suicide, to run away, to have behavior disorders, to be promiscuous, to get pregnant, to drop out of school, to end up in prison.
As for growing up without a mother, I can only remark - again with knowledge born of experience - that mother-absence is the hole in one's heart that never gets filled. The absence of either parent, whether through circumstance or by choice, is both painful and portentous for children. We can't change these facts, nor should we ignore them.
We also can't change circumstances, such as death and justifiable divorce, i.e. abuse, addiction, adultery. What's not justified, as long as minor children are involved, is dissolution of a family simply because one party is, well, just not happy. There are lots of ways to be married, and "happiness," though nice, isn't required. Figure it out.
Meanwhile, it's the choice component of the census findings - one-third of children are born out of wedlock - that keeps me vigilant for the right words. Women, mostly, who decide to have children because they're in the mood and Mr. Right is busy scaling other Everests are, shall we say, bereft of reality.
Reality is that children need, want and deserve both a mother and father; denial is believing that mothers can do it alone.
It's easy to understand how this attitude evolved. Women, after all, do all the hard work of pregnancy and birth, while men's initial contributions can be quantified only with a microscope. Throw in a divorce rate that seems to doom half of all marriages; add the prohibitive expense and emotional toll of divorce; finish with women's financial independence and - voila - who needs a man? Not really anyone except the child, whose mom is always exhausted and who wishes there were a dad around to wrestle.
The solution? Probably not marriage bonuses or tax incentives, though anything's worth a try. More likely, the answer is whatever follows this question: What's the best thing for the children?
Ask it, and grab a big shovel. There's an elephant in the living room.