Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Trouble With Single Parents

This week we're getting a barrage of reviews of The Two-Parent Privilege, a book that presents the unsurprising conclusion that having two married parents is good for kids. Here's one by Annie Lowry in The Atlantic, if you need a taste.

I have thoughts. I have done parenting three ways in my life-- two working parents, single divorced dad, and two married parents with one stay-at-home. There is no doubt that the third way is better, easier-- but the big question is why.

Two working parents had the advantage of two incomes. Neither of us had the kind of income that would have made raising two kids particularly easy. We had other advantages. My job as a teacher fir better with the kids' schedule and we lucked out with a neighbor for good child care. By the time their mother and I split, we were both making enough to operate our own household, and the kids still had the benefit of two-income support. We were also able to be amicable and put the kids first, rather than stick them in the middle of an endless battle. My ex was a good co-parent, so I didn't even have to do the harder version of single parenting. And we had the flexibility of professional careers where getting time off is not a major struggle.

Those kids grew. Putting them through college tapped my resources to the limit, but we got there. Eventually I remarried, and the Board of Directors followed. I retired when they were one. My pension gives us two incomes, but my retirement gives us the flexibility of one non-working parent, which is huge. Huge. And the CMO (Chief Marital Officer) has decent health insurance. 

Single parenting is hard. Getting kids (and yourself) where they need to be without backup is hard. Paying for everything with a single income is hard. Finding childcare is hard, and paying for it often cancels out attempts to work. Managing the mental and emotional bandwidth for yourself and your small humans is hard. Dealing with an unending parade of institutions that all assume that you can take time off and that there are two of you to manage things is hard. Even with plenty of privilege, single parenting is a big square peg in society's round hole 

Not a week goes by that I don't have the thought, "How do people without our advantages manage this?" How do people who can't just leave work deal with a suddenly sick child? How do people without decent health insurance deal with the health care issues that pop up? How do people with only two hands manage the daily grind of parent stuff? How does anyone run a home on a single income in an era in which single incomes just aren't enough? It's a lot of hard choices, a lot of choices where the best available options aren't always that great.

I mean, I know how they do this stuff, but the mind boggles at how hard some of it can be. And I live in a compact small town area where life is marginally cheaper, there's a local hospital, and it's not a big project just to get from Point A to Point B. I have tons of privilege, and the single dad thing was still rough. But married with two incomes and one stay-at-home is so much easier--so very much easier--than the other options. Child care. Getting them managed to and from school. Health care (especially appointments). Financial stuff. Food stuff. All of these things become an uphill grind when there's just one of you. 

But the most frustrating part is that it doesn't have to be this way. We have built a society around the assumption that most normal households have one working parent and one stay at home, and we have just doubled down even as reality changes (Exhibit A: A school day that is still completely out of synch with the work day. Exhibit B: literally the world's worst leave policy for parents of newborns.). 

Yes, I agree that some folks have bent over backwards to avoid saying any version of "Single parenting has a lot of disadvantages." Partly because most single parents don't want or need to hear it; as a single parent, I was pretty sure I had failed and was screwing everything up, and having someone tell me that wasn't particularly helpful. Nor are the non-zero number of persons who chose no partner over a terrible toxic partner likely to buy the notion they'd be better off with that person. And conservatives have often adopted such a scolding tone that single parent disapproval just sounds like one more way to tell poor folks, "It's your own fault you're poor."

But letting the single parent discussion become a political football, where sticking to the team orthodoxy is more important than talking about the actual issue for actual humans.

The why. The why is that we have built a society arranged around A) that hypothetical family and B) the needs of employers and businesses. 

We have built a house with doors that all have a five foot clearances, and now we're telling six foot tall people that they ought to be trying harder to fit. We've built an entire infrastructure without sidewalks on the assumption that driving is the correct moral choice, and now we deliver lectures on how people without cars should be more careful when they walk places.

So we can say that single parenting contributes to a high rate of child poverty, or we could say that the way our country handles single parenting contributes to a high rate of poverty. At a minimum, we can say both.

I don't know how we get past the premise that when people make bad choices, it's really important that they suffer for them, and attempts to ameliorate that suffering are morally wrong. I happen to agree that raising children in a stable home and partnership is the best choice. But it's not the best available choice for everyone. We can come up with systems that work for everybody, or we can stick with systems that only work well for people who are making the choices we approve of, but then we have to reckon with the results for a generation of young innocent bystanders. 

We know how to dramatically reduce child poverty--we just did it for a couple of years, on the premise that it was nobody's personal fault that they were caught in a medical disaster. Going forward, we can decide that people must suffer for the choices that supposedly made them single and/or poor, or we can help them to get to a place where options for a better life, single or married, are available and accessible. Wagging our fingers at single parents will not get us there; creating a world where they actually fit, might.

1 comment:

  1. "We can help them get to a place where better choices are available and accessible." People who never had money and married someone who turned out to be unacceptably abusive will in most cases prefer not to be identified as people who need someone else to explain to them that they need some organization to help them make better choices.
    Compassion and practical support for single parents is awesome. Lots of this.
    Believing they need "our" help because apparently they didn't make good choices (otherwise they wouldn't be poor or divorced) is peak condescension.