With the exception of widows, single mothers have traditionally faced strong social stigma. Feminists have made removing this stigma a priority as it is essential in order to free women from the reciprocal obligations which traditionally have come with motherhood. Feminism is far more about removing women’s responsibilities than it is about increasing women’s rights, so this is a critical area of focus for feminism.
On the surface feminists have been very successful removing the stigma associated with unwed motherhood. Religious conservatives like Glenn Stanton, Director of Family Formation Studies for Focus On The Family now refer to unwed mothers as heroic, and attribute the explosion in out of wedlock births to the failings of men. Director Stanton explains this in his book on parenting (emphasis mine):
If women can’t find good men to marry, they will instead compromise themselves by merely living with a make-do man or getting babies from him without marriage. Unfortunately, this describes exactly the new shape of family growth in Western nations by exploding margins…
Women want to marry and have daddies for their babies. But if they can’t find good men to commit themselves to, well… Our most pressing social problem today is a man deficit.
Director Stanton’s profoundly modern view of unwed mothers is very common amongst the most socially conservative Christians. Pat Robertson’s 700 Club celebrates a book by and about unwed mothers, while Pastor Mark Driscoll describes the problem very much like Director Stanton does above.
Despite the astounding success feminists have had convincing our cultural leaders that unwed motherhood should be seen as only normal (or even heroic), below the surface the stigma still remains. One unwed mother recently complained about the unfairness of it all at babycenter.com
I am so sick of single mom stereotypes, and this articles just tries to justify them all. I’m sick of people thinking I’m any less an awesome mom because I don’t have a husband. I’m sick of people thinking I’m trashy because my kids have different fathers.
Another over at Cafe Mom described feeling overwhelmed by the judgment she perceives:
Lately it seems like everywhere I turn, I mean EVERYWHERE, I’m faced with some stereotyping about single moms.
I feel so discouraged.
So many people seem to think that I must have been irresponsible, or slutty or stupid or selfish, or a horrible wife.
I’ve even heard someone say single mothers shouldn’t expect some man to pick up the pieces of her bad choices. It makes me feel ashamed that I even want to remarry.
Why do they automatically assume we all made some terrible choices?
And even if some of us did, are we not allowed to make mistakes?
The discussion at Cafe Mom went on for 147 comments, and there was wide agreement by the resident unwed mothers that they were indeed perceived as the OP described. Despite the best efforts of conservative Christian leaders, single mothers are still perceived negatively.
Part of the problem is that real life examples of single mothers and the impact of fatherlessness on children are far too common to ignore, so the perceptions end up being driven by reality instead of opinion leaders. While the average man or woman likely would regurgitate the PC take on single mothers, at a gut level they know something different. This probably explains why single mothers still feel the stigma even though expressing this stigma has itself become taboo.
This will only become worse moving forward, since 40% of all births in the US are now out of wedlock, and those children born in (theoretical) wedlock are still at extremely high risk of having their father expelled from the home. Single mothers are now a massive demographic, and marketers are catering to them.
The children’s network Nickelodeon caused controversy by launching a block of sexually laced programming aimed at mothers on their channel Nick Jr. as the article from KVUE explains:
One can only assume that Nickelodeon has done the market research and has determined that shows like Mom Friends Forever (MFF) are what the mothers of their youngest viewers are interested in. Here is the description of the series from Nick Mom (emphasis mine):
Follow the real lives of Judi and Kate, mom best friends who are juggling work, kids and relationships—and laughing through it all.
For a sense of the show, see the preview titled Dating Again. From the website it appears that one of the two mom friends is married but it isn’t clear if her husband is the father of her children. Either way, the ostensible new face of motherhood has a trashiness which is impossible to ignore, and the focus on “dating” is a big part of it.
To some degree this represents an overall loss of class by mothers in general, but it is also clear that single mothers and soon to be single mothers are leading the cultural charge here. As this progresses further it will put more and more strain on “team woman” as higher class married mothers become less and less comfortable being associated with low class single mothers. While divorce fantasies like Eat Pray Love are clearly appealing to the majority of married women and many will be tempted by the “liberation” offered by mixing raunchiness in with their identities as mothers, the tackiness of this becomes more difficult to conceal every year.