Tag Archives: Family Values

Single Mothers Have Family Values


Yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review ran an article under the headline, Single Mothers With Family Values (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/single-mothers-with-family-values.html?partner=rss&emc=rss). 

 I was arrested by the title. Was this an article defending single mothers? Refuting the scapegoat status of single mothers as symbols of the ethical and economic chaos engulfing modern life?

 Nah-uh. It was an article about single mothers who vote Republican, a demographic the piece claimed was a significant minority but whose numbers it never identified. In other words: Republican = family values. Republican single mothers = a minority of single mothers with family values. 

No doubt the title was meant ironically, but nothing in the article it graced suggested that.

 Instead, what was offered was a confused discussion of conservative women, with the assertion early on that it is hubris to write them off them as fools acting in their own worst interests. It’s true that it can be tough for liberals to think about groups such as the gay and lesbian Log Cabin Republicans, the National Black Republican Association, or RNC [Republican National Committee] Women without a queasy suspicion that they represent the triumph of self-delusion. I read on, intrigued. Ready to be enlightened.

What followed was a jumble of examples of conservative single mothers. Some whose politics seem linked to their objection to other families receiving the kinds of government assistance that have kept them and their children going in the past. Some who expressed disaffection with feminism, which they understand as a political stance taken by women who believe they can survive and even raise children without men – a stance these women themselves embody, albeit in some cases asserting that they aren’t really single as they are married to Jesus Christ. One whose resolve to take responsibility for herself includes shouldering the blame for domestic violence she’s suffered. Family values indeed. 

As a single mother who is both a feminist and a democrat, I’m not in sympathy with these views, though other women are certainly entitled to hold them. I’m far more offended, to get back to where I began, with a title that implies an amazing discovery: Single mothers with family values! 

Family Values is one of those phrases – Right to Life is another – that we have allowed right wing extremists to co-opt and render meaningless. Whether she chose to give birth or adopt on her own, or whether she’s found herself unexpectedly parenting solo, in my experience a single mother tends to be a person putting family first. In fact I can’t think of a better poster child for family values than a woman single-handedly trying to meet the needs of children, bearing on her own the burdens of family life that two-parent families have been known to find onerous. She may not be talking family values because she’s too busy honoring them.

“Single mother” and “family values” is not an incongruous or startling pairing. A single mother is, by and large, a person living a 24/7 commitment to family values – in many cases while the man who fathered her children is doing anything but.



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The Barbie Wars

American Girl Doll’s decision to put its historical dolls in moth balls might be bad news for our American girls. Then again it might not. Blank-slate dolls, crying out for narrative, may be what our girls need. Maybe vapidity, not heroism, inspires most.

Around the time she turned two, my middle child, whose delicate sensibilities I was working to protect against the onslaught of pop-culture notions of femininity, decided that she had to have a Barbie doll.  She’d seen an older girl playing with one at the park and it was toy lust at first sight.  I was shocked.  The plastic icon of chic-hood was not the role model I wanted my daughter to aspire toward.  How could I convey that while shielding her from the very ideals of womanhood the doll represents to me?  I could point out the feet molded to the shape of stiletto heels, the hourglass figure. What would they mean to a two-year-old? The time wasn’t ripe for an analysis of impossible standards of female beauty.

Whatever I sputtered that day, she didn’t get it.  She didn’t want to know if I would get her a Barbie.  She wanted to know when.  The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.  “I’ll buy you a Barbie,” I told her, “on the day I buy your brother a machine gun.”  Now I had something else to explain:  sarcasm, when she innocently began to tell people that her mother was going to buy a machine gun for her brother and a Barbie doll for her.

I didn’t get my daughter a Barbie. My daughter didn’t stop wanting one. At four she began to say that when her baby sister got a little older she’d tell her about Barbie, along with other essential information about being a girl.  I didn’t even groan:  my son did it for me.  It isn’t all that tough to get an eleven-year-old boy to groan over Barbie.  Once, after playing with a friend, my little girl remarked that she’d forgotten to ask the other girl if she liked Barbie.  “She’s too smart to like Barbie,” I was quick to quip.

My daughter thought this over and smiled, utterly undaunted.  “I’m smart and I like Barbie,” she announced.

What could I say?  My razor-sharp girl had me.  “That’s true,” I was forced to admit.  “You can be smart and like Barbie.” 

According to my daughter, all her school friends had Barbies.  Some had dozens.  One had a hundred, another had a life-sized Barbie.  I took all of these reports at face value; I didn’t ask.  I explained for the millionth time that we would never have a Barbie in our home.  Famous last words.

Evidently five is the age when girly-gift giving explodes.  For my daughter’s birthday, a relative gave her a full skirt and tight, low-cut sweater, enthusing:  “You can be a cheerleader!”  “I don’t even want her to know cheerleading exists!” I rudely blurted.   A playmate gave her a toy makeup kit, while another gave her a kind of Barbie Junior that my daughter informed us was Barbie’s younger sister.  I held firm: her birthday gifts from me included no Barbies. The occasion passed. I relaxed: our house was still, safely, a Barbie-free zone.

Which made it especially stunning when, one afternoon shortly after her birthday, my daughter got off the school van clutching a big, shiny Barbie shopping bag with joy and trepidation.  The good news was that she was very happy.  The bad news was that the van driver had given her a Barbie.  Turned out for months she’d been confiding to the driver that she longed for a Barbie.  Not that she wasn’t allowed to have a Barbie.  Just that she longed for one.

I felt like I was caught between a rock and a hard place – to be more specific, between a floozy’s V-necked sweater and a Barbie.  If I told my darling she couldn’t keep the doll, I’d teach her only that her mother was a troll who cared more about mysterious principles than her happiness.  If I let her keep it, I’d be letting go of my own values where holding on to them mattered most – in raising my child.

I let her keep the doll.  I told her that this was a one-time deal, and that if anyone gave her another Barbie, we’d give it away.   Then I watched my little girl, with her athletically rounded body, brown eyes and wildly curly brown hair, play with her Barbie – anorexic-thin body, vacant blue eyes, straight blonde hair and all.  My daughter immediately decided that her job was to make this hair lie very straight and very flat.  Anything else was fashion aberration in Barbie-land.  I felt like I was losing my little girl.  Worse, like I was giving her up.

When I confided these feelings to another mother she told me that though she too had never bought her daughter a Barbie, their toy box housed a bunch, all received as gifts.  “You know what?” she said.  “She never plays with them.”

My own daughter played with her Barbie exactly once.  She complained that she didn’t know how to play with Barbie, a problem she’d never voiced about a toy before.  “That’s because Barbie doesn’t do anything but get dressed,” I offered, ever the kill-joy.  But I agreed, at her request, to play with her.  We spent an afternoon together with adult and Barbie Jr., and I spun out scenarios in which Evil Barbie imprisoned her smaller clone in a pink, frilly chamber.  My daughter protested these scenarios with squeals of outrage and delight – and made me recast them as beautiful fantasies of a mother who gives her daughter just the pink, frilly birthday she’s always dreamed of. 

I didn’t take away from this experience the belief that that surest way to get kids over an obsession is to give them whatever they crave. I did conclude that what you give your kids is more important than what you withhold. Now, seven years later, it is laughable that I once feared a doll could turn my little girl into a weak-willed feminine flower.  Nothing is ever going to do that. She’s got a lifetime of flexing her muscles against me to make her strong. 

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