The self-made choice to be a single mother

A New York Times Article on Vietnamese Single Mothers that provides the roots for my thoughts today:

When the concept of single motherhood comes up in the United States, it’s usually in the form of statistics: “Single mothers are most likely to be at risk for poor food security,” “single mothers are usually more impoverished because they give more to their children to eat than they give themselves,” “single mothers struggle with financial stability,” and the list goes on. In a handful of my Sociology and Education classes, “Power, Privilege, and Inequality,” “Sociology of Gender,” “Perspectives on Education,” and currently, “Research Methods,” a wide range of data consistently shows that single mothers are a group that has high susceptibility to poverty and instability.

This could be true for a variety reasons, the first stemming from the obvious, single mothers are women! Women’s social capital, status, and employment patterns are not nearly on par with men despite what the masses may tell you. Simply because we have the right to work side by side with men does not mean that we have finally achieved our goals. Women still endure sexual harassment in the work place, are passed up for promotions, and are paid less although they may have the same qualifications as a male candidate. The devaluation of femininity has led society to financially and socially reward traditional female-oriented professions and behaviors less (Ex: social work, teaching, secretaries). Take into consideration that it has only been a century since women received suffrage! For centuries before that, some would argue that we women bore the yolk of men. As Engels wrote:

“Marriage itself remained, as before, the legally recognized form, the official cloak of prostitution.”

One of the most disappointing things about my “Theoretical Foundations” class in which I read Weber, Marx, Engels, Durkheim, Goffman (Canadian!!!), Rousseau, and a plethora of other brilliant minds, was that any mention of women was rare in the literature that we read, which is of course to be expected for the time period we were reading. In the rare instance that there was an allusion to the female sex, it was primarily within the context of a woman’s stereotypical, traditional duties to the nation or her husband. Minds have been influenced and shaped by the pensées of these great writers, so needless to say, it is not difficult to see why we are in the status quo if there is little mention of women in the celebrated works we read.

Now, any two logical men standing side by side with the same diplomas in hand and a comparable amount of experience would be rightfully upset if man A or man B was paid more for no reasonable explanation. They both dress well and have assertive, goal-oriented personalities. Now, any logical woman and man standing side by side with the same diplomas in hand and a comparable amount of experience would be rightfully upset if the company promoted one over the other (not explicitly stated) due to gender: “YOU HAVE A UTERUS AND BREASTS! Therefore, I regret to inform you that Matthew will be our new VP of Finance.” Of course, with all the laws protecting against sex discrimination, it is now difficult for an employer to directly go out on a limb and explicitly state that he is promoting a man over a woman, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen subtly. Many of us internalize the value sets and beliefs that society imposes on us. Further, regardless of what people may say, we do hold our personal biases and preferences. For example, I have tendencies to be more sympathetic towards poor women whereas someone else may view them as drains on our welfare system. A prime example was when I was working in the Courthouse and was approached by an employee who started degrading the low SES woman whose case I was sitting in on. I didn’t even realize that some people could perceive her as a liar or as “awful, mean, and a bad mother.” That was the opposite of how I felt about her. My perspectives come from my field of education, and my upbringing (my parents are both very generous people), which affect the way I feel about social issues.

Going back to the topic of being a single mother, social evolution has made it substantially easier and more socially acceptable for women to be single mothers today, but many cultures – arguably western culture can be included in this – still associate stigma to single mothers. For the time period that the events in the New York Times article took place (70s – 80s), being a single mother by CHOICE was highly unconventional for Vietnamese culture. It is fascinating to see that women across the country defied these standards in order to have what they wanted: children, and that they did not need a man to support the family.

Today, the concept of a nuclear family is eroding away. After all, these are socially constructed groupings (depending on who you ask). It will be interesting to see how family dynamics and structures change over time.

My ramblings are done!



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