Grothman’s rhetoric makes it clear he is targeting women. In campaigning for the bill, he has stated that accidental pregnancies are “the choice of women” who need to learn better. Using words like “illegitimate birth,” he paints a picture of women who “live quite well” in housing projects on $400 a month in food stamps. He claims they become so wealthy on this “government largesse,” their sisters become jealous of their good fortune and decide to get pregnant, too. (Most single mothers are married when they become pregnant and become divorced or separated later, but Grothman is not one to let facts get in his way.)
Grothman’s proposed law will “emphasize the role of fathers in the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect.” The bill fails to emphasize the role of mothers, even though some kinds of abuse are disproportionately committed by male perpetrators. In fact, the bill puts women with violent husbands in a double bind where they are as guilty of creating a so-called abusive home by leaving the abuser as by staying with him.
Grothman is not alone in his contempt for single mothers. In his first senatorial campaign, Rick Santorum accused single women of “breeding more criminals.” Like Grothman, Santorum claimed women were getting pregnant on purpose to receive welfare checks. He also accused children of faking mental disabilities to obtain government benefits.
Before we can solve the problem of single motherhood, we should ask whether it really is a problem. The data Grothman cites to claim single-mother households are more abusive shows a difference smaller than the margin-of-error and thus not considered statistically significant. Furthermore, the data only addresses correlation, not causation. Other factors such as poverty may skew the statistics; in fact, a more comprehensive study just might reveal that non-impoverished households where children live with a woman (and no men) are statistically the safest place for children to be. Yet we would not label the mere presence of a father or stepfather in the home as a “contributing factor to abuse.” We would not stigmatize marriage as abusive to children, or assume that all men are potential sex abusers. To stigmatize all single mothers is just as illegal and just as unfair.
Single parenting is not a modern phenomenon. Life expectancy was once much shorter. Throughout history, parenthood has often been cut short by mothers dying during childbirth, fathers going off to war, untreated disease, and accidents.
I’m thinking of stories I know from the 1940s and 1950s in my own family: A little girl staying with her grandmother while her mother worked, helping in the garden and sharing a multigenerational experience that enriched her life. About the same time, a mother of 10 suddenly became a widow. She took in washing, watched other people’s children, grew her own food — and she prayed. Most of all she prayed, her eyes as intense as blue flame and her voice quivering with faith and fervor.
The two-parent, two-child family is our society’s ideal, not a universal reality. Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, and President Obama were all raised by single mothers. Charles Wesley’s parents often lived separately, and when their house burnt, his mother farmed the children out to neighbors for a few years. Then there is the most famous person born to a single mother and raised with the help of a stepfather: Jesus Christ.
Even Santorum thinks Jesus turned out OK.
Jeannie Babb is a Ringgold native. You can find her on FaceBook or pedaling a neon green bike through the Sewanee fog to the School of Theology, black academic gown billowing behind like a sail. Send email to email@example.com.