Kay Hymowitz is writing about modern marriage gone wrong, again, referencing Charles Murray in her essay, “American Caste”, over at City Journal. She pulls in the findings of the Pew Economic Mobility Project, which reports that, “42 percent of American children whose parents had earnings in the bottom quintile end up there as adults, a significantly higher percentage of immobility than one finds in Canada and much of Europe.” Read the whole thing for her analysis of “lone motherhood” creating a self-perpetuating proletariat. “At the bottom is a negative feedback loop, with kids raised by single mothers in unstable, low-investment homes finding themselves unable to adapt to todays economy and going on to create more unstable, single-mother homes.” We are dividing into castes and the problem is single motherhood.
I teach many single mothers. They come to the college not in spite of their children, but because of them. Their dreams are of making a better life for their children than what they had. They are going to the community college precisely to adapt to today’s economy. From Hymowitz, “if you live the right way, its still possible to move up to the middle class, despite the factory closings of the last few decades. Ron Haskins of the Economic Mobility Project puts it this way: ‘If young people do three thingsgraduate from high school, get a job, and get married and wait until theyre 21 before having a babythey have an almost 75 percent chance of making it into the middle class.’ Those are pretty impressive odds.” I know what the statistics say. I know, too, that the women I meet are ones trying to find a way out of the poverty cycle and the trap that is American poverty. The common theme of these women I encounter is one I am not seeing in statistics. Mothers who love their children more than themselves will push themselves and their children to live better lives. The driving force is love, self-sacrifice, and that might too difficult for statistics to quantify.
The single mothers I encounter are rarely, maybe never, single by choice. If they could find a good man, they would marry. A good man is hard to find, especially one who will take on another man’s child. Almost all of the single mothers in my classes thought that they were headed for marriage with the man who impregnated them. They thought they were loved, but they were not. “You know how it goes.” is what they tell me. I didn’t know, but after six years of hearing variations on the theme, I do.
Many of them are products of single mothers, but often those mothers are pushing them to do better for themselves. Maturity and life experience make a difference, as if in growing older, they get big enough to see over the caste wall to where the grass is greener. That is where they want their children to land when they launch them. They know education is the means to escape. They also know that marriage is a good way out of poverty. Many marry for security and when those marriages fail, they marry again. (America’s high divorce statistics are built on this.) They wonder what men are looking for. Hearing them speak of ex-husbands and the men that got away, I am left with the impression that those men are all misfits. Like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, they find no pleasure in life.
The statisticians tell us that women are the problem. Single mother families cause most of our poverty. I believe it, but not that women are intending to be alone in raising children. If I listen to my students who are single mothers, men are the problem. Men do not want to be husbands and fathers when they can live for themselves. What are we going to do about that?
Marriage asks men to sacrifice themselves. Material comfort makes that easier. Poverty makes self-sacrifice harder. It involves more work and less satisfaction. To do that, endure poverty and sacrifice the self, a man would have to be good or would have to love, which might call goodness out of him. The latter, love, is the good that single mothers are looking for, or so they tell me. Feminism will tell us that women are independent agents, which seems to be an idea embraced even by people who call themselves conservatives. “If women want independence . . . .” but what if women do not want independence, but have found independence thrust upon them? We need to make better men.