Pew Research Center: Americans Overwhelmingly Reject Single Motherhood

I wrote recently about an article in Huffington Post that I liked.  It was by Vicki Larson and it dealt mainly with movies that depict good, loving dads and pointed out that in all or most of them, the mom was either dead or, for some other reason, out of the picture.  Larson’s all-too-pertinent question was why does Hollywood feel the need to kill off mom in order to allow guys to be good dads?

But her piece also included a link to a recent study completed by the Pew Research Center.  Here it is in full (Pew Social Trends, 2/16/11).

The study has some fascinating findings, but one thing in particular is devastating.  Here’s Pew’s description of the survey:

[A] nationally representative sample of 2,691 adults were asked whether they considered the following seven trends to be good, bad or of no consequence to society: more unmarried couples raising children; more gay and lesbian couples raising children; more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them; more people living together without getting married; more mothers of young children working outside the home; more people of different races marrying each other; and more women not ever having children.

In short, Pew asked about some of the significant social trends of the past 40 years or so and then grouped or clustered the responses into people who tended to reject as bad all of the trends, those who tended to accept them and those who were skeptical of them, meaning they tend to accept the trends but “express concern about the impact of these trends on society.”

The three groups Accepters, Rejectors and Skeptics were about equally represented.  Accepters were 31% of the group, Rejectors were 32% and Skeptics were 37%.  Of course not everyone in each group thought alike, but generally speaking they could be grouped according to the criteria applied by Pew.

So, in broad general terms, about 68% of Americans accept the social trends asked about with a little over half of them reserving final judgment.

To me, those are pretty interesting findings, given the topics studied.  We might have expected that the prospect of children being raised in gay and lesbian households would have found broader discomfort, but as it turns out, Americans are pretty equable about that. 

The same is true of unmarried couples raising children, interracial marriage, etc.  And all of those attitudes are strikingly different from, say, the 1960s.

All, that is, except for one category – single motherhood.  A total of 4% of the people surveyed think that “single women raising children without a male partner to help raise them” is “good for society.”  By contrast, 70% (2% of Accepters, 98% of Rejectors and 99% of Skeptics) of those surveyed said that single motherhood is “bad for society.” 

In fact, were it not for their attitudes about this one social trend, Accepters and Skeptics would be essentially the same and meld into one big group that generally accepts all the trends.  In other words, the great majority of Americans (roughly 68%) accept all the trends asked about except single motherhood about which the opposite is true.

Overwhelmingly, Americans have seen single motherhood and they don’t like what they see.  They think it’s a bad idea.

And that’s not for lack of a concerted sales campaign conducted over more than three decades.  For all that time and longer, we’ve been bombarded with feel-good stories about Single Mothers by Choice.  From at least as far back as the early 70s, many feminists were telling women that the family was the seat of male oppression of women and that they were better off alone.  And of course there was the notion that women could “have it all” meaning career and children, and with no inconvenient father around to make life difficult.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a reaction to that nonsense as well there should have been.  Social scientists and many others slowly came around to the recognition that, in fact, single motherhood was generally bad for all concerned. 

One of the best-remembered incidents came in 1988 when Dan Quayle excoriated the sitcom “Murphy Brown” for depicting single motherhood as “just another lifestyle choice.”  Those who had for so long assiduously promoted exactly that leapt quickly to the barricades with some of the most bizarre defenses imaginable.

My favorite was that “Murphy Brown” was fictional and therefore couldn’t possibly have anything to do with either reflecting or shaping public values.  This of course came from the same people who had for decades, and in many ways rightly, criticized popular culture’s depictions of women.  I guess they forgot that; I guess they forgot Betty Friedan’s critique of women’s magazines mainstreaming of the notion that women found only distress by pursuing careers.

By 1993,  Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, did more than anyone else to put the whole matter to rest with her succinct and total takedown of “single motherhood by choice” in her article “Dan Quayle Was Right.”  In the small cossetted world of elite opinion making, single motherhood has never been the same.  Oh, it still has its adherents, but few take it seriously as a choice anyone who cares about themselves or their children would freely make.

But that’s among elites.  What the Pew survey suggests to me is that everyday people have never bought the notion that single motherhood was an acceptable substitute for paired parenting.  The findings of the survey on that topic so radically diverge from those of all the others that they make me think that most people have known this all along. 

As so often happens, elites have been talking to each other and not to us.  They’ve certainly not been listening to us.

Finally, the Pew survey also found fairly broad acceptance for unmarried adults raising children, but it was couples they were asked about and clearly couples they accept.  Those couples can be male/female, male/male or female/female, but when it comes to raising kids, Americans want couples to do it.

In that they’re far smarter than the legion of opiners who have, over the years tried their best to convince us that one parent was as good as two.

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