Madonna and Child

The Madonna and Child, Duccio di Guoninsegna, c. 1300, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In my last post, I blogged on a column David Brooks wrote last week on the rising inequality of opportunity between rich and poor children in America. Now comes a long New York Times article identifying single motherhood as a key factor in that increasing inequality. In the Times article, Jason DeParle (who in his separate blog includes statistics purporting to show the link between rising economic inequality and single motherhood) tracks the paths of two mothers who started out more or less the same—both young middle class women who went to college—but ended up leading very different lives.

One of the women finished college, got married and then had children, and remains married. Result: Two incomes, stable family. The other got pregnant without getting married, dropped out of college, and then proceeded to have two more children with the man who fathered the first child, before ending her relationship with him. Result: One income, one woman raising three kids on her own, everything a terrible struggle. Most of the problems the second mother faces, on the Times account, boil down to the lack of a resident male, which means no second income and, more important, no one with whom to share the burden of child-rearing.

As the author writes,

A large body of research indicates that living apart from a biological parent (typically the father) is associated with a host of negative outcomes that are expected to affect children’s future life chances or ability to move up the income ladder… Children who grow up apart from their biological fathers score lower on standardized tests, report poorer grades, and view themselves as having less academic potential than children who grow up with both biological parents. More importantly, they are also more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to attend college, and less likely to graduate from college.

This is a dire situation. Yet before everyone leaps to conclusions, consider the bigger picture. In the animal realm, fathers mostly do not hang around to help rear their offspring. And even among mammals where the father remains within growling distance, it’s rarely to help out with child-rearing. With lions, for example, the father’s role is to protect his pride, and the cubs are raised semi-collectively by the mothers.

Obviously, there are a lot of things true in nature and the animal kingdom that are not true of human beings. More important, there are many aspects to nature that human culture or civilization tries to correct or override. One of the most beautiful inventions of civilization is the nuclear family unit of the mother, father and child.

At the same time, much of civilization works against this beautiful invention. I can’t tell you how many paintings I saw, in Italy this summer, of the Madonna with the baby Jesus—pictures where the “foster father” Joseph was nowhere in sight. Even in nativity scenes, Joseph mostly lurks in the background as one of the bunch adoring the Virgin and Child.

Although Matthew and Luke mention Joseph, Mark and John barely utter a peep about him. What little we know of him—other than that he was obedient to God—is that he was significantly older than Mary, a carpenter, and a source of strength and wisdom to the family, up until Jesus hit puberty. There are dozens of major Annunciation paintings in which the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin that—in spite of being virgo intacta—she will give birth to the Son of God. But I can’t think of one painting describing Joseph’s message from God telling him not to worry that the woman he’s about to marry is already pregnant. Not until late in the Middle Ages did the Church propel Joseph into the foreground, promoting him as a protector of the family and the Church, and giving rise to images we now refer to as the “Holy Family.”

So, for all the protestations we make about the benefits and importance of marriage and the presence of a father in raising children, the Christian part of our culture gives a conflicting message. We are inundated with Christian images of the Madonna and Child in which the father is nowhere in sight.

In addition to this, we have sentimentalized motherhood through countless images on calendars, t-shirts and coffee mugs and countless clips on YouTube of cute and cuddly mother animals with their cubs—not to mention hyper-touted celebrations of Mother’s Day. (Father’s Day, like Children’s Day, is a mere afterthought). The phrase “mother and child” tumbles from our lips and subliminally affects us all; it should be no wonder that women—even women who should know better—grow up yearning to have babies without thinking through the need for and benefit of having fathers.

The consciously mainstream part of our culture says to women, “Get married before having a child.” But other, deeper cultural rhythms say that women—marital status irrelevant—fulfill themselves only by having children. The Times article, like most articles I read on the subject of single motherhood, glosses over a situation where “a relationship” was “troubled” and eventually collapsed, and yet the woman, who’s smart enough to have at least entered college, “had two more children along the way.” Her having more babies is treated as casually as if the woman had had a couple of bouts with the flu—not her fault, and a minor inconvenience that can be mitigated by an over-the-counter remedy. Didn’t this woman know about contraception? Couldn’t she have practiced it?

In facing the problems of economic and social inequality that are clearly associated with unmarried, single mothers with fathers nowhere in sight, we face more than a problem of education, birth control, abortion, social programs and child support for women. As Horace said, “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always return.” Nature, in the form of many women driven to have babies no matter what, simply won’t go away. As I wrote in my previous post, before the sexual liberation of women, society counted on female chastity (not male chastity) to hold women back from having babies without fathers. Now that the chastity toothpaste is out of the tube (41 percent of all births today are out-of-wedlock), we need to come up with alternative solutions.

For a liberal like me, the answer doesn’t lie primarily in preaching “moral toughness” to people who struggle to make ends meet. Rather, it lies in finding savvy ways to keep fathers around, or at least economically contributing to the rearing of the children they spawn. As a society, we need to come up with economic incentives—i.e. good jobs, especially at the low end and in the middle—that make it both feasible and attractive for fathers to stay present in the family picture and, as a consequence, for women to want to keep them there.


Photo: The Madonna and Child, Duccio di Guoninsegna, c. 1300, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers Fund, Walter and Leonore Annenberg and The Annenberg Foundation Gift, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, Annette de la Renta Gift, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, Louis V. Bell, and Dodge Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, several members of The Chairman’s Council Gifts, Elaine L. Rosenberg and Stephenson Family Foundation Gifts, 2003 Benefit Fund, and other gifts and funds from various donors, 2004.

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