Mothers have it hard in this country. We pay lip service to support for working moms, but don’t back up our words with deeds, through critical public policies like paid family leave or high quality affordable child care. Mothers ― especially Black and Latina mothers ― earn less than fathers, as well as women without children. Single mothers face additional challenges, earning 58 cents to every dollar earned by fathers. And despite the fact that about a quarter of children today are raised in single mother households, single mothers are still treated as cautionary tales, rather than simply a (large) part of the modern family landscape. Progressives have long claimed to champion women’s rights, and they undoubtedly have their conservative counterparts beat. But they have also unwittingly validated a conservative world view that equates growing numbers of unmarried moms with “family breakdown” – one that blames these moms for any hardships they face. This Mother’s Day, it’s time for progressives to reject all fear-mongering about evolving family structures and to recognize the role it has played in propping up policies that, either unintentionally or by design, are detrimental to many women, especially single mothers.
One would be hard pressed to find a politician – Republican or Democrat – who didn’t espouse the supposed virtues and benefits of marriage, particularly for children. But in this bipartisan embrace of marriage as a social good, we’ve forgotten some important truths about why it has evolved over time. Marriage was originally intended to create separate spheres for men and women in a way that ultimately benefited men. Even today, as marriage has expanded to include same-sex couples, and egalitarian marriages have become more of the norm, studies show women experience fewer benefits of marriage than do men and are generally less happy in it. Research on divorce shows that “the most common ‘final straw’ reasons for ending marriages were infidelity, domestic violence, and substance use.” Have progressives forgotten that behind the statistics that they erroneously accept as “family breakdown” is often liberation from being stuck in bad or dangerous marriages or the social pressure to marry? Or that concern over rising non-marital birth rates is usually more about policing women’s sexuality than protecting children?
The conservative perspective on family structure – that a home with a married mother and father is best for children – didn’t become orthodoxy on its own. Beginning in the 1970s, when a white, middle-class feminist critique of marriage was emerging, conservative culture warriors launched a sophisticated apparatus to enshrine the traditional nuclear family as the cultural ideal and use public policy as a form of social commentary.
Organizations such as Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, established in 1977 and 1983, respectively, emerged in response to fears about women’s changing roles. Along with conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, and the long-established American Enterprise Institute, they grew into a vast research, policy and communications behemoth, employing their brand of social science research to frame complex worldwide demographic trends like declining marriage rates and rising non-marital birth rates as indicators of declining morality.
They succeeded with their base and influenced many others along the way. Even liberal intellectuals, typically more sympathetic to the challenges of low-income single parents, viewed strengthening marriage as a common-sense bipartisan way to help families. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a staunch advocate for women and children, claimed that conservatives were right to “emphasize the consequences for low-income children of changing family structure” and charged liberals with being “too politically correct to address the issue.” The center-left Brookings Institution acknowledged marriage has evolved dramatically and irreversibly, yet continues to validate the notion that it needs “saving,” promoting alternative strategies to achieve that.
Without a progressive counterweight to Focus on the Family and its allies, it has been left to a handful of scholars and activists to critique misguided analysis and flawed interpretations of the marriage research. It’s not being unmarried that causes people to be poor but rather education, economics and race that predict whether a person will marry. And in reality, the vast majority of poor families are headed by two parents, an inconvenient fact contradicting claims that marriage reduces poverty.
It is reductive and misleading to view marriage as the variable that “matters most” to family well-being. The conventional practice of dividing families into two types – married and “single parent” – falsely conflates very different families (divorced, widowed, unmarried but partnered, and single) and prevents us from exploring other dimensions of family life that may be equally or more relevant. One of the only comprehensive longitudinal studies to ever examine adolescent well-being across twelve family “types” found that one group of adolescents actually had better outcomes than children raised by married parents: children raised in multi-generational households with never-married single mothers. Black families have a tradition of raising children collectively, in beautiful, expansive ways that transcend blood and legal ties. To think of these families as “broken” is an insult borne of the elite white gaze.
Improving children’s well-being and supporting strong relationships – be they marriages, partnerships or other “family-like” ties – are laudable goals. But this Mother’s Day, when many economic supports for already-vulnerable women and children are under assault, it is time to reject the false “family breakdown” narrative wholesale and adopt a more nuanced, accurate understanding. Even in times of rapid social transformation, all families have dignity and value. A lot about the way families look may be evolving, but the only dysfunction is that of a system that stubbornly refuses to meet people where they are.
Julie Kohler serves as the Senior Vice President for the Democracy Alliance, a donor network that invests in progressive power-building. She has a Ph.D. in family social science and serves on the Family Story Advisory Board.