Only a small dose of common sense should be required to see that children tend to flourish when men and women rear them together through permanent family units sustained by marriage. There are many examples of single, divorced, and widowed mothers—and fathers and other people—who struggle successfully to bring up children in other familial settings. It’s no insult to them to point out the misguided nature of arguments that praise single motherhood as the new normal, as does Katie Roiphe in her recent op-ed “In Defense of Single Motherhood” in The New York Times.
Try as she might, Roiphe provides no convincing answer to the charge that, in the world as we know it, households headed by a single mother are more likely to be financially strapped and associated with challenges that hinder the development of healthy children. Perhaps extremely wealthy unmarried persons have the resources to hire nannies, chefs, and chauffeurs to take up the slack, but most of us barely get by with both spouses working and sharing childcare and other domestic responsibilities. Single motherhood is strongly associated with poverty in our society.
Those who work in helping professions know the sadly common story of the abuse of the mother’s children by her boyfriend. To encourage practices that result in the absence of fathers and the presence of other males in the household is simply irresponsible and promotes the endangerment of children. And though it is politically incorrect to say it, men and women are different. It is good for kids to be brought up by a representative of each sex and to have role models of how men and women make a life together. The lesson given to boys and girls by fathers who are absent from the daily responsibilities of childrearing is not positive. This is a circumstance for mourning, not for praise.
Roiphe’s argument has little respect for men and actually states that “Young men need jobs so they can pay child support and contribute more meaningfully to the households they are living in.” What a pathetically low perspective on the role of husbands and fathers! When a society asks so little of men, we should not be surprised when they behave irresponsibly and simply do their best to produce more single mothers. As a married man and a father, it has never occurred to me to think of my financial contributions to our family as providing child support. That is a minimalistic standard set by the state for deadbeat dads. Ways of talking about family that encourage such a perspective on fatherhood are profoundly misguided, insulting to men, and ultimately bad for women and children.
For Orthodox Christians, there is no question that single motherhood is an exceptional circumstance that no one should seek, except perhaps in cases where unmarried women adopt children. That’s not the circumstance described by Roiphe, who writes in praise of her situation of having two children by two different men, neither of whom live with her or their children. There’s no question that such scenarios fall short of the marital nature of the intimate union of man and woman as blessed in the Church. Nonetheless, those who find themselves in such circumstances may repent, lead holy lives, and do their very best to raise their children in spiritually and morally beneficial ways.
The point of Christian teaching on these matters is not self-righteous moralizing, but humbling accepting the truth about what is best for men, women, and children. God creates us in His image as male and female; out of our difference and love for one another, we bring new persons into the world. The more these different types of human beings bond together in love, the better for all concerned and the more we image the Holy Trinity.