The American family is changing. That should come as no surprise to readers of this blog. The changes go beyond just the increasing numbers of same-sex families, however. Rosanna Hertz’s new book, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family offers a view from another angle. Hertz is Luella LaMer Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at Wellesley College. Her book is likely to become a staple of women’s studies classes, but should be read by anyone interested in today’s debates on marriage or motherhood.
Hertz’s goal is to shed light on the lives of women who chose to bypass the typical progression of love, marriage or partnership, and then children, and to look at what they reveal in term of broader social changes. These women did not become single moms by accident, but rather by a deliberate process of soul searching and planning. Without intending a revolution, they are transforming what it means to be a family.
To begin, Hertz traces the historical factors that have led to the loosening of ties between traditional marriage and children. Legal changes regarding illegitimacy, birth control, and divorce all played their parts. Divorced mothers, for example, proved that women on their own could successfully raise children. Civil rights movements contributed, but not always directly or in the same way for straight white women, lesbians, or women of color. Hertz deserves credit for looking beyond a single, one-size-fits-all answer.
The heart of the book comes from Hertz’s in-depth interview study of sixty-five middle-class women, all of whom chose to become mothers when single. Eleven of the sixty-five women self-identified as lesbian or bisexual. Hertz seamlessly includes the lesbian moms when motherhood, not sexual orientation, is the issue, but yet acknowledges when there are differences. For example, she notes: “While straight single women having children challenged the link between marriage and motherhood, lesbian women had to dismantle the view of lesbians as sexual but not procreative women.” She doesn’t take heterosexuality for granted, but nor does she deny the commonalities that connect all these women as mothers.
Long vignettes as well as shorter quotes from Hertz’s interviewees illustrate their paths to and through single motherhood. Hertz takes us through their initial decisions to become single mothers, how they gathered support from family and friends, and how they chose among donor and adoption options. Anyone, single or not, considering donors or adoption will benefit from her discussion of how these women made their decisions. Those weighing adoption will appreciate the thoughtful chapter on the particular issues surrounding international or multi-racial adoption.
There is also much to ponder in her later discussion of the role of donors and birth families. For many of the children, too, knowing as much as possible about their genetic heritage is a key piece of their self-awareness and identity. This is an important point, and has made me rethink the importance my son’s donor information will have for him, when he is old enough to be curious.
Hertz then looks at the women’s lives after their children arrived, and how they balance parenting, work, and romance. These single moms are, by necessity, underscoring the need for flexible work and childcare options, topics of growing interest especially since the (unfortunate) media hype over the “Mommy Wars.” Instead of leading the charge as activists, however, they are finding their own alliances and exchanges that enable them to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, drawing upon gift givers, roommates, and careworkers in ways that coupled parents do not.
Finally, Hertz asks how the women incorporate men into their lives, and raises some intriguing questions about the changing role of men in families. Hertz shows that men are not absent from these children’s lives. The women in the study, she says, were not out to become revolutionaries. They are “unraveling” the traditional narrative of the family, but not abandoning it entirely. While they may be constructing new kinds of kinship patterns and social networks, their primary urge is to have ordinary children who fit in. Men still matter, though not necessarily in the traditional husband-father way. Hertz avoids simplistic and vague explanations of “male role models, instilling male values,” however, and more astutely notes:
It is not that they believe that men provide a critical difference in perspective that women cannot supply; it is more that their very presence signifies the continued importance of men in our culture. Single mothers are seen by the larger society as threatening the social fabric by making men outsiders to family life. In response, women seek out the presence of men for their children, with the emphasis on that mere presence rather than particular behavior models or skills. . . . they want their children freed of gender stereotypes, but at the same time they do not want to fully reject the idea that difference between men and women may exist.
At the end of the book, Hertz speculates on the future. Reproductive technologies even now mean the act of sex is not necessary for procreation. Soon, she tells us, sperm may not even be needed. The mother-child pair, not the adult couple, has already become the core of the family for those in her study. If the traditional control of men over family life continues to be “disassembled,” “the opportunities presented by science could be capitalized upon and a new ideology of family would be possible.”
We are not at that point yet, however, Hertz says. The women she interviewed are not trying to create a society without men. Almost all of them wanted to find a spouse or partner someday, and for the straight women, this meant men. Even the lesbian moms wanted men in their children’s lives.
Furthermore, while these women were willing to use anonymous donors, they did not want to experiment with even more radical departures from tradition. Many used donor sibling registries to give their children more information about their identities, but none considered sharing a donor with friends in order to create a close, pre-known sibling network. The women are breaking with tradition, but only so far.
Hertz also hypothesizes that as men struggle to find their place in this new world, they may make more of an effort to be active players in their children’s lives, trying to bring something to the table other than genetic material (which may become unnecessary) or outdated gender roles. One outcome is that this could motivate men to join women in pushing for more flexible workplace options.
Another ramification is that as reproductive technologies make it easier for women to have children from their own genetic material, even later in life, adoption becomes less attractive. This is a looming social problem with no easy answers, although Hertz does not here delve into all the possible ramifications.
The book left me wanting to know more about the lesbian moms in it. There is still much to be learned and shared about our families and children. This is not a criticism of Hertz’s work, however, as her focus was not on lesbian moms per se. If anything, I am encouraged by the commonalities she finds despite sexual orientation. Many of us can relate to Hertz’s description of her subjects:
Making their dream of motherhood work in a cultural climate that is still grappling with the place of mothers is the major challenge for these women. They are at the vanguard of the struggle to blend work, family, and partners. These new families are simultaneously revealing the tears in the social fabric and mending them for their particular families.
Marriage and family are changing in ways that go beyond same-sex marriage. This implies (though Hertz does not explicitly say so) that we have more allies out there than we might think. The challenge is to engage them and develop our shared goals.
Read this book for nuanced insight into how the concept of family is changing across our country. Read it if you are a single mom or considering single motherhood. Read it for the stories of the courageous women who took their desire for children into their own hands. They are creating new forms of kinship and support networks that will have echoes beyond the realm of single-mom families. Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice is well researched and well written, and surely to be much discussed.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I am a Wellesley alumna, though not in Women’s Studies. It was coincidental that the book’s publicist contacted me about doing a review.)