Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Single Mothers "Do" Family

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Single Mothers "Do" Family

Article excerpt

This paper explores how single mothers both incorporate others into family life (e.g., when they ask others to care for their children) and simultaneously "do families" in a manner that holds out a vision of a "traditional" family structure. Drawing on research with White, rural single mothers, the author explores the manner in which these women both endorse their children's attachment to other caregivers and maintain boundaries around issues of discipline and attachment vis-à-vis these others. The author demonstrates that single mothers are willing to share this protected realm of family life with a new man (a fiancé or cohabiting boyfriend) as they pursue the goal of what has been called the "Standard North American Family."

Key Words: marriage and close relationships, postdivorce parenting, qualitative research, rural/farm families, single-parent families.

In No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, Newman (2000, p. 195) movingly depicts the complex kin networks-what she calls the "'irregular' household structures"-of the working poor in the inner city. In the chapter called "Family Values" she describes the network of Patty, a young woman who works at "Burger Barn," as do most of the individuals highlighted in the book. Newman explains that Patty's mother lives on the sixth floor of Patty's building, that Patty's brother still lives there as well, and that Patty's sister lives just a few blocks away. She demonstrates that these family members provide Patty with vitally important emotional and material support (p. 196): "Their proximity has made a big difference in Patty's life, for with their collective help, she has been able to go to work knowing that there are other adults in her family who can help watch her children." Indeed, she tells us that Patty relies "upon her siblings and her mother as substitute supervisors of her kids, her adjunct eyes and ears, when she is at work. Without them, she would be faced with some unhappy choices."

Yet, for all her con viction that Patty has created a vital network for survival, and engendered deep connections between her children and the people who care about them, Newman (2000, p. 196) argues that there are limits to the degree to which the responsibility for children is shared and the degree to which the nuclear family structure is altered:

This web of kinship does not supersede the individual household or substitute collective childrearing for that of the mother-in-charge. Patty remains the main figure around whom her kids' lives revolve. She is the one who feeds and clothes them, watches over their homework, and puts the Band-Aids on when they skin their knees. She keeps them safe from the pitfalls of the streets... She has gone without things she needs for herself so she could afford ... items that sound like luxuries but turn out to be the key-or at least one key-to keeping her kids indoors and safe through the hot summer months.

In asserting that Patty remains the "motherin-charge," Newman actually provides a very "traditional" image of what constitutes a mother-and this image replaces the "shared" parenting she had previously suggested. A mother, she insists, is the person who controls, protects, nurtures, and makes sacrifices on behalf of her children. Children have "one" mother at a time; the limits to behavior within the web of kinship are clearly denned. Thus, much as she has harkened back to Stack (p. 189), Newman also draws a clear distinction between the model of collective childrearing that Stack (1974) described in All Our Kin where the identified "tasks" of motherhood-providing, disciplining, training, curing, and grooming-did not reside within a single individual but were shared with real and fictive kin as "parental rights in children" and the ones she observes in the more contemporary neighborhoods of the urban poor.

If Newman is right here-and there is no reason to doubt her conclusion-I would then suggest that as Patty "does" family to create attachment and to ensure that others feel obligated to care for her children, she must also engage in the distinctive activity of drawing boundaries around that attachment and of defining limits to that care. …

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