Murphy Brown — the newsgal played by Candice Bergen on a show that went off the air in the 90s — is the perfect target for tut-tutting about single moms. Since she doesn’t exist, neither she nor her rarely-glimpsed son are in any danger of getting their feelings hurt, or wasting a minute worrying about what
you think of them.
Actual single mothers, on the other hand, with actual kids to raise, may not benefit from the old and ongoing criticism that raising a child on one’s own is a terrible idea.
Twenty years ago, conservatives cheered when Republican Vice President Dan Quayle lectured that “Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong...We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who suppopsedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” In the Post last week, a Brookings Institution economist resurrected Murphy and recommenced the finger-wagging over her, declaring that ”it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.”
No, he wasn’t: Murphy Brown wasn’t in any way “mocking the importance of fathers,” and the “lifestyle choice” in question was one conservatives applaud. The pretend baby was fathered by the character’s fictional ex-husband, and when he flaked out on her, surely Quayle wasn’t saying she should have had an abortion or given up her child.
Just as unexpected as this blast from the past, though, is the moving and intensely personal new book from Bay Buchanan, whose “Bay and Her Boys” makes precisely the opposite point — and challenges her fellow conservatives to see the self-fulfilling aspects of the drumbeat that single parents and their progeny are pretty much doomed to fail.
Buchanan was traditional, true-believing and devastated, she says, when her husband walked out on her while she was pregnant with their third child. But was she supposed to just give up at that point, and accept the “wisdom” that her children would be forever hobbled by having grown up without a father on the premises?
“Shortly after I became a single mom,’’ she writes, “I began to take note of a continual stream of bad information coming my way. New studies were constantly being released on the impact that fatherless homes had on children — and I’d watch fellow conservatives take to the talk shows, armed with the latest statistics, to make their case. The evidence is overwhelming, they would argue, a dad in the home is critical to the healthy development of his children. The picture they painted was frightening. I’d start to worry all over again that I couldn’t give my kids a childhood as good as my own.’’
Buchanan’s three sons are grown now, and turned out more than fine. But it’s disheartening to see how the judgments she’s written about persist, even as we continue to expand the idea of what constitutes family. Why is that? Buchanan told me she thinks some on the Right have been “afraid to go any further and say, ‘Single moms, you can do this,’ for fear it would undermine their original argument” about the importance of marriage and family.
So instead, they act like you might as well keep the TV on all night and “have marijuana for dessert,” she added, “because the message is never, ’You can do this.’ ’’
Now we have Isabel Sawhill of Brookings reiterating this same tired script, writing in an op-ed that “Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children,” “the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be
Well if we’re not already celebrating marriage, building our social and legal lives around it, then how come gay couples want in on the action? Has anyone ever disputed that two committed, in-residence parents are ideal? It’s doubtless even better if you have Grandma next door, your brainiac aunt the classics major on call for tutoring, and healthy food grown out back on the table every night at 6, after a moment of prayer.
But back on this planet, I love Buchanan’s feeling that for her, the first step in succeeding in spite of the naysayers was seeing and presenting her situation as a blessing, and announcing to friends, “Hey, I’m a single mom now!” as if she’d won the Lotto. Not because she was glorifying the breakdown of the family, or whatever nonsense phrase critics trot out, but because if she dragged around thinking she’d drawn the black bean in life, how could that attitude have been anything but harmful to her kids?
From the moment a pregnant woman starts to show, she is treated to all sorts of contradictory input from strangers and intimates, moralists and economists. (And most knowledgeable of all, of course, are those who don’t have children themselves; I used to be that smart.) These days, however, my only advice is: You can do this.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post politics writer and anchors the paper’s ’She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.