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Single Mothers Losing their Stigma

What do Katie Couric, Nicole Kidman, Camryn Manheim, J. K. Rowling and about 18 million American women have in common? They are single mothers.

Couric, of “Today” on NBC, was widowed when her husband died of colon cancer. Actress Kidman was divorced by Tom Cruise. Manheim, the never-married star of TV’s “The Practice,” had a baby last year. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, is also divorced. These four famous women illustrate a variety of ways to become a single mother.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Remember the “Murphy Brown”/Dan Quayle flap of August 1992? Then vice President Quayle expressed disapproval of the show’s main character—an unmarried woman—having a child. His remarks sparked a family values debate.
“Children need love and discipline,” Quayle said. “A welfare check is not a husband. The state is not a father. It is from parents that children come to understand values and themselves as men and women, mothers and fathers. And for those concerned about children growing up in poverty, we should know this: marriage is probably the best anti-poverty program of them all. Among families headed by married couples today, there is a poverty rate of 5.7 percent. But 33.4 percent of families headed by a single mother are in poverty today.”
The phrase “single mother” usually brings to mind women battling finances, parental responsibilities and stress. To a great extent, the statistics support that picture.
But as for Quayle’s love and discipline, let’s not be tricked into thinking that two parents in a home necessarily mean more of either, or that a mother alone has to mean less.
In the decade since Quayle’s infamous speech, much has happened. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey shows that between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of children younger than 18 who lived with a single mother declined from 19.9 to 18.4 percent. 
Also, it seems we don’t hear “single mother” used in the same derogatory manner as in the past. Which begs the question, with 18 million single mothers in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America today, is there a social stigma attached to the category?
A category doesn’t have a face. But who among us doesn’t have a relative or friend or neighbor or coworker—if not ourselves—who is a single mother? And those individuals do have faces. For the most part, they are trying to do their best for their children, as are most married mothers. Like my divorced sister, whose ex-husband is uninvolved with their adolescent son. Or my brother and ex-wife, who still share parental responsibility for their two sons.
Just as the stigma of divorce has lessened as the ranks of the divorced have grown, we have become accustomed to single motherhood being a fact of many lives. That doesn’t mean we promote it.  But neither do we demonize single mothers.
Not every single mother desperately needs relief. But the church can be a welcome respite from parenting burdens. As a mother in a two-parent family, I recall how wonderful it felt to drop a little one off at the church nursery or preschool department. It’s fantastic to see my older kids participate in programs that develop them spiritually and in other ways.
At church one can find a larger family of adults of both genders and various life stages to be friends and mentors for a child—and a mother.
When our church dedicates babies, we use a litany involving parents, pastor and congregation.  At one point the congregation responds, “Yes, we too will share in the child’s growth, for s/he belongs to us as well.”  May that kind of commitment be made to all families who enter our churches’ doors, no matter how many parents they include.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is a Dartmouth-MBA-turned-writer and former director of a Connecticut-wide parent support network. Karen and her husband and two children reside in Edmond, Okla.
Order Zurheide’s books from Amazon!
In Their Own Way: Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
Learning with Molly