I've been thinking about the uneven treatment given to single moms and single dads. I wonder how much our culture's growing respect and support for single moms as victim/heroes increases the tendency of frustrated women to desert their husbands and leave their marriages. Because, for whatever reason or reasons, almost all divorce proceedings in America are initiated by women. Offering support to divorced or divorcing women is better than stigmatizing them, to be sure, but there must be a way to be supportive of women and of marriage, too?
In relatively few cases does it seem appropriate to ask why someone isn't married anymore. Is it anybody else's business, after all? Usually the answer is no. But that doesn't mean people don't make assumptions. And more often than not, I think the assumption about a single mom is that she was in a bad marriage or relationship and he left her. Or even if she did the leaving, things were so bad it's a good thing she got out... she'd taken as much as she could from him, she gave it her best go while he was blind to her needs. That's the story I hear a lot of women tell. So we all need to gather round her and the kids and help them out. So she's the victim, or she's the hero, or both. That storyline rings true for some single moms, to be sure. Maybe a lot of them. Many of them lose tremendously
in a divorce and never make up the ground.
But what this cost us, as a society? I keep coming across women who left their marriages without much justification and are being honored by others for their decision to stand up for themselves and go the single-mom route. And I think that's a problem because of the effect that it has on their husbands, kids, the grandparents who end up pick up the pieces and paying the bills, and the other women who watch and get misleading ideas about what marriage is supposed to be and what smart choices look like. Because while being married is a struggle, divorce has a viciously high price tag of its own, and many a bad marriage can turn into a good one with the passing of years.
It used to bug me when I'd hear about all these church outreaches to single moms. As a single woman who never had children I was a little jealous of how much people would bend over to help single moms. After all, I was all alone, didn't make that much money either, and I could use help with car repairs and yard work, too! Why the breaks for women who got pregnant? Now that I've had a taste of parenting I think I understand a little better.
In marrying a single dad, I've seen how the narrative about single moms affects the single dads. After his wife deserted their marriage, C. discovered how much people in the community – and, especially, the church – respond to divorced men with subtle suspicion. People treated him differently. As if he must love the kids less, have abused or betrayed his wife, been the one who abandoned them, and who perhaps continues to neglect as much as ever or more. The way people treat a single dad suggests a belief if a man is divorced, it must be because he blew it. Is that what they think?
Divorced or divorcing women don't get that same message. They are treated given the benefit of the doubt, supported, rallied around. With some girl-power thinking thrown in for extra measure. Not that I want them demonized, but what about defending husbands and fathers, or at least dropping this prejudice and discrimination against them? Many a single dad may be struggling to get by, deeply committed to his kids and making sacrifices to serve them, and just as frustrated by the shuttling back and forth, shared holidays, and tensions over differing values between two households.
I was quite mindful of those stereotypes myself. I asked a lot of questions before I was willing to get serious about C. I didn't say yes to him until I was satisfied. Some of the people who didn't get to hear the answers for themselves remained a little worried and afraid on my behalf.
All this suggests to me that many people don't believe in no-fault divorce as much as they may claim. They suspect he betrayed her or drove her to leave him, that he is more to blame. Why is that? Is there any way we can say whether one party is more to blame than the other? If not, why this prejudice? If so, is it "true" in any objective or measurable sense that men are worse at marriage and parenting, or more to blame for divorce, than women are?