Perspective: The problem with the ‘family privilege’ conversation
Children who grow up with two married parents do have an advantage. So why are people pushing for more single-parent homes?
There once was a time that to be a child of “privilege” meant that your parents were wealthy and educated. Today, it increasingly means that you have two married parents who live in your house.
This was one of the components of privilege listed on Disney’s “How privileged are you?” self-assessment for employees leaked last year. It’s also the basis for an organization called “Family Story” that was founded in 2015 to “address and dismantle family privilege in America.”
What, exactly, does that mean? Some of the group’s goals are terrific: to provide, for example, support to nontraditional families and dispel harmful stereotypes that harm single-parent and Black households, among others.
But a troubling scaffolding underlies the group’s efforts: the belief that “marriage fundamentalism” — or “marriage supremacy” — is a threat in America, one that disguises racist and sexist ideas.
Family Story’s executive director, Nicole Sussner Rodgers, recently wrote a piece for NPR’s Boston affiliate in which she argued that Americans should “let go of outdated and inaccurate ideas about how families should form.”
In other words, no one should feel pressure to get married before having children — no pressure from one’s partner or parents, and certainly not from society.
She offers her own experience as an example. At 34, Rodgers suffered a difficult breakup and realized in its aftermath that she was more upset about the loss of a potential family with her boyfriend than she was about the loss of the relationship itself.
“It wasn’t just a breakup for me, it was motherhood drifting further out of sight. It’s (a) predicament women face all the time,” she wrote.
This predicament is sometimes called social or circumstantial infertility, and it describes a person who is physically capable of having a child and desires one, but hasn’t become a parent yet because of social, work or financial constraints.
Rodgers cites research that found 42% of women age 40-44 say they want a child but fewer than half said they intended to have one. She quotes from another study that found nearly half of so-called PANKS — “professional aunts, no kids” — said they wanted a child, but most said they would not consider becoming a single parent.
If society would only let go of the quaint notion that families headed by two married parents are best for raising children, Rodgers said, we could solve a host of problems, to include ill-advised marriages, the plummeting fertility rate and the yearnings of PANKS.
Doing so, she said, would require a radical shift in public policy and social perception so that single motherhood would be morally equivalent to married parenthood and single women could have in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination paid for by insurance “so that choosing to be a solo mom is no longer a privilege exclusively for the affluent.”
“It’s time to let go of outdated and inaccurate ideas about how families should form and create a culture and policy landscape that helps all women have the children they want,” she concludes.
To her credit, Rodgers acknowledges that “life can be quite hard for solo moms,” but she said that’s because of an ideological bias that favors nuclear families. In fact, more than half of Americans (53%) say that either it doesn’t matter if children are raised by a single mother or it’s a good thing, according to a March report from Pew Research Center.
What’s true, though, is that the number of people who think single motherhood is generally a bad thing is increasing — it stands at 47% now, up from 40% in 2018. And this is the case although “the share of births to unmarried women has remained relatively stable over the past decade, after increasing steadily from 1980 to around 2009,” according to Pew.
The share was 41% in 2020, roughly double what it was 40 years ago.
What could account for the increase in the number of people who see the rise of single-parent homes as troubling? Maybe they’re observing its fruits.
It’s worth noting, however, that Pew asked whether single-mother households are good for society, not whether they are good for children. On that issue, an abundance of research has shown that children with two married parents have better outcomes across the board than children raised in single-parent or cohabiting homes. Perhaps most telling, “the nuclear family headed by married parents remains a personal ideal even among men and women who harbor no moral objections to alternative family structures,” Brad Wilcox and Hal Boyd wrote for The Atlantic.
And this brings us to the central, tragic irony of Family Story’s campaign against “marriage supremacy.” While arguing that having two married parents is a form of privilege, the group seeks to take that privilege away from children, to reduce its prevalence rather than working to make it available to more children. “Privilege” is interpreted as a social ill, not the benefit it is.
Yes, children in nontraditional families can thrive, given sufficient financial resources, attention and love. But raising a child is a demanding endeavor that doesn’t end when a child turns 18, and it’s unfair to both would-be single parents — and their would-be children — to suggest that work that is challenging for two people can be easily borne by one.
It’s worse still to encourage it, to suggest that a father’s presence should be incidental to the raising of a child, by design.
As for Rodgers, her personal family story unfolded more in keeping with the “traditional family machine” that her organization derides.
“As it turned out, I fell in love at 37, and at 40, we had a baby,” she writes. That is truly wonderful for her, and for her family. May we all be so privileged — every parent and every child.