Perspective: The ‘power of sisterhood’ is not equivalent to a father in the home
Communities of single mothers may solve some problems of child rearing, but they generate others
“Who is going to be the dad?” When I was growing up and would occasionally “play family” with my girlfriends, I remember this question was the sticking point.
Everyone wanted to be the mother, changing the diapers and feeding the dolls. No one wanted to be the father. In the end, it was usually easier not to have one. The decision wasn’t based on sexual preferences or anything deeper. We just didn’t have a boy handy, and we all wanted to take care of the babies.
I was thinking about this as I read the recent New York Times piece on “mommunes,” groups of single women with children who are choosing to live together in order to save money and ensure a private social safety net.
“Support system like no other,” Kristin Batykefer wrote of her community of three mothers and their children in a TikTok post that has been viewed more than 1 million times. “Shoulda moved into a mommune a long time ago.”
The New York Times notes that “the living arrangement isn’t novel.” Of course, historically, this particular family sharing structure was mostly done out of necessity, when husbands died or were away at war. But these days, being single in America is more often a choice. Women are choosing to have children without getting married or even living with the father. And they are more often responsible for initiating divorce than men are.
The piece, of course, makes mommunes sound quite appealing. As one psychologist explains, “Sharing resources is key, and can be an antidote to not just role strain, but social isolation and stigma.”
When one woman is sick, others take care of her children. They can share their money and afford larger residences or even buy a home when previously they would have only been able to rent. They have the companionship of other adults without having to leave the house. In other words, they have all the things they might have had if they were living in a traditional nuclear family, but without the “hassle” of having to deal with a man.
And there is another aspect to the mommune that makes these living arrangements sound, well, cool. The reporter writes that “Mothers, particularly those in nonwhite communities, have been house-sharing for centuries.” But “a rising number of white, non-Hispanic single-mother households in the United States has put a new spotlight on the make-your-own-family structure.”
This racial angle — Black women sharing homes ‘for centuries’ — is offered with no supporting evidence. But it has become a weirdly common trope. In Dorothy Roberts’ recent book about the child welfare system, “Torn Apart,” she holds up a tradition of African American women supporting each other as an alternative to losing children to child protective services. It’s unclear what she means, and why it’s believed that these arrangements are new to white women.
The editor of the website Parents.com told the Times that “In Latino cultures, there’s this idea of a co-mother — a person who supports you and helps you raise your children.” But there have long been multigenerational households of all races that included aunts and grandmothers and single women whose husbands had died or left. This is really not as new or exciting as the Times seems to think.
But the main problem with the article is that it doesn’t address the challenges of these mommunes — for either the children or the women. There is, of course, ample evidence that children do better in myriad ways with a father living in their home, but there’s not a mention of how fathers of these children feel about these arrangements, in which they seem so easily and breezily erased.
It’s also unclear what happens when one of the women does find a male companion, or wants to date. How will these women feel when a man they don’t know very well starts visiting the home or staying overnight? How will their children feel? It’s not that these problems cannot be negotiated under the right circumstances but if women are not careful, they can place their children into inappropriate or even unsafe situations.
Unfortunately, media coverage of these living arrangements is often framed not as a way to make the best of difficult life circumstances, but as an exciting new approach to bringing up children. The lack of stability brought on by these communal homes — not to mention the lack of male role models and the frequent visits of nonrelative male adults — can be a serious impediment to successful child rearing. But you won’t read that in The New York Times, which tell us all problems can be solved by the “power of sisterhood.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.