"Oh Baby!":
Representations of Single Mothers
in American Popular Culture

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/silbergleid.htm

Robin Silbergleid
Austin College


If Hollywood is any indication, 2001 was the year of the single mom. Actors including Camryn Manheim, Calista Flockhart, and Jodie Foster, by adoption or by birth, placed single motherhood in the national spotlight, gracing the covers of Us and People magazine. And the character Rachel from the hit television series Friends, upon finding herself unexpectantly pregnant, decided to have her baby alone; it's the child she wants, not necessarily the husband. Given the public acceptance of these notable single mothers by choice, it would seem that this version of the new millennium family has found a suitable home in the United States. Yet one only needs to consider insurance policies, which frequently state that reproductive technologies will only be covered if a woman uses her own husband's sperm, to see that Manheim, Flockhart, and Foster provide the exceptions rather than the rule. In fact, their high-profile acts of procreation might be understood as significant threats to the dominant reproductive order, threats that other social, medical, and governmental institutions work hard to police. Narrative, of course, is one such institution.

In a culture fraught with anxiety about the so-called decline of the family, it is not surprising that numerous texts, both popular and academic, take reproduction as central subject. E. Ann Kaplan closes her book on motherhood by reflecting on texts as diverse as advertisements for Mother's Day gifts and the film Look Who's Talking in order to characterize the kinds of anxieties surrounding gender and reproductive technology at work in contemporary culture. In Reproductions of Reproduction, Judith Roof furthers this argument by suggesting that fears about large scale changes in the symbolic order—including modes of production, assisted reproduction, and the role of the paternal—can be seen, among other places, in representations of reproduction. As these analyses make clear, representations of mothers, fathers, and families do a great deal of ideological work. They can, as Dan Quayle has done, depict single mothers as selfish homewreckers, or as Marie Claire has done, everyday heroes. Either way, such representations have little to do with the practical realities of single-parent families in the United States. While mother-headed families range from the stereotypical welfare mom attacked by Quayle to the divorced mother in midwestern suburbia to the upper-class "Murphy Brown mom," media coverage and popular representations focus heavily on the new single mother, what Jane Mattes has termed the "single mother by choice" or SMC. Such focus intimates that America's comfort with single maternity is not only limited but depends on ignoring the economic realities that underpin the family values controversy. As Quayle's criticism of Murphy Brown made clear, the upper class white woman stood in for the welfare mothers he was really concerned about.

In what follows, I want to consider several prominent characterizations of single mothers by choice (SMCs), characterizations that take the point of view of the single mother herself. Such narratives are important because they provide an "insider's" look at the SMC phenomenon and add to an ongoing cultural dialogue about the changing nature of the American family. If the focus on well-to-do white women appears to obfuscate issues of race and class so central to political rhetoric about single moms, it is striking that even these positive, "vanilla" representations inevitably end up validating the traditional nuclear, patriarchal family at the expense of the alternatives they appear to endorse. Popular representations of SMCs might kowtow to the changing nature of the family, but their sentimentalized longing for heterosexual romance and domestic bliss serves to undercut the choice involved in becoming a single mother by resituating the threatened patriarch at the head of the family. On the level of narrative structure, these images reveal the interdependence of narrative and reproductive ends. Indeed, our very structures of narrative make it impossible to envision a true alternative to the family and therefore fail to represent—in the political sense of the term—many American families.

Founded in 1981 by Jane Mattes, a psychotherapist who found herself unexpectedly pregnant, Single Mothers by Choice is now a national support group with local chapters in many states. The term "Single Mother by Choice," or SMC, refers specifically to those women, like Manheim and Foster, who made a decision to pursue motherhood with the knowledge that they would be the child's sole parent from the outset. Although SMCs share many concerns of other single parents, their family dynamic is fundamentally distinct from those women who were widowed or divorced because there isn't a sense of loss or breakup as the origin. On the whole, SMCs tend to be well-educated, financially secure heterosexual women in their mid-thirties (Mattes 10-11). Coming from a variety of ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, members of SMC "represent a real cross section of women in this country" (11). Yet, despite the undeniable support that Mattes and her peers provide to SMCs, the official story, as scripted in the book Single Mothers by Choice, is a tale of hard luck and missed chances, rather than realized dreams. Mattes encourages women who are contemplating single motherhood to "grieve Plan A," the young girl's vision of bridesmaids in flouncy dresses, a dashing young husband, and an adorable baby asleep in a basinet. The fact that there is a "Plan A" necessitates a "Plan B," in this case the choice to raise a child alone. As the otherwise successful professional woman hears her biological clock sounding an internal alarm, she realizes that her last chance to have a child is as an SMC, whether she adopts or turns to donor insemination. She's already lost her chance at a husband, it seems, and if she doesn't act soon, she'll lose the baby, too. In this vein, the "thinker," or prospective SMC, becomes either a woman scorned or an undesirable careerwoman who bemoans her loss of the feminine dream. "To be happy being an SMC," Mattes advises, "you need to come to terms with giving up your dream of parenting a child from the beginning with a loving partner" (4-5). Intentional or not, Mattes' word choice implies that the choice not to pursue Plan A is a loss worthy of substantial grief, something that the SMC wanted and failed to attain.

This is, of course, a reductive look at Mattes' groundbreaking book. For twenty years, Mattes has championed Single Mothers by Choice in talk shows, magazine articles, and internet lists. As a single mother herself, Mattes acknowledges the viability of her own family dynamic. Still, the official rhetoric speaks loudly and works hard to maintain the heterosexual nuclear family as not only the norm, but also the desirable goal. Whether or not two-parent families provide the ideal method of raising a child is not the question; rather, even as the birth of the SMC organization legitimates a particular family alternative, that alternative is, even within Mattes' own words, less than ideal, a backup plan. Attempting to clarify that SMCs are not "man-haters or, at the least, radical feminists who [are] trying to overthrow the traditional American family structure," Mattes asserts that "to the contrary, we [are] trying to create families in the best way we could and that most of us would have preferred to do so in the traditional way with a loving partner" (17). In this way, Mattes' discussion positions the SMC family as the secondary alternative rather than the preferred choice. Considering the specter of heterosexual romance that haunts Mattes' book, it is hardly surprising that popular depictions of SMCs operate much the same.

In one such work of fiction, Laura Zigman's novel Dating Big Bird (2000), the romance plot and the reproduction plot conveniently unite despite the numerous obstacles that stand in the protagonist's way. An exploration into one woman's quest to become an SMC, Dating Big Bird is organized in three trimesters during which the protagonist conceives, gestates, and gives birth to her plan. The book ends happily, when Ellen achieves pregnancy through donor insemination. Zigman's Ellen is, in many ways, the SMC as characterized by Jane Mattes. She is a successful careerwoman living in New York City with a strong desire to be a mother and a romantic relationship that is going nowhere. Despite her charmed professional life, as Ellen explains, she has nothing: "Just a relationship with an older Big Bird (by twenty years), who was complicated (divorced, depressed, despondent), difficult to explain (we slept together but didn't sleep together)" (21). While Prozac accounts in part for Malcolm's (Big Bird's) waning sex drive, the loss of his son from leukemia and subsequent split from his wife increases his reluctance for an intimate relationship with Ellen, leaving her with no possibility of an "accidental" pregnancy. The novel begins when Ellen runs into a high school acquaintance, Amy, who pretends that her niece is her daughter. Suffering from self-proclaimed "Familial Infant Envy Disorder," the two women agree to spend nine months contemplating single motherhood and grieving Plan A. In order to quell Amy's expressed reservations, Ellen explains, "I'm not sure I want to do it alone or could do it alone, either. I'm just saying we should start investigating it. So when the time comes—when our gum-ball machines are on their last eggs—we'll have a backup plan" (95). For both Ellen and Amy, single motherhood clearly represents Plan B, "a backup plan"; choosing to go it alone means "giving up the possibility, the chance, the hope that it could all still happen in a natural way, in a normal way; that [they] could fall in love with someone who wasn't married or who wasn't frozen" (137). It means choosing maternity instead of the love or romance that, in dominant narratives of family planning (and dominant narratives of narrative), generally precede procreation (137). While Ellen ultimately decides to pursue donor insemination, Amy "settles" and becomes engaged to a man who, while "not the most exciting person in the world," is "nice" and "wants to get married and have children" (209).

Despite the breakup with Malcolm—which occurs because she asks him to act as a known donor to help her conceive—Ellen's story is, finally, a romance plot. She falls in love with the idea of motherhood the moment she holds her newborn niece, she gets to know her intended when she babysits "The Pickle," and she commits at the birth of her nephew. And, despite her struggle to grieve Plan A, Ellen's choice of single motherhood offers a fairy tale end. While many prospective SMCs struggle with infertility, a natural consequence of aging, this heroine conceives on the first try. While many real-life SMCs worry about the costs of conceiving, let alone raising, a child alone, Ellen has recently entered a business venture with Tiffany and Company that has earned an extraordinary amount of money, allowing her to leave her day job and take a carefree maternity leave. Her "mammo" necklace, designed for her boss's baby shower, represents the power of the modern mother; sold at $15,000 each, they provide the capital—literal and cultural—for her family's creation:

I felt it in my bones, and in every cell of my body, and to the very core of my being, and in the flash of an instant—in a flash of vision and insight and time fast-forwarding itself inside my eyes—I saw that I could be alone like that forever, and I knew, at that moment, that I could not bear it.

And that I did not have to bear it. I could have my own child—my own Pickle, my own Monkey. I could be somebody's mammo. Finally I knew what I wanted to do. (219)

And, if conception seems the logical end to Ellen's maternal romance, sex provides the end to the romance plot that stood in the way of maternity. Ironically, Ellen's decision to become an SMC coincides with her boyfriend's renewed interest; in fact, they consummate their relationship during the protagonist's first trimester, in the final lines of the book.

This ending, heterosexual union and the promise of reproduction, ensures that Dating Big Bird follows a traditional narrative paradigm and, ultimately, ideology as well. As Judith Roof explains in her award-winning book Come As You Are, even when romance is not the subject of a story, narrative is ineluctably inflected with heterosexual ideology, as heterosexual coupling provides a metaphorical, if not literal, model for the traditional narrative arc. Indeed, both structuralist and psychoanalytic accounts of narrative ultimately "comprehend narrative's coming together as a species of combination that follows a more or less heterological model of conjoinder" (58). Following this narrative and ideological pattern, the end of the story is union and reproduction, in the form of knowledge, prosperity, and, most literally, propagation. Given the inextricability of heterosexual desire and patterns of narrative, Roof aptly uses the term "heteronarrative" to characterize this traditional narrative arc. And if narrative is already governed by a sexual metaphor, stories of reproduction are inescapably—and doubly—hetero. Narrative's heterosexual drive ensures that stories of the family are stories of romance. Thus, while Dating Big Bird initially uses the failure of the romance plot in order to instigate the protagonist's desire to pursue single pregnancy, the fairy tale ending, when the heroine gets her man as well as her baby, assures that the larger narrative arc remains hetero. More strikingly, within the logic of this story, becoming an SMC is the protagonist's ticket to snagging a mate, as her partner's fears about sex are tied to his anxieties about family. He's already had and lost a traditional family, and he isn't about to start the cycle over. In this way, even after the heroine grieves Plan A and pursues Plan B, she gets her fantasy end. And Zigman's novel, even as it creates a positive portrait of the SMC—a take-charge woman of the nineties who achieves what she wants both personally and professionally—ultimately recontains the threat that the SMC poses to the dominant reproductive order by resituating Ellen in the context of a heterosexual relationship. Even if her baby was conceived using untraditional methods, the child will no doubt grow up with a familiar family dynamic, two parents joined in a plot that promises romance and reproduction. If, as Roof contends, the possibility of subversion lies in narrative's middle, the end works hard to police any illicit ideologies and acts (xxxiv). While narrative is always inflected with ideology, popular literature, which depicts what E. Ann Kaplan calls "generalized fantasies," provides a striking look into the fears and desires of the American public (182). In its heterosexual ending, then, Dating Big Bird communicates profound anxiety about female sexuality and reproduction that take place outside the confines of the normative family unit. The social and economic freedoms that allow Ellen to become an SMC are ultimately policed by the romance plot, and the threat that Ellen poses is recontained within a dominant structure of both narrative and family.

Whatever the specific reasons for Zigman's choice—personal taste, aesthetic style, and marketing departments come to mind—the conclusion to Dating Big Bird sends a powerful message that even those individuals who support the idea of single motherhood do so with an understanding that if it can be avoided, it should be, just as Mattes relegates her own family structure to the grievable space of Plan B. My point here is not whether, for some women and children, the SMC-headed family might legitimately provide Plan A; rather, despite recent work in sociology and psychology that reminds us, among other things, that the American family was never the Leave it to Beaver ideal and that children raised in so-called alternative families do as well in school as their peers, our cultural imaginary does not envision the SMC family as anything other than second best. In this way, representations of the family do not represent the issues and needs of all American families. While the single-mother household struggles to overcome the stigma attached to "unwed mothers" and "illegitimate children," popular television and film does valorize other kinds of "alternative" family dynamics, suggesting that the anxiety surrounding the SMC has much more to do with prevailing attitudes about gender than it does a legitimate concern about the welfare of children.

While the SMC family, until very recently, wasn't depicted at all in popular texts, other types of alternative families have thrived on screen since the late eighties, when shows including My Two Dads and Full House created male-headed family structures. Part of the backlash famously characterized by Susan Faludi, these father-focused dramas, according to Kaplan, help to alleviate cultural anxiety surrounding the professional woman who chooses career over family; although the absentee mothers in these two comedies are dead, they stand in metonymically for contemporary women more generally. Here, the new-age sensitive man steps in to relieve the burden created by women who abandon their families and, with help from relatives and buddies, create loving, functional homes. As Kaplan explains, "Perhaps indicating a cultural reaction to the prior decade when women's liberation had been a main theme, films and TV programs became obsessed with fantasies of the mother abdicating her role as wife and mother to pursue her own ends, leaving the father to the domestic terrain that he found increasingly rewarding" (184). Likewise, Roof's analysis of pregnant fathers, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the popular film Junior, argues that these representations serve to reclaim the paternal function, lost due to technological advances and social change. According to Roof,

The Arnold figure's overcompensatory muscles are situated at the nexus of interlocking American anxieties about control (the illusion of being able to shape culture), potency, masculinity, and paternity threatened by female independence, reproductive freedom, overgrown technology, and a loss of world prestige. These anxieties are refocused specifically in issues of paternity, whose loss is seen as causing cultural decay and whose revivification is imagined to be cultural salvation in the late 1980s and 1990s. (Reproductions 58-59)

Single mothers, of course, yield a substantial threat to the weakening patriarchy, particularly as donor insemination makes it possible for the male role in reproduction to be reduced to a single cell from a frozen vial, and the male role in the household virtually eliminated. The rhetoric of Mattes' Single Mothers by Choice and the narrative trajectory of Zigman's Dating Big Bird reveal the extent to which these paternal anxieties subtend both cultural production and reproductive choices. Under this patriarchal pressure, many women, such as Ellen, who have reproductive freedom and the economic means to use it, work hard to battle the internalized ideology that transforms maternal desire into a less than desirable family narrative.

Other representations of single mothers convey similar concerns. A striking example is the short-lived series Oh Baby (1998-2000), which aired on Lifetime (self-proclaimed "television for women"). This series revolves around a professional woman, Tracy, who, at the prodding of a friend, decides to pursue donor insemination as means of conception. Like Dating Big Bird, Oh Baby provides the first-person perspective of Tracy in monologues that frame the plot of each episode and instruct the viewer as to what she should learn from the story. Although Oh Baby, created by single mother Susan Beavers, offers a more positive, complex look at the life of the SMC and new family structures than Dating Big Bird, the series emphasizes heterosexual romance almost to a fault, highlighting how difficult it is to disimbricate narratives of family from stories of (hetero)sexuality. In the episode that features the birth, for example, Tracy reunites with her ex-boyfriend and receives a marriage proposal from another former suitor, while her friend Charlotte becomes engaged to her obstetrician, all in the cozy environment of the birthing suite. Thus, even as single motherhood provides the frame for the series, discussion of dating and romance takes up much of its screen time—undoubtedly holding viewer interest while failing to represent the needs of many single moms. One of the show's most prominent subplots involves how Tracy will negotiate partnership with the demands of single pregnancy and maternity. Only ten minutes after her insemination, she repeatedly reminds her television audience, she met Rick, the love of her life. How will she tell him she's pregnant and when? What role will he play in her pregnancy and her baby's life? These questions underwrite the larger narrative arcs, ultimately threatening to make Tracy something other than a single mother by choice. At one point, she and Rick actually cohabitate and attempt to raise the infant Danny together; although the arrangement doesn't work out, the series holds open the possibility that Tracy will have her life-partner and her child, just not in the traditionally prescribed order: "I still may get married one day," she assures her mother, who complains that Tracy jilted her out of a wedding. Moments such as this one serve to alleviate prevalent anxiety about single mothers by choice, reassuring the Lifetime audience that Tracy is, despite her choice to be a single mom, still a good, heterosexual woman who wants to endorse the traditional, male-headed family structure.

This emphasis on romance doesn't mean that Tracy thinks of her decision as "Plan B," however. In fact, Oh Baby makes every attempt to convey the benefits of single motherhood as well as to legitimate alternative family structures. "Families, father figures," Tracy wraps up an episode, "it's all changing. And I think the problem we're having is that we keep trying to mold them back into what they once were. The family unit isn't that clear anymore." Tracy's monologue reminds us, as does the title of Stephanie Coontz's influential work The Way We Really Are, that the reality of the American family is quite distinct from the image of the family that continues to prosper in popular representations. Oh Baby thus tries hard to take single motherhood on its own terms, as a viable means of valuing the family. Indeed, when Tracy finally decides to tell her colleagues about her pregnancy, she's "proud" to say she was artificially inseminated. Tracy's openness communicates a positive message about SMC-headed families and makes it clear that, even though she wants to find a mate, her first priority is to have a child. Not only is Tracy's method of family planning normalized within the context of the series, it is revered by other women in her new mothers' group; they make her "queen" because she has managed to reproduce without the burdens they associate with marriage and heterosexual partnership. Their husbands, they claim, make parenting more difficult, just as Tracy comes to realize that one of the benefits of single motherhood is that she doesn't need to negotiate all childcare decisions with a partner. Her son is her son.

Yet despite its positive portrayal of the new single mother by choice, Oh Baby ineluctably shows that contemporary America isn't designed for single motherhood, a fact underscored by the series' short run on a cable network, much less on primetime broadcast television. After the birth of her child, Tracy's weekly monologues spotlight her dilemmas with balancing career, motherhood, dating, and friendships. When Tracy first goes back to work following her maternity leave, she not only falls behind, she also falls asleep at her desk. When she and Rick go out for coffee, she accidentally leaves him at Starbucks. Such humorous moments depict the SMC without any of the glamour of Hollywood moms; instead, she becomes the target of ridicule from co-workers and television audience alike. During one episode, in which Tracy brings the baby and her mother along on a company trip to Hawaii, she accidentally brushes her teeth with her son's teething medication, losing sensation in her mouth and drooling uncontrollably at a cocktail party. As ridiculous as this moment is, it suggests that corporate America isn't ready to accommodate motherhood, let alone single motherhood, even as it risks making good mothers look like bad employees. Later in this same episode, stuck without a babysitter, Tracy sets Danny on the floor behind the podium when she is giving her speech, the very purpose for her trip. He begins to crawl for the first time, and Tracy interrupts her presentation to watch and praise her son. Her male boss snickers and scowls, while a female higher-up demands that the baby's accomplishment be videotaped, explaining that she wasn't around when her child learned to crawl. This scene dramatizes one of the most overtly political moments of the series by pointing out the very real gender politics of the business world, where women like Tracy necessarily choose between being good mothers and being good workers. If working women can afford to become single moms, single mothers can't afford to lose their positions as valued employees. And if the greatest obstacle faced by single-parent households is economic, Oh Baby demonstrates that it would certainly be a lot easier if Tracy only had a second income (or a full-time nanny).

So, while women's achievements in the workplace have afforded them the financial independence necessary to even contemplate single motherhood, Tracy's difficulties with everything from daycare to dating suggest that we're not yet living in a culture that makes being an SMC the viable option it is for many women. Although Oh Baby undoubtedly complicates the fairytale of Dating Big Bird by depicting the realistic challenges of single motherhood, it also makes the SMC out to be a scatterbrain who relies heavily on the help of her mother and best friend, whose job and relationships suffer because she has chosen to raise a child alone. Ultimately, then, Tracy's story enforces common assumptions about single parent families even as it attempts to undercut them. And, when considered in the context of Lifetime programming more generally, Oh Baby inevitably makes the traditional family structure seem simpler, if not more desirable, by comparison. Tracy's parenting group might consider her "queen," but Lifetime, with its line-up of Judith Krantz made-for-TV movies, ensures that Tracy remains the exception rather than the rule. In this way, the ambivalence of the series—which seems to vacillate between at best extolling the virtues of the SMC and at worst condemning Tracy for being ill-equipped to be the supermom she wants—might be understood as an attempt to negotiate the demands of the television audience, for whom SMChood holds the fascination of a tabloid scandal rather than a realistic life choice.

For young women, one of the most highly visible SMCs of the 2001-2002 television season is Rachel from the NBC comedy Friends. Because of her notoriety, Rachel (played by Emmy Award winning actress Jennifer Aniston) provides a cultural site with incredible potential to either rescript or endorse dominant understandings of single motherhood in the early twenty-first century. Rachel's pregnancy, rather than a conscious choice, is merely another twist in her increasingly complicated relationship with Ross, the baby's father. Strikingly, while Rachel's pregnancy, revealed in the season premiere, provides a major narrative arc, the realities of maternity go almost unmentioned except as they relate to the male friends. One could almost forget that Rachel is pregnant until the episode that focuses on her second trimester libido, a biological drive that threatens to send her into the arms of her friend and roommate Joey; the relative invisibility of Rachel's pregnancy contrasts sharply with the overwhelmingly present body of Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), who, earlier in the series, agreed to be a surrogate for her brother and his wife, ultimately acting in service of the father-centered nuclear family rather than standing in its way. Unlike Rachel's pregnancy, which threatens to derail her journey for a mate, Phoebe's surrogacy is rendered safe because it merely provides an alternative means of achieving the traditional family—times three. The contrast between these dynamics is underscored in Rachel's diatribe about dating and motherhood. She bemoans the fact no one wants to date a pregnant woman; in fact, she won't be able to date for "so long." However much she wants her child, the baby clearly poses an obstacle to Rachel's bachelorette lifestyle. Furthermore, Rachel's intense longing for romantic evenings and sexual encounters underscores that for her, single motherhood is clearly a Plan B, a card she was dealt rather than a hand she wanted to play.

Despite Rachel's concerns that her romantic life is over, her pregnancy, like Ellen's in Dating Big Bird, creates new possibilities for romance. She moves in with Ross, who laments the fact that he's missing out on all the pregnancy milestones, such as the baby's first kick, while Joey pines for the loss of the woman he only recently came to love. In fact, his daily involvement in the pregnancy actually spawns Joey's desire; he dreams of being in the delivery room for the birth, clearly taking the place of the baby's biological father. In this way, Rachel's choice to be a single mother is consistently undercut by the desires of her male companions who try to fit Rachel and the baby into a traditional family dynamic, overwhelming her life with male presence and control. Rachel and Ross might not be married, but their child will undoubtedly have two loving parents, if not three. As a whole, the narrative arcs of the series ensure that Rachel's declaration that she doesn't want a husband holds very little threat. To the contrary, one might read the pregnancy arc as an attempt to restore Ross's position as patriarch, lost early in the series when his son Ben was raised by ex-wife Carol and her partner Susan. Comedic moments of struggle over the baby's name, for example, serve to emasculate Ross when Susan replaces him as the baby's second parent. Deprived of his role as male head of the household and threatened by Carol's lesbianism, Ross can finally regain his lost masculinity and create a family with Rachel. Even if they don't marry, he clearly acts as the baby's father and Rachel's partner over the course of her pregnancy. And the baby ensures that Ross and Rachel's on-again, off-again relationship reaches proper reproductive ends. Much like the end of Dating Big Bird, Rachel's single motherhood seems to operate in the service of, rather than in opposition to, heterosexual romance. Considering the status of Friends as a consistently ranked top-ten show, the image it creates of single mothers and families provides a strong indication of a particular cultural mood. Ultimately, the series intimates that mainstream viewers might be ready to consider "alternative families" so long as they remain just that.

While images of mature single mothers have flooded television screens and magazine covers, complicating stereotypes of single mothers as young, immature, and lower-class, the stories that we tell about SMCs and the stories put out by Single Mothers by Choice demonstrate continued cultural anxiety about the changing nature of the American family. Rather than depict the realistic struggles of single moms in a variety of race and class contexts, these sanitized representations of SMCs turn to traditional narrative structures and ideologies. In contrast to father-headed families and blended families, SMChood makes clear the real challenge to heterosexual romance and traditional gender roles. In a culture without the gendered separation of public and private spheres, in which women do not need to rely on men for their financial well-being, the ideological force of narrative works even harder to create a cultural and psychological need for Plan A; much as the romance narrative emerged with the rise of capitalism in order to make desirable a gendered division of labor, the contemporary heteronarrative continues to police changing economic realities. Economically and biologically, heterosexual coupling no longer needs to be a woman's only choice for maternity. Despite—or because of—these real social and technological facts of life, Single Mothers by Choice holds a viable promise and a significant cultural threat, even as Jane Mattes asserts that the organization is not political. And while science fiction and feminist utopian narratives might welcome such images as signs of cultural change, our popular narratives provide an index of just how far we still need to go.

The problem, ultimately, is that representations of reproduction inevitably reproduce narrative's reproductive paradigm. Until we can create narratives that operate under a non-heterosexual metaphor, the stories that we tell about the family will continue to reproduce, rather than challenge, dominant ideas about the family, ensuring that single motherhood remains either the enviable outcome of Hollywood wealth or the deplorable stereotype of the welfare mom. At this point, the SMC's narrative still functions in the secondary space of the perverse; and while becoming an SMC is Plan A for many real women, popular representations, such as Oh Baby and Dating Big Bird, work to ensure that choosing Plan B still allows the possibility of Plan A, in narrative timing, if not in hierarchy. In the end, the woman has her baby and her mate, and the child, once considered "illegitimate," actually functions to create, and ultimately legitimize, Plan A. As Roof reads Freud's theory of the perverse, it functions as a structural necessity on the way to the "proper" (read: heterosexual) end. What's necessary, then, is a narrative model that allows us to take the perverse, here the SMC, on her own terms, to give value to her vision of reproduction instead of reproducing traditional narratives of family values. Only in this way will narrative truly begin to represent American families.


Notes

1. The April 23, 2001 issue of Us Weekly, for example, bears the headline "The New Single Moms And How they Do It." The magazine spotlights Camryn Manheim's "new life as a single mother" shortly following the birth of her son, and also provides brief bios on Jodie Foster, Calista Flockhart, Diane Keaton, Rosie O'Donnell, Katie Couric, and Nicole Kidman. As the article proclaims, quoting Aretha Franklin, in Hollywood, "sisters are doing it for themselves."

2. The former vice president's attack on Murphy Brown is one of the most frequently referenced examples in the family values discussion that reached a pinnacle in 1992. Quayle's concern about the absence of the father, taken out on the single mother, is indicative of the backlash, famously characterized by Susan Faludi, against careerwomen and changing conceptions of women's work. By contrast, the October 2001 issue of Marie Claire included an article, "I Made my Lifelong Dream Come True," which featured a single mother by choice. The general context of this article does much to normalize the SMC phenomenon, even as the title implies that single motherhood is an almost unattainable goal.

3. As our basic model of narrative, the romance, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis explains, emerges as a "compensatory social and narrative practice" at the historical moment when the birth of capitalism demands a restructuring of the family and division of society into public and private spheres (2). If we accept that narrative is our governing epistemology, the very mode of human consciousness, then any amount of social change or subversion necessitates a new narrative structure, a new way of envisioning the world. Counternarratves are the precondition and possibility for imagining politics differently, for opening a site of ideological struggle. I have discussed this problematic in a different context in the essay "Women, Utopia, and Narrative: Toward a Postmodern Feminist Citizenship."

4. As evidenced by the new SMC website, Mattes' own position might be changing to reflect the changing demographics of the organization. Certainly Mattes should be lauded for her efforts to publicize and make acceptable the choice to become an adult single mother. Yet the rhetoric of "Plan A" continues to dominate discussions of SMChood both within and surrounding the organization.

5. Roof's work is part of a larger conversation in psychoanalytic narrative theory derived from Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." Peter Brooks' seminal essay "Freud's Masterplot" likewise characterizes narrative's drive in heterosexualized terms.

6. See, for example, Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Really Are and Judith Stacey's In the Name of the Family for thoughtful discussions on the changing realities of contemporary American families. Stacey, in particular, is careful to point out that it is not the quantity of parents but the quality of parenting that makes a viable family unit.

7. My analysis of Oh Baby would not have been possible without the invaluable assistance of Jennie Van Heuit, who graciously offered up her video tapes.

8. My deepest gratitude goes to Melissa M. M. Hidalgo for her assistance with this reading, and for being a friend.

9. As I have written elsewhere, Marge Piercy's novel Woman on the Edge of Time, for example, disimbricates sex, gender, and reproduction and creates instead an alternative family structure based on choice rather than biology.

10. In "Freud's Masterplot," Peter Brooks uses this term to describe the detours that stand in the way of narrative's proper reproductive end. While Roof argues that the term "perverse" doesn't carry negative connotations for Freud, the equation with homosexuality with the perverse and Freud's own privileging of heterosexuality makes it difficult to take the term neutrally. And considering the general tendency to equate SMChood with "Plan B," the term "perverse" underscores mainstream discomfort with single maternity.

 


Works Cited

Brooks, Peter. "Freud's Masterplot." Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

DuPlesssis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Friends. Prod. Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane. Warner Brothers, 2001.

Full House. Prod. Jeff Franklin, Marc Warren, Dennis Rinsler, Robert L. Boyett, Thomas L. Miller. Warner Brothers, 1987-1995.

Junior. Dir. Ivan Reitman. Perf. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Northern Lights and Universal, 1994.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Mattes, Jane. Single Mothers by Choice. New York: Three Rivers, 1994.

——-. Single Mothers by Choice. Website. http://mattes.home.pipeline.com. 1 September 2002.

My Two Dads. Prod. Michael Jacobs. NBC, 1987-1990.

Oh Baby. Prod. Susan Beavers. Columbia Tristar, 1998-2000.

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Rizzo, Monica. "And Baby Makes Two." Us Weekly 323 (23 April 2001): 31-36.

Roof, Judith. Come As You Are: Sexuality and Narrative. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

——-. Reproductions of Reproduction: Imaging Symbolic Change. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Silbergleid, Robin. "Women, Utopia, and Narrative: Toward a Postmodern Feminist Citizenship." Hypatia 12.4 (1997):156-77.

Stacey, Judith. In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Zigman, Laura. Dating Big Bird. New York: Dial, 2000.

Back to Top

© 2002 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
AmericanPopularCulture.com