A recent article called “4 Ways I Knew Ray Rice Was Raised by a Single Mother” features a misogynistic enumeration of the football player’s flaws attributed to being raised by a single mom. These flaws include a “low locus of control,” an “effeminate response to conflict,” “zero accountability,” and the fact that Rice and his wife still got married after the incident of violence. Honestly, the article’s content is so outlandish that it just seems like a caricature. I almost laughed…Almost.
Unfortunately, though, this in-your-face caricature states what a lot of other people say in more euphemistic, smile-at-your-face-while-slapping-you-with-my-words terms. How often do we hear people cite the increase in single-parent households as responsible for the “decline of our nation’s morality”? While I am curious to know what magical era these folks believe represents the height of our nation’s morality, I am more concerned about the implications that a child’s well-being is reliant upon the father’s presence rather than on a loving and dedicated mother or on a caring support network. Furthermore, I am disturbed by the emphasis on an atomized family structure that is alienated from communitarian forms of kinship, rather than on the necessity of a violence-free, egalitarian home environment in which the members have access to the resources necessary to thrive. More surprising to me is that there is no real movement or advocacy for single mothers in the United States. Thinkers and activists in religious studies have recognized the potency of religion and spirituality as a conduit both for oppressive metanarratives and for counternarratives of resistance. However, amidst the growing number of incisive inquiries into the operation of power differentials across gender, race, class, and nationality, there is a notable dearth of work being done from the perspective of unmarried mothers, a demographic in the U.S. context that suffers alienation and oppression.
This blind spot in our work strikes particularly close to home. Eight years ago, I was a “good Christian girl” at a good Christian college, with leadership positions in a good Christian church, and aspiring to do things good Christian girls do, like go to graduate school, work in vocational ministry, enter the Peace Corps, be the change we wish to see in the world, etc. These plans, incidentally, did not include imminent or even eventual marriage and motherhood. However, as even good Christian girls sometimes do, I fell in love. Instead of following the above path, I made a choice to engage in a physical, loving relationship with him, and I wound up pregnant at the start of my senior year of college.
I had no intention of rebelling, indulging myself, or becoming an apostate. Instead, amidst the dissonance and shame of trying to reconcile the message that good Christian girls do not have premarital sex with my situation as a single, pregnant, devoted Christian, a liberating voice broke through. It was the voice of my parents, who, without missing a beat, said, “We are so proud of you,” when I told them of my pregnancy. All I could think was that if my conservative parents could speak those words to me without condemnation or disappointment, wouldn’t a loving God extend to me the same – if not more – pride, love, and grace? To me, that notion of God was far more powerful, transforming, and counter-cultural than the God of strict morality who condescends to send grace and forgiveness to a sinful people with an annoying habit of screwing up all the time. The more I examined my situation, the more I realized that I had sought to love my child’s father in the most self-giving way I could. I was a hybrid mess of shame, ignorance, and hints of a new spirituality of liberating possibilities about God, love, and relationships about which I had never heard anyone speak.
This new spirituality whispered a possible counternarrative to the messages that shamed me – a counternarrative based not on a strict moral code of right and wrong, but rather on an ethics of self-giving love. According to this counternarrative, it is not single mothers, with their self-sacrificing commitment to their children – or even with their acts of physical self-giving by which they conceived their children – who are shameful. Instead, this ethics of self-giving love, based on the example of Christ and other moral exemplars of other traditions, condemns our economic and social systems that ignore or victimize single mothers. Perhaps single mothers do not suffer economically because they are deviating from a “moral” two-parent household, but because in our patriarchal system, women during their prime working years make 38% of what men do and are 37% more likely to miss one year of work due to unpaid home-based care of children or other family members. An ethics of self-giving love condemns our moralizing theologies that elevate the male-headed nuclear family over female-headed or community-based models and that justify the struggles of single mothers and their families.
I believe Christ lived by an ethics that guided his decisions about how he performed lovingly in a variety of scenarios, while others lived by a morality code – a set of rules about right and wrong which keeps intact power differentials and oppressive judgments. When we act according to ethics instead of morality, we are striving to identify a core standard, message, or virtue that can help guide us to decisions and performances that may differ according to each situation. But in living by morals rather than ethics, we may be bound to one performance in every single context – a performance that may in fact be unethical and harmful but strictly moral in our own minds. We need people of faith to creatively construct and embody a theological ethics of self-giving love that centers instead of marginalizes single mothers. It is time their voices were heard and celebrated instead of ridiculed and shamed.
 . Melissa Snarr, “Women’s Working Poverty: Feminist and Religious Alliances in the Living Wage Movement,” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 75-93: p. 82.
Image Source: Kristen Dobsen, in a reprinted article from Parent Map Magazine, May 2007 (Attribution via Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, http://wilpf.org/pv_moms_rising)