The Mother of All Myths

The Church takes a lot of heat for its position on the sanctity of marriage. We all know people who have abandoned the Catholic faith because the Church seems unreasonable to them on sexual issues. Social scientists have now accumulated an impressive array of evidence that indicates our Holy Mother has been telling us the truth. Nonetheless, this evidence often falls on deaf ears, exactly as the Church's teaching has.

Consider one aspect of modern life: single-mother families. The evidence is clear that this is not “just an alternative lifestyle,” but a disastrous decision. These families are the poorest of all major demographic groups. Children from mother-only families receive less education and are more likely to be poor as young adults. They are more likely to commit delinquent acts and to use drugs and alcohol than children from two-parent families. The effects of single-motherhood are consistent across a large number of income, racial and ethnic groups.

The overall body of research suggests what the Church has known and taught all along: the best odds for a child's success and happiness are to be born to a married couple.

Why, in the face of this mountain of data from social scientists, are so few people persuaded by the essential reasonableness of the Church's position? St. Thomas Aquinas can help us understand. Thomas observes that human beings are naturally drawn to God, and therefore, to whatever is good. Unfortunately for us, Original Sin and its consequences distort our perception of good and of its consequences. We are drawn to bad things that we mistake as good. Or, we confuse a temporary good with a permanent good, or a partial good with a complete good.

If we can understand that people are drawn to single-motherhood because of some mistaken or distorted idea of what is good, we may have a better chance of reaching them. There are too many such skewed ideas to address in one column. Let me touch on just one.

Some women are drawn to the idea that independence is a good thing. They have come to believe that taking care of a child without any help is a natural extension of the self-reliance so characteristic of Americans.

This argument is misleading, because the job of child rearing is too big for an individual person. The care of a baby requires at least two persons. Someone takes care of the baby, and someone takes care of the one who is taking care of the baby. The dependency of motherhood is by no means a parasitic dependence. The mother is producing something of value to herself, the child's father and the wider society. She is producing — if I may be pardoned for using that rather cold-blooded expression — a civilized adult. Her “dependence” is more accurately described as interdependence. There is nothing undignified or inappropriate about this interdependence.

No mother can be completely independent. There is always a third party in the background. A mother, single or married, who works outside the home is dependent upon her employer and her child-care provider. The child-care provider takes care of the child, and the mother, in cooperation with her employer, takes care of the child-care worker.

Some single mothers depend upon their blood relatives for help. Other single mothers depend upon government assistance. A divorced mother may receive child support payments — if she is lucky. To that extent, she is dependent upon her former husband. If a single mother is independently wealthy, she is actually dependent upon the wealth created by her forebears. Only the single mother who is wealthy by her own earlier efforts can be said to be truly independent.

Thus, nearly all mothers are dependent on someone. There is no social arrangement that can alter this basic fact. Modern arrangements that claim to liberate women from dependency only mask it, by transferring it from the father of the child to some other person or institution.

There is a tragic irony in all this. The attempt to create independence where none is truly possible shifts the dependency of the mother from the person most likely to have an interest in her and her child, namely the father, to a person or institution that has much less commitment to her and to her child. No one knows this better than the women who became single mothers involuntarily when they were abandoned by their husbands.

The various institutions that attempt to substitute for the father's economic support do not, and cannot, go far enough. No employer is committed to the mother and her child the way the father could and should be. No government program is committed to them the same way either. The employer's commitment to the mother is based on her usefulness to the business. Support from the state depends on the vagaries of politics. Working mothers, single or not, are dependent on the good graces of their employers, the competence of their child-care providers, and the energy of their blood relatives. From this perspective, today's mothers are no more independent than mothers in earlier generations.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe that raising a child without a husband is a sign of independence. That vision of good is distorted or mistaken, in the way that St. Thomas taught so long ago.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Readers can e-mail her at [email protected]