Shriver Report Serves Up Compulsory Marriage and Mothering

A high-profile report on women in America marginalizes 47 million of us

Posted Oct 23, 2009

Women, the Shriver Report cares about you. The authors want you to be everything you can be - as long as you don't choose to stay single, to not have children, or, most horrible of all - both. You won't find an explicit call to marriage and parenting in the report. Those goals are simply assumed. In the Shriver Report, marriage and mothering are compulsory, in the same way that Adrienne Rich described heterosexuality as compulsory in her ground-breaking essay nearly three decades ago.

You can see it in the questions that were asked and not asked in the survey that was commissioned for the report. You can hear it in the writings. The chapters heralding marriage and motherhood are animated by a can-do spirit that is going to pound on the doors of Congress and knock down decades of barriers until these married mothers emerge victorious. You will search in vain for the same sentiment about singles who have no children. Mostly, you will just search in vain for any mention of singles without children.

Are these single women who are not caring for children of their own a slim slice of the American adult population? Well, no. There are some 47 million of them. America may be, as the Shriver Report claims in its title, "A Woman's Nation," but the report is overwhelmingly about married women and mothers. The 47 million others are marginalized.

Are single people, however numerous they may be, simply on the outskirts of society, unconnected, uncaring, and unsupportive of anyone else? That's not so, either. The results of two national surveys have shown that the 104 million unmarried Americans (men and women, with and without children, divorced or widowed or ever-single) are more likely than married Americans to visit, advise, contact, and support their parents and siblings. They are also more likely to encourage, socialize with, and help their neighbors and friends.

The Shriver Report authors are deeply mindful of the care work that is being done on behalf of children and aging parents - as they should be. But as physician and professor Jody Heymann reported in The Widening Gap, there's much more care going on than that. In her study of 870 American workers across the country, whom she contacted every day for a week, she found that 30 percent of them had to cut back on work at least one day to care for others. When she included in the count those who cut back to care

• for parents,
• for multiple generations,
• for a spouse or partner, and
• for grandchildren and children - including even adult children, and counting their educational and other needs as well as health needs,

there were still 24 percent more who received care by these people who were taking time off from their jobs. Americans don't just care for their own nuclear families - they care for nieces, nephews, cousins, grown siblings, friends, neighbors, and more. They care for adults who are disabled or ill, regardless of their age or status as kin.

They have to. We are not a nuclear family nation anymore. The Shriver Report rightly makes much of the fact that the breadwinning-father and stay-at-home mother is no longer the dominant family form. But the report completely misses another, perhaps even more profound, demographic truth: There are now fewer households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids than there are households of single people living solo. Even those who are living in families are typically living in smaller families than in the past. When there are fewer children, there are fewer grown children to be there for aging parents. What's more, in our geographical mobile world, those few children are often scattered across the country or even the globe. They can't just take a day off from work to care for mom, even if they are eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act and can afford the time away.

There are important exceptions (and I will describe them in a subsequent post) but the Shriver Report seemed, for the most part, to be the product of an uncontested - maybe even unrecognized - Ideology of Marriage and Family. In that way of thinking, just about every woman wants to marry and have children, and just about every woman does. By doing so, she becomes a more valuable person than she was before. It is the unthinking acceptance of such a dominant ideology that results in documents such as the Shriver Report, steeped in Compulsory Marriage and Mothering.

As I will argue in my next post, the Shriver Report leaves women marooned on a nuclear family island. A marooned mentality misses out on the significance of friendship in women's lives and in the three degrees of connection that can influence and enrich (or even undermine) all of our lives. A marooned mentality sees work mostly only as something in conflict with marriage and family, and not as something with the potential - at least for a fortunate few - to engage our passions and our quest for the best. It doesn't look for ways to at least try to make the work itself less onerous for as many people in as many workplaces as possible.

When coupling and parenting are considered compulsory, then only the discriminations against wives and mothers are seriously considered in a report on women. The biases against mothers in particular have been persuasively argued, and should be remedied. They are unconscionable. But as I will document in my next post, single Americans are targets of housing discrimination and unfair workplace policies, and they are shortchanged in their access to health insurance, Social Security benefits, and much more. The Shriver Report authors make a compelling case that it's hard out here for a married couple. They rarely follow that argument to its logical conclusion - that if it is hard for wives (who, for instance, may lose access to affordable health insurance or to income when a spouse loses a job), then surely it is hard for singles, too.

The survey that was part of the Shriver Report did not come up empty in its findings on the place of singles in society. I'll get to those, too, in a section of a subsequent post with the heading, "Ring the doorbell and run away: The remarkable findings that did not make any headlines."

It is the year 2009. It is past time to accord single women and women who do not have children a place of recognition and respect in our society, our universities, our policies, our politics, our workplaces, our marketplaces, our media, and in reports with the title, "A Woman's Nation." We should do this not just for the women (and men) who are single and do not have children. We should do it because until staying single, or deciding not to have children, are valued options, then marriage and parenting are not options, either - they are compulsory.

[I've been pouring through the 454-page Shriver Report, line by line, ever since Jeanine first sent me a heads-up nearly a week ago. (Thanks, Jeanine!) Thanks also to Kay Trimberger for directing me to the Heymann book.]