Political and social commentary gets weird when it involves my sex life

So I was 3/4’s of the way through an entirely different post when I had to call into a radio program on behalf of a friend, Naomi Schalit. Schalit had recently written a series on single parenthood and poverty for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. Schalit and Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow in Economics Studies at the Brookings Institution were scheduled to appear on the Maine Calling program on Maine Public Tuesday.

(Click here to access audio for the program.)

I’ve written a great deal about being a single mom, even about Schalit’s series, so when Schalit asked me to call in during her interview, I thought, no problem. Then, as the appropriate time to call neared, I had a wave of doubts.

Much of the beginning of the program referred to children born outside of marriage or the idea that women should delay having children until they are in an economically and emotionally stable relationship. My wave of doubts came from knowing that my story didn’t fit neatly into that script, and I wasn’t necessarily at liberty to explain why.

I mean, I could, but then you’re talking about explaining some pretty intimate details about my sex and romantic life, my beliefs, and the thoughts that were going through my head when I learned I was pregnant — one time on my own, one time in a stable long-term relationship that eventually ended a few years after my youngest was born.

And they’re not just my intimate details — these details are links on a chain that connect me to my children (my life’s greatest joys) and their fathers (essential to the creation of my life’s greatest joys) and all of our younger selves.

It’s weird to think about sharing too much, but at the same time, without that “too much” it’s hard to understand my individual single mother journey instead of judging it.

My individual single mother journey shares many similarities to those of others, and there are differences. That’s why one of my favorite parts of the radio program was when a caller phoned in to talk about the multifactorial nature of the discussion about single parenthood and poverty.

This caller went on to list a series of factors from economic to social to educational, etc., eliciting an “Amen, sister” from me as I listened to the remainder of the program. The caller’s seemingly endless list of factors highlighted the complexity of trying to address this issue.

As comprehensive and thoughtful as the program was, it would be impossible to address all the factors in one call-in show. For example, the subject of parents who have multiple children with multiple different partners came up without much discussion of the how’s and why’s people may find themselves in such cycles.

In my experience, there are usually how’s and why’s, often related to childhood trauma histories, but that’s just one complex factor in a complex issue full of other complexities. I think part of the reason it’s been so easy to ignore the issue of single parenthood and poverty is because it is so complicated.

Historically speaking, Americans favor simplistic linear problem solving methods. We want things broken down into either/or frameworks whether it’s our political or legal systems or our personal lives. We want things to be either black or white.

And we like to ignore problems that don’t resolve that way.

That kind of thinking won’t redirect the travesty that is the prevalence of poverty for single parents. Changing that prevalence does start with acknowledging it and talking about its societal ramifications as Schalit and Sawhill were doing on Maine Calling. It’s not right to let parents and children stagnate under circumstances we know will inhibit their ability to become productive contributing citizens.

The conversation about single parenthood and poverty is an uncomfortable but necessary conversation for all of us to be having, even me with all my doubts.


Rather than finish the post I referred to earlier, I’m going to add the concept on to this one because the two posts are unintentionally interrelated. I had been writing about reframing our conversation when it comes to women’s rights, especially reproductive ones. The thought came to me because I was inspired by the sheer numbers that turned out for the Women’s Marches last weekend.

Participants in Women's March in Portland. BDN photo by Troy Bennett

Participants in Women’s March in Portland. BDN photo by Troy Bennett

Yes, I am politically pro-choice even though I am personally pro-life. Yes, I support birth control being readily available for free at health clinics that serve lower income and working-class populations, including methods like IUD’s.

But that’s not all there is to reproductive rights, and the abortion debate is high up on the list of reasons I don’t belong to either political party. Democrats spend countless political, legal, and activist time and money in defense of abortion as though it’s the single most important issue for every single American woman.

Republicans do the same in opposition. Both sides treat the issue like it’s cut and dry, and neither side has much to say or do or spend when it comes to what happens after someone decides not to abort. How can I paint things in such stark, simplified terms? Because entire the debate is driven by ideological oversimplifications.

When I’ve had conversations with conservative acquaintances about my personal life choices as a single mom, most seem to have three primary themes to touch on in response:  don’t have children you can’t afford, but abortion is wrong, but it’s also wrong to become pregnant in the first place.

Those absolutes can only exist in a reality where people haven’t been partaking in the activity known to be associated with pregnancy since the beginning of time. I’m not sure where that reality is, but it’s not on earth where I’m guessing people will still be partaking in that activity when time comes to an end.

It’s such a popular activity with us humans, I’d also guess that when time does end, at least one person will be wondering if there’s still time for a quickie or wishing there was, but I digress.

Liberal acquaintances want to work with oversimplified themes of their own. I tend to lose them with the personally pro-life thing. Apparently, holding a pro-choice view and a pro-life view in my head at the same time is totally unacceptable and off-script behavior.

There are simple numbers to exemplify my point:  roughly one million and roughly 47 million. The first number is an estimate of the number of abortions performed during the most recent year available, 2013. The CDC puts the number at just under 665,000 and the Right to Life organization puts the number at just over one million. Both show totals in decline in recent years.

As much attention as is given to the abortion debate, you’d think tens of millions of these procedures were happening every year. You’d be wrong. The tens of millions are the number of children carried to term and in some stage of childhood who live around the poverty line — roughly 47 million of them. As little as you hear Democrats and Republicans talk about childhood poverty, you’d think there was only a million poor kids.

The numbers for childhood poverty were slightly better at the end of the George W. Bush administration than they are now at the end of the Obama administration, but neither party should feel anything but shame. With 47 million kids experiencing the stress of poverty in a nation as wealthy as ours, we should all feel shame.

It’s time to broaden our perception of women’s rights and reproductive rights. Right to abortion? Yes. Right to affordable/free contraception? Yes.

The right to have reproduced and to work and rear children free from the duress and obstacles of poverty? Please, yes. The right for children to experience childhood free from the negative consequences of poverty?
Please, please, yes.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.