Schalit on single moms: Slut-shaming or starting a conversation?

So I owe Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting a HUGE apology. Recently Schalit wrote a five part series on the epidemic of poverty and single parenthood in Maine; and I’ve had a reaction post in my head for two weeks now, waiting for the post election dust to clear.

I guess that’s silly now that I think about it. I probably should have been doing a series leading up to the election with a theme like, things we should be talking to candidates about that we aren’t.

If I had, I could have featured Schalit’s series because I think she’s trying to start a conversation that I most certainly don’t hear coming from elected officials. It’s an uncomfortable conversation on some levels, which is why I think some might be quick to discount it as slut-shaming.

There’s no easy way to start an uncomfortable conversation, though, so this single mom who’s been living around the poverty line for years now has to give Schalit credit for trying. Don’t get me wrong — parts of it hit right on some seriously inflamed nerve endings.

It’s not like I didn’t know my kids experienced stress and emotional trauma directly related to our financial circumstances. I also knew that the stress and trauma may have impacted their development and performance at school, but seeing the topic analyzed in print form still stung a little.

As Schalit pointed out, for families like mine, even a minor car problem can become a major crisis. Or a dead refrigerator.

Like this week when I first started to write this post and my youngest went to the freezer to grab a before dinner snack and showed me a spoon of liquid ice cream. I’m sure he could have done without watching his mother tear up over the $60-70 dollars of groceries I was frantically squeezing or smelling for salvageability, knowing it was pointless.

My youngest probably could have done without me rambling through my tears about being cursed since this had just happened several months ago in a previous apartment that was crumbling around us, and no sooner had we moved, it happened again even though we still couldn’t afford to have crap like that happen.

And, he probably could have done without listening to me curse at the powers that be — talk about violating the fourth commandment in profound ways …

It was one of those moments captured so well in a quote from a single mom, Joanne R., that Schalit interviewed for her series:

— it’s been a complete roller coaster. Happy, sad, happy, sad, happy, sad, stressed out, angry. And all I want to do is make her happy.  Joanne R. referring to parenting her daughter alone under difficult financial circumstances

I couldn’t say it better myself. Nothing in life has made me feel more happy and fulfilled than my two treasures, my boys, but nothing’s made me sadder than not being able to provide for them the way I’d like to … the way I meant to had things been different financially.

The way I was able to provide for them when I was in a stable longer-term relationship, which isn’t to say that I think solutions to this problem should include insisting that single parents should be married. Forgive the candor, but it sucked knowing that no matter how hard I worked, the only way I could really make it financially was to be in a relationship.

Like somehow my kids deserved to be punished because of the demise of a relationship.

I didn’t want to think Schalit was trying to say marriage was the only answer so I sat down to talk to her about it over tea. Schalit told me she spent a year researching the series, which includes time interviewing fathers serving sentences at the state prisonm. The fathers were participating in program designed to improve their parenting skills, and Schalit spoke to them about their parental absenteeism.

Schalit said most of the feedback she’d received while researching and in the wake of the release of the series had been positive, but said some people felt she had been judgmental in her presentation of the information. I was surprised when Schalit revealed that she had been a single mom for a period of years. She said that she had ample resources to provide for her children, but spoke with honesty about how emotionally and practically difficult single parenting is, even with resources.

Given that experience, Schalit couldn’t imagine how impossible it would be for a single mother to raise children without adequate resources. After talking to Schalit, it was clear to me that her motivation for the series was about wanting more for women who find themselves heading a household alone, rather than judging them for finding themselves heading a household alone.

Schalit talked about being impressed by Dr. H. Lori Schneiders who works with single moms pursuing their education at University of Maine at Machias. Schneiders is part of a Washington County program called “Family Futures Downeast,“ which is geared to helping parents think differently about themselves, their expectations and their goals.

I got the impression that Schalit was hoping her series would lead to policy-based discussions about how to improve single-parent families’ quality of life and improve outcomes for children in these families. I think Schalit is trying to spread the ideas behind programs like “Family Futures Downeast” and to start conversations with young women and men who may need support learning how to see themselves and their futures differently.

Frankly, I admire Schalit for daring to try to get people talking about one of the more complex challenges facing our state and our culture. She’s not afraid to say that helping people change their thinking about themselves, their children and their futures brings a necessary degree of personal accountability into the lives of people. Schalit saw that sense of personal accountability on the faces of the moms she met at in Machias.

Along with the sense of personal accountability comes hope, and Schalit wants that for all the parents she interviewed and for their children.

(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

Let’s face it, the institution of marriage isn’t what it used to be, back when the construct of patriarchy made it virtually impossible for women to exist outside of it. Further, the economy isn’t what it used to be either, especially in Maine given the loss of manufacturing as an economic driver. There’s also the issue of treating the trauma histories of many of the women who find themselves in the single parent role and in need of a sense of empowerment.

Last, having lived among my peers for many years now, I’d be a liar if I didn’t acknowledge witnessing how the drug epidemic has exacerbated the situation for many poor families in many ways.

Unfortunately, single parents are bearing the brunt of the fallout as society works through these transitions, challenges, and changes in perceptions. If Schalit is trying to shame anyone, it’s society as a whole for letting this problem fester for so long just because we are uncomfortable talking about it.

Endnote regarding trauma: In this post I referred to the trauma inherent in being poor, but in truth, my children are among the lucky ones. While all children of all socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk for traumas like physical and sexual abuse, poor children with such experiences may end up only further behind behaviorally and developmentally. Children can only take so much trauma and stress in their lives and still thrive as adults.

The manifestations of compounded childhood traumas can be found in just about every population in the health, mental health, social service, family court, public safety, criminal justice and corrections arenas.

 

I’ve included hyperlinks to the series in this post or to start with the first, you can click here.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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