Monday, May 24, 2010

Single Motherhood: Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown 18 Years Later

This past week marked what would have been the 18th birthday of Avery Brown, the son born to fictional single mother, Murphy Brown, on the sitcom of the same name. Days after the episode featuring the birth aired, then Vice President Dan Quayle mentioned the show in a speech he gave in response to L.A. riots, regarding the "poverty of values" in America. "It doesn't help matters," Quayle said, "when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice'."

Conservatives who supported Quayle's statement will cite statistics about the less favorable outcomes for children from single-parent homes. Such children are more likely to live in poverty, to become teen parents, to run away from home, to suffer from depression, more likely to end up in prison, etc., etc., etc. However, what the individuals quoting these statistics routinely fail to do is distinguish between correlation and causation. I have no doubt that these correlations are sound. But, I would question whether the fact of having a single parent is the primary cause, independent of other factors, of these children's problems.

In the same breath that he criticized Murphy Brown, Dan Quayle described her as an, "intelligent, highly paid professional woman." Such a woman, in my mind, is precisely the person most likely to succeed at single parenting. So what, precisely, was her crime? Quayle says that she "chooses" to raise a child without a father. But Murphy Brown, like many real women, only chooses to raise her child without a father when the father has expressed his disinterest in being a parent. And what precisely would Quayle have had Murphy Brown do if he'd been writing the script? Presumably, 42-year old Murphy Brown would have been abstinent and therefore never gotten pregnant. Because, of course, Quayle can't have meant to imply that she should have aborted the baby rather than subjecting it to the trauma of growing up without a father. Quayle's speech, given in response to the L.A. riots, could not have included a less relevant example. The delinquents rioting in L.A. didn't come from wealthy homes which merely lacked father figures. They came, more likely, from poor homes, in poor neighborhoods, many born to uneducated, teenage mothers and, yes, on top of all that, they may have grown up without the benefit of a father.

To be fair, I do agree with Quayle that, all other things being equal, children are better off with two parents. However, all other things are rarely equal. And I think that Murphy Brown, despite not having a father for her child, was more than unusually prepared to provide a safe, stable and comfortable home for a child. At 42, and unmarried, her accidental pregnancy represented her first, and probably last, chance at motherhood. If we all let an inability to provide the absolute ideal situation to our children prevent us from having them, we'd none of us have any children at all. I have always known that I want to have children some day. I hope that I have a husband to be a father to those children but I won't let the lack of one stop me.

Dan Quayle and others were and are bemoaning the loss of traditional family values in America. They long for the days when all families were cookie-cutter units of a father, a mother and two perfect little well-adjusted children. The only problem is that, while this happy traditional family may have existed for some, it was a facade for many others. How many homosexual men married women and had children because they believed that was their only option and what kind of life was that for their wives? And for their children when the truth eventually came out? How many women put up with physically abusive husbands because divorce and single motherhood were unacceptable alternatives? How many talented, intelligent women were stay-at-home mothers despite longing to pursue careers and how many women never had children, despite longing for them, simply because they were never fortunate enough to marry? I think a family with a mother, a father and their well-adjusted, biological children, is a perfectly wonderful thing, and more or less represents the family that I came from. But to relentlessly pursue such a family as the only acceptable incarnation of family is foolish. Dan Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown was a blind attack that unnecessarily demonizes a subset of our population that are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad. Being a single parent is not just another "lifestyle choice". It's often not a choice at all.


  1. What an insightful blog! For some sick reason I picked up an Ann Coulter book a few months ago and read a few pages. I happened upon her disgusting view of single motherhood. She writes and believes something to the effect that "widows are only included, when talking about single mothers, to class up the category". I was infuriated. I guess I learned my lesson about picking up her garbage. Thanks for taking the time to write such a great blog. Where the heck do you find the time?

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  3. There was an interesting article on NPR recently about red families vs blue families and what each political side advocates as "family values" and which political side seems to actually fulfill them. My husband was the oldest of four raised by a single mother and while they are not rich in wealth, they are rich in character.

  4. Yes, I can think of abundant incidences of "red families" failing to live up their own supposed values. I think it may be worth aspiring to certain values or circumstances, but ultimately it's good to be understanding about how reality can conflict with our intentions and aspirations. The movie _Saved_ does a great job of exploring that idea.