Book Review: Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice

September 6, 2006

(I posted a longer version of the below on Mombian.)

The American family is changing. That should come as no surprise to members of this site. Rosanna Hertz’s new book, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family adds important insight to this transformation. Hertz is Luella LaMer Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at Wellesley College. Her book is likely to become a staple of women’s studies classes, but should be read by anyone interested in today’s debates on marriage or motherhood.

Hertz’s goal is to shed light on the lives of women who chose to bypass the typical progression of love, marriage or partnership, and then children, and to look at what they reveal in term of broader social changes. These women did not become single moms by accident, but rather by a deliberate process of soul searching and planning. Without intending a revolution, they are transforming what it means to be a family.
To begin, Hertz traces the historical factors that have led to the loosening of ties between traditional marriage and children. The heart of the book, however, comes from Hertz’s in-depth interview study of sixty-five middle-class women, all of whom chose to become mothers when single. Hertz takes us through their initial decisions, how they gathered support from family and friends, and how they chose among donor and adoption options. There is also much to ponder in her discussion of the later roles of donors and birth families.

Hertz then looks at the women’s lives after their children arrived, and how they balance parenting, work, and romance. THey are, by necessity, underscoring the need for flexible work and childcare options. Instead of leading the charge as activists, however, they are finding their own alliances and exchanges that enable them to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, drawing upon gift givers, roommates, and careworkers in ways that coupled parents do not.

Finally, Hertz asks how the women incorporate men into their lives, and raises some intriguing questions about the changing role of men in families. Men still matter, though not necessarily in the traditional husband-father way. Hertz avoids simplistic and vague explanations of “male role models, instilling male values,” however, and more astutely notes:

It is not that they believe that men provide a critical difference in perspective that women cannot supply; it is more that their very presence signifies the continued importance of men in our culture. . . . they want their children freed of gender stereotypes, but at the same time they do not want to fully reject the idea that difference between men and women may exist.

At the end of the book, Hertz speculates on the future. Reproductive technologies even now mean the act of sex is not necessary for procreation. Soon, she tells us, sperm may not even be needed. The mother-child pair, not the adult couple, has already become the core of the family for those in her study. If the traditional control of men over family life continues to be “disassembled,” “the opportunities presented by science could be capitalized upon and a new ideology of family would be possible.”

We are not at that point yet, however, Hertz says. The women she interviewed are not trying to create a society without men. Almost all of them wanted to find a spouse or partner someday, and for the straight women, this meant men. Even the lesbian moms wanted men in their children’s lives.

Another ramification is that as reproductive technologies make it easier for women to have children from their own genetic material, even later in life, adoption becomes less attractive. This is a looming social problem with no easy answers, although Hertz does not here delve into all the possible ramifications.

Read this book for nuanced insight into how the concept of family is changing across our country. Read it if you are a single mom or considering single motherhood. Read it for the stories of the courageous women who took their desire for children into their own hands. They are creating new forms of kinship and support networks that will have echoes beyond the realm of single-mom families. Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice is well researched and well written, and surely to be much discussed.

I will be hosting an online chat with Professor Hertz on Tuesday, September 26, 2006, from 9-10 p.m. EDT. She will chat about her work and answer questions from participants. I encourage you all to join us, and to tell others who may be interested. E-mail me if you want to participate, and the day before the chat, I will send you a reminder. (I will only use your e-mails for this purpose, and will not sell or share them.) You may also just stop by Mombian.com, and I will have a post up with instructions on how to join. If you wish, e-mail me questions ahead of time (or leave a comment) and I will forward them to Professor Hertz.