Friday, September 07, 2007

terminology creep:

I have insomnia. If I didn't, I might not be bothering with this, but tea+biscuits+ranting on the internet is my way of dealing with 2.30am, and that pernicious terminology creep just sidled up over here.

I don't much like pointing out these things, because it makes me feel like I am being Issues, and I'd kinda like to be a brain and a voice and stuff rather than just a wangsty backstory. It's not just on the internet - I've been in this position at the London Socialist Feminists discussion group too. I either speak up and feel like a whiny little discussion-derailer or let it pass and have my head esplode of logic failure and unexpected invisibility. So please, say it with me:

single parents =/= single mothers.

All Bs are A, but not all As are B. You follow?

It is true that the vast majority (I've heard it quoted as 90%) of single parents are women. This is not a good reason to use the terms as if they were interchangeable. Firstly it renders single fathers and their children invisible and conceals the places where their needs differ from the needs of single mothers. Secondly, it's pure fucking misogyny. Yeah, it's just reflecting the misogyny that generally exists in family structures - the bulk of single parent families are formed from the breakdown of two-[heterosexual]-parent families, and of course mummy always has to keep the kids, because human beings are just designed that way, so calling single mother families 'single parent families' is just the natural way of things, m?

It's using a neutral word to cover up an un-neutral problem. It's saying that we don't have to question why mummy takes the kids. It cuts both ways; she has to have that parental responsibility, while he cannot have it. Or alternatively; she is permitted to hog that position, while he is permitted to neglect.

It disguises the differences between single mother families and single father families. I'm not made of bullshit statistics, but every single father family I've known of is the result of either bereavement or imprisonment; the absolute imperative for mummy to take the kids means that the place where daddy takes the kids is a pretty confined and inaccessible terrain. On the other hand there's this whole jumble of problems many single mother families experience - getting child support, coping with the emotional fallout of family breakdown, access (sometimes referred to as 'pay-per-view parenting', by which we mean 'pay-per-view paternity'), and dealing with the lousy stereotypes (foolish, pathetic welfare mum and incapable, irresponsible deadbeat dad. I don't know any single father family stereotypes. Maybe they wouldn't work so well on TV or something.) There's always going to be some overlaps and some reversals of the norm, but on the whole assuming that a single parent family is a single mother family means assuming that some problems are everyone's problems (and that my problems were/are not really there).

I'd like to live in a world where there were parents. It's a role I wouldn't run away screaming from myself. In that world the term 'single parent' would have substance. I just haven't personally experienced this world - I've seen only single mothers and single fathers, and conflating the gender roles that prescribe their fates into a nice, neutral term is not a great idea.


belledame222 said...

oh, okay, so you've actually been having this conversation in a few places recently, then. yeah, i can see your point.

also sucks that the only people who do seem to talk about single fatherhood, that i've seen, have been the FRA sorts, who well have all sorts of other ickinesses assorted with them.

belledame222 said...

as per stereotypes: generally doing-the-best-he-can Dad after having been abandoned by heartless, selfish, cold and/or totally flaky Mum. that one movie with Dustin Hoffman...I am totally drawing a blank on title or other details, it's from the late seventies or early eighties...seems to be the prototype.

or, lately, same trope but more comic: stuff like "Three Men and a Baby," "Mrs. Doubtfire," you know the genre: even if there's a female figure it's all about how hi-larious it is to see Dad trying on the caretaker/homemaker role.

thene said...

[health warning: this comment contains wangst]

That narks me a bit - like when the LSF were talking about the pay gap, I was stunned by the lack of comment on fatherhood, because much of the pay gap is caused by unequal childcare responsibilities. I think it's feminist to advocate equal paternity leave, more support for fathers in the workplace, and just to generally knock the parent=woman thing whenever it comes up.

I confess I don't know the genre other than from hearsay - my film/TV knowledge is very patchy - but you did remind me of one that I'd forgotten about; Caspar. Single father buried in his own projects and not knowing what his kid's getting up to, much idolising of the missing mother, blah. There's an abandoner-mother in The Hours (I've only read the book, never seen the film), and the story's told from her point of view rather than her son's. I dug that, but it might've been nice if the book had dwelt more on the man she left behind. The only fiction I've ever seen that described a situation at all like my own adolescence was a so-so pulp fantasy I read years ago in which the heroine's mother died and then she had to keep house for her father and brothers. She'd walked out and found a more exciting life by chapter 2, so the author never dwelt on it, but I can't complain as it's what I did myself (got on the train the day I finished highschool, etc). As far as media visibility goes, that's been it.

AP made the point t'other day (here again, about sixty comments in) that all a father has to do to be a 'good father' is show up - so you've got that fine, doing-the-best-he-can dad in Caspar, but if single mothers (I'm thinking of Eminem's mommy in 8Mile) behave similarly they're flaky, self-absorbed and neglectful. I'm bitter; I'll admit that the main reason this annoys me is that I feel like it allowed my own father to get away with murder. He was there, and that was all that was expected, even though we had no one else in the world.

thene said...

-oh, for the record, it happens a lot; both the all-single-parents-are-women thing, and the no-kid-could-possibly-have-a-dead-mother thing. often in passive ways, like reading newspaper articles about all these dreadful unruly teenage truants that make the assumption that all children/adolescents have a mother. Nothing I can do about that except h8 on the media, and there's no reason they should be catering specifically to me anyway.

I think the worst occurrence ever was during the first week I spent at university - I was living in a dorm-flat-thing with three other girls, all very mainstream people who liked their soap operas and their fashion mags, etc. One evening after a night out on which we'd attempted to get to know each other, we were sat in our twee plastic kitchen sharing bits of ourselves; two of the others had lost grandparents not so long ago, and were talking about this, and one of them said; "But I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a parent. I don't even know how I could talk to someone who'd been through that."

aaaahagayeweyhopw4yerw4ywre, well, I never did make friends with those girls. [I did speak up on that occasion, and not in a nasty way, but no one said anything for about five minutes after that, and when they did it was unbelievably stupid, and I generally felt totally freakish and embarrassed around those oh-so-perfect girls for the whole rest of the year.]

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand the ##$% that followed that person's comment about not being able to understand if someone else lost a parent.