Whoa, Did SCOTUS Shame Single Parents?

by Jessica Blankenship

A really good thing happened today. The Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, effectively bringing marriage equality to all 50 states. Everyone is celebrating (OK, not everyone) as one of the most embarrassing, glaring hindrances to civil rights progress in the U.S. is finally condemned to rot in the darker chapters of history books. Seems like an unequivocally great, nice thing, right? Well, yes. A million times, yes. Marriage equality is a completely excellent thing, the only downside to which is the length of time and ardor of fight it took us to achieve it. It honestly should've been a no-brainer, and it wasn't, and a lot of people spent many decades fighting with every breath in their being for today to happen. But the shame of how long it took this day to come is proportionate to the size and power of the celebration at its long-awaited arrival, so for the most part, everyone is choosing to celebrate this massive win rather than lament the regrettable fight that preceded it.

And you know, I think that's the way it should be. When an injustice has been righted, it's best to focus on the fairer future in front of you, rather than look back in anger (which, as a pair of wise brothers once said, is a think you shouldn't do.) Just focus on the good, is my point. Unfortunately, upon reading the actual text of the SCOTUS marriage ruling, it looks like not everyone managed to do that. In fact, for a decision that so easily lends itself to a discussion of faultless points like the importance of equality and human rights, the Supreme Court Justices managed to find a way to pointedly shame the families, parenting styles, and relationship choices of millions of Americans, and it's as entirely unnecessary as it is entirely offensive.

Come on a little journey with me through the text of the SCOTUS marriage ruling:

“Excluding same-sex couples from marriage thus conflicts with a central premise of the right to marry.”

Yes! Absolutely. So on board with this thought. Way to go, SCOTUS. What else have you got for us? I can't wait.

“Without the recognition…”

Fuck yes. Same-sex couples deserve that recognition. I like where you’re going with this. What a time to be alive. What next?

“...stability, and predictability marriage offers…”

OK, I feel like you can have those things even if you’re not married, but... let’s breeze past it. We’re breezing past it. It’s cool. Without those things, what?

“...their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.”

Wait, what? What is happening right now? Where am I? Families with unmarried parents are “lesser”? Way to throw something that should be blatantly positive and thrust it into deeply problematic territory, SCOTUS. You did it. You're right there. You're in the goddamn end zone. Stop shooting yourself in the foot. Why are you smearing shit on this beautiful thing?

Further into the actual text of the ruling, there are numerous instances where the importance of marriage is touted — not as a symbolic marker of non-discriminatory legal standing of couples of all genders, or a framework for providing spousal rights and benefits to partners, but as a family institution outside of which children are left at a considerable disadvantage, aka the single most antiquated and useless justification for the necessity of marriage.

“[Children of unmarried parents] also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life… Marriage also affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests.”

I’m... deeply annoyed by this, for a few reasons. I’m a single parent, although I’m fairly sure I would be equally offended by this if I didn’t have a kid and was simply a person who had no interest in ever getting married; it's pretty egregiously slighting to both groups. But, as it happens, I am a parent, and an unmarried one at that. And if the Supreme Court’s very non-vague words are to be believed, my child is “left at a considerable disadvantage” and “relegated through no fault of [his] own to a more difficult and uncertain family life” as a result of my lack of a spouse. The Justices could honestly have not found more succinct, direct words to cut right to the heart of every nagging doubt that plagues singles parents’ minds as a result of living in a society that broadly upholds the view that single-parent families are inherently flawed and that the children who grow up in them end up inescapably damaged as a result. (This view, to be clear, has been thoroughly disproven, but our opinions of ourselves and our lives will always be largely defined by the context verdict imposed on them by other people’s portrayal of them, no matter how unfair or inaccurate.)

The truth of single parenting, away from the guilt- and doubt-inducing din of popular, misguided opinion, is that our ability to provide a stable, consistent, supportive life and multiple secure attachments and shining examples of healthy, loving relationships, is in no way limited by the fact that we're parenting alone. Or co-parenting with someone we aren't married to. Really, there is no single thing that universally grants nor takes away a parents' ability to give their kids the kind of home and life they need to thrive. Families with two parents can just as easily fuck it up as single parents, and a single parent can just as easily get it right as two-parent families. Being married really has nothing to do with it. The implication here is that the presence of a marriage in a family is indicative of a degree of commitment and stability that is ALWAYS present in a marriage, and NEVER present without one. I would like to think it goes without saying (although obviously it does not; Looking at you, SCOTUS), but clearly making sweeping generalizations like this overlooks a multitude of variation and exceptions. It makes something that bears no distinct qualities on its own — a marriage certificate — the single evaluative factor in the quality of a child's family life. Nope. Not here for it.

Which isn't to say that single parenthood is always a perfect thing. Can being a single parent be the product of being a woefully unstable person whose woeful instability will also manifest in other ways and ruin a kid's life? Yeah. Duh. Of course. But you can also be unstable and be married. And it's clearly making a hefty leap to presume to know the reality of every single-parent family. It's not possible, and to pretend it is does nothing more than perpetuate shaming stereotypes about people based on how they choose to live their lives. Sometimes parenting alone is the end result of a series of incredibly positive, healthy choices, and often creates a life for the children involved that is better than any other option.

There are innumerable qualities a parent should seek to nurture within themselves and their relationships which DO have bearing on the quality of their kids' lives, but those are so numerous, and so subjective, and so specific to each person, each family, and each child, that there's absolutely no way that any external governing body could possibly hand down a prescriptive recipe for what components will make a good life for every single child. Well, I suppose they could say, "Don't be an asshole; don't let other assholes be a part of your kid's life, no matter who they are; cut out any toxic relationships that model unhealthy interpersonal dynamics or else your children will replicate them later in life; be very patient, very loving; and let your children be who they are." Those are literally the only things that are true and applicable to every parent on the planet. Every other choice and detail of how they construct their families and how they conduct their parenting? That shit is up to them to figure out what is going to make for the most positive home environment to raise their kids in, and that includes whether or not to be married. There's no degree of love, support, or security that can't be provided, nor any example of love and commitment that can't be demonstrated by a single parent, if they're the kind of person who is inclined to show those things. By that same turn, there is absolutely no guarantee that those things will be present in a family where the parents are married. If you're the kind of parent who will bring those important things into your child's life, you're going to do so no matter what family structure they're infused into; if you're not that kind of parent, no specific legal validation of your family unit is going to provide them for you.

Single parents aren’t the only group whose lives are grossly invalidated by SCOTUS’ words in this case: All single people are being framed in a blatantly offensive way.

“[Marriage’s] dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

"MARRIAGE IS ESSENTIAL TO OUR MOST PROFOUND HOPES AND ASPIRATIONS." Hello, 1950s, I missed you, baby. Wait, no I didn't. Ew, go away, you smell terrible. I want to come up with something more eloquent to say than “what the fuck” but what in the easiest fuck with this? Sorry, single-and-never-wanting-to-get-married friends, all of those other hopes and aspirations you have that have fuck-all to do with marriage? Those don’t count. They kind of don’t even exist. They definitely don’t count for anything of worth. You are, in case you had forgotten — in case it was possible for you to ever forget in the middle of this proposal/wedding/marriage-obsessive culture we’ve constructed — only as worthy as your relationship status. That feeling of happiness and fulfillment you feel in your unmarried life? You’re probably imagining it. Or kidding yourself.

“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”

How is it even possible that something so exquisitely positive as this ruling turned manages to come packaged in such a rancid crock of single-shaming horse shit? Almost convinced they’re trolling us. Almost.

What’s unfortunate about choosing to convey the importance of marriage equality through an elevation of marriage itself, and through admonitions about the pitfalls of a lack of marriage in the lives of children, is that it shifts the issue of marriage from invalidation of one group of people by way of exclusion to invalidating whole other groups of people by way of judgment. It’s like, “OK, gay people, you are officially recognized as humans and Americans who are entitled to equal rights by mandate of the Constitution. But you, you single parents and unmarried couples, you assholes are ruining your kids’ lives and eroding the moral fiber of this great nation. Peace out!”

I’m not entirely sure why the Justices' explanation of their decision couldn’t have centered around the point none of us can argue against: Equal rights. Why did they have to use this moment to push a pro-marriage agenda? (Look, I don’t throw around the word “agenda” because I don’t assume that every single action and opinion comes laden with a broader ulterior motive, but like, it really fucking feels like it in this case.) Where is the point in that? Would it not have been possible to focus on the fact that all unions, regardless of the genders of the people involved, are equal and valid in the eyes of the law? Or perhaps on the immense benefits of eradicating “greater than, less than” implications of not declaring that only some people are allowed to marry? OR could the Supreme Court opinion not have simply focused on the basic, fundamental, American principle of not allowing or withholding certain rights based on clearly discriminatory standards? Or, hell, even just “hey guys, we never have to have this fight again and that’s great because we’re all really, really tired of it!”? So many angles from which to talk about this that have nothing to do with shaming the family structures and parenting choices of millions of Americans.

Feeling judged to varying degrees for being unmarried — especially if you have children — isn’t exactly new. Couples who happily co-habitate, sharing their lives in every imaginable way, with no plans to walk down the aisle, are perpetually being peppered with questions about when one person is going to “make an honest woman” out of someone else. They are barraged with a ceaseless hail storm of seemingly benign or even well-meaning questions and comments about their lack of a formal marriage, and their lives almost constantly involve setting aside energy for undoing the dings and dents left in their sense of worth and legitimacy of their love and commitment to one another. If not having the right to marry served to de-legitimize the validity and wholeness of same-sex relationships, does a dogmatic adherence to the necessity or supremacy of marriage do the same thing to couples or individuals who choose to remain unwed?

Which brings me to the second reason why it’s so annoying that the SCOTUS opinion spent so much space promoting the supremacy of the institution of marriage: I don’t want to be annoyed today. This isn’t a day to be annoyed, or to feel excluded, or judged, or like your choices about your life and your family are less valid than anyone else’s.

I feel like I can’t reiterate often enough, or with enough emphasis, how overwhelmingly joyful this day is. This is a win, guys. I’m not trying to take away from that. There are so many facets of my identity that are celebrating today: The American part of me, that is affirmed and reassured by any marked social progress during a time when our rights and liberties feel threatened and closed in upon; the human part of me that osmotically feels some admittedly diluted shade of the profound, exhausted, thrilling, painful, wonderful exhaling sensation that I imagine so many people who have felt personally limited and discriminated against by unequal marriage laws are feeling today; the single part of me that very well might want to get married some day, and that no longer has to wonder if that option will be challenged if the person I end up wanting to marry is a woman. All the parts of me are stretched, expanded, and aching in an attempt to contain all of the good feelings that exist within me today, but probably no identity I claim is feeling more thankful than the parent part of me.

The parent part of me hasn't been able to stop crying (all day, literal tears, at my desk) at the thought that my 3-year-old kid won’t ever remember a time when we distinguished between “gay marriage” and “marriage.” I'm hammered with the realization that he will have one less source of self-doubt about the value of his love or his life if he’s gay. He will be less likely to become depressed, or to attempt suicide. He’s going to grow up with a significantly expanded idea of what “normal” relationships and families look like, and as a result, will very likely not accidentally wield exclusionary definitions and labels in ways that hurt and diminish others. Because he will grow up in an environment that is more inclusive, in which many more people’s identities and choices are normalized, my kid will both be subjected to less hate, and be less likely to unwittingly become an instrument of hate. Some of the problematic mindsets that I internalized from a young age, that I’ll be working my entire life to undo, will likely never touch him, or at least will impact his world view to a lesser degree, and will define his treatment of others in a completely different way. And even better than all of that is that it's not just true for my kid — it's true for everyone's kid. Something incredible and life-changing just happened to all of our children, regardless of their sexual orientation, and my heart is fucking exploding over it.

All of which is to say this: When you look at moments like this marriage equality decision from a “think of the children!” perspective, it absolutely does catalyze their true impact. We are actively changing the world our children will be raised in, thus radically shifting how they will learn to view and treat one another, not just by way of what we directly teach them, but in terms of what they will passively learn from what’s happening around them. Shifts like that are usually slow and almost imperceptible, but occasionally — like today — the whole damn thing shifts dramatically and we’re overcome with the occasional momentum of change.

It’s just a giant bummer to feel like the Supreme Court, in the course of mandating the right for all people to get married, has simultaneously mandated the need for everyone to get married. The fight was always for marriage equality because a world without equality is utter squalor, not because we all think a country full of unwed sinners is condemning us or our children in some way. By emphasizing the importance of marriage itself (as opposed to emphasizing the importance of equal rights), the Supreme Court missed the mark entirely. Sure, we’re getting the ruling we wanted, and the positive consequences will come out of it regardless, but are we getting it for the right reasons? Ultimately, I know it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. Our kids are going to grow up knowing that the worth of a relationship isn’t dependent upon the genders of the people in it; they aren’t going to be reading the actual SCOTUS opinion on the issue as a bedtime story. But still, there’s a tiny, irritating little cloud over this day: Is this Supreme Court decision an indication of further movement toward an America that prioritizes the equality of its people, or is it an attempt to re-establish the supremacy of marriage as the single perceived “right” way to build a family? I guess all we can do today is focus on the good, and commit to doing right by the people we love, whether or not we birthed them, and whether or not we marry them.

Images: Getty Images; Giphy(6)