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Posted: 3/14/2006 5:23:07 AM EDT
Meet the parent
Single motherhood has changed, and so has its image in society

By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff | March 13, 2006

In the summer of 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle chided the sitcom ''Murphy Brown" for ''mocking the importance of the father" in family life. The show's title character, played by Candice Bergen, was a protofeminist role model -- and single mother. How times have changed. Nancy Botwin, the central character in the award-winning sitcom ''Weeds," should be another fat target for the culture warriors. Played by Mary-Louise Parker, she's a single mother who sells marijuana to support her nontraditional family. Yet when Parker picked up a Golden Globe this winter, no one made her the poster gal for eroding family values.

Is that because ''Weeds" is a cult hit on the Showtime channel and not a pop culture benchmark the way CBS's ''Murphy Brown" was? Maybe. Or maybe it's because Botwin is divorced, whereas Brown was a single mother by choice. More likely, though, it's because the image of the single mother -- whether divorced or never married -- has undergone a dramatic facelift.

Numbers help explain the change. An estimated 10 million single mothers live in the United States, 25 percent more than in 1990 and more than three times the 1970 total. More children now live with a single mother than in two-parent households, according to one study. In the meantime, a growing number of older, more professionally established women (not unlike Brown) have ventured into motherhood, married or not. Their ranks include such high-profile celebrities as actresses Luciana Barroso (who is now engaged to Matt Damon) and Angelina Jolie (who is possibly the future Mrs. Brad Pitt). Jodie Foster, Madonna, Demi Moore, Rosie O'Donnell, Nicole Kidman, Heidi Klum, Melissa Etheridge, the late Wendy Wasserstein -- all are or have been single mothers more glorified than chastised by the culture at large.

''To a large degree, it's been destigmatized," says sociologist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of the 1993 article ''Dan Quayle Was Right" in The Atlantic Monthly. ''There's a genuine social sympathy that wasn't there before."

''Weeds" is hardly the only example of a TV show or movie of recent vintage that reflects, if not drives, changing attitudes and demographics concerning single mothers. A few years ago, when ''Friends" still reigned supreme, Rachel's out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a major plot device, the stuff of one-liners, not scandal or shame. Other TV shows featuring strong single mothers include ''Desperate Housewives," ''Gilmore Girls," ''Judging Amy," ''Surface," ''Living With Fran," and ''The Suite Life of Zack and Cody."

Tonight, CBS rolls out another one, ''The New Adventures of Old Christine," starring ''Seinfeld" alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus as divorced mother and gym owner Christine Campbell. Over the first few episodes, Campbell finds herself dealing with snobbish, disapproving mothers at her son's new school; reacting to her ex-husband's youthful new girlfriend (also named Christine -- hence the show's title); and coping with a love life so barren that she goes looking for a one-night stand in the aisles of an upscale grocery store.

Unlike Murphy Brown, Campbell is not parenting alone, points out ''Christine" creator Kari Lizer, herself a single mother. The character's ex-husband plays a prominent role in family life, sometimes too prominent. However, says Lizer, who based Campbell on many of her own experiences, the show does reflect a cultural divide that has persisted since ''Murphy Brown" went off the air -- the one between single mothers who stay at home and those who work.

''Hopefully a lot has changed since 'Murphy Brown.' And we are doing a sitcom here," Lizer says by phone from Los Angeles. ''But it seems like there's a war going on between who's the best mother, the stay-at-home kind or working mother, and I find that very destructive."

Did CBS raise concerns about Campbell's being an independent-minded, sexually active single mother? No, says Lizer, adding that the proliferation of shows featuring single mothers ''does give you some freedom. There are lots of versions out there, and what we're doing is really not that groundbreaking."

The ''Murphy Brown" controversy marked a real turning point, according to University of Michigan communications professor Susan J. Douglas, author of ''Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media."

''One, Quayle looked like a jerk for taking on a fictional character," says Douglas, ''which meant he was symbolically taking on upper-middle-class women, not welfare moms. And two, the climate changed as a cohort of aging women began wanting kids. It got increasingly glamorized when women like Jodie Foster started having babies." Foster, who never married, has two children.

Jessica Denay is one real-life mother who's using her own experience to reach out to others like her. Denay, 31, who lives in the Los Angeles area with her son, launched the Hot Moms Club on Mother's Day 2005. The combination magazine-website has attracted more than 30,000 members. With a book due out in April (''The Hot Moms Handbook"), plus a radio show and licensing deals in the works, more exposure is all but guaranteed.

''Attitudes have changed dramatically since I became a mom five years ago," Denay says. ''I was someone who never thought she'd be a single mom. I was well educated, came from a great family, worked as a schoolteacher, and was getting my master's degree. But then I got pregnant, at 24, and found myself in a situation I never anticipated."

The attitude she ran into initially, says Denay, was, ''OK, your life is over now." But as a 25-year-old mother, ''that didn't fit me," she says. ''Then I was hearing, 'Oh, you don't look like a mother.' So I thought, well, what does a mother look like? So I set out to redefine motherhood on my own terms."

Overcoming her guilt and embarrassment, Denay decided that single mothers could be hot. Her website offers profiles, personal testimony, parenting tips, and shopping suggestions, among other features. A special fund also helps economically disadvantaged and battered single mothers. Denay insists she's not promoting single motherhood -- her partner in the Hot Moms Club is a married mother -- but says there's never been a better time to be in her situation.

''At first, I was afraid to tell any man I was dating that I had a son," says Denay. ''Now it's the first thing I tell them." It helps, she adds, that celebrities like Jolie are constantly in the news.

''In Hollywood, babies are like the new Gucci bag, the hip new accessory," says Denay. ''It's celebrated now. The message is, you can be a great mom and sexy and have a career, too."

A message Murphy Brown once tried to send, with decidedly mixed results.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.



Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:27:54 AM EDT
I don't give a rats ass what women do.
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:30:47 AM EDT
didn't you know? Sleeping with as many men as possible and gettin knocked up and stickin him for the child supports is not only fashionable, it's a career!

Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:35:15 AM EDT
I call shows like that "Stereotype reinforcement hour".
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:35:45 AM EDT

TV tells us: single motherhood is cool!


TV has never been to the Post Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:36:37 AM EDT
Dan Quayle got a bad rap by the media. He is actually an extremely smart individual. I'd vote for him.
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:39:00 AM EDT
pathetic. I was a single mother for 4 years and I hated it.
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:41:24 AM EDT

Originally Posted By xinflt:
Dan Quayle got a bad rap by the media. He is actually an extremely smart individual. I'd vote for him.



About five years ago, Candice Bergen even admitted that Dan Quayle was right.
That's a little vindication for a smart guy who was unfairly vilified.
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:46:54 AM EDT


''In Hollywood, babies are like the new Gucci bag, the hip new accessory," says Denay. ''It's celebrated now.



I simply have no words.
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 5:53:57 AM EDT
Plenty of single fathers out there too and from what I see their numbers are growing. Guess they don't merit mention by feminized Hollyweird though.

I was a single parent for 9 years and hated it also. It was tough, very tough; and while I did the best I could, that nine years convinced me that two parents are 150% better than one. In a healthy and happy family the combined affect of having two "engaged" parents is magnified way beyond the affect capable of a one parent situation. It's a synergy thing and I had it with my second marriage.

Link Posted: 3/14/2006 9:45:56 AM EDT
[Last Edit: 3/14/2006 9:46:10 AM EDT by GunLvrPHD]

Originally Posted By TRW:
Plenty of single fathers out there too and from what I see their numbers are growing. Guess they don't merit mention by feminized Hollyweird though.

I was a single parent for 9 years and hated it also. It was tough, very tough; and while I did the best I could, that nine years convinced me that two parents are 150% better than one. In a healthy and happy family the combined affect of having two "engaged" parents is magnified way beyond the affect capable of a one parent situation. It's a synergy thing and I had it with my second marriage.



+1
Link Posted: 3/14/2006 9:58:32 AM EDT

Originally Posted By TRW:
In a healthy and happy family the combined affect of having two "engaged" parents is magnified way beyond the affect capable of a one parent situation. It's a synergy thing and I had it with my second marriage.




Same here.

Being a single parent isn't cool. If you're doing it right, it's extremely hard work. It's a very lonely experience too ...
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