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In Defense of Single Moms

My family is rooted outside the nuclear archetype. Bring on the assumptions.

Editor's note: With permission from Goose Lane Editions, the following is excerpted from "Best Interests of the Child" in  The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood.]

A few years ago, I had lunch with a cousin from England who was visiting for a family wedding. At one point, I inquired about the news reports of mobs of young men engaged in rioting, looting and arson in London and other towns in England earlier that month. As my cousin was a London resident, I thought he would have an insider's perspective on issues of poverty and social alienation there.

"Why is this happening now? What do you think the root cause of the riots is?" I asked.

He paused to look me directly in the eye. "Single mothers," he replied.

I nearly coughed out my salad. My cousin knew very well I had been a single mother for almost nine years.

That night I brooded over his words. They seemed to crystallize all the unspoken judgments made about me by my extended family and by strangers unfamiliar with my background. I thought back to the moment I emerged from the doctor's office having just received confirmation of my pregnancy. I was in a state of shock.

"What do you want to do now?" asked a close friend who'd accompanied me.

I considered this for a moment, and then said, "Celebrate!"

I'd yearned for but not expected my child. That he came to me was a great blessing. It also set me on a difficult, heart-opening journey into the most profound and meaningful transition of my life.

A stereotype is born

When I became pregnant, I felt like a teenaged mother having to break the news to my elders, even though I was in my thirties. My paternal grandmother in Hong Kong and other conservative relatives made me feel as if I were shaming and dishonouring my family. My grandmother was so horrified at the news of my pregnancy that she refused to inform other relatives about it. After I sent out birth announcements, she avoided the subject. Even my mother, in the intermediate stage of dementia, exclaimed to my sister, aghast, "She must have had sex with that man!" after it finally sunk in that I was eight months' pregnant.

When I thought about my cousin blaming single mothers for the London riots, I wondered once again about the origins of those old-fashioned and paternalistic attitudes toward single mothers, and how they have persisted into modern times.

In the spring of 2012, the National Post published a  series of articles exposing the systemic practice by social workers, medical practitioners and church-run maternity homes of coercing thousands of single mothers across the country to give up their infants for adoption from the 1940s through the 1980s. A class action lawsuit was launched in March 2012, accusing the B.C. government of abduction, fraud and coercion in relation to the adoption of infants of unmarried women during that period, with more class action lawsuits to be filed in other provinces later this year.

At the time, unmarried and pregnant girls and women were considered "loose" and too "feeble-minded" to care for their babies. Some young women were told their infants had died during birth. Others were tied down and covered with sheets to prevent them from seeing or touching their infants as they were being born. Many were compelled to sign surrender documents shortly after giving birth when still reeling from the after-effects of medication, without being advised of their legal rights to revoke the adoption, to request temporary wardship, or to obtain social assistance.

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