A few months ago I came across a Pew Poll showing that 93 percent of Americans still view single motherhood as unacceptable and, in the colorful words of the poll, “bad for society.” Which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Caitlin Flanagan wrote in Time, “Few things hamper a child as much as not having a father in the home,” which is perhaps a little unsubtle for progressive New Yorkers, and yet many of them think and recycle polite, modified versions of this same idea.
Someone who was trying to persuade me not have the baby said that I should wait and have a “regular baby.” His exact words were, “You should wait and have a regular baby!” What he meant, of course, was that I should wait and have a baby in more regular circumstances. But I had already seen the feet of the baby on a sonogram, and while he was pacing through my living room making his point, I was thinking: This is a regular baby. His comment stayed with me, though. It evoked the word bastard: “something that is spurious, irregular, inferior or of questionable origin.”
Someone said, similarly, to a single friend of mine who was pregnant that she should wait and have a “real baby.” As if her baby were unreal, a figment of her imagination, as if she could wish him away.
Such small word choices, you might say. How could they possibly matter to any halfway healthy person? But it is in these choices, these casual remarks, these throwaway comments, these accidental bursts of honesty and flashes of discomfort that we create a cultural climate; it’s in the offhand that the judgments persist and reproduce themselves. It is here that one feels the resistance, the static, the pent up, irrational, residual, pervasive conservatism that we do not generally own up to. Hawthorne called it “the alchemy of quiet malice by which [we] concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles.”
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