Why widows came to be treated poorly, or, single mommas have always been around.

The modern hyperfocus by some Christian-identifying conservatives on how *widows* should be treated better because they’re not at all like those wicked, awful, hypergamous single mommas is basically the result of broken tradition-passing and a complete inability to understand that the “grass widow” has been with humanity for a very long time.  Women sometimes claimed to be widows when they were not but as the story of the Samaritan woman and Jesus shows, there were plenty who didn’t even use that fig leaf.  The text does not definitively indicate she was widowed five times.

The Bible repeatedly refers to the fatherless, and also widows, but it would not have had the precision understanding it has when it’s used to justify giving nothing but rude words and a closed church door to single mothers and divorced mothers.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims are specifically told not to sexually regulate and speculate on just how the “widow” came to have “fatherless” children.

The fruits of patriarchal regulation are specifically commanded to be shared with the naughty.

I think the strain of disgust and revulsion these types have for single mothers and divorced mothers having any kind of support for their children comes from the individualism that conservatives are so prone to. Since they don’t understand or want to be part of real patriarchal social structures, they can only think about support in the narrow, literal terms of marrying such a woman or paying child support to her.  There is so much more than that in caring for others in your neighborhood and church though, and none of it involves “man up and marry those scandalous dames” at all, not even a lil’ bit.

It’s worth noting none of these guys are beating the bushes to go provide support to those saintly, superior literal widows and orphans, of which there are still plenty around and about.  No, it’s all talk and justification for not doing anything for women you can’t have sex with or don’t want to have sex with.  And as for the women lining up to concur that only the right kind of individual woman is entitled to help with her children, that was a driver of fun stuff like socialism, other women not wanting to deal with the wrong kind of woman.

Single motherhood does have a sort of status in wider society in that single (and to a lesser extent divorced) mothers are more willing to bully or beg people (nearly always other women, which makes the panic over some stray man having to do anything for them even more sadly funny) into helping them with child care so they can work.  And people will give them verbal encouragement.  This is real, I won’t downplay its existence.

But it’s hardly some carefree, easy path.  And contrary to popular belief, a lot of explicit law and social norms work to sharply limit the number of children such women do have.

And related to this, raising children has historically not been so totally expected to be the work of individual parents to individual children at all.  It was much more collective.  Jane Austen’s mother bore seven children, and every last one of them was shipped off to be raised by *gasp* another man and his wife! when they were infants and then brought back to their parents when they were around toddling age.  That particular kind of foster care is but one of the many traditions among Western societies in which raising other people’s children was just part of the social fabric.  Apprenticeships for both boys and girls at ages seven or eight were also one such tradition.  And many of those kids, particularly the boys were quite utterly raised by a man who wasn’t their dad.

Weirdly, all this is mysteriously ignored by people who freak out about a child having strongly masculine, healthy and Godly men in their lives if mom was improvident about how the kid got into the world.  Christ’s love isn’t zero-sum.  You can love the grass widow and the not-grass widow and their children.  This very issue is, incidentally why we have so many of those awful government programs and nonprofits for supporting single mothers’ children.  It was the increasing unwillingness to share with the naughty and take on the burdens.  Some frontier woman turning up at her city sister’s doorstep with five kids might well be a widow, but it was just as likely she “married the wrong man” (as Betty MacDonald put it in a sequel to The Egg and I) and just left and wanted to come home to family.  And fewer and fewer families wanted to deal.

Never-married motherhood is terrible for kids, and the harshness of taking away the children of those women to be raised in other families was an attempt to compensate for that.

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25 thoughts on “Why widows came to be treated poorly, or, single mommas have always been around.

  1. During their historical research, my relatives came across the true story of a lady who presented herself as a widow in a Western frontier town. Well, eventually her very live husband turned up. (There was a complicated backstory involving one or both of them possibly embezzling a large sum of money in a slightly less wild Western frontier town.)

    Pre-internet, in an unsettled area, you could be anybody you said you were.

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  2. WALT!! Widows aren’t like that! Its perfect, so similar to NAWALT.

    “Pre-internet, in an unsettled area, you could be anybody you said you were.”

    Post internet too. You can tell any story about yourself online and it will most likely be believed.

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    • Good point. If AWALT (whatever “that” happens to be), then without a very good vetting of said widow, you might still be screwed.

      What if the widow got around a bit before marrying and having children but a single mother had only been with the -admittedly poor choice of- father for her child(ren)? Wasn’t the widow simply more shrewd?

      Like i said, best option for most men, especially one never married himself, is to spare himself the angst and not marry a single mother and perhaps even skip the widow. Worst case is everyone is right where they started.

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  3. Baby groups, babysitters, best friends, créches, community centers, extended family, grandparents, greatgrandparents, older teens… we’ve always had someone there to help raise children. It’s just that now we’re separated from our closest relatives and friends, so that we can’t lean on them if we need a bit of help. Our last hopes for outsourcing housework (including childcare) are governmental help and charities. But when these are overburdened by single mothers of bad character who don’t want to spend over an hour a day with their children, the modern mother either needs to hire someone, to enroll the child in school early or to go it alone.

    The reason single mothers stand out rather than widows is because widowhood is generally an unexpected tragedy whereas single motherhood is generally a series of bad choices: have sex without plans or marriage, reject parental assistance and advice, keep the child rather than give it for adoption, don’t seek a willing father within the first two years from the positive test. Sure, widows could have made bad choices and single mothers can come about through tragedy. But most of the time the tropes play out.

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    • Nowadays, a poor widow is often the result of bad choices, but not necessarily involving sexual sin, and not necessarily her bad choice.

      For example a very young married mother back home lost her husband in an accident. The life insurance papers were sitting on the table, unfilled out–they had been just about to fill them out when he had his fatal boating accident and she was left with two tiny children on her hands and a trailer she couldn’t afford anymore. I think she’s doing better now, but in the years after the accident, she was struggling to so much as buy shampoo.

      Likewise, I was chatting online recently with a SAHM mother of a young infant. I recommended term life insurance to her. She said she’d talked to her husband about it, but he shot it down because, as he said, you want to get money if I die.

      Yes, that would be the idea–your wife and child don’t blink out of existence just because you died.

      My husband and I had had kids for a number of years before I got my head screwed on right and we got life insurance on my husband (we were very financially disorganized early on). I have no idea how I would have managed if something had happened to my husband then.

      One easy thing that comes to mind is encouraging young couples to get at least a little life insurance (even a few hundred thousand could make a big difference) as soon as possible, and certainly once they are expecting.

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      • TPC said:

        “That’s shocking that he didn’t want his wife and child able to weather his death financially.”

        I think it’s probably related to the resistance that a lot of people feel about making wills. There’s a lot of reluctance to thinking about one’s mortality, even in situations where it will cause great hardship to the people that they theoretically love.

        Plus, it’s unusual for young adults to have much personal finance education.

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      • I think this sentiment is pointed to insurance in general. I remember reading stories of people whose grandparents refused to get health insurance or life insurance because it went against God’s plan, and having insurance meant you lacked faith.

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      • “Life insurance just used to be so common and reflexive even among pretty poor people. It was a major plot point of Raisin in the Sun, that was insurance money.”

        Come to think of it, in Portnoy’s Complaint, I believe young Portnoy’s Jewish father makes a living collecting tiny life insurance payments door to door in poor neighborhoods. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I think I remember that it was poor black urban neighborhoods (NYC?).

        So something has definitely changed in the insurance company business model and marketing.

        I have the awful suspicion that my dad did not have life insurance when I was a kid. The reason I think that is that I remember hearing a story of how he’d run off a life insurance salesman by telling him what he did for a living. Ha ha!

        There definitely isn’t a lot of life insurance advertising in day to day life. The only one I can think of is an online one with an adorable young widow. The caption asks something like, what will she do after you are gone, and even I think, “She’s going to do just fiiiiine.”

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      • There’s also the issue that many people don’t want to think about death. My MIL passed away very recently and most of her life insurance policies and end of life pensions had been allowed to expire because she hated thinking about death. It can be hard to think of it in such cold and neutral terms.

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      • Also, come to think of it, weren’t a lot of fraternal organizations founded at least in part to ensure provision for the widows and orphans of deceased members?

        That’s a big part of the Knights of Columbus’s mission, and I think it was true of other fraternal organizations as well.

        It would be very hard to be active in the KoC without being periodically reminded that life insurance is a very good thing.

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  4. There but for the grace… married in early February, first child born in late June. I was a hair’s breath away from being one of those maligned single mothers myself, I can’t deny the truth about the general reckless behavior of a solid majority of never married mothers as I have witnessed it. I was pretty reckless myself.

    That said, when you start getting into the intricacies of individual cases (bear in mind that one of the bloggers who commented on the post linked married a single mother himself), it’s better for to extend kindness and Christian charity without partiality. To marry or not marry isn’t really something to haggle over. If you don’t want to marry a single mother, then don’t. Most attractive single mothers end up marrying eventually anyway because people -no matter how many stats we pull out- are heart and libido driven when the rubber meets the road.

    My father ( a widower) very deliberately married a young single mother because with 8 children already in the world (only 4 were still minors when he was widowed), he knew he didn’t want any more. He dated a couple of childless women. People tried to set him up with childless women because they thought it would be better for the minor children not to have step siblings. But he knew such a woman would eventually want her own baby and he was done. So he married a never married woman who had a child and they’ve had a very happy marriage.

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    • Our oldest was a premature infant. He was born eight months after our wedding, and was in the incubator, which was our only saving grace…..people started talking, and it was crazy. Except finally both families came forward to enlighten the wagging tongues about how we were on opposite ends of the country until two days before the wedding, and both of us were under the supervision (and never out of it) of our parents and uncles/aunts! Sheesh. But, boy, if anybody finds out the date of our wedding and then the date of our oldest’s birthday, they raise their eyebrows and assume anything, until I whip out a picture of him in the incubator on tubes, then ask them if they’d have liked to have been in our shoes….then they shut up.

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  5. The reason single mothers stand out rather than widows is because widowhood is generally an unexpected tragedy whereas single motherhood is generally a series of bad choices

    And that’s why the discussion makes a distinction between widows and single mothers. Our culture is actually glorifying single motherhood as some kind of selfless sacrifice and empowerment, but few people stop to think about how they’re actually the result of bad decisions. A deceased husband is entirely different. I don’t see anything wrong with donalgraeme’s post on the issue of our modern culture. You know there’s something wrong when the middle class turns a blind eye now to OOW pregnancy and single motherhood. The middle class used to make an effort to avoid those things in the past.

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    • I agree that the distinction between a true widow and a never married mother is a valid one to make. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying the fruit of premarital sex (illicit) isn’t the same as the fruit of marital sex (licit). by that I mean the fallout, not the children.

      My point was that in this particular culture, the widow bears as much scrutiny as the single mother because this ain’t 1900, and you really never know. In 2015, it’s buyer beware no matter who you are.

      But I think TPC’s point here is that regardless of whether or not you’d ever actually consider marrying such a woman has no bearing on whether or not you should extend Christian charity on behalf of the fatherless child. The Bible many times refers to helping the fatherless. You can’t have a functioning patriarchy without an open hand and heart to “the least of these”.

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    • To this day, the middle class tries very hard to avoid out of wedlock pregnancy and single motherhood. The contemporary middle class parenting model is very much a team sport, and it really can’t be done solo, or at least not for more than one child.

      The difference is that people below the middle class used to try hard to avoid OOW motherhood too, and now they don’t.

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      • Modern trends show a rise in OOW births for the middle class, and nearly half of all births to women 30 and under are to unwed mothers. I’m not sure I agree the middle class tries hard to avoid these things.

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      • College educated women do.

        http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/why-poor-women-dont-wait-for-marriage-to-give-birth/372890/

        “For the study, researchers examined the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which interviewed 9,000 young people born between 1981 and 1998 annually from 1997 to 2011. They found that the more education a mother has, the less likely she is to have a baby out of wedlock:

        “Of mothers with no high school diploma, 87 percent had at least one baby while unmarried.

        “Of mothers with a high school diploma, 71 percent had at least one baby while unmarried.

        “Of mothers with one to three years of college, 67 percent had at least one baby while unmarried.

        “Of mothers with four or more years of college, 32 percent had at least one baby while unmarried.”

        Note the rapid drop-off in amount of out-of-wedlock childbearing as education increases.

        There’s a chicken-and-egg issue here (having a baby out-of-wedlock hampers the ability to get education), but there is some sort of relationship between higher levels of education and lower out-of-wedlock childbearing.

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    • The middle class used to employ those mothers and sometimes rear their children. That’s what’s wrong with his post. Marriage is not the sole way “something good” can be done for single mothers and it’s not necessary to privilege them over widows to help both groups of women with fatherless children. My point was that historically, it was not exactly easy to be sure any particular woman was really a widow and this is one of the reasons Christians at least aren’t supposed to split hairs so fine when it comes to aid and support. That doesn’t mean they can’t say “sin no more!”, but denying help entirely or defining it very narrowly to avoid Christian duty is not what we’re called to do. Worldly considerations are not bad things, but they are very much not the only things, which is really all his post could see, the world, not the heart of Christ.

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      • One thing that jumps out at me is a pretty obvious misreading of the term “true widow.”

        They seem to regard it as meaning “a true widow, not a divorcee or unmarried mother” but based on context, it seems to mean a true widow, namely an older woman who is genuinely destitute with no family to support her as opposed to a young widow or a widow with family that ought to be supporting her financially.

        But because the bee in their bonnets is single mothers and divorcees, they see single mothers and divorcees everywhere, even when that is clearly not what the NT author has in mind.

        Another thought–one of the reasons for charity to unmarried mothers might be to keep them out of prostitution, which was the most obvious way for an unmarried mother to earn a “family wage” with limited capital. Or, worse yet, to keep them from prostituting their children.

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  6. At one point in my life, I remember being sexually active in secret hopes of conception as a young woman with an understanding of the leverage that children bring to relationships and I am a woman who was raised in a Christian school with a poignant and direct dad who withheld all discipline but no wisdom from me. Now, with a fraction more discernment and maturity that came from ten more years of existence, I look back on my youth and see grace abounding.

    Although I despise my fair share of willingly divorced mothers, I know that my own foolishness could have resulted in a similar circumstance and I will never forget that my husband married me. (Married in May, first boy in Oct.)

    I completely understand that men have ZERO responsibility to man up and marry those sluts but how many of us flew right under the radar and are living testaments of the power of grace?

    Trying to make every aspect of life so formulaic or trying to fit every last bit of decision making into some specific sub group is futile. AWALT is false but ALL women I know who are striving to be biblically obedient in the roles of marriage are results of sinful pasts. And tangentially, all devout women I know are either divorced or disobedient to their husbands.

    It shouldn’t be so uncomfortable to teach that concerning marriage and a ton of other things, individual circumstance is the norm and should be assessed as individual circumstance with Bible in tow.

    If I was suddenly widowed, would I be magically a recipient of pity and resources because of my widowness or would I be magically despised and spat upon because of my sinful sexual past?

    The overall point is that most of these decisive factors that men in the manosphere use to make decisions are intertwining in some way and if there is a law around every corner that these men must follow then they’re no different than the Jews: too many laws to fulfill and in desperate need of a grace covenant to relieve them of their burdens.

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    • TPC, will u please correct my comment? I was married in May. I dont have any idea how June got typed out except for that maybe June was fresh in my mind because I had just read Elspeth’s comment about her baby being born then. Anyway, if you would be so kind, I would greatly appreciate it.

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  7. You are all missing the point of the post.

    There is *no way* to distinguish on an institutional level between widows left with children and “sluts” with children. None. There is no way for an institution which gives out charity to women with small children to determine whether those children were conceived in wedlock. It is impossible.

    You can do it on a personal level, but then, you’re called to cover the sin.

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