America despises mothers. Witness:

In Florida, six mothers are challenging a law requiring them to advertise their sexual history (in the town of conception) if they can’t – or won’t — name the fathers of babies they seek to adopt out. The law’s "logic" suggests bio-pop might spot his name, volunteer DNA proof, and raise the baby on his own, sparing down-the-road custody battles with adoptive families. (So far, none has.)

Meanwhile, in August, John Stachokus sued to force his ex-partner, Tanya Meyers to carry her fetus to term. A judge issued an injunction preventing Ms. Meyers from pursuing her legal right to an abortion. (On the same day that another judge dissolved the injunction Ms. Meyers miscarried.)

And, in a recent New York Times article examining the impact of the welfare-to-work overhaul, some experts cite a strong link between forced removal from welfare and a notable increase in children living in no-parent households— from 1.8 million in 1997 to 2.3 million in 1999. These kids go from high risk to higher risk as their mothers, unable to afford childcare, abandon them to the permanent care of friends and relatives.

I, too, am among the despised. In 1990 I gave birth to a bastard. I don’t actually think of him that way, but legally, it’s his lot. I had a partner then (bonus points: the kid’s father). We worked in a pizza joint, no insurance. I did not qualify for unemployment compensation when I left work to give birth and recover for six weeks, leaving us around $300 a week to live on.

Henry was born— at home, in part to save money— in critical condition. The state of Missouri picked up the NICU tab. Overnight, I became another statistic: poor unmarried mother, financial burden to society.

We came to match other stereotypes. The kid’s dad split before he was two, courtesy of alcoholism. I waited on tables, scraping by without child support, maxing out credit cards (to pay for luxuries like food, diapers, daycare), took on risky roommates to help with rent, drank too much myself, defaulted on my college loan.

I also struggled, hard, to improve our lot. Now things are different. The kid is eleven. Mom and dad are sober. Child support arrives regularly. I’m a room mother.

Still, I’m a statistic. Henry’s on CHIP, a Medicaid insurance program. Because, while my work-at-home job feeds my brain and offers me the flexibility to be a very present mother (as touted by the Religious Right!) freelancing is a gamble, one with diminishing opportunities in the current economy. My ruined credit keeps me from qualifying to buy a house though I’ve coughed up around $90,000 in rent over the course of my son’s life.

But we have not satisfied all statistical prophecies. My son, Mr. Allegedly High Risk, gets straight A’s, plays soccer, is compassionate, articulate, scores in the top percentile on standardized tests, and speaks six languages.

Okay, he doesn’t speak six languages. But he is a wonderful human, the love of my life. Motherhood has motivated me to improve myself vastly not just for him, but for us both. I’ve been aided in this quest by countless friends who’ve freely given love and time and money and food and support and faith.

Those are the things all mothers need, and an awful lot of mothers get too little of. Welfare moms are bashed, unwed moms admonished, teen moms condemned. The single biggest archetypal quality of motherhood— nurturance— is the one thing regularly denied to those it is most expected from, because it’s easier to pass judgment on whether she’s married to the diapers she chooses.

Long overdue is a societal sea change, a collective honoring mothers. Most Western European countries provide stipends for all children. Money for food and housing and clothes and good childcare. It’s time we did the same.

In exchange for nurturing America’s alleged greatest resource, all moms deserve a stipend. They may use the sum for superior daycare or to stay at home. They may sock it away or buy bon-bons. Once the children reach school age, add a G.I. Bill-style offer: free college classes to compensate for all those years of brain-sapping Dr. Seuss and Teletubbies.

Partial funding comes from pooled child support payments. This offers an added benefit— eliminating direct ex-spouse payment reduces the ranks of deadbeat parents who withhold support due not to lack of income but to surplus of hostility. (In August Health and Human Service agents arrested sixty-three men for ability-but-refusal to pay back child support. Thirty-nine others have warrants out. Collectively they owe over five million dollars.)

Single dads could qualify for this stipend, too. Wealthy families could forego it in favor of tax break. Capitalists decrying the program as repugnantly socialist would be immediately stockaded for failing to acknowledge motherhood is a job, and a hard one at that.

Worries that such benefits would cause women to work less would, I predict, fast be squelched. Had I a stipend, I would’ve been able to use it (rather than tips) for childcare, allowing me to work much harder at my real calling, moving me faster into a higher tax bracket, instead of down here, dog-paddling my way through on the verge of bankruptcy.

Columbia University researchers released findings in July indicating children of mothers returning to fulltime work before those children are nine months old demonstrate poorer verbal and cognitive skills at age three. On the surface, it sounded like more fuel for that beaten old dead horse, the Mommy Wars (Media Mother Hatred with the clever twist: Get mothers to catfight on each other over their choices, as if we all even have the choice whether to work or stay home.) Actually, though, the study urges more mother-friendly work policies, including a paid maternity leave of ten months, as in other industrialized countries.

When women in conflict over mothering choices are consoled rather than stigmatized, accepted rather than ostracized, and offered assistance rather than punishment, the conflict will lessen, possibly disappear. They will be less afraid to keep their babies "out of wedlock." They won’t have to abandon children because some minimum wage job precludes being able to provide.

Given the safety net of stipend, many might then learn the power motherhood can offer— when you aren’t too busy feeling powerless due to that pit-sick stomach pain brought on by poverty and a lack of support.


About the author:
Spike Gillespie is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, and the dotnovel thebelljar.net.  Her next book, a collection of essays entitled, Surrender (but don't give yourself away): Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks will be out in September 2003. Gillespie is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and her work has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Playboy and Elle, and online at Salon, Nerve, Oxygen, Underwire and AustinMama. She is a reformed circus poodle, a retired stripper (Crazy Lady, 1978-81) and mother to three spawn-of-satan mutts and one freakin' hilarious and very tall almost-twelve-year-old ("But remember, son, I'll always be wider than you...").  She is currently working on a novel about how utterly fucked up love can be (How novel indeed...).