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Now where did I put my pants?

Shreya Sen-Handley @shreyasenhan

Updated: March 28, 2013, 2:45 PM IST
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A barrage of recent news reports about wicked unwed mothers has convinced me that I am the Blessed Virgin Shreya, because I always know where I've put my pants. It's usually to be found where my husband flung it the night before. This clearly makes me as close as dammit to a vestal virgin as it's the same man every night and I have a piece of paper to show he's allowed.
As I settle for my half an hour with the 'puter, hot chocolate and Oreos this morning, taking care to sit decorously so the chastity belt doesn't chafe, I feel the urge to counter this slander in the press against married mom and unwed counterpart alike. These articles dismiss the former as blessed but decidedly boring beings while the latter is cast as happy, sloppy sleepabouts or feeble-minded oiks. But I won't stand for sweeping statements, you see, or dumbass assumptions and sleight-of-hand stats.
So, pants to that, I say!
In dividing mothers into moral camps, they are undoubtedly using that sneaky ol' underpants test.
Married moms fold their pants neatly, stacking them symmetrically in their small's drawer. That is the most fun they have with their pants. Nobody ever flings them about, least of all a man. Shudder. They are washed-up but deserving of worship as near-saints. Unmarried moms, on the other hand, can never remember where they last put their pants. It is usually to be found in the gutter, where they themselves clearly belong.
Whilst no-one has ever admitted to the existence of such a test, the Wall Street Journal comes close when it complains, "two-thirds of American women have their first child outside marriage. 20-somethings are driving America's all-time high level of non-marital childbearing to 41% of all births." It rants on, "They put off their weddings, but their childbearing-not so much." Can't you just hear them muttering "hussy" under their breath? But there's no quarter given to married women either, consigned to the bin of history by the Economist for being "old fashioned" and "orthodox". Is it within the realms of possibility that some of us married for love and not to conform, and equally, might there be stray unmarried moms who are not nymphomaniacs?
Age is just a made-up stat.
Moving on to their next grouse, I learn that 20-something women account for 60% of US births, while teens, only one-fifth. The Ecowhatcha charts a similar trend in the UK, "Increasing fertility has coincided with later births. The average mother now has her first child at 28, up from 24 in 1970." And then (wait for it) explains why, "Women married to senior managers or professional husbands now wait until they are 33 to have a child-four years longer than women married to losers (they may not have used those exact words but they meant it). With upper-middle-class women thronging universities on both sides of the pond , birth and marriage rates have dropped and children temporarily shelved in favour of careers, but the WSJ concludes with grim satisfaction that women are now having to "make up for lost time". This irked me no end. Even without going into how, having spent 18 months off and on in maternity wards recently (knocked up, not just lurking), I find it hard to believe that teen pregnancies are supposed to be on the slide when my fellow warders were mostly bored, bubble-gum-chewing teen moms.
But how can I, a little woman, argue with numbers? Instead I'll take a swing at the infuriating condescension in these pieces. Women can only be married to high-fliers, not be ones themselves. What happens to their fortunes and their bodies depend entirely on the colour of Hubby's collar (and how well we launder them). Not only do our own aspirations, abilities and achievements mean nothing, we will eventually realise the error of our ways and "make up for lost time". That I had the nerve to forget my purpose in life was breeding till my mid-thirties is just a slap in the face of all that's right and honourable!
Goodness gracious me!
Scarily, they wade into the even murkier waters of racial profiling next. According to the Ecothingummy, traditional families are passé and new models have emerged "associated with professionals, working-class natives and immigrants". Immigrants, of course, can never be professionals, and their women, in particular, are blinkered bird-brains who "marry young and have children quickly." Running an eye over my 15 sprogs, I find myself wishing I hadn't started as young as 11!
Then tut-tutting over the "many children born to young Asian women in their early 20s", the Pundits-of-Everything allow Asian women this: "75% of the children of foreign-born mothers are born within marriage, far higher than the 46% for British-born mothers. Amongst Indians, illegitimacy is almost unheard of". Indian women may be foolishly fecund but we rarely mislay our pants. Yet progress is reported in the form of a gradual "converging on white British norms" involving "marrying less, divorcing more and having fewer children." Hurrah! The Empire failed but they might civilise us yet.
There's lipstick on your blue collar.
Looking for other marginalised women to chastise, they alight on the next best thing, the poor, uneducated white woman. In the UK, the percentage of children born out of wedlock has reached 47%, up from a fifth in the 80s. The experts claim this is because fewer blue-collar workers marry these days, down to 44% from 53% in 2001, which would explain the rise in illegitimacy except that the British poor have never bought into the morality of their "betters". The fact that marriages "have collapsed to Victorian levels" would suggest it was never a popular activity for certain sections, as English friends of mine trying to find their roots discovered when they searched public records. They had to abandon trying to trace their ancestors in this way because their forefathers had not, like many at the time, been overly concerned about marriage or legitimacy for their children, and so my friends had to hit the road, going from village to village in search of the wayward branches of their family tree. I'd like to report success but they are still at it.
It's a similar story in the US; only 12% of first births are outside marriage for graduates, but rises to a dizzy 83% for high-school dropouts. Evidently, morality has always been an upper class concern. In the conservative 1940s, a fifth of working-class British women would have committed adultery. But upper class women, the stats would suggest, have generally been too comfortable to bother. Personally, try as I might I can't think of any good reasons to stray, so, I will just have to count my encounter with Sting at Hay on Wye where I held his gaze for a whole minute as my little fling.

Are the kids all right?
Where single moms are obviously at a disadvantage is in bringing up kids on their own. Their marital status doesn't matter a jot, but a second parent helping give the children's lives security and stability, does. The Economist couldn't be more off the mark in concluding that as crime was down, British children from broken homes were clearly not suffering. The steady stream of news of murdered, abused and neglected children from such homes suggests otherwise. The WSJ, on the other hand, details the "academic, social and emotional problems like poor grades and drug abuse" that such instability brings. This time around, the oh-so-malleable stats indicate that kids are really NOT all right when they don't have enough adult guidance and supervision, which a single parent can struggle to provide. But that's a whole different blog post!
I don't want to end on a low though, when there is some good news for the Sisterhood. Blue collar women earn more money than their men and don't need them around for economic reasons anymore. Their educated sisters are financially independent and can wait for the right man to come along. And these later-in-life marriages have helped cut the divorce rate which has declined since 1980. Marriage, now neither compulsory nor a default option, can and does happen quite often for the right reasons.
Best of all, women, married or otherwise, moms or not, have more control than ever over where their pants land, night after night after night.
First Published: March 28, 2013, 2:45 PM IST

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