The Unlikely Success of the Single Father: Toward a Queer Feminist Politics of Single Parenting

This article was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.

As a three-year-old girl in the men’s bathroom, I walked up to a urinal and picked up a urinal cake. After that, my dad began carrying a pillowcase around—if he had to use the restroom in public, I would still accompany him, but now I’d wrap the pillowcase over my eyes. Blindfolded, I couldn’t see the urinal cakes, much less use them as toys to entertain myself while my dad peed.

There’s a certain humor in the moment’s absurdity: a young girl in a decidedly masculine setting, not only oblivious to the norms of the male bathroom that should exclude her, but also unaware that urinal cakes absorb urine, and therefore don’t make for a great toy. Although certainly not my dad’s best moment as a parent, the episode is also not particularly damning; he was, after all, a single father raising two daughters, and he had to go to the bathroom. If my childhood had been a sitcom like Full House, the little girl in the men’s bathroom scenario would have cued prerecorded audience laughter. The audience would forgive my dad’s temporary negligence not just because we’ve all had to pee at inopportune moments, but out of empathy. He gets wiggle room. He was just a single father, doing his best after losing his wife.

It’s exactly this empathy that garnered popularity for eight seasons of the 1990s show, Full House. The Tanner family stands out among 1990s sitcom families because of the show’s premise: that white father Danny Tanner’s wife Pam died leaving him to parent three daughters alone. Although Pam’s death marks the Tanners as different from most sitcom families, it is through her death that the sitcom entertains, both creating the series’ plot, and making single father Danny endearing and lovable. We feel invested in Full House because it’s difficult to imagine a man parenting three daughters without a wife. In the midst of mourning their mother, the Tanner family somehow pulls through. We mourn Pam with the Tanners, and we celebrate Danny’s unlikely success as a single father.

Growing up, I frequently witnessed the Unlikely Success of the Single Father. In contrast to the single mothers I know, my dad always won excessive praise and sympathy for his parenting. My dad is a good parent, and I certainly agree with feminist theorists like bell hooks who encourage more active fathering. [1] But many people who applauded my dad’s parenting did so with very little actual knowledge of his parenting, and only the observation that my sister and I functioned like most neurotypical children our age. As with Danny Tanner, the simple fact that my father was a man parenting alone made him praiseworthy.

Single mothers, especially poor black single mothers in the United States, historically have received far less praise and wiggle room. In the mid-1960s, one in five Americans thought single black mothers should be forcibly sterilized, and many were. [2] Single black mothers faced heightened obstacles to public housing, as social workers increasingly viewed them as immoral. [3] President Lyndon B. Johnson’s advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a report in 1965 blaming black women’s excessive aggression and independence for the disintegration of the African-American family. [4] President Ronald Reagan discredited the welfare state entirely with thinly veiled racism and sexism, when he named poor black single mothers “Welfare Queens.” The mythical Welfare Queen purposely became pregnant with children she couldn’t support to collect state money—her laziness led her to choose unprotected sex over a job. With appreciation for my dad and Danny Tanner then comes a sad subtext about gender and parenting: a white man who parents his daughters after his wife dies is so rare and notable that the concept can stand as the primary premise for a long-running and popular sitcom. Which long-running American sitcom features a black single mother and a generous laugh track?

If sexism privileges single fathering over single mothering, the politics of mourning the Mother certainly also contribute. Without the tragedy of Pam’s death, Pam and Danny’s marriage would have likely lasted, a picture of white heterosexual success—Danny is not a single father because of the failed heterosexuality of divorce. Confident that neither Pam nor Danny is to blame for disrupting their state-sanctified union, the audience can feel sympathy for the Tanner family, relieved of their insecurity that even heterosexual partnerships are flawed. Pam’s death endears the Tanners to us—even without knowing Pam, we mourn her with her family.

How can we mourn a character we never even knew? Embedded in sympathy for the Tanners is the troubling, if insidious, belief that children without mothers are deprived of their natural entitlement to a two-parent heterosexual home. This is not to say that fans of Full House are homophobic, or even that all mothers are heterosexual, but rather that heteronormativity pervades social understanding of motherhood. In broad American understandings of the family, heterosexuality is as intimately connected to parenting as Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, as “MommyandDaddy” spoken so quickly that it sounds like a single word. Heterosexuality’s banality allows it to pass under our noses unmarked, until we notice that it’s broken or missing.

Because of heteronormativity’s grip on the family, heterosexuality is almost universally knowable, even to queer people. Heternormativity provides an easily accessible understanding of what it means to have a mother, and so conversely, what it means to grow up without one. We watch Danny’s children receive ample love and care, but we still can’t shake the concern that they lack a Mother’s tenderness. Danny’s parenting becomes an entertaining struggle to ease his daughters’ transition to womanhood without their most important normatively feminine role model. My dad receives buckets of praise for doing what many mothers do without recognition, simply because compulsive heterosexuality makes it tough to imagine that he can do it alone.

Another consequence of heteronormativity is that even without knowing Pam, she is familiar and we feel her absence. Mourning someone else’s loss requires a certain degree of self-identification. The Tanner family’s grief necessarily evokes a larger socially imagined Mother—some amalgamation of your mother and the other Mothers on TV. Anxiety follows: if the Tanners could lose their mother, anybody could. We mourn with the Tanners to ease the anxiety of our own vulnerability.

There’s nothing wrong with worrying about losing a loved one. But I share Judith Butler’s concern about using the familiar to determine when a life merits mourning. Butler writes, “a hierarchy of grief could no doubt be enumerat- ed. We have seen it already, in the genre of the obituary, where lives are quickly tidied up and summarized, humanized or on the way to be, heterosexual, happy, monogamous.” [5] If I grieve for my mom privately, I consider her personhood. If I grieve with you, we grieve for what the death of the Mother means to you, and all the heteronormative baggage the word “Mother” carries. Our grief both signifies and intensifies our investment in the heterosexual, happy, monogamous family.

Full House isn’t just a sitcom about a white family in San Francisco. Danny’s unlikely success reassures us that even motherless, wounded heterosexual families persevere. Full House forces us to confront the precarity of the two-heterosexual-parent home. As we grieve with the Tanners and witness their recovery, we reach a shaky catharsis for heteronormative anxiety. •

heteronormativity: the dominant narrative in language, sociability, political structures, media representations, et al. which normalizes heterosexuality as the only, and therefore, correct behavior; casts other sexualities and sexual behaviors as fundamentally atypical, abnormal, unnatural and inauthentic

 

References

(1) hooks, bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. New York: South End Press, 1984. 137.

(2) Orleck, Annelise. Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. 78.

(3) Williams, Rhonda Y. The Politics of Public Housing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 40.

(4) Orleck, 81.

(5) Butler, Judith. “Violence, Mourning, Politics”.

All images from GoogleImages.

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