' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The changing status of 'bastards'

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The changing status of 'bastards'

"More Millennial Mothers Are Single Than Married" trumpets Wednesday's online edition of Time. Only about a third of mothers aged 26 to 31 are married according to a study by Johns Hopkins University.

The researchers found that unmarried couples have a higher break up rate, leading to "'multi-partner fertility. ...This kind of family instability ... can be tough on both finances and on kids and leads to a calcification of social inequity.'" In spite of these negatives, the Time article reports that while their kids may lack in financial advantages, they are no less happy than kids in two parents families.

Their happiness doesn't spare these children and their parents from the scourging pen of conservatives like George Will who point to this "illegitimacy rate" and attribute the immorality of young women as the cause of societal dysfunction (conveniently ignoring countries like Iraq and Nigeria which have extremely strong rules on the sexual behavior of women but have erupted in chaos.)

A more likely cause of single parenthood is lack of resources for many young women. The rate is higher for women without a college degree (74 percent) than for mothers with a college degree (29 percent) which suggests that women in affluent families who can afford college are more likely to postpone child-bearing. And of course once single women have kids, college with its promise of a higher income may be unattainable at least for a while. Conservatives--and many liberals for that matter--encourage single mothers to place their babies with "stable two-parent families" so that their children can avoid falling into the "trap their mothers are in." Ironically, one reason for adoption is the demand for infants by women who put off child-bearing in order to pursue college and a career until it is too late.

While it's not stated directly as much these days, avoiding the stigma of illegitimacy is another benefit of giving a child to the touted stable two parent family. In our patriarchal society it's just not right to have a baby without the sanction (in the form of marriage) of a man. A live-in partner (which about a third of single mothers have) is better than no man in the house but not as good as a husband. Adoption and the accompanying amended birth certificate listing the adoptive parents as the parents cleans the child of the disability of bastardy--born out of wedlock. 

"Bastard" is a mild epithet. Call someone a "bastard," and your are calling someone out for bad behavior--someone who cheats and steals, who is mean to his mother and cats, who you should not do business with. Adoptees refer to themselves self-mockingly as bastards. An adoptee activist organization refers to the original meaning of the word and calls itself Bastard Nation, just as Queer Nation did before pretty much everybody stopped using the word. We haven't actually heard anyone refer to the child of an unmarried mother as a "bastard" for decades. 

Yet when I hear adoptees use the term, there's pain in their voices. They know "bastards" are not equal to legitimate "heirs." While this is shedding this meaning, their illegitimate birth still has a taint in some social strata. Though this is from centuries ago, listen to Edmund, the bastard son, wail in Shakepeare's King Lear:

"Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue....
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"
Act I, Scene ii

All this came to my mind upon reading a recent article in the New Yorker about the British actor Alec Guinness whose centenary was on April 2. My mother was a great fan of Guinness and, as a young child, I accompanied her to the local art house theater and saw Guinness in The Mudlark, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and other films. He starred in The Bridge on the River Kwai for which he won an Academy Award. Younger readers will remember him as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Alec Guinness

"His life had begun with a blank, the space for his father's names left unfilled on his birth certificate." The UK as many U.S. states do, prohibited putting a father's name on a birth certificate unless the mother was married to him or the father signed a a sworn statement that his was in fact the father. According to The New Yorker, Guinness never learned who his father was.

Being born to a single mother has not stopped many; in addition to Guinness, the list of prominent bastards includes Leonardo DaVinci, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, T. E. Lawrence, Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and Ethel Waters. The last three should give George Will and his fellow conservatives some pause. Will attributes the lack of progress of the black community on the fact that 72 percent of African-American children are born to single mothers. "That, and not an absence of rights, is surely the biggest impediment." Or as the Wonkette satirically paraphrased Will: "Black ladies are birthin' too many babies without a man in the hizzouse....Big problems in the black community? Blame the sluts and the feckless young bucks who get them pregnant and leave."

Will and other conservatives have it backwards: lack of economic opportunity and--in the case of African Americans and Hispanics--racism result in women having children before marriage. Making college more affordable, and thus more available, would reduce early child-bearing. At least today, births outside of marriage do not carry with it the same stigma of illegitimacy as in decades past. Times are a changin.'--jane
More Millennial Mothers Are Single Than Married
Adoption Has Become a Conservative Sacred Cow
The New Yorker Smart Alec
Bastard Nation
6 Famous Bastards Who Made Their Mark
ABC: George Will: Single moms for dangerous for minorities than a lack of rights
WonketteGeorge Will Explains How Single moms Make Martin Luther King Jr. Cry
Kids With One Parent Are Just as Happy as Kids With Two

Father's Names on Birth Certificates: More Artifice than Fact

Of Sluts and Bastards: A Feminist Decodes the Child Welfare Debate
by Louise Armstrong
"Louise Armstrong has exposed the dark underside of Child Welfare in this country. This is not a 'feminist' book in any narrow definition of that term; rather this is a book for any American who believes our children deserve our best. Armstrong details nothing less than an evil conspiracy. Federal mechanisms for funding, the courts and state bureaucrats have conspired to make the public believe that the nation's most tragic victims--abused children--are in good hands. Then the three branches of government then play the parts of those legendary monkeys--see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil. The concerned volunteer or interested citizen will be appalled at the stories Armstrong tells. They are heartbreaking stories that ring all too true for those of us who have worked or volunteered in the child welfare field. Those who are looking for an easy scapegoat, however, will be disappointed. The child welfare system in this nation is accountable to no one, and even though some of our nation's heroes work here every day, many - perhaps most - of the children are poorly served, even harmed."--review at Amazon.

Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade
by Rickie Solinger

"In a thorough and important, if often tiresomely repetitive, study, Solinger (Women's Studies/Univ. of Colorado, Boulder) dissects the politics of female fertility in America from 1945-65, when the strikingly different treatments of middle-class white and poor black pregnant teenagers clearly reflected the demands of a racist, family-centered economy. Before WW II, Solinger reports, unwed mothers in the US were considered the products of defective, amoral environments-- permanent outcasts for whom no kind of rehabilitation was possible. After the war, she argues, a perceived societal need to produce as many white children in ``healthy'' male-headed families as possible, combined with new Freudian psychological theories and racist sociological assumptions concerning black sexuality, engendered a dualistic treatment of unwed pregnant women depending on the color of their skin. Whereas the ``market value'' of white babies enabled and even encouraged white single mothers to ``sacrifice'' their offspring for adoption in exchange for a second chance at respectability (usually after exile in a maternity home), ``unmarketable'' illegitimate black babies were considered the inevitable product of the ``natural'' black libido and were therefore left to be raised by their mothers, who were in turn treated as incorrigible breeders who gave birth to win more government benefits. With the ``sexual revolution'' (for whites) and ``population bomb'' (for blacks) of the late 60's and early 70's came the technological fixes of birth control and legalized abortion--though these steps toward female self-determination for women of all races were more a result, Solinger claims, of a slump in the white baby market and fear of black overpopulation than of societal concern for the fate of single mothers. Revelatory but regrettably dry work with repercussions for today."--Kirkus Associates 

Given how she writes about us, it is strange how she brushes us aside and puts us down in person. --lo 


  1. How about I deem these stupid conserviated asshats to be "illegitimate", instead of them dehumanizing our children if we happen not to be married. I am so sick of this puritanical society we live in. People need to get a life and get out of the lives in which they do not belong...

  2. How can you say there is acceptance of bastards? We STILL can't get our OBC's which SCREAMS discrimination. I am sick too of everyone using the word bastard to describe someone who does something bad or dishonest. When is THAT going to go away too? Imagine if we said the N word about a guy who does a woman wrong or who is a manipulative asshole? Sorry Jane, but you are way off on this post.
    Signed a pissed off at American lawmakers bastard.

    1. I believe we are talking about the word, bastard. And births to unmarried women is not longer considered a sign of loose morals and low life. The birth certificate issue is something else again. As we all know too well.

  3. Lorraine, for some of us "bastards" the word DOES still hurt especially as I said before, when it is used to describe a bad person or one who does bad things. Since you are not a bastard you really have no right to try to control how we feel or should feel. I mean I doubt if you would be so blahzae if you were still called a whore for having your daughter. Just saying.

  4. I am NOT trying to control you how you feel--no one can do that! and I can totally understand how the word might hurt--someone in the NY group says that he won't have anything to do with Bastard Nation largely because of its name.

    My point is that today being born to a single mother (and thus a "bastard") does not carry the kind of stigma that it did in the old days.

    I don't know if I have ever been called a whore, but I have been told to my face that "you are no more than a reproductive agent." And how incredibly "selfish" it is of mothers (like me) to search. "What part of your pie chart was not selfish when you searched?" As in: When did you stop beating your wife....

    We are both the outliers. So be it. Let's work together and change the laws in very damn state!

  5. I need to add that while unmarried women who have children today are not shamed for immorality (except in very conservative religious circles), they are shamed for being stupid, naive, or lazy unless they are living with the guy and just haven't gotten around to getting married.

    I know that children raised by single mothers feel acute sensitivity when others talk about their fathers or they have father/daughter day at their school, and so on. When these mothers do get married, their husband's relatives may do a lot of tsk-tsking about their son/brother taking on another man's bastard. So yes, there's still a lot in our society to make single mothers and children of single mothers uncomfortable.

    I remember Barbara Walters differentiating between single mothers who acquired their children from adoption (good) and those who had children naturally (not good).

    1. Yet another reason not to be sorry the Old Guard is dying....

  6. I did not hear the Barbara Walters comment, but I tend to doubt she said something like, "Single parent who give birth are bad and single parents who adopt are good." Perhaps she was talking about the challenges that single parents face and it is a different scenario in general for an adoptive single parent and some single parents who give birth.

    Although not every single parent household is in dire circumstances, a single parent is twice as likely to live in poverty as the general US population according to the US Census. The Census also shows that about 41% of single parent households receive some form of government assistance. This does not mean at all that these are "bad" families. But it may mean that the single parents and their kids face extra hardships such as living in unsafe, poor neighborhoods and thus are more likely to attend failing schools, may not have good access to nutritional foods, good childcare, good medical care etc. No one hopes for that kind of life for their children.

    Single parents who adopt have to fulfill certain requirements such as proof of employment and ability to support a child; proof of a safe home; proof of medical insurance; proof of good medical and psychological health,; submit references; and attend parenting classes and submit a plan for child care. So in general single adoptive parents are given more preparation and face stringent requirements. Thus they typically are able to provide for their children economically and not face some of the challenges of other single parents.

    It does not mean a mom is more loving or good one way or the other, but the adoptive parent might have ability to financially support a child.

    Also adoptive single parents plan to be single parents typically so they go into the whole process knowing that they need to be able to support a child and pay child care on one income, that they need a support network. etc. Most natural single parents do not plan to be single parents or start out that way; most start out in relationships (US Census). So becoming a single parent unexpectedly is very different than planning to be one.

    I feel very comfortable making these comments as I am a single mom myself and I know what it is like for real. So I get what I bet Barbara Walters was trying to say....it is hard to be a single parent and it is even harder if you have limited resources.

    Single mom

    1. Dear Single Mom:

      One can only assume that you are a "single mom by adoption?" It seems weird after that defense of what Barbara Walters may have meant--you admit you did not hear it--that you interpret the comment as you do, yet neglect to say how you acquired your child? By Birth or Adoption?

      The English Professor you didn't have

    2. Whatever Barbara Walters was trying to say did not come out right. I think it was a miserable comment.

    3. What BW said was this: John Stoessel her co-host on 20/20 made a comment about a single movie star who adopted a new born baby to the effect that single women should not have kids. BW responded by saying, words to the effect "That's different, John. She ADOPTED that baby" meaning that it's okay for single women to adopt but not have natural children.

      Yes, single natural moms may have fewer financial resources than single adoptive mothers. Nonetheless, adoption experts advocate keeping kids with biological families if possible. The extra dough and preparation adoptive mothers have does not make up for being raised in a family which shares a child's looks, talents and interests.

  7. [I'm a 1971 adoptee from Ontario, Canada and a long-time reader.]

    My adoptive parents divorced in 1978 when I was seven. My adoptive father, who hadn't really wanted to adopt, did the absolute minimum after the divorce. He constantly cancelled his weekend visits, and never did things like attend parent-teacher interviews, my band concerts, etc. So I'm seven years old, dumped by two fathers, a latchkey kid of a single mother, *and* adopted.

    In regards to my adoptive mother, unfortunately the Children's Aid Society could not have placed me with a more different in looks and personality person. We never got along. After she married an abusive man, I just bailed at age 17 and left home. After not talking for years we tried a reunion when I was 29. I remember asking her "If single motherhood was so bad, why didn't they whisk me away from you when you got divorced, like they whisked me away from my teen mother when I was born?" From the look on her face I may as well of slapped her. I don't understand these "adoption rules".

  8. My mom got married when she was 8 months pregnant for me. She was only 16 and it took time to get her mom’s permission. She heard the word bastard flown around in life and wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of them.
    It is not used that way today - thank goodness. However they did break up 5 years and three brothers later; we NEVER saw him again. Anyway - being fatherless after 5 - (my brothers do not remember him at all) was super hard; especially on the boys. On my MOM! Consequences of fatherlessness hurt our family as much as it would ANY family - regardless of race. So I promised myself I wouldn’t be a pregnant teen. I worked THREE jobs and put MYSELF through university. No excuses!! Not a good idea to have kids without a dad. I see how much my children adore their father and he them....and I truly understand what my brothers and myself missed out on. Huge! Don’t promote it. Economic success DOES start With the FAMILY. Two hands are better the one- that’s how God made it to be all over the world.



COMMENTS ARE MODERATED. Our blog, our decision whether to publish.

We cannot edit or change the comment in any way. Entire comment published is in full as written. If you wish to change a comment afterward, you must rewrite the entire comment.

We DO NOT post comments that consist of nothing more than a link and the admonition to go there.