Breaking the Marriage Idol by Kutter Callaway, Free for CAPC Members
Marriage should not be the norm that orients the communal life of the church.
My mother and father never married. I spent the first seven years of my life with my aunt, a single mother. I’ll spare you the details of my story and will simply say that I know what it’s like to yearn for a parent. I’ve tasted the bitterness that often hangs around a broken home. I’ve lingered near a weary mother, wishing I could share the load.
I understand the feelings of those featured in Angel Soft’s online Father’s Day commercial. The two-and-a-half-minute advertisement, released in time for Father’s Day in 2015, recounts the memories of six adults raised by single mothers. Tears flow and emotions run deep as each boasts of his or her mother’s tireless care.I live in a community and attend a church where many are single mothers. I want to truly see these ladies and their families. I want my perception of them to be based in reality and not assumptions about their situation from media messages, corporate campaigns, and common ideologies.
“I’ve seen her try to juggle both mom, dad and everything else she had to be for herself” one says. “She was tough. She was not a joke. But at the opposite of her toughness, there was something very fragile” says another. “Our car broke down, she was like, oh that’s the alternator” states a third. “She really is like the most amazing mother but she was really an incredible father…truly incredible” In the end, Angel Soft emerges to tie these sentiments into one neat bow: Some days she had to be softer. Some days she had to be stronger. But every day she had to be both.
No doubt single mothers and their adult children are the target market for this promotional. How many uncoupled mothers could watch the video without being stirred? What child of a solo-parent could leave the screen without some tug at the heart? You can’t help but see your own mom in their words. You see her eyes heavy with exhaustion from long shifts; you see her face darken with unwelcome frustration at your mischief; you see her cooking, cleaning, worrying and hoping and you are compelled to consider the idea: “Some days she had to be softer. Some days she had to be stronger. But every day she had to be both.”
The message is part of a larger “Be Soft. Be Strong” marketing campaign. Angel Soft, a brand of the Georgia-Pacific Corporation, is telling the stories of families who have faced challenges with steadiness and resolve. Like their 2-ply toilet paper, these individuals have been both soft and strong. Their #HappyFathersDayMom tagline is the company’s attempt to apply this concept to single mothers. Hence the first couple minutes of the promo gives testimonies of these women being both resilient and affectionate —and in the last half minute, their children offer their wishes for a happy Father’s Day.
Twenty-eight-year-old Candace Adams loved the commercial…at least the first two minutes of it. Candace was raised by a single mother in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Like those featured in the ad, her mother went above and beyond in her solo-parenting. “My mom found out that she was pregnant a couple of months after she left my dad. There was never a memory of them married. My dad would call, but physical presence and calling are two different things for a child. It was just my mom…[and] she didn’t have a sick day.”
If Angel Soft was targeting Candace as a potential consumer, they’ll be disappointed to know that they missed her with the last portion of their plug. Candace said, “I thought it was cute until they said ‘Happy Father’s Day.’ Although my mother raised me as a single parent, she wasn’t both my mother and father… She was an amazing mother who was soft and strong.”
Candace isn’t alone in her view. In the months following the release of the video, many, including single mothers, have expressed concerns with the commercial. In Candace’s case, there was an embedded message that rubbed her the wrong way. She explains:
A lot of the stuff [the ad] says makes a woman tough, I would say makes a woman equipped. That’s something everyone should know. Knowing how to fix basic stuff in your car, is not being a ‘man’, it’s just being prepared for life. And with that said, a man should have soft characteristics or else he isn’t human. In a sense, by them saying that men are tough, [they] indirectly indicate that women are weak, which they’re not. Women are strong.
Now of course, Angel Soft gives no explicit definitions of manhood and womanhood. They simply offer backstories of single mothers being both soft and strong and then close with their soft-and-strong tagline, ending with: “Happy Father’s Day, Mom.”
But what is the implication? Moms are soft and dads are strong so single mothers must be both in order to reflect a dual role? Is it possible that, in its effort to honor the all-encompassing task of the solo-mom, Angel Soft actually infers gender roles that associates “soft” with mom and “strong” with dad? Should we assume from their slogan that a single mom who mirrors both characteristics is being both mother and father? Can a single mother be authoritative (extremely supportive yet firm on boundaries) and not be seen as a mom and a dad? Could we simply esteem her as an image bearer of God—free to express kindness, compassion, strength and command without describing her as “two people?” Can she just be a great mom without also being a dad?
Yes, it’s true that parents raising children alone are doing a job intended for two people—the difficulty of which must not be denied or even minimized.
Angela Puryear of Southeast DC reared her 26-year-old son Benjamin by herself. She describes the work as unceasing: “The hardest part of being a single mother was the ‘every day.’ Every day by myself…Every day I woke up, it was me. Everything that had to be done, it was me to do it… there was nothing about it that was easy. It was just hard.”
Last week, I took my kids to the park. After two hours of sweat and noise, we arrived home only to find my cellphone missing. I called my husband to take charge of our girls so I could return to the scene and search. As I was driving, it suddenly occurred to me that a single mom wouldn’t have this simple luxury. She would have to reload her car with tired children and trek the park again with them in tow. As Angela said, single parenting is just hard.
It’s a job meant for two and to honor a single mom for bearing it alone is right. But in our praise, should we recognize her for working as though she were two people or should we see her as both persons—the amazing mother and the incredible dad? There is a distinction. Angela Puryear understands the difference and prefers the first compliment over the latter:
“You can’t celebrate me by telling me that I’m half of the missing part. A woman who has lost her husband feels the lack. There was a husband I expected to be in my life. So I think the way to really celebrate [a single mom] is to be honest about the fact that you know how much of a strain and a struggle she faces because she doesn’t have the help of a partner…Celebrate her without making some inference to her being both [man and woman] because she could never be her own husband, she could never be her own partner.”
That’s honest. And it makes me wonder: in our instinct to hail single mothers, are we too quick to minimize the absence of the father for the sake of lionizing the mother? In other words, is the empty place of the dad soon dismissed by our perception of a capable and strong mother? Are we less likely to recognize and lament wounds left by absent fathers if we see women as able replacements? Is it possible that we actually add to the burden of these sisters by telling them that they can be two people? Do we fail to grieve with these mothers for “the missing part?” Do we allow our single sisters to sit and mourn and admit what Angela confesses when she says, “Yes, I paid the bills. Yes, I bought the groceries. Yes, I worked. I paid the tuition and I did all those things. However, even today I’m grateful to God that he has brought men into Benjamin’s life who can father him because I could never do that.”
And if nobody believes Angela’s confession, her son Benjamin does. As remarkable as his mother was, there was a vacuum she could never fill. Benjamin explains:
“I look at several issues in my life now as part of not having a father in my life. And all this stuff became apparent when I got around men and it’s like, ‘I never learned this stuff’ … As much as I have men around me–and I’m thankful that they’ve kind of helped me to emulate certain thing–it’s still not the same as having a foundation laid. I have to undo stuff. And I don’t know when that process will be finished for me.”
Some people might be offended by Benjamin’s longing for an understanding of manhood, with its emphasis on gender binarism. But what should we do with his sincere admission? He speaks of real hurdles directly related to his fatherlessness. Should we just pat him on the back and explain gender as a social construct?
I’m reminded of the Bible’s careful regard of single mothers and fatherless children. God’s concern for widows and their family is found in both the Old and New Testament. In Deuteronomy 24:19-22, Israel is told to remember her hardships in Egypt and so assist the needy among her–namely, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless. The spirit of this law is realized in God’s providential care for Ruth and Naomi, the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16) and the impoverished widow with oil (2 Kings 4:1-37). With no man to provide in their patriarchal social system, these women were destitute. Some were foreigners, all were single, most were the mothers of fatherless children, all were helped by God.
The Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) was the single mother of a dead son. She was surrounded by a considerable crowd–as was Jesus. Yet He sees her (Luke 7:13). He looks deeply enough to recognize the desperate despair of this single, sonless woman in first century Palestine. Moved by compassion for her, Jesus, without being asked, offers a hand in the restoration of her son.
For the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the Bible to TyReisha–the young single mother of a 6-year-old daughter. She told me that she was nervous about single motherhood, knowing that a lot of people would look down on her. While this may be true of some people, others have become “aunties” and “uncles” to her child. She has found baby-sitters and generous gift-givers among God’s people.
I live in a community and attend a church where many are single mothers. I want to truly see these ladies and their families. I want my perception of them to be based in reality and not assumptions about their situation from media messages, corporate campaigns, and common ideologies. I want to see TyReisha. I want to better perceive the strain she bears as an unmarried mother. No doubt some days she has to be softer and other days she has to be stronger. She is not both mother and father, but just one mom, striving to love–and parent–her daughter well, every single day of the year.
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