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Nieman Fellow Melissa Ludtke said last night at a panel discussion at the John F. Kennedy School of Government that society should reexamine its role in dealing with single mothers.
Ludtke discussed her recently published book titled On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America to a crowd of about 80 people.
Mary Jo Bane, professor of public policy at the K-School, moderated the discussion.
"The concern is about what this trend of unmarried motherhood means about our society, our families and our children," Bane said.
Ludtke said that single mothers are often portrayed as "male-bashing, family-destroying women without the best interests of the children in mind."
She separated these stereotyped, unmarried mothers into the two age categories used in her book and remarked upon the emotional territory they share.
"The widest shared territory [of the two age groups] is their experience, what it takes in this society in growing and becoming a woman," she said.
Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law at Harvard Law School, also emphasized how "our society shapes parenting decision-making."
As a member of what Ludtke calls the older group of single mothers, Bartholet said she drew insight from Ludtke's book.
"I relate very much to what she writes [about] the challenge of both these groups of unmarried parenthood. I actually chose not to adopt until I received tenure," she said. "I have trouble imagining how someone at 14 [or] 15 can have that much maturity. You want them to have a chance to grow up."
Ludtke emphasized the role society plays in influencing both age groups of mothers. She said that in older women, "motherhood can fulfill what society expects from them as women."
For younger single mothers, however, Ludtke said "having a baby gives them purpose."
Ludtke cited the example of a young teen who, "after becoming a mother was more noticed and got more individualized attention."
Bartholet said she believes that society encourages women to have their own children rather than adopting.
"What I see is an overwhelming pressure to procreate at all costs, not to adopt and take kids into their own homes," she said. "The choice to 'keep' is not a true choice. We condition the choice by making the adoption process scary and difficult."
Carol Gilligan, professor of education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and author of In a Different Voice, also spoke at the panel.
Gilligan said the changing concepts of parenthood in light of employment and other external facts has created a need to "fundamentally reconstruct the idea of a woman" from older preconceptions.
"The old conversation of mothers was [based on] the idea of being selfless-without a voice," she said.
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