A Response to JK Rowling: Singling Out the Single Parent

This morning author J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame published a post on the website for Gingerbread, a UK charity she heads which seeks to provide support and assistance to single parents and their children.  In it, she describes her own experience as a single mother when she and her first husband divorced, and she went to work in the office of a local Church of Scotland kirk.  The following passage in her piece caught my eye:

I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother. I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother? Ought I to be allowed in a church at all? Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?

Now there needs to be a balance here, which I will attempt, however inadequately, to draw from these words.

Whoever the woman was that openly referred to Ms. Rowling in this fashion and in her hearing was both ill-mannered and behaving in a decidedly un-Christian fashion.  It is as if Ms. Rowling was some sort of dangerously infectious hospital patient, who had to be clearly distinguished from those around her to prevent her condition from catching.  To not have the courtesy to learn Ms. Rowling’s name, or barring that to simply refer to Ms. Rowling by her role, i.e. office assistant or what have you, was not only tactless but uncharitable.

The way in which we treat those people with whom we come into contact has consequences.  If I turn someone off to my political views by sinking to a level of uncivility which I find appalling in others, then I do nothing for my cause.  Similarly, if I find there are too many broken families in society, I can hardly go around pointing the finger at something which has already happened, saying, “Tsk, tsk,” and expect that will actually change anything by itself.

In this case Ms. Rowling is, by all accounts, a practicing Christian who struggles with certain aspects of Christianity, such as a perceived smugness among certain Christians.  This perception sometimes comes from examples such as the one given in the above passage.  Other times it stems from a problem with the catch-all idea of “organized religion”, a problem which personally I have never understood. Who would want to be a member of a disorganized religion?

Admittedly, those who attend religious services regularly, and are actively involved with life in their religious community can sometimes come to think they are cock of the walk.  The response from some of these, no doubt, would be that we do not want to encourage divorce and single parenthood, and that is of course correct.  To those who claim that such things are universally beneficial, I would ask you to hold up a mirror to our present-day society and ask yourself whether we are really doing so well, after 40 years of social engineering experimentation spearheaded by those who deplore traditional Judeo-Christian values.  When the family becomes an easily shifting structure which can readily be defined or re-defined to suit one’s mood or personal preferences, we all suffer.

That being said, single parents who find themselves in situations like Ms. Rowling’s after a divorce have a hard enough time as it is, without being made to feel as though they must be shunned by the community at large.  This is a woman who turned to her local church for support, as well as for employment.  It would only make sense that she expected to find some level of compassion in such an environment, and while we do not have enough information here to reach an informed conclusion, it appears that at least sometimes it was decidedly lacking.  Of course in turn the balanced response to this would have to be, yes, there are awful people who go to church every day, but you need to adjust your expectations.

Churches, you see, are correctional institutions built for repeat offenders.  If you were expecting to find heavenly perfection inside an earthly building, inevitably you were going to be disappointed.  The fact that this woman irritated you and made you feel badly about yourself and your circumstances, which she was wrong to do, does not take away from the fact that, presumably, many other people at that same church showed you love and compassion and fellowship in your time of need, otherwise you would have gone elsewhere.  Nor does it take away from the fact that, while you may have had no choice but to separate from your husband, that decision ought to be an exception, and a rare one, rather than something which takes place in over half of all marriages.

What cannot be lost here however is that people suffer deeply when a marriage falls apart and there are children left in its wake, or when an unplanned pregnancy occurs.  Those in the midst of such maelstroms need our support, not our derision.  Yet at the same time, even if no one wants to hear it, we also have to make a distinction between supporting those who suddenly find themselves in this situation, and actively encouraging people to place themselves in the same situation.  If the media or a celebrity or someone else has told us that it is perfectly acceptable to divorce when “the love has gone”, or it is morally equivalent to traditional parenthood to actually seek to have a child out of wedlock, then we are listening to the wrong people, who are more often than not trying to justify their own behavior or sell us something.

This means we have to walk a very fine line between compassionate service toward one and a compassionate telling of the truth to another, and it is not easy to do so.  Nor, frankly, am I any better-informed about how to do this well than I suspect many of you are.  Each one of us, myself included, often wobbles off the straight and narrow beam and falls into the muck and mire of not living up to what is right.

Remembering that all of us are imperfect, we cannot shirk our responsibility for correction when needed.  Automatically treating a single parent as some sort of Hester Prynne, to be shunned and talked about in a condescending way, does nothing to help the individuals involved, whether the single parent, their child, or anyone else.  At the same time to say nothing, when we see someone entering into divorce and single parenthood, concerned primarily with their own transitory feelings and little else, is to lose an opportunity to have a discussion about what the responsibilities of both marriage and parenthood really are.


Detail of ‘The Scarlet Letter” by Hugues Merle (1861)
The Walters, Baltimore

Remembering That I’m a Father

When you try to write a blog regularly and are in need of subject material, you sometimes need to look to the newspapers to find information or ideas.  At other times, things happen to come your way for no particular reason, provided that you are paying attention to the world around you, and not ignoring the direction in which you may be led.  This means being open to the possibility of perceiving the connections to be made even if you cannot see why.

This morning on the way to work, my bus passed a young couple in their early to mid-20’s. The young woman had pale, celtic features and dark, long, curly hair piled on top of her head, and was visibly rather pregnant; she looked as though she was in some distress.  She was clutching tightly to the right arm of the light-haired, preppy young man with her, who was holding what looked to be a large, quilted baby bag, like women often take with them when they are going into the hospital to give birth.  My guess is that they were walking across the circle, to George Washington University Hospital a few hundred yards from where I saw them; let us hope that it goes well for all.

Now as it happens, last evening I received an email from a good friend containing the first pictures of him with his wife and their new baby girl, just home from the hospital.  And within some minutes of this, another good friend told me of his baby son’s need to visit a pediatric specialist today for a consultation on a possible surgery; he texted me a smiling photo of the two of them together this morning.  Since there appears to have been a plethora of baby-related incidents crossing my radar over the past twelve hours, and I am trying my best to pay attention, I suppose this means I ought to write something about having children.

Of course, the problem is that I do not have any biological children of my own.  Nor am I a teacher, with a new crop of children every school year to tend to, nor a priest, with a flock of children to shepherd in my parish.  Indeed, as our departing pastor noted at mass recently, before being transferred to a large suburban parish with many children, he would suddenly find himself the spiritual father of many, many children, whom he would have to guide and help raise in the Church – a daunting task to be sure, though one he is more than up to fulfilling.  That being, said, this spiritual fatherhood is perhaps something which those of us in the laity ought to consider in our own lives a bit more closely, even if we ourselves are not blessed with children, if we happen to be a godparent or a confirmation sponsor.

In my own case, I have a goddaughter who was born here in the United States, but is now living in England, and whom I have not seen for a couple of years.  There was a time when, in love with her smallness and funny nature, I would make a point of going up to visit her several weekends out of the year, just to be able to spend time with her.  Once she moved away that ended, of course.  Now she is in primary school, has made her First Communion, and is busy with friends and activities.  And as happens in such instances, there can be a drifting apart due both to the absence of physical separation, and the child growing older.

Perhaps the lesson or reminder here for me is that I made a promise, in front of God and Father George Rutler – difficult to know which one I ought to be more careful about displeasing – that I would do my best to make sure my goddaughter receives the guidance and example she needs to grow in her spirituality.  At this distance, that role must be largely left to her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and teachers, but that fact alone does not get me off the hook.  The godparent always has a role to play throughout the life of the person whom they have agreed to watch over in the Faith, as the Catechism tells us:

1255    For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents’ help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized—child or adult—on the road of Christian life.  Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium).  The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.

Thus, even though I may be neither a father in either the biological or in the roman collar sense, I am still a spiritual father to a little English girl.  She needs some periodic guidance and reminders from me to say her prayers, obey her parents, and partake in the life of the Church, and I am responsible for attempting to at least do that to some extent for the rest of her life.  And that, gentle reader, is a more important realization or reminder for me this morning, rather than the question of simply coming up with a blog topic.

Detail of “The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece” by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1445-1450)
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp