Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I’m not judging high-profile women like the currently preggers Kate Winslet or Halle Berry for having children with multiple partners. That’s not what this post is about. Instead, it’s about how our culture lets some women who engage in Multiple Partner Fertility (MPF) off the hook (ahem, celebrities, I’m looking at you), while completely ridiculing others.
Some stats: At present in the US, 1 out of 5 women have children with multiple dads—and 1 out of 10 men has children with multiple partners. Broken down, that means 59 percent of black women and 35 percent of Latina women who have more than one child have multiple fathers involved. Among white women, the figure is 22 percent.
The truth, though, is that for women of all races, having children with more than one partner often happens in a very conventional way, e.g. they get married, they have a kid, they get divorced, they get married to a new partner, have another kid, etc. Says Cassandra Dorius, the University of Michigan student who analyzed the data from a recent study:
“We tend to think of women with multiple partner fertility as being only poor, single women with little education and money, but in fact at some point, most were married, and working, and going to school, and doing all the things you’re supposed to do to live the American Dream.”
Then here’s the million dollar question: if this is such a widespread phenomenon, then why is there such a vast discrepancy between the portrayals of (mostly) white celebrity mothers who parent with multiple fathers and those of “regular” (read: mainly poor women and women of color) women?
Think about it. Women like Melanie Griffith, Christie Brinkley, Mel B (Sporty Spice), and Erykah Badu—all of whom have children with at least three men—are not mocked or shamed. These women get to position their multiple partners and children as, meh, no big thing or as part of their quest for True Love.
As Mel B. put it: “I’ve got two beautiful daughters by two different fathers. I’m not very proud of that, but it is what it is, so I have to act accordingly. This time I’ve done it with my partner — someone to come to every prenatal appointment with me, to get excited by every scan — and it feels like I’ve finally done it right.” And everyone is pretty much okay with that.
But, oh, how things look differently for women who aren’t well-known, wealthy, and white. Because when those women have several children with several partners, our culture busts out the “Baby Mama” label lickety split to make them seem like they are incapable of controlling themselves, at fault for choosing bad men, and fair game for ridicule.
Take for example the show All My Babies’ Mamas that Oxygen intended to run in spring 2013, which would have chronicled the life of Atlanta-based rapper Shawty Lo, his ten “Baby Mamas”, and his 11 children.
(NOTE: Though Oxygen has deleted the previews from all online sources, the trailer can still be seen within this online review, starting at about 1:50.)
No True Love or tacit acceptance of these women’s choices here. Nope, these women are positioned as low-class, troubled and troubling “skanks” and “hos”, complete with intended-to-be funny labels like, “Chocolate: The Fighter Baby Mama,” “Amanda: The Jealous Baby Mama,” and “Leanna: The Baby Mama from Hell.”
Thankfully, people (at least 37,000 of them) got angry and signed a petition stating that All My Babies’ Mamas was horrendously offensive and shouldn’t be aired. And they were right. Especially since I can’t imagine a show ridiculing the five women who have have borne Rod Stewart‘s eight children ever airing. Or one about the three women who have had a total of seven children with Kevin Costner.
Ultimately, research shows that MPF is linked to poor quality of family life, higher conflict in relationships, and less-involved fathers—and that affects all families, famous or not. It would seem that our culture needs to get over idealizing celebrities who have children with multiple partners while putting down “regular” women who do the same. Because a mom is a mom is a mom.
Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty.