Katie Roiphe: The “Uncomfortabilist”

After her divorce, writer and journalist Katie Roiphe became a Solo Mom to daughter Violet. Roiphe subsequently had son Leo as a Solo Mom, and so she knows something about the attitudes and judgments Solo Moms in America face today.

In her essay, “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” which appeared in Roiphe’s essay collection In Praise of Messy Lives (The Dial Press, 2012), she discussed “[t]he submerged premise . . . that there is something greedy, selfish, narcissistic, or antisocial about having a baby on your own.” Roiphe, a champion of Solo Moms everywhere, countered, “It seems to me that if anything a baby born in these conditions is extra-wanted. The fact that having that baby is not necessarily the obvious or normal or predictable or easy thing to do at this particular juncture in life makes it all the more of a deep and consuming commitment.”

Roiphe, who has described her household as “messy, bohemian, warm,” loves her children with deep, abiding passion. Violet and Leo have two different dads; Roiphe and the kids are close to both men (Leo has called Violet’s dad “my Harry”), but neither man lives with them. Rather, in 2015, a man named Tim, whom Roiphe loves, moved under their roof after she’d been a Solo Mom for eight years. That’s Roiphe’s story, and while she muses that there is no typical single mother any more than there is a typical mother, she understands the universal challenges Solo Moms can face. And she’s not afraid to talk about it.

Though she lives in Brooklyn, New York, where one might expect liberal attitudes, she has been floored by the way perfect strangers will feel free to comment on someone’s Solo Mom status—or ask prying questions. “When you are pregnant,” she muses in “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” “strangers feel like they can come up to you and touch you; when you are a single mother, strangers feel like they can come up to you and ask you anything. It is as if you have somehow given people who barely know you permission to say something intimate or invasive simply by having a baby without a man in the house.”

She continues: “There is no doubt that raising a child on your own is different than raising a child with a partner, it’s apples and oranges, but what progressive American culture is not currently prepared to acknowledge is that there are advantages to each.” Roiphe notes that when the kids of Solo Moms witness the struggles their mothers face, it can be a catalyst for growth, not trauma. Understanding a parent’s humanity doesn’t necessitate a crisis, she points out. Rather, it can help a child, very early on, see his or her mother as a “regular, complicated person,” which can lead to empathy, maturity, caring.

She’s very clear about the fact that, prevailing attitudes notwithstanding, kids raised by Solo Moms aren’t cursed. Roiphe reminds her readers that even happily married parents can raise damaged or lost children; by the same token, single parents can raise strong, well-adjusted ones. As she noted in the opinion piece “In Defense of Single Motherhood,” which appeared in the New York Times in 2012, “It’s useful and humbling to remember that no family structure guarantees happiness or ensures misery: real life is wilier and more fraught with accident and luck than that.”

What’s on tap these days for the writer? Never afraid to face potentially difficult, even unpopular, subjects, the author has turned to an examination of death in her 2016 title, The Violet Hour, from the same publisher of her essay collection. The book investigates the final months of six writers and artists—Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter—and, by her own account, breaches boundaries. “I’ve written about all kinds of things you might think were taboo subjects, but there’s something about [death] that’s more of a taboo,” she said to The Cut upon the book’s release. “I think this subject is difficult,” she conceded to the Observer. “Somebody once referred to me as an ‘uncomfortabilist.’ I feel like if there is a unifying strand that you can look at over time, I’m always drawn to uncomfortable subjects.”

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