Lives on the Edge

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

LIVES ON THE EDGE takes a hard look at public policies concerning single mothers and their children, and the shameful results of those policies. Its three parts cover the history of single motherhood, the experience of single mothers today, and the experiences of their children in public school classrooms.

Valerie Polakow sees the poverty and “otherness” of single mothers and their children as a manufactured condition. By tracing the historical, Eurocentric view of motherhood and childhood, she reveals a legacy of “abandonment, brutality, abuse, and terror.” The gentle images of childhood cherished by the middle class are myths that were true, if ever, for only a small number of children, and only in the recent past. There is no moral excuse for this indifference to brutality to continue.

The second section looks at “the other motherhood” and uncovers the roots of this image in a gender-biased society. Single mothers in need of financial assistance are forced to substitute subservience to a man with subservience to the state. Their morals are questioned and scrutinized. Single mothers tell their own stories of dependency and hope for a better future, an independent future.

The stunning third section reports the experience of “at risk” children in public schools and preschool programs. A hungry child is ostracized and punished for stealing the free lunch that will feed her and her sister over the weekend. Poor children are marginalized and stigmatized for the “sin” of their mothers—trying to survive without adequate financial resources. Their hopes of escaping poverty are tied more to a view of their “otherness” than to their dependence on perpetually resentful benefactors.