In short, what seems to have happened is what happened in a number of marriages of her generation: Over time, their roles swapped and Wendy Davis became the spouse with higher-octane aspirations. For many couples, this is destabilizing; it may have been for Wendy and Jeff Davis. But it’s not unusual or weird. In most marriages now, both spouses work. In almost 40 percent of marriages where a wife is working, she is the higher earner. That percentage has risen steadily over the past decades. Younger women may now come into marriage expecting this; women of Davis’s generation did not. We don’t know whether Wendy Davis was the primary breadwinner, but she was clearly the spouse who wanted to go places. It seems to have worked for the Davises for a while, until it didn’t. She is now damned for being dependent, when she started out, and damned for going on to do well. “Tremendously ambitious” is what one anonymous colleague said about her; directed at a woman, it never feels like a compliment.
The other striking thing in her story, and our reaction to it, is how the phrase “single mother” is now touted as a sign of character. It’s hard to believe that not that long ago, single-mom Murphy Brown was held up as a harbinger of cultural degradation. Davis’s story shows that describing yourself as a single mom is now one way to telegraph your hard work and family credentials, as well as your commitment to government programs like Pell Grants and Head Start. But the strategy is risky, in part because our notion of a single mother is rigid: Critics have been picking holes in her story, saying that she didn’t live in that trailer long enough, or was too ambitious. We seem to have a pretty strict notion of who a single mother is and how she should live. Truth is, the lives of single mothers are multifaceted and hard to categorize. Forty percent of babies today are born to unmarried women, but many of these “single mothers” are cohabiting with the father. Many, if not married now, will eventually marry. Like Davis, they may be a single mother for a while, or move in and out of that status, but there is no one, pure description of a single mother.