When I left my husband, I walked out of our apartment with our newborn baby in my arms. The car was already packed and as I walked to where it was parked I thought to myself, ‘I’m a single mom with a daughter’. Judgment—my own—weighed heavily. Single mother was not a title I wanted to own. A year later it still isn’t.
Other single mothers feel the same. We arrive at our single parent status by different circumstances: some are widowed, some divorced, others flee violence or addiction, some realised they were in a relationship with the wrong person or it was the other person that had that awakening. Some are cheated on and a growing number choose to go at it alone from the start. Given our varying circumstances, it’s an all-encompassing title. The problem with being a ‘single mom’ however is the negative connotations it can conjure.
At their worst single moms are associated with welfare, unkempt and unruly kids. The single mother is just keeping it together, just scraping by. She’s not a heroine, no she’s responsible for her plight. She should have known better, should have never married him, shouldn’t have had children. What about the kids? She’s selfish, the kids won’t do well at school, their worse off than their friends. The single mother has certainly had a bad run of it as far as clichés go.
The single father on the other hand. Hats off to him! He does it on his own, wow. He manages it all. Must be lonely, how does he do it? The fact that men are more physically and on the whole financially able should make it more common than it is, but it still remains a lauded surprise when a man is a single dad with the bulk of parenting responsibilities. It’s so rare I can’t even recall ever knowing one.
In a less judgmental sense, unfavorable clichés aside, single mother means ‘hard work’ and ‘alone.’ When a married woman claims she ‘feels like a single mother’ she means it’s all a bit hard, she’s doing the bulk of child-rearing and feeling it.
However, the fact that so many partnered mothers so readily use the phrase goes some way to painting a pretty clear picture of how they perceive the single mother’s life: hard, lonely and relentless.
Who could blame them? The single mother role models that have it together, that are living good and happy lives, are few and far between. Author Kay Hymowitz and Australian Psychologist Bettina Arndt would prefer it that way, believing it will ensure more women are not encouraged to join the ranks of ‘and baby makes two’.
The final season developments in a popular Australian TV show Offspring where the main character is widowed, back at work and dating whilst her sister contemplates motherhood or co-parenting in a very new relationship raised the ire of some who claimed such issues shouldn’t be treated with such flippancy—being a single mother is hard, hard, hard—do not depict otherwise was the message!
To restrict the single mother from a more varied representation on TV is to cut out a significant group of people and only serves to continue to perpetuate the ‘single mom’ clichés where she is only seen on the news as a showcase for neglect and disadvantage.
For many their single parenting status was not intentional and so to be pigeonholed and periodically singled out by sociologists and psychologists as bad for society can be downright offensive and not least demoralising.
With over 10 millions single mothers in America, they are not an insignificant group. Whilst some single mothers struggle, particularly financially, others are leaders of more than just households, they’re CEOs, attorneys, doctors, accountants and school principals. They raise leaders including two recent US Presidents: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Single mothers are probably your friends, colleagues, perhaps your sister or daughter and you just don’t know, it could one day be you or your wife.
Whilst the road for a single mother has particular challenges many of us are more equipped to cope than previous generations. We’re more educated, financially independent, we have strong friendships, we live in villages—villages that we’ve created.
Noel Pearson, the Indigenous Australian, talks of layers of identity. He cites that we each have layers that make us a whole, single mother may be just one, we may be Catholic first and foremost, an American, a lawyer, a friend, a daughter. A single mother I know said to me, ‘I’m still conservative, I go to Church every Sunday,’ as if she had to justify that the two were not incompatible.
While mounds of evidence tell us, people like me that my daughter will be worse off than if I was partnered, or even widowed—yes, according to the evidence, my daughter would be better off if her father had died—single mothers are as determined as others, perhaps even more so, to provide safe homes, free from conflict and trauma and full of all the things that other homes are bustling with, including books, grandparents and cousins.
We should have concern for the possibility that a woman may fear being a ‘single mom’ so much that she stays in an unsafe situation and relegates herself and her children to a troubled life. To know there can be happy times, stability and calm as a single parent is a vitally important message.
It’s not uncommon to hear adults, raised by a single mother, sing her praises, acknowledging her sacrifices. This contrasts sharply with adults that talk of their parent’s conflict, of their mother’s unhappiness. Admiration for sticking it out? Not always.
Many single mothers are doing ok and even better than that. They are confident, they have jobs, homes, friends and they are enjoying motherhood—I know that I am happier as a single mother than I was as a single woman in my 30s wondering if I would ever have a child.
I’m not sure that the ‘single mom’ title can be saved however, or even re-launched. Instead perhaps we should claim something new. We could talk of ourselves as ‘solo parents’. Men and women alike raising kids on their own: we’re doing it solo.
In ocean swimming solo swimmers are the most respected and revered individuals. To swim solo is more of a challenge than a duo or team that share the load, exchanging and having a break along the way. The solo swimmer is supported by a crew that navigate as the swimmer can’t always see their way. When a solo swimmer makes it to the finish line and stumbles up the beach, the crowd swells and roars with delight, because it’s a feat, enhanced by having done it alone—not diminished. Perhaps that’s how we should think of the solo parents we know.