I’m going to propose something that may seem radical, given the hysteria that single motherhood seems to conjure in American society. The typical single mother? She doesn’t exist.
As a solo-parenting mother (which is different than a single parent — this is a nuanced “issue” my friends!), I’ve searched high and low to find out if a significant portion of single moms are representative of the stereotype that politicians, moralizing religious groups, and census statistics tell me are single (puns!) handedly causing a rise in childhood poverty. All I’ve managed to find is a group of people as diverse as our married counterparts.
My own solo-parenting story began with my daughter’s father’s suicide. In 2007, I officially entered single motherhood at the age of 25 with an 18-month-old fiery little baby on my hip, 37 cents in my bank account, a very part-time job, and limited access to childcare. I am fortunate in that I enjoy being a mama, but I’ll freely admit that raising a young child on my own has been insanely difficult at times. However, never once in the last five years have I looked at our life and thought, “If I could just get me a husband, all of our troubles would be over!” Instead, I’ve worked really hard to solve our problems and learned how to ask for help when I need it. As a friend reminded me shortly after my partner died, “They say ‘it takes a village’ and the last time I checked, two parents does not a village make.”
People often say to me, “I don’t know how you do it all!” Which, by the way, is a very condescending thing to say to a single mom, so don’t say it, like, ever, okay? Our personal safety net of family and friends coupled with my ability to handle adversity well, has helped to make a lot possible for us. I’m acutely aware of the privileges we do carry and I gladly accept whatever help I receive. As of now, we are financially solvent and living in a city that holds a large community of our friends who make things much easier for the both of us. I work part-time, go to school part-time, and am building my own business. Now that I am on my feet, so to speak, I’m exploring ways to help single parents who lack a strong support system. Part of that search has included learning more about single motherhood and what it is that families like ours need to thrive.
So, single mothers. Who are we anyway? As a whole, we are an ambiguously defined group of women who come from every walk of life imaginable. Some of us live with loving and supportive partners (most studies of single mothers include those of us who live with our children’s father’s but to whom we are not married), a portion of us chose to become mothers by way of adoption, while others found our way into motherhood by accident. Amongst us, there are CEOs, strippers, best-selling authors, and, yes, drug addicts. Not all of us are capable of meeting our kids’ needs, while others have raised well-adjusted, productive adults. Some of us loathe the role of mother while some find no greater joy in life. Our stories are colorful, varied, and unique. In short, we are just like married mothers!
Tidy statistics and surface-scratching studies about single moms are not particularly revelatory. What they point to is not the damaging effects of single parenting but rather systemic social issues that have been wreaking havoc on our country for a very long time. If anything, these studies may suggest that single mothers act as a barometer for the state of our nation. If we want to be proactive about how to change the broad, sweeping issues that these statistics actually reveal, we need to take a much harder look at what they are saying about the United States as a whole.
They do highlight pay inequality between men and women and they do reveal how depressed our economy really is. They illustrate that childhood poverty is prevalent and they scream of the ways in which ALL parents are suffering from an unsupportive social structure that often forces us to choose between our kids and work. They don’t prove that marriage helps mothers to rise out of poverty or to avoid the fate of an unhappy childhood for our kids. Instead, I think they illustrate that traditional marriage is a failing institution. And only a fool would run towards a house on fire in an effort to avoid dealing with the mess she has yet to clean up in her own home.
The ways we twist these statistics into hateful rhetoric perpetuates a blame game that never gets to the heart of the matter. Instead of asking how we all contribute to the state that we are in, we use single mothers as a convenient scapegoat to blame some of our most pressing problems on. The whole thing is downright Freudian. We hate our moms, guys.
Instead of pushing for marriage as a convenient cure-all prescription for our social woes, we need to direct our attention to reinvention and progress. We need education reform, which ought to include classes in financial literacy, we need legislation that can turn our economy around, and we need to create ways to support all parents in the workplace. If you want to talk in the broadest terms, we need to address even bigger issues that are at play — namely, racism, classism, and misogyny.
If we want to focus specific attention on single-mothers and their children, wouldn’t it be more prudent to conduct studies that answer why single mothers in other wealthy countries are fairing so much better economically than those in the United States? If childhood poverty is something we all want to see eradicated, wouldn’t it make more sense to actively pursue solutions to THAT problem and help those in need? If we are concerned about crime and it’s correlation to lack of education, wouldn’t it be helpful to enact sustainable education reform? I think so.
In the meantime, let’s conjure more words of encouragement for single mothers. We benefit more from articles that list helpful steps to take towards healthy parenting that meet us in our situation than we do from those that scare us into believing our children are doomed, and that only a ring on our finger can save them. We are not damsels in distress in need of a knight in shining armor. That’s the stuff of Disney movies. It’s time to grow up, kids.