The Demonization Of Single Mothers


I am a 50-year-old divorced white woman. I’m a writer, coach, women’s advocate, feminist, abuse survivor, and college student (again).

I am also a single mother.

What did she just say? Conservatives want to know. She’s a single mother, they whisper.

Depending on someone’s perspective or political slant, there are a whole host of different reactions to my being a single mom. Someone happily married might think: Damn I feel bad for you or Man that must be tough (it totally is). While someone in an abusive relationship like I used to be in might wonder: That might be a relief compared to what I’m used to. And, of course, there will always be those who don’t say anything but just shake their heads in judgment and toss those stones my way, at which point I’ll just pick them up and throw them right back at their glass house.

Another single mother needn’t say anything since she knows we’re in this together, even though we’re too damn busy to actually ever get together. A single mother of color would have every right to say: Hey privileged white girl, hold my beer. And for those young sprouts out there, girls who are just at the beginning of their adult life, they might think: Yeah that’s totally not in my plans. Honestly, who dreams as a young girl to grow up to be a single mom?

I certainly didn’t want to grow up to be me.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t wish to be a single mother. I didn’t aspire to it. I obviously didn’t plan for it. I had a whole bunch of other plans — awesome plans. Though in all fairness, those plans didn’t include the man I married taking up with teenage girls and becoming abusive.

But I digress.

As many single moms will tell you, this wasn’t in our life plan, and why the hell would it be? Being a single mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You know that blame and shame that falls on all mothers on a daily basis? Well there’s nobody else here to soak up that storm. I don’t even have an umbrella. I think one of my kids stole it.

I fix my own dishwasher, unplug every plugged toilet, show up at every one of my kids’ events, meetings, conferences, recorder recitals (and stay awake), and school open houses. I tuck them in, get them up, dry their tears, laugh at their jokes, listen to their woes and their joys and their frustrations, and get lost with them in the Bermuda Triangle of male puberty. My social life nonexistent, I plan everything around my kids’ schedules because there isn’t anyone else to go in my stead. I take care of my kids when they’re sick, when they’re gross, when they get me sick, and gross. I’m here for the good, the great, the bad, and the really ugly, without help, without a break, and without a partner to back me up, help me out, and teach me why teenage boys do the weird things that they do.

In my defense, I bought a book and it cleared a lot of stuff up.

So, what’s the problem? Why is being a single mom seen in such a negative light? Why are single mothers demonized in this country to the point of shaming and blaming us as if we are all that’s wrong with the world? As if the fact that I don’t have a man — and any man would do apparently (really Mitt Romney? Any man?) — here for my children then I have somehow failed them. And I’ve failed as an active member of society because I don’t present the whole picture of the perfect family. Plus, my very existence is a reminder of the inferior creatures that we women really are.

Then I wonder, does the society we live in today have anything to do with it?

Oh yeah baby, in fact, our culture has everything to do with it.

Hence there’s no better time to introduce neoliberalism, which is the evil stepmother to the American Dream and a big fancy word for our current culture that gives all people the opportunity to rise or fall on the basis of hard work and merit. Now at first you may think, Well that sounds fair. The people who work their asses off are those who deserve to succeed, right?

But here’s the thing, not all of us who are working our asses off (like single moms) are succeeding. Why is that? Are we lazy? Are we incompetent? Are we dumb? I mean, that dishwasher was really hard to fix.

Or are we pawns in a system that is based on privilege and patriarchy, a system that rewards those already in an advantaged position and leaves out its most vulnerable members of society who need help the most — not because we are not helping ourselves already but because when we start the race from ten miles back it doesn’t matter how fast we run, we can never catch up.

Today, 1 in 4 children are being raised without a father. What I want to know is, where are all those fathers? Did they all die? Did they land on the island of Oh I forgot I had kids? Or on the nearby isle of It’s all her fault I’m an absent father? Because I’m pretty sure that there are quite a few single moms who’d like to know where they are.

Maybe the Republicans are hiding them.

Any way you slice it, that’s over 17 million kids. So, thank goodness we have all those moms out there who are willing to go back to work, go back to school, get a second job, take the pay cut, give up on their dreams, forego joy and pleasure for extended lengths of time, all in the effort to make sure these millions of kids are loved and cared for.

But there are problems, don’t you know. Among all the children living with a mother only, 40% of those live in poverty. Now, before we all gang up on single mom over there who’s just trying to keep her head above water (Just keep swimming Dory keeps telling me…I love you woman, but please shut the fuck up already) let’s take a look as to why this might not be her fault.

If the main premise of neoliberalism (aka the American Dream) is that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, and by make it I mean financially speaking because we must contribute to the economy since that’s what’s really important here in America and if you don’t make it it’s because there’s something wrong with you and you have no one to blame but yourself, then single moms fail and fail big time. This ideology assumes everyone is on a level playing field from the word GO. Like we’re all playing Monopoly and start with the same amount of cash and the same exact odds for rolling the dice.

Hmm. Something smells fishy here, and awfully convenient. Because how easy is it to blame the single mom when she is the only one with boots on the ground, present and accounted for, and actually trying?

Let’s go back to that unwinnable race that I mentioned. I’ve been running it and trying to catch up for five years now. I’m dog tired. Ready to drop. And the finish line keeps moving so that now I can see I’ll never reach it. While my ex-husband somehow avoided the race altogether and is doing better off financially than ever since he has no mouths to feed (unless you count his Russian child bride, but she’s pretty tiny and probably doesn’t eat much).

Considering that the majority of single mothers in the U.S. are separated or divorced, the consequences of divorce are disastrous for women with children compared to men. While male incomes rise by a third after a split, a woman’s income falls by more than a fifth and she can struggle financially for years. And how about we pour some salt into that female wound with the fact that divorce makes men, particularly fathers, significantly richer.

Basically, a single mom is scraping the dough together to pay rent on her Baltic Avenue apartment every month while absentee dad is building his new house on Pennsylvania, just about to lap her again as he passes GO.

Such a fun game.

Now, according to our current culture, this must mean that fathers work incomparably harder than mothers do…

Mm hmm. *Drop f-bomb here*

In addition, we live in a society that criticizes an individual who puts parenting before her career, so it’s a double whammy for stay-at-home moms who are now divorced and have to go back to work just to pay the bills. And considering that only a third of single mothers receive any child support, and even that support does not do that much supporting, then single moms are just one more hole in the bottom of their boat away from sinking altogether.

Meanwhile, society stands back on the shore and whispers, “It’s your own fault, sweetheart.”

Well, let me just offer a few quick facts that will prove, Honey it’s not our fault, so how about we take that pointed finger and aim it in the direction it really belongs, which is a society that doesn’t value single mothers for the nurturing and care we give to our children because there isn’t a dollar amount that we’re creating attached to it.

But let’s first remember that a single mom right out of the gate is far behind compared to her babies’ daddy and that many single moms come out of a divorce worse off than when they were married. They come out of it poorer and with fewer skills going into the workforce and competing not only with people half their age but also getting paid far less than what another male employee gets paid. Is this because we don’t work hard enough? Or is there something deeper and far more insidious going on that the Monopoly board is not revealing?

Single mothers often spend over half of their income on housing and then even more on childcare, which means there’s a whole lotta nothing left over to go get that college degree or even the skillset necessary to move up in their jobs. Here in America, single moms work more hours and yet have higher poverty rates than mothers who are single in other prosperous countries. This is because single moms are paid wages that keep them in poverty. Also, in low-paying jobs, single moms often have no health insurance or benefits that might protect them in case of emergencies, nor offer ways to save for their future. Life is lived from paycheck to paycheck, and holy hell will rain down if anything gets in the way of that next one coming in.

Many single mothers depend on government assistance or welfare not because they’re sitting around in their yoga pants and looking for recipes on Pinterest, but because it is their only way of obtaining health insurance for their kids since their paychecks are barely making the rent.

Not only do single mothers and their children more often than not become victims of post-divorce inequality, but the racial and class divisions are stark with all of these statistics far worse when it comes to women of color.

Now, let’s talk about these millions of kids that single moms are raising.

Considering there is a desperate lack of affordable childcare options in this country, single mothers face having to put their children in unreliable or questionable care while they work. Oftentimes, single mothers are forced to have more than one job since they are getting little to no support from the fathers of their children.

Of course, I could go on and on about how our society is not a damn Monopoly game and we don’t all start at GO with the same privilege and money in our pocket. But the fact is, there are kids that need to be raised, and single moms are the ones — sometimes the only ones — who for the most part are first in line to raise them to get the job done. I’ve been standing by myself in this line for years, looking around and asking: Um, anyone? Bueller?

Single moms are the ones working the hardest, ensuring that the little people they love grow up to be successful and happy big people. You’d think as a culture that instead of demonizing them, we’d be celebrating and thanking single mothers for their sacrifice and duty, especially in the face of no one else stepping up to the plate.

Instead, we live in a culture that refuses victims of otherwise unforeseen circumstances their due compassion and empathy. Single mothers are vulnerable — to poverty, abuse, destitution — because caring for our children and putting our children first above our own pursuits of money, career, and success makes us vulnerable. If we view it strictly from an economic perspective, one could argue that success is defined by those who acquire it financially. But an economy cannot exist without its moral equivalency.

So, who are we in America if we don’t take care of our children’s mothers? Even if that mother is on her own. Single. Even if she is poor. Uneducated. Even if she chooses her children’s welfare over the choice of having a man in her house. Like I did. Because I got news for you, Republicans, “any man” will not do when it comes to filling the slot as father or role model to our children (ahem: 1 in 4 women are victims of severe violence by an intimate partner, which oftentimes is her baby’s daddy). In this respect, single moms are way ahead of the game in putting themselves last and their children first in order to protect them from harm. Kudos are necessary here, not condemnation.

Single mothers: You can accuse us of a lot of things. You can call us lazy, entitled, welfare queens, incompetent, unfit, sinful, unChristian (Oh bless her little heart).

But one thing you can’t accuse a single mom of being?