On NPR’s Talk of the Nationthis week, they did a show on the public’s perception of single mothers. The show opened with this:
“The American family has changed. The nuclear family in the house across the street is still there, but different kinds of families live on the block, too: unmarried parents, gay parents, people who choose not to have children at all and, of course, single parents.
“A new Pew Research poll asked Americans about these trends and found almost 70 percent believe that single women raising children on their own is bad for society.
“Of course, there is a wide array of single mothers. Some women choose to raise children by themselves. Others find themselves without a partner through divorce or abandonment. But when seven in 10 believe this is bad for society, it makes you wonder.”
I was surprised that the anti-single mother numbers were still so high. As a single mother, I’ve encountered prejudice. However, few people where I live are willing to voice their single mother phobia. Or perhaps since most people who encounter me now meet me as a scholar before knowing that I’m a single mother, they don’t apply the stereotype of the single mother to me.
When my child was young, my friend Miranda said that people’s perception of me would be completely different if they heard her describe my college work before my motherhood. Some people who heard that I was a young mother first basically said Miranda must be lying about what I’d managed to accomplish and the fact that I was a decent/smart person.
As Talk of the Nation noted, not every single mother “chooses” to be one. I know two women who have chosen this as a path. All of the other single mothers I know are single because of abandonment, divorce coupled with social/financial disappearance, their partner’s death, or because the woman had to flee from abuse. Being a single mother isn’t how we expected our lives to turn out, but this is our life and we’re trying to make the best of it and to do the best for our kids, just like everyone else. Thanks for making it harder by demonizing us, America!
Would it be best to have more than one parent? Probably. I think more than two would be ideal–kids are amazingly exhausting. Of course, having one stable parent is better than having two sucky ones, though. The biggest issue for single mothers–the one that “causes” problems for children and society–is money. The children of financially well off single mothers end up doing just as well as their well off peers. Poor children tend to have a hard life no matter how many parents they have. It might be more productive to blame poverty–to blame a lack of access to healthcare and childcare–to blame the fact that single mothers will inevitably suffer from the sex wage gap we maintain in this country. Don’t fight single mothers; fight inequality.
If you still want to blame people, I can’t stop you. I can, however, suggest that you remember that it takes two people to have a child. Now, it’s not a man’s fault if he dies or if a baby is conceived in a way that leaves him out of social and financial responsibilities, but we all know that a majority of single mother are on their own and struggling financially because a man is not living up to his responsibility.
These men get to live without society’s stigma while the women they’ve abandoned take the brunt of it every day. They don’t have to explain to their bosses why they have to take off because a child is ill. They are free to date without having to find a babysitter. They will miss less work because their kids won’t be bringing home every little illness from daycare. They don’t have to worry about finding healthcare for anyone but themselves. They don’t have to worry about a new boyfriend or girlfriend being jealous or not even going for it because they don’t want to be a step-parent. They don’t get called sluts. If they’re up all night, it’s probably because they’re doing something fun, not because someone is throwing up on them or screaming from nightmares.
Some men are single fathers. I’ve known a few. Their ex-wives are absent for a variety of reasons–death, drugs, jail, etc. If the woman’s not dead, she is routinely dismissed by all the world as the most evil thing in the universe–much worse than a man who’s skipping out on his child. The single fathers are praised by all who know them. It is never assumed that they’re single fathers because of some moral failing. Many women find them admirable and attractive–what an obviously wonderful man!
The Pew poll didn’t even ask people about their attitudes towards single fathers. On the show, the pollster explained that it was because the vast majority of single parent households are indeed run by women. But we all know the other reason–single fathers are never seen as a “problem.”
My son’s father left me when I was seventeen, two weeks before I gave birth. We had been engaged, and I honestly didn’t think I’d have to do this by myself. My son is seventeen now. Those of you who know him know how amazing he is. Have I made mistakes? Yes, starting with not thinking I’d have to do this alone. Of course, we haven’t been completely isolated. My grandparents took us home with them for the first few months when we had no where else to go. Many men who have loved me have loved my son too. My friends have been amazing. They have forged my signature on school forms when I was at a conference. They have become his aunts and uncles. They have gone to music recitals with me both to make sure I wasn’t sitting by myself and because they honestly care about my child and want him to know it. Melissa even taught him to ride a bike when he needed it. No one ever raises a child completely alone.
Thus, I don’t deserve your praise, but I don’t deserve your scorn, either. The problem isn’t single mothers, it’s bad parents of either sex and of any marital status. Please be able to tell the difference.