Please Don’t Call Me a Single Mother

Single mothers--especially when divorced--face particular challenges and stigmas.

A colleague and I were chatting the other day about workplace challenges. He mentioned some conflicts he is having with a perpetually cranky co-worker and said, “well, she’s a single mom and I know that’s hard.”

Wait a minute! I’m a single mom, and I am rarely cranky.

Eighteen million children are being raised by single mothers. That’s a quarter of all children residing in the United States. Interestingly, in the research I did for this article, I could not find a common definition for the term “single mother.” The most comprehensive, and logical, is: an unmarried woman raising children. But some commentators said, it could mean women whose children were born out of wedlock or widows who do not have the assistance and support of a husband. In fact, I read a posting on one website which stated that a woman who is divorced is not a single mother, because she is co-parenting with the children’s father.

I am divorced

Although I am a single mother, I hate to identify myself that way. My five children were not born out of wedlock, nor am I a widow. I am divorced. Even in this day and age when more than 50 percent of American marriages fail, the label, single mother, especially when it is associated with divorce, is perceived negatively. It makes me think of the scorned women of 1930s movie melodramas, like Stella Dallas. Even in the 1970s no good mothers on television were divorced. Lucille Ball was a widow in every incarnation of her sitcom. In the original storyline for The Brady Bunch either Mike or Carol Brady was divorced, but when the show aired, both were widowed. And even though Mary Tyler Moore was a divorced mother in real life, her character, Mary Richards of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was a never married career gal. Today’s TV moms are still rarely divorced. Those who are divorced are struggling or working hard to reconcile with separated spouses.

My friend, Lynn, is a widow. People in her world are solicitous and gracious. They offer to clean the leaves out of her gutters, paint the trim on her house, and mow her lawn. I remember sitting with a group of Lynn’s friends discussing how we could support her.  Although everyone knew I was alone, no one offered to help me. There is a perception that widows are more deserving than divorcees. And Lynn agrees. Her first marriage ended in divorce. “People treat me so differently now as a widow than they did when they found out I was divorced,” she said. “That’s why I was reluctant to let people know.”

Less than supportive friends

The day my husband moved out, I sought solace from the woman I thought was my closest friend. We had known each other for more than a decade. Our children, constant companions, were close in age. We spoke on the phone daily, sharing the intimate details of our lives. We took power walks every evening after dinner. But the day I told her my marriage ended was the last day of our friendship. She did not speak to me for six months. When we finally reconnected, I asked her why she cut me off.  “I think that’s when I started a new job,” was her response.

Like the co-worker I mentioned earlier, sometimes people just don’t realize what they are saying.  (I’m changing some names in this next story.) As a family, we have always been active church-goers.  My children attended Sunday school and youth group weekly.  When the pastor asked for help organizing an ice cream social, I was one of the parents who volunteered. At the end of the evening he acknowledged all of us: “I’d like to thank the Smith Family, the Wilson Family and Susan Yem for organizing this event.”

I was really hurt that he did not recognize my children and me as a family and I let him know, “we’re a family, too.”

Just a few weeks prior to this event, I overheard a mom in that same church’s lobby telling a friend, “We’re taking John home with us tonight to sleep over. After all, we are the two-parent household.” John (again, not his real name) is being raised – quite admirably – by his single mother.

A universal snub

The snub is deeper, almost universal. I just read this headline on : Auto Insurers Charge Single Women More. quotes an actuary with the Insurance Information Institute who says, “married people are less likely to be in an accident.”

And even when communicating good news about great accomplishments, that reference to being a single mother or being raised by a single mother gives the news the air of this happened against all odds.

When I am asked to describe what it feels like to be divorced, I usually use this example:  Take two pieces of construction paper, glue them together and let them dry. Now try to pull them apart. They may come apart, but they will not look the same as they did before you glued them together. Add to this insensitive comments made by friends and colleagues and it is difficult to not feel diminished.  And this is why I am reluctant to call myself a single mother.

Categories: Parenting