Who Gets to Call Herself a Single Mom?
The title is not as straightforward as you might think.
I got to be a single mom at age 42, knocked up by a blink-and-you'll-miss-it summer fling resulting in my delightful daughter, Ruby, now four years old and the best thing that ever happened to me (if not my finances, sleep habits, or dating prospects). My friend Lizzie chose her dream sperm online. Josanne Lopez adopted her daughter on her own 12 years ago.
And then there's Tricia, who just posted on Facebook that her husband, Todd, would be away for three days, so she'll be "single momming it!" Send wine!
Actually, Tricia, please take your dual-income household and shove it wherever Todd will be taking the kids when he's back on Sunday so you can get some "me time." And no, I will not send wine.
Okay, so "Tricia" does not technically exist. She is a composite of so many comments I've seen on Facebook or heard tossed off cheerfully in a joking context of faux-self-pity about the fear of spending two days having my life. I don't think any of the Tricias means to disparage me and the 9.2 million other single moms going it alone in the U.S., and I bear them no ill will. I just sure wish they’d stop calling themselves single.
According to the United States Census, a “single parent” is defined as being the sole parent present in the home, whereby the parent may be “never-married, widowed, divorced, or married, spouse absent.” (Though it probably doesn’t mean absent for a few hours, actually just at the gym.) The Census also reports that 81 percent of single-parent-led households are led by single mothers. The Collins Dictionary has fun with its definition of a single mother, with the following example sentence: "As a single mother she has sacrificed her social and financial independence." Ouch, but it’s not that far off. For those first few years it was awfully hard to work, date, and not spend all of my money on childcare. Still, my time was also filled with joy and cuddles and gazing at this miracle human who had come from the core of my very being to demand Cheddar Bunnies, claim ownership of my boobs, and cry hysterically if I dared go to the bathroom without her.
If you're a single mom, perhaps you have also winced at someone else making the claim that they are a single parent, too — for a small sliver of time. In some ways, that feels kind of churlish to admit. Parenting is hard, no matter how you slice it, and the demands of doing it solo can seem daunting when you haven't done it (and when you're doing it, and when you're falling into bed fully clothed after having done it). But the casual referral to "single momming it" also strikes to the heart of that othering that can really chafe for single moms.
"It's kind of condescending, like this exotic little thing that they could be for awhile, but they're actually glad they're not," says Lizzie Skurnick (the aforementioned Lizzie), who lives in New Jersey with her son Javier (thanks to Sperm Donor 13038). She thinks the brief dip into "single momming" is a play for sympathy, which sends the clear message that an actual single mom is "lacking something," which she says is missing the point of her choice — and her life! — entirely.
"Being a single mom is hard, but I also chose it on purpose," Skurnick says. "It's actually kind of great, so you should stop acting like my life is some example of deprivation, because it's definitely not."
Dana Robinson, who, like me, had a child out of wedlock following a short-lived relationship, finds the phrase "single mom" itself pretty irksome. (The gender neutral “solo parent” is more inclusive, and “levels the playing field,” she says.) Single mom, though, “implies that the alternative is 'coupled mom,' like relationships and parenting are necessarily a packaged deal," she wrote via email. "It strips the woman of her agency and attempts to invalidate the notion that motherhood outside of a relationship is a choice women can make."
This presumed lack of agency is extra-ridiculous, as Robinson, who became a mom a few months before I did, has long been a source of inspiration for me. She’s a foodie who cooks amazing meals and bought an amazing house in Detroit, where she and her 4-year-old daughter Darby live. I rent the one-bedroom apartment I share with Ruby, and order a lot of Seamless (not that it’s a contest).
It takes an extra layer of preparation to become a Single Mom By Choice, that is to say, a mom who actively proceeds to become a solo parent via artificial insemination or adoption. Aubrey Sabala froze her eggs in New York and took them with her when she moved to Atlanta to a house, dog, and then — three months ago — a beautiful baby girl she named Elodie. As an SVP at a digital marketing agency, Sabala was in a position to plan for Elodie's arrival. "I'm an only child, and all of my family (including extended) is out of town," she explained via email. "So I do have to pay for help, but I knew that going in." Sabala booked a postpartum doula, a night nurse, and has a nanny lined up for when she returns to work in a few weeks, and a daycare picked out for a few months thereafter. "I'm just happy I didn't settle for and with the wrong person to become a mom," she says.
Veteran TV producer Josanne Lopez had a whole different slate of preparations to make before adopting her daughter 12 years ago, both to navigate the byzantine adoption process and then to figure out how to work after her daughter arrived. "I walked into this knowing that, okay, I'm going to have go into producer mode to sort of figure out the things that I needed to make parenting work. And most of them were mechanical," Lopez says. When she launched her talent management business, Lopez Talent, the planning took on an extra dimension. She recalls thinking: "If I'm going to launch this business I'm going to have to make it so that the business is run out of my home, so that I could see my daughter more and set parameters around when my business day began and when it ended." She also calculated "the money I would have to carve out of my life and my daughter's life so that I could have the support I needed."
A common theme when talking to single moms is not the lack of physical help per se — changing diapers isn't hard — but how unrelenting solo parenting can be. I remember being crushed by decision fatigue when Ruby was a baby, when every choice was mine and they all seemed so weighty. Was it safe to bathe her alone? Should I swaddle her even though her arm kept getting free? Was I a monster for wanting to co-sleep? At a certain point even choosing her outfits felt overwhelming.
This is the main piece that the erstwhile single-moms-for-a-blink miss: An out-of-town partner is still a partner, in childrearing, decision-making, and of course, bill-paying. "You're not making life decisions independently in those two, three, four days that you're 'single momming it,’" says Lopez. "You're not making mega-decisions independently that also will create a financial situation in your household." And while there's no doubt that spending time alone with irritatingly free-willed children can tax one to the breaking point, that's still not being a single parent. Skurnick recalls a father who proclaimed himself a single dad while his wife was away on business, and complained about how hard it was for him to get his two kids into their snowsuits. "If your difficulty is that you had to get two kids into snowsuits on a snowy day, this has nothing to do with being single or not being single," she says. "You just don't understand snowsuits."
The other common theme is money. Parenting solo for a few days doesn't stop the flow of cash in a dual-income household, nor permanently remove one of two labor-performing adults. Jennifer Justice, an NYC-based lawyer and former music exec, had twins on her own via donor five years ago, and is keenly aware that the buck stops with her. "When you add the stress of being a sole breadwinner, then it's a whole different dimension," she says. "Because that is fucking stressful."
Indeed almost everything I do outside the home costs money: my work during business hours (daycare, $2,000 per month), my Tuesday-evening class (babysitter, $20 an hour), flying in my sister so I can travel for work ($300), going on dates (a relatively new phenomenon, but let’s just price it at babysitters plus cars home, because mommy is definitely not sleeping over). It all adds up, fast.
Camille Estes, a former military spouse, readily identifies with the burdens of solo-parenting given that she had to be the sole caregiver for the bulk of her husband's deployments (twice before her daughter turned two), but does not equate herself to a single parent.
"For all my struggles of parenting nearly alone (depending on amount of contact with my spouse during deployments), I don’t have to worry about generating income (huge), I have someone to make major decisions with, and there is a break in the future," she wrote to me via Facebook from her home in Portland, Oregon.
As a frequent solo-parent — the blessedly gender-neutral and connotation-free term she uses — she acknowledged both the burden of being unrelentingly "on" for her child ("so thankful I live in the time of television"), and said the loneliness was especially tough. “Military life increases the isolation of parents, in that we are often moved far from family and friends," she said. This, of course, is a different type of burden from the single moms going it alone: not just loneliness, but loneliness for a partner who is not merely a helpmate but a person you love and miss.
Single parents by divorce reference this same double-edged sword. It’s single parenthood, except with the burden of a marriage in the rearview mirror that you may have been very sad to leave behind. Yes, there are two parents, ideally contributing emotional, custodial, and monetary support, But the flip side can often be heartbreak, rancor and ugly, costly legal battles.
Nashville-based editor Amelia Edelman experienced this after she and her husband split last year, embarking on a sometimes contentious co-parenting relationship. “When [my husband] left, I definitely felt overwhelmed by all the small tasks he used to do,” Edelman says. “But I'm so glad to be out of that marriage; I feel much more tired and busy, of course, but also more balanced, and my life is richer, really giving my all to [my son] and myself.”
Edelman says she had no qualms about embracing the “single mom” moniker (“I'm a mom. Suddenly, I was single.”), but that may be changing. “It's unclear from that identity whether I was ever partnered or married, whether I'm divorced or widowed,” she says. And now that she is dating someone seriously, the “single” designation feels less apropos. “I'm starting to question when or how often I can identify as a single mom,” she says. “I'm still divorced, not legally partnered, but I don't want to be out in the world advertising myself as a single person when I'm actually in a committed relationship.”
My solo-parenting story started out pretty standard: I assumed I'd get married and have kids; had boyfriends, none of them turned into husbands; approached 40, quietly freaked out about having kids. Then the next part: Meet a man, have unprotected sex, and somehow miraculously get pregnant at 41. The relationship tanked, but I got the best possible souvenir: my wonderful, exasperating money pit of a child. I am not sad about being husbandless — in fact, I often tell Ruby we are “the Luckiest” — had I met someone before Ruby’s dad, I wouldn't have Ruby. And while I'm very open to the possibility of marriage (Hi, current boyfriend! Did you just spit out your coffee?) it’s not a priority or even a goal.
And so, here I sit writing about being annoyed when non-single moms borrow the nomenclature for a few days to explain that they'll be parenting without physical help — though presumably still with financial and emotional support — and smugly explaining how psyched I am not to have a husband. Being a single mom is a blast! Hear me roar!
Cue the needle-scratch when I speak with Chanel Reynolds, who became a single mom when her husband was killed in a bike accident 10 years ago this summer. For me, being a single mom represents the greatest gift of my life; for her, the greatest loss. "There were so many things that just felt unfair: losing him to this terrible accident. The kids not having a dad. Him not being able to be alive and see his kids graduate from high school and all that," she told me by phone. I asked her about women like Tricia, my hypothetical solo-for-two-days Facebook “single” mom. "It's all unfair, and so on the scale of awfulness, somebody just not paying attention isn't the worst thing in the world, but on other days, or in my less generous moments, I wanted to light them on fire by shooting lasers out of my eyes."
To be honest, I felt like she'd have been justified in training those lasers on me. I throw around my single-mom moniker gaily and loudly, but hadn't stopped to think about how that title might represent the biggest tragedy of someone's life. Reynolds has reclaimed the title somewhat, calling herself a "single single mom" to differentiate from those who have another parent in the picture. "I'm the only adult in the world who's not only just financially responsible for my son, but I'm the only living parent," she says. "He's never coming back. It's 100 percent all and only me."
This includes breadwinning, of course. The reality of her husband's shocking death inspired Reynolds' recent book, What Matters Most: The Get Your Shit Together Guide to Wills, Money, Insurance, and Life's "What-ifs," as well as other wry writing on how to be a widow. But still, reality is reality. And "single single mom" means alone. "Not just 'alone in a home' parenting, or 'alone for a while' parenting," says Reynolds. "But I feel very alone in the world as his parent."
Now that Tricia and I have been rightfully reduced to laser-incinerated ash, it's time to just come back around to why I even started writing this in the first place. Why did I care so much about someone calling themselves a single mom? Yes, it's nice to get credit for doing this alone, but my “doing this alone” includes Ruby’s biological dad who takes her for occasional weekend visits and holidays. Never mind that I only have one kid, and Jennifer Justice has two, and there are many moms, married or not, with more than that (like my married daycare-mom-friend Jeni who has four, and two of them are twins Ruby’s age, and when I look at her Instagram I feel lazy).
I don't have to take care of anyone besides Ruby, or cook or clean up for anyone other than us, or share the remote (as long as it's all Elsa and Moana). And I don't have a former life I am missing, or a former partner I mourn every day. Even in my most frustrating, self-pitying parenting moments, I truly believe I am the luckiest. So why should I care if someone else is daunted by the thing I'm most proud to brag that I've mastered?
I should take my cue from Aubrey Sabala, who says, "I'm just a mom to a sweet baby girl and this is how we're doing it." Or Josanne Lopez, who says, "Single moms and business owners, we are bossing it all day, every day. We're not bragging on it. But it's real." Or Jennifer Justice, who is here for her kids, and her choice, because "all they have is me, and I need to be present for them as much as I can. And that's a big deal for me." These thoughts all capture what I love and am grateful for in being a single mom. I get to live with my sweet girl, and do it our way. It may be hard but it's for the best and most important reason ever, however we got here. It's what we do. We're not bragging on it. But it's real.
So good luck, Tricia. You've got this — take it from us.