When I became a single teen mom at the age of 19, I had complicated feelings about it. 

On the one hand, society didn’t give me the impression that this was a good thing to be. I felt distinctly that society had already deemed me a bad mother, before I’d even given birth. 

On the other hand, I’d been raised by my own single mother, so I had first-hand experience of how utterly normal a mother-led household was. 

Related: I’m a single mom—and I’m judged differently on my parenting because of it 

I held both of these thoughts in my head separately, the one not impacting the other. 

In large part, the complexity of my reaction to my single motherhood was driven by how we speak about and refer to it. I've since realized the term “single mother” can be an incomplete and vague descriptor, used as a shorthand for many different realities. I now very intentionally refer to myself as a single-lone mother––for a few reasons. 

Some single mothers aren’t single at all. Some may choose to date or enter into a partnership––but that doesn’t mean they no longer identify with the term, or are no longer parenting much as they always have. The term single mother implies a static state of motherhood, though it is often quite fluid. 

Single motherhood refers to very different realities and a vast range of life experiences. 

In fact, many question defining single motherhood by our relationship status at all, noting that our culture doesn’t refer to married mothers, because they’re considered to be the default. Our patriarchal society has historically not known what to do with women who are mothers, but not wives. So mothers without a husband have been defined not by their motherhood, but by their relationship status––as though the most important thing about a mother is whether or not she’s married. 

Then there’s the fact that single motherhood refers to very different realities and a vast range of life experiences. 

Some single mothers may share custody and co-parent with the child(ren)’s other parent, spending half their time with their child(ren). Or a single mother may have sole custody, with another parent taking over for periods at a time.  Other times, a single mother is the only parent in a child’s life, all of the time, 100%. This is me. 

Many mothers find empowerment in referring to themselves as single mothers, and I understand why. The term can be used to signal strength, resilience, and independence––as well as so many other good things.

It’s for this reason that the term can problematically be co-opted by mothers who aren’t single mothers at all––but rather are tired of disproportionately taking on more than their fair share of parenting.

But the term also still has stigma attached to it––in large part because families like ours don’t fall into the traditional heteronormative conceptualization of a family. Single mothers are viewed as a threat to the patriarchal order. 

And so others don’t feel empowered by the term, sensing instead that it serves to “other” them as mothers. They may attempt to distance themselves from the term and the blame they’re disproportionately assigned for so many of society’s ills. 

This is despite the fact that there have historically been issues with how research about single mothers has been carried out. As Rachel Hunter notes in her book chapter “Single-Parent Families, Mother-Led Households, and Well-Being”, “[r]esearch academies have been found to reflect a particular conservative, individualistic, and patriarchal valuing of well-being, women and children, as well as a preference for certain gender functions and the promotion of normative (nuclear) family norms.”

Still, even as we learn to value mother-led households for all they have to offer, I have no doubt single mothers––like all mothers––will continue to be criticized for something or other. 

Though the term single mother is the one we hear the most often, it’s not our only option. How we think of single mothers is expanding. So too is our language, offering other ways to self-identify.

We can refer to our families as female-headed households or mother-led families. The terms solo parent, only parent, independent parent and autonomous parent emphasize the fact that for many of us who do it all, the responsibility of parenting lies on our shoulders alone. 

As a feminist, though, it’s important to me to continue to center motherhood––not just parenthood. As Maki Motapanyane notes in her introduction to "Motherhood and Single-Lone Parenting", studies show that single fathers remain more favorably viewed than single mothers: being praised and admired for doing the same work that single mothers are often condemned and blamed for, the same work that society tells mothers will never be enough. 

And so I prefer the term lone motherhood, because it centers my experiences as a mother. 

There’s also something to be said for the fact that I identified as a single mother for a significant part of my son’s childhood. Sometimes, over time, the words we use to describe ourselves evolve and change. I also find meaning in reclaiming the term single mother––a term historically used to shame and condemn women. 

It’s with this in mind that I merge the two, piecing together what I can to describe myself more authentically to the world: a single-lone mom.

Though single mothers tend to overwhelmingly be portrayed by negative accounts of strife, neglect, and, well, agony, I believe it’s precisely because I’m a single-lone mother that my son and I have the relationship we do and the experiences that have come with it.

Language is always evolving. In the past, single mothers were referred to as unwed or unmarried mothers, deserted or divorced wives. As we construct our own realities, we also have the power to determine how we want to be seen––and what language we want to use to describe ourselves. There is diversity in motherhood, and mothers themselves get to choose how to self-identify. 

Related: To all the single moms who feel the intensity of being the only parent—I see you 

Referring to myself as a single-lone mother continues to further the conversation around how mothers can choose to identify on their own terms––and puts some distance between the idea that the most interesting thing about a woman or a mother is whether or not she’s married to a man. 

And just maybe? It’ll lend itself to discussions of all the possibilities and desirable realities that mother-led households have to offer.