I want to change the way we think about single moms.
Seven years ago, when my son was small and mostly wordless, I took him to the local library to get his energy out before naptime.
He was in his stroller, happily distracted by a snack as I searched for a good spot by the “littlest reader” books to plop him down. As I passed the librarian station, I saw a bright orange flyer on her desk promoting a music class for babies and toddlers.
I picked it up, and before I could finish reading it, the librarian said, quite matter-of-factly, “We have financial aid available for that class. Do you want me to get you an application?”
I looked around, sure that she wasn’t speaking to me.
“I… We don’t need financial aid. But…thank…you?”
For good measure, she asked me if I was sure. As if, I really needed help but was too ashamed to ask. I walked away, steaming.
At the time, I was a married, stay-at-home mom who was living a very comfortable life. But what the librarian saw in front of her was an unaccompanied Black mother, undoubtedly desperate and alone in the world.
SINGLE MOMS: PAINTED AS SOCIETY’S VILLAINS
She was reciting an old, tattered trope. Not just that Black moms were all single, but that all single moms were struggling. By default, I represented all the statistics about single mothers and their children, what they look like, how they think, what they need, and who their children will grow up to be.
This wasn’t the first or the last time I would be assaulted with ignorant assumptions about my status or ability.
I’ve had people offer unsolicited parenting advice to me based on the assumption that my momentarily unhappy child was abused and neglected.
I was once asked which grade I was in, by someone who automatically assumed I was a teen mom. (I was 31 at the time.)
I’ve had the question, “And where is Dad?” tossed my way at doctors’ offices, schools, and even in a job interview. The very phrasing of the question assumes “Dad” is missing.
These are the optics for single mothers, particularly when they are Black and brown. (Go ahead and fact-check me, I’ll wait.)
When I Google “single motherhood” the first link that comes up is an article called “The Consequence of Single Motherhood” from 2011. (I won’t even link to it because it’s so terrible.) It essentially hails marriage, villainizes unwed and divorced mothers, and lists a slew of statistics that paint single moms as the sole reason for all of society’s pitfalls. High school dropout rates, mental illness, unemployment, and teen pregnancy were all linked to single moms.
The statistics aren’t made up: These are, in fact, depictions of what some single-parent families encounter. It’s true that of the 8 million single-mother-led families in the U.S., about a third of them are poor, jobless, and food-insecure, according to 2019 statistics.
Based on this, one could assess that these women are in fact failing at and struggling with motherhood. But mothers do not inherently struggle alone. Society is failing them because it is rigidly built to fit a different family model.
SINGLE MOM SHAMING: SOCIETY’S FAVORITE PASTIME
Single moms have been shamed in one way or another since the dawn of time.
In the mid-20th century, it was common to send unwed mothers away to have their children out of sight or give them up for adoption.
Single motherhood is often seen as a sin, with consequences falling more on the shoulders of the woman than the man who helped her get there.
Even the story of Rosa Parks is steeped in single-mother bias.
Among her predecessors was Claudette Colvin. Ms. Colvin refused to sit in the back of a Birmingham bus nine months before Ms. Parks. Despite her arrest and historic role in the Browder v. Gayle case that overturned bus segregation, the NAACP decided not to acknowledge her. Rosa Parks, a married woman with no children, provided a more PR-friendly face to Claudette Colvin, who was a 15-year old unwed mother.
A few years after that day at the library, I filed for divorce and effectively became a single mother. At first, the idea ripped right through me. I fell into a deep depression, completely paralyzed by fear.
I was the daughter of a divorcée and the granddaughter of one. I had watched both matriarchs of my family travel that very rough road throughout my entire life. They had to be less present, less rested. They had to show up later, wake up earlier, and pull the dead weight of painfully absent partners.
Beyond that was what the media taught me. The depiction of single moms was constantly negative, especially for Black women. In movies and TV, it was a “realistic” plot point used to explain despair and struggle. Single mothers were either totally haggard or carelessly aloof and neglectful.
But often missing from those depictions of single moms is the other side of that truth.
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This story by Ashley Simpo first appeared on mater mea. Featured photo courtesy of J. Quazi King for mater mea.