Single Mom Stigma, Alive and Kicking


summer2011_mayorhpThey’re easy. They’re slutty. They got pregnant with some random guy. Or, selfishly, they ran out to the sperm bank when they turned forty. It’s their fault.

They’re always broke. They’re on welfare. They’re sponging off the taxpayers. They should work for a living, and, simultaneously, they should stay home with their kids. Whatever they do, it’s never as good as what a married mom does. Ever. It’s their fault.

They should have worked harder to keep their marriages together. They go out partying anytime the ex has the children. They’re man-haters. Or manhunters, who shouldn’t be left alone with other people’s husbands. Their kids are troubled, or troublemakers, bound for the penitentiary, suffering without a male in the house, un-cared for, un-read to, a bad influence on other children.

They’re brave but pitiable. Their families, and their lives, aren’t complete because they don’t have a mommy and a daddy living under the same roof. And that’s their fault.

Thank God it’s 2011, not the 1950s, and people no longer subscribe to those heinously out-of-date stereotypes about single mothers. Right? Right?

Maybe not. This past February, the Pew Research Center issued findings from its survey on changes in family structure, in which respondents were asked to rank a list of seven trends, such as interracial marriage and gay couples raising kids, as being good, bad, or of no consequence to society. More respondents—nearly seven out of ten—ranked “single mothers” as being bad for society—more than any of the other choices.

The mainstream media, hot to get out in front of the next toxic mothering meme (think “Helicopter Mom,” “Tiger Mom,” and “Botox Mom”), had a field day, summarizing the finding with headlines like “Single Mothers ‘Bad For Society’, Pew Research Center’s Latest Poll Finds” (Huffington Post) and “Single motherhood still rejected by most Americans, poll finds” (Washington Post). Page views soared, blog posts proliferated, and comment boxes filled with opinions both judgmental and defensive.

Completely lost in the media coverage was the fact that the Pew Research study wasn’t asking about “single mothers” in general—meaning any woman currently parenting without a partner. The survey asked—quite ambiguously—what respondents thought about “more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them.”

Did the Pew Research Center intend the word “having” to mean “I have children and am currently their sole caretaker, regardless of whether I was partnered in the past”? Or did the center mean “having” in the sense of birthing—meaning women who, through intent or accident, were solo parents from the outset? ?It takes some digging around to discern the surveyors’ true intent—an earlier iteration of the same survey was more explicit, asking how respondents felt about “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them.” Aha—”deciding” is decidedly more specific than “having.”

It’s safe to say this distinction was likely lost on survey-takers and absolutely lost in the media coverage. Either way, the results of the survey and the way it was picked up and conflated in the press indicate that, more than a decade into a new millennium, single motherhood is still a tender topic.

That got us to wondering: How is it that, as a society, we apparently haven’t moved the needle much on perceptions of single mothers, even as survey respondents were more accepting of arguably more radical changes to the family like gay parenting? Single mothers are everywhere, and their numbers have been steadily rising for thirty years. In 1980, 19.5 percent of United States households with children were headed by single parents; in 2008, the number was up to 29.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and eighty-four percent of those households are headed up by women.

Do seven out of ten of us disapprove of our own sisters, friends, and neighbors, our own selves? Or is there something more subtle going on? There is an almost infinite variety in the ways that women become and conduct themselves as single mothers, but when people are filling out surveys, do they revert to some kind of worst-case view of single moms?

Consider the notorious “welfare queen” of the Reagan era—most famously put into words by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That’s how dependent she is,” he said of his sister Emma Mae Martin in 1983. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”

As the eighties rolled on, the welfare queen trope picked up other elements, like crack abuse. There’s a lot of baggage built into that caricature: racist, sexist, religious, moral, and economic. (And, for the record, the caricature proved to be largely just that—Thomas’s sister, for example, was on welfare for fewer than five years to nurse the elderly aunt who’d cared for her children while she worked.).

It’s likely you need only to hit one or two of those hot buttons to trigger a negative reaction in people who might be perfectly accepting of the single mothers they know personally while disapproving of “other mothers” that fit their preconceived stereotypes.

Of course, it’s also possible that women who actually are single mothers could agree that single motherhood is bad for society as a whole. Most didn’t choose it for themselves. They didn’t want their husbands or partners to leave, or die, or threaten them or their children. There are real hardships, economic and emotional, associated with single motherhood, especially if you didn’t plan for it from the start.

To unpack some of that baggage, we talked to single mothers in their various incarnations—women who are divorced or widowed, mothers who were abandoned by their children’s fathers, and those who are single mothers by choice. Each woman traveled a different path to single momhood—and some are single no more—yet they agreed almost universally on one point: No matter how their legion grows, people still think of single mothers as disruptive and outside the norm.

“Single mothers are still a problem to be fixed,” says Robin LeBlanc, who both studies public discourse about single moms in her role as a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and is one herself. “On the left, they’re seen as victims of failed social policy. On the right, a symptom of moral failure. It’s interesting that most of us no longer thing of gayness as a problem that needs to be fixed, but single mothers are still viewed that way.”

What rankles single mothers like Donna Raskin perhaps the most is a pervasive insistence that no mother, no matter how dedicated, stable, and accomplished, can raise a child as competently as a man and woman together, no matter what the state of their union.

“Many people assume two parents are better than one, but that isn’t true at all,” says Raskin, whose son’s father left when the boy was nine months old. “I have had people tell me that they are staying in miserable marriages with spouses who cheat, drink, or do drugs just so their children aren’t growing up in a ‘single parent home.’ As if having a single parent, even a wonderful single parent, is worse than living in a home with parents who hate each other or where one parent is a true problem.”

“To me this is lazy thinking,” says Raskin, a teacher and writer in Pennington, New Jersey. “They’re insulting me to my face, and they’re not even acknowledging how loved and happy and successful my child is.”

LeBlanc seconds that thought. “If there is a poor family struggling and the parents are married, we talk about them as a ‘working family’ and they get a mention in the State of the Union,” she says. “You don’t hear that same tone about working single mothers. There’s a presumption that there’s something wrong with that woman.”

“It’s a special kind of sexism,” LeBlanc contends. “I don’t know how many times we’ve had to hear people praise Barack Obama and [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor because they became who they are ‘even though’ they were raised by a single mother.”

Jamie Wallace says there’s a specific kind of opprobrium directed toward a woman who actively chooses to leave her child’s father, rather than being cast as a victim who’s been abandoned, cheated on, or otherwise had the union fall apart against her will.

Wallace initiated a separation from her husband after fourteen years of marriage, when their daughter was three, with the support of two different marriage therapists. “I finally said to myself, if two professionals and my gut are telling me this is not coming to a good conclusion, I have to accept that and get out,” she says.

Not everyone else was as accepting. “There was a feeling of, ‘what’s the matter with you that you couldn’t hold your marriage together?'” Wallace recalls. “I did have some people say, ‘Who are you to make this decision?’ or call me selfish because I initiated the separation. I was told I should have stuck it out, and put my needs last until my daughter was older.”

Suzy Vitello knows the story from the other side of the coin. Vitello, now a marketer and writer of young adult fiction in Oregon, became a single mom at twenty-six not by any action of her own but by the car accident that killed her husband four days before their second child was born, when their first was just eighteen months old. ?People didn’t judge a young widow—thankfully—but still, the reception was troubling.

“People wanted to take care of me. I was put in the category of vulnerable, somebody who might make bad decisions,” Vitello recalls. “I felt most on guard with people who were trying to swoop me up, make me live with them, tell me what I needed to do next. I felt like I didn’t need that. I had been raised very independently, and had had a traditional family orientation only for the very brief time period of my marriage.” Vitello eventually moved across country to get clear from the smothering blanket of concern.

Years later, when divorcing a second husband with whom she’d had another child, she caught the same blast of blame that Wallace had experienced. “I think that people are saddened by failure,” Vitello muses. “Because the man-woman-children relationship is culturally the architecture for stability, people project their own fears about failure onto that, depending on where they’re coming from culturally or religiously. They need to know who was the cheater, who was the drug abuser. If there was none of that, they want to know why you didn’t try hard enough. They want to know what’s wrong with you.”

Single mothers are “single” not just in the sense that they’re parenting solo, but that they’re viewed as socially and sexually unattached. And that, says Martha Albertson Fineman, can mess with society’s head, because once women in our culture become mothers, they’re not supposed to be available sexually.

Fineman, author of The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, says that the belief underlying many divorce cases and custody battles is that a woman without a steady sexual partner is likely to sacrifice the needs of her children. “A mother’s sexuality is expected to be subsumed and stable. There is a fear that a single mother’s sexuality will jeopardize her child,” says Fineman, director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

“We have changed our attitudes about sex outside of marriage, but expectations for mothers have remained unchanged. You are expected to put your children’s issues above your own, including your career and your sexual appetites.”

Because she has a steady man in her life, Wallace hasn’t had the experience of some other single mothers, who say they have been perceived as a threat by their married or partnered friends. But Wallace does clearly see the destabilizing influence her single-mother lifestyle can have on her friends’ relationships.

“There was a lot of curiosity among my friends when I was going through my split, a lot of self-questioning. It gets people thinking about their own situation, about how stable their marriage really is,” she says. “And at times I do sense a little bit of jealousy. I get to go out every other weekend or have time to myself, knowing my daughter is safe with her father. People can make time like that within their marriages, but it takes work.”

Just as single mothers can cause other women to question the state of their unions, they can cause men to wonder, at least subconsciously, if they’re still needed in the family equation.

Surprisingly, early American thinkers actually viewed single men as a threat to a stable society. Marriage and fatherhood were viewed as a way to bring out men’s more noble selves—once men started caring for wives and children, the idea went, they’d extend that largesse to society as a whole, explains Washington and Lee’s LeBlanc. In that context, women were needed to play the role of submissive wife and bearer of babies to lure men into a domestic, responsible state of existence.

That, of course, has all changed. Thanks to the career independence that came out of the feminist movement, women—specifically, women educated for a career—don’t need marriage economically in the way that they once did. “I don’t have to be married if I’m not happy being married,” says LeBlanc.

That simple change has had a profound impact on men’s roles as husbands and fathers. “If a woman can take her kid and go off on her own, men think, where does that leave me?” LeBlanc asks. “More generally, people may look at a single mother and say, ‘If she doesn’t have to play by these rules, then what are the rules? Why is she allowed to make up her own life?'”

Jane Mattes knows a thing or two about breaking the rules and leaving men out of the equation—and getting grief for it. Mattes, a psychotherapist in New York?City, founded the advocacy organization Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) in 1981 after intentionally getting pregnant without a partner and realizing that women choosing that route needed lots of support to counter societal disapproval.

Mattes says women can still be judged for stepping outside the prescribed mommy-daddy role, but nothing like they used to be. “Believe me, it was much, much, much worse thirty years ago,” Mattes says.

Especially then, but still even now, some men are insulted by the very premise of her organization. “Men feel that we’re saying they’re not important or that they’re a dispensable option, which is not the case. Our position is simply that you have a lifetime to find the right man but only a limited number of years to bear or adopt children.”

In fact, some ninety-eight percent of SMC members polled say they would have preferred to have a child in a loving relationship, Mattes says. “Very few felt this was their first choice, but a least it is a viable choice.”

Cara DeAngelis wasn’t thinking much about men when she joined SMC in 1994, a little more than a year after the untimely death of a longtime love. Nor did she encounter any blowback when she became pregnant on her own. “The day I told my mom I was first pregnant she said, ‘Oh thank God, thank God,'” DeAngelis recalls. “Nobody was going to criticize me after what I’d gone through—people just wanted me to live, no matter what it took.”

Now mother to two teenaged boys, DeAngelis says she has been able to sidestep much of the criticism and burden of being a single mother, partly because of continued support from a large family and wide circle of friends, but also, she concedes, because she is a prominent professional with a steady income. “I think people don’t criticize me because I’m a doctor. I float above the fray.”

As with almost every other aspect of American life, economics plays a big role in shaping perceptions about single mothers. Women like DeAngelis who set out to have children by themselves are overwhelmingly middle-class or above, sometimes far above, with good careers and a solid support network.

That’s not always the case for single mothers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 29.9 percent of households headed by females with no husband present were at or below the poverty level in 2009, compared with 5.8 percent for married-couple households. In turn, children raised in poverty are more likely to lack access to healthcare, suffer from poor nutrition and obesity, experience violence and unintentional injury, and experiment with drugs and alcohol in adolescence, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Those kinds of statistics, though they don’t apply to the majority of single-mom households, could well be the reason so many Pew Research survey respondents said single mothers were bad for society, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“Something that works for someone on an individual level can be disturbing on a societal level,” says Coontz, author of several books on marriage and family, most recently A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. “The vast majority of women who end up as single moms have not had a chance to assess their situation or prepare for the challenge. They don’t have the support systems that they need.”

A lack of access to decent education for her and her children, to living-wage employment, to engaged mentors and role models, to reliable and affordable birth control, to employed and employable partners, and to safe neighborhoods … the list of ways in which a single mother in poverty is challenged is long and complicated, says Coontz.

“With the growing gap between the haves and have nots, you have whole communities of women raising kids on their own.” It’s not their singleness, but their chronic impoverishment and dearth of suitable, stable life partners that’s the problem, Coontz says. But when it comes time to check the box on the survey, “single mother” is the label that sticks.

Seen in that light, the Pew Research survey’s unfavorable view of single mothers may not be a condemnation as much as an acknowledgement that any single parent can have a tougher time, emotionally and economically, than a pair of parents.

The Pew Research survey did not ask respondents their opinions about single fathers raising children alone (and they make up just sixteen percent of the custodial-parent population)—so it’s impossible to know if respondents would have felt more strongly biased against one sex or the other as a single parent.

But the survey did find that people were less negative about unmarried couples and gay couples raising kids together than they were about single mothers—a possible indication that people believe simply that two—any two—is better than one when it comes to raising children.

With households headed by single women making up twenty-five percent of all households with children in America, what most frustrates many single moms is that they and their families are still considered to be so far outside the ideal “norm” even though that norm dominates less and less every year.

“There is a feeling of supremacy or superiority of two parent families that is pervasive in this society, regardless the numbers that clearly illustrate single-parent households are plentiful,” says Kelli Kirk, a Seattle writer and mother of two who recently remarried after four years of solo parenting.

It drives her crazy that people will think nothing of leaving a single mother out of social events or outings, assuming she may not be able to afford it or she’ll feel awkward around only couples. “Don’t make the decision for us, please and thanks,” says Kirk. “We are not ‘half’ a family—we are our own family. A mom and a kid, or two kids, or three. It’s nice to be treated as if we are the absolute equal of a family of four with two parents, because we are.”

For her part, Donna Raskin wishes simply that people would untether the words “single” and “mother.”

“The best times for me are when people take my marital status out of the equation in our relationships. When they don’t judge me or make assumptions about me or my child, when they find out who we are as people. That makes me and my son feel safe and happy.”

“What is true about being a single mother is that the ‘single’ has almost nothing to do with the ‘mother,'” she says. “I’m a good mom, and I would be a good mom whether or not I am or am not married.”

Author’s Note: As always, I am humbled and grateful when people are willing to spill their guts for a story I’m writing. A big thank you to the women quoted in this piece and also to the many mothers who shared their single-mom stereotypes on Brain, Child’s Facebook page. I really do believe that telling stories is the best way to change minds. Thanks for being part of the process.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.