By Dena Landon
Single mom. It’s a loaded phrase. I use it with pride – I’m tough, strong, and resourceful. But to the men on online dating profiles who check ‘no’ to the question “Would you date a single parent?” apparently it’s not a positive. And it’s hard not to miss that, in general, society looks down on us.
As recently as the Netflix hit Stranger Things, where stressed-out and over-worked single mom Wynona Ryder ran around chain smoking and used light bulbs to communicate with her child, single moms are rarely portrayed positively in the media or elsewhere. Single moms are on welfare, mooching off the system. Single moms behaved irresponsibly, getting knocked up when they were too young and never marrying the fathers – who don’t face nearly the same level of stigma for their actions – or they’re lazy and neglectful. The stereotypes go on and on. And yet, when I look around my circle of friends, I don’t see it.
All the single moms I know are college educated. Many of us have advanced degrees. We all have jobs and work hard to support our families. If we struggle to pay our bills one month it’s because as ex is late with or won’t pay child support, not because we’re irresponsible. We can squeeze a penny like you wouldn’t believe and specialize in hauling our kids to all the free library events, museum days and festivals in town. We’re rock stars. What’s more, the statistics and demographics on single moms lean more towards ‘rock star’ than a typical Hollywood portrayal.
Today’s Single Parents by the Numbers
Of the population of single parents 63.2% of women were married prior to becoming single moms. That’s right, more of us defy the gross assumptions of ‘unwed mother’ than not, and since the average age American women become first time mothers is now 26 years old, we probably didn’t become moms in our teens. And we also work – 76% of us have jobs. What about that odd idea that we had multiple kids in order to receive public assistance? (Because going through pregnancy and childbirth is worth a couple extra bucks?) Not true. Over half of single moms only have one kid. While it is true that single mothers and their children are more likely to live in poverty than the general U.S. population, how much of that is due to the $32.9 billion of unpaid child support? Or because of exorbitant childcare costs?
And let’s not forget that men are single parents, too. 17.8% of the population of single parents in the U.S. are men, over half of whom are divorced or separated. While a slightly higher percentage of them have jobs, at 85.1%, it’s worth noting that women may work less because they receive more child support. In the case of a few moms I know after child support, alimony and their divorce settlement they didn’t have to work and chose to wait until their children were older before returning to the workforce. And since the population is smaller than that of single moms the percentages will be smaller, too. Of those custodial dads 20.9% of them receive government assistance. It isn’t just women who need some help occasionally.
If men are single parents, too, and also receive money from the government and if the majority of single moms were once married and have jobs, why is it incredibly easy to find a negative stereotype about a single mom and not as easy to find one about single dads?
It’s an easy answer, really. Sexism. Whether it’s a convenient way to insert an absent parent as a plot device or a politician needs to distract from their latest scandal, our society has decided that the single mom is an easy target. Does a woman who can support both herself and her children intimidate some people? Is it because men don’t want to look at their responsibilities as a father? Or is it because focusing on and decrying women’s choices makes for easy talking points instead of addressing real issues like the pay gap, lack of paid maternity leave, and how hard it is for families to find decent, affordable childcare?
As far as I’m concerned it’s time to push back against those stereotypes. Whether it’s tweeting facts at senators who use the boogey woman of ‘single mom’ to stir up constituents and sidestep real issues or having these facts on hand to cite when someone starts spouting off about single moms on Facebook, stand up. Or whether it’s refusing to be shamed when another parent at school asks if our son’s dad is coming to kindergarten graduation (he didn’t), we need to stop apologizing for being single moms. A simple and honest, “Nope, it’s just us,” with a smile, confident gaze and straight spine claims our place as members of society, not mooches.
About the Author
Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared on The Washington Post, Narrative.ly, Salon, bust.com, and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children’s Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram and Facebook.