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Sheryl Sandberg thinks she finally gets single moms, but she doesn’t get me

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

There are 'socially acceptable' single moms, but I'm not one

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s recent Facebook post from the trenches of a horrible Mother’s Day weekend. The youngest had thrown up on Friday night, and we slept on the couch, sitting up and surrounded by towels, and didn’t move much the next day. Mother’s Day came, and I tried to put it out of my mind. I’m a single mom and estranged from my family. My daughter at one point asked if we could go get a treat, since it was Mother’s Day and all. When I said I didn’t have money to eat out this month, she said, “Well, can’t we just go get a treat for me?”

Sandberg’s post touched a soft spot in me at first. I felt a little hopeful that by her recognizing that single mothers don’t have it easy and many of us live in a hopeless place of poverty, maybe some of the stigmas surrounding us would change.

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“In Lean In, I emphasized how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally,” she wrote. “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.”

She went on to tag a woman who started a Lean In Circle aimed at single mothers. This woman had a story much like mine: She'd also escaped domestic violence and put herself through college.

“On Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate women like Connie,” Sandberg said. “I think we all owe it to single mothers to recognize that the world does not make it easy for them, especially for those who struggle to make ends meet.”

I read these words with a toddler pulling and pushing my legs, then hitting them in frustration. My arms ached from holding her all day. My older daughter asked if we could go to the store again. The washing machine buzzed, a pile of dirty dishes in the sink toppled over... You get the picture. This was my day to be appreciated, and despite Sandberg’s efforts, I felt anything but.

Because she just doesn’t get it.

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No one will ever call her out for bringing her status as a single parent upon herself, in harsh statements of victim-blaming. By facing a tragic event such as losing a spouse, Sandberg is an example of a socially acceptable single mother. People not only have true sympathy for women in her situation, but they want to help her and have no doubt she will succeed despite her setback of parenting alone.

My local newspaper recently interviewed me for a profile, and I talked about living in poverty and being homeless after escaping domestic violence. The troll comments for the online version were the same as I usually see: that I had brought it all on myself because I chose to be with the wrong person. “Don't get divorced so fast, don't marry a bum, get married, stay out of bed with losers and dopers and the worthless,” one said.

Victim-blaming single moms in lower classes only furthers the stigma that their actions have put them in poverty. Legislators who believe single moms are in the situations they are in because of bad choices further these stigmas with bills that severely limit access to much-needed resources for food, cash, housing and child care.

Single moms have no choice on whether to lean in. I ran into someone at the grocery store a while ago who said she didn’t want to be away from her children full time when they were young like mine. “How nice for you,” I wanted to say.

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If single moms leaned in any further, they’d fall over.

“For many single parents, there is no safety net,” Sandberg wrote in the Facebook post. “Thirty-five percent of single mothers experience food insecurity, and many single mothers have more than one job — and that does not count the job of taking care of their children. A missed paycheck or an illness can present impossible choices.”

There’s a reason for this. We don’t have enough resources to save money.

I recently broke through the income limits for government assistance, even though I still live under what is considered the poverty level. I looked into child care assistance this week and found out I made $180 too much to receive close to $400 in grants for day care. That small amount of income means I don’t qualify for the program.

Where’s the government incentive to lean in with that? Thanks to work requirements, most single mothers who attend classes full time do not qualify for food assistance. A promotion at a job could mean only a couple of hundred dollars more a month in income, but a loss of nearly twice that in resources. My income is nearly double what someone working a full-time, minimum wage job earns. I live in low-income housing, own a car that is more than 20 years old and don’t have frills such as cable.

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And even then, I can just barely afford to pay for the fixed expenses, such as rent, full-time day care and student loans. If I could qualify for government assistance at my current income, I’d be able to get ahead, save money and pay down debt to get us financially secure. And that would mean I wouldn’t always hover between being eligible for assistance or not. I could escape the cycle. I wouldn’t have to make impossible choices from a missed paycheck.

But many Americans shirk at the idea of increasing income levels for people who need extra resources. It’s because of that stigma. That we brought this on ourselves. That we’re lazy, uneducated and make bad choices. So while I do appreciate the nod from Sandberg in admitting single parenting is hard and in listing the many problems single moms in poverty face, let’s start to look at why that is. With 1 in 5 families headed by single mothers, it’s time we stop blaming women for the path they are on. It’s time to lift up and support all single mothers, no matter what their class or background.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

There are 'socially acceptable' single moms, but I'm not one
Image: Liz Jennings Photography
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