For most of my life, I’ve lived in a single parent household. I was raised by a single mother. Now, I’m raising children as a single — more accurately, solo — mother. (The life I shared with my husband, the time we had to parent together, lasted only a few years before he got sick, and all the roles and rules changed; and then he died.) As a result, single parenthood is my baseline, my normal. For most people, I’d guess that’s not true. For most people, I’d guess single parenthood is a mystery, and the reality of single parenthood is made up of Hollywood stereotypes and misconceptions.
Unsurprisingly, those worn-in stereotypes and misconceptions aren’t reality. The truth is so much more nuanced and worth understanding, not only to support the people in your life who are single parents, but as a reminder that labels like “single mom” rarely give a full picture — or any picture at all.
Divorce Isn’t the Only Road to Single Parenthood
Often, when folks think of a single parent, they think divorce. They think failed marriage. Some might simply think failure.
The reality is that folks become single parents for a variety of reasons, including by choice and by fate. According to a 2020 Census Bureau which looked at the marital status of one-parent unmarried family groups with children under 18, more than half of single mothers have never been married. (A scant 3.9 percent are widowed — we’re a small, but mighty group.)
“I Don’t Know How You Do It” – Neither Do We
Too often I’m confronted with a well-meaning stranger who says, “I don’t know how you do it.” As in, I don’t know how you’re the only adult in the home, the only one paying the bills, planning the meals, signing the permission slips, encouraging the goals, drying the tears, referring the sibling arguments, checking the homework, making sure the heat stays on and the walls stay upright and doing all the things to make sure it doesn’t all give way. The truth is — I don’t know, either. I suspect no single parent does. But we do it, because there’s no alternative.
As if all of that wasn’t enough for one person to manage, too many single parents, like my mother, who barely scraped by despite working three jobs, are faced with financial difficulties, more so than two-parent households. The median income for single mother families in 2019 was less than half that of two-parent households. Pre-pandemic, nearly a third of single-mother families were living below the poverty line — as compared to 5 percent of two-parent households. Nearly the same percent of single-mother families were considered food insecure. For single mother families led by women of color, the rates of poverty increased.
To be clear, it doesn’t have to be this way; it’s not in other countries. In the U.S., single mothers work a greater number of hours and still more of them fall below the poverty line than in other high-income countries, according to singlemotherguide.com.
Single Parents Don’t Want Pity
Between the cost of childcare and rising cost of living, too many single parents are working too hard to still be struggling to keep their heads above water. And yet, they don’t want pity. Of course, I can’t speak for all single parents when I say that — we’re diverse and varied, after all — but I feel confident in assuming that, like me, most single parents don’t want pity. Pity is useless. What’s better is being seen and heard by the friends and family who surround us. What’s better is being validated when we say it’s hard to be one, especially when most of the people around us are two. When we say that, we’re not trying to start a competition — we know everyone has challenges and every two-parent household has its own struggles. We just don’t want to feel invisible for a little while.
Even better than all of that: recognition, fair opportunities, and support from our leaders and the systems of government in place. Childcare that isn’t prohibitively expensive. Housing that’s affordable. Considering the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of children living in single parent households, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, it’s an effort worth undertaking.
Kids from Single Parent Homes Are Thriving
Somehow — whether through media portrayals, word of mouth, or subconscious messaging — I got the message that as a child in a single parent home, the odds were stacked against me. That I was more likely to end up in trouble than a child from a two-parent household. Turns out, it wasn’t just hard work and luck that led me to a different future: the messaging was flawed from the beginning.
In an article for Psychology Today, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist and the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, wrote that in her research, she “discovered that in most ways the vast majority of [children of single parents] are doing just fine, and in some ways, they are doing even better than the children raised by married parents.”
Among her findings, she discovered that whether a child is raised by a single parent or not is less important in determining whether the child will be at risk than whether the child is raised in a family rife with aggression, conflict, and relationships which are not warm and supportive.
The sad truth is children from any household makeup may be at risk. The hopeful truth is children from any household makeup — single, solo, or two-parent — may be primed for success.
Kids of Single Parents Are Not Deprived of Love
Single parents are short on time, short on bandwidth, often short on patience (just me?), but never (never, ever) short on love. Yes, kids of single parents only have one parent in the home where others have two (and kids of solo parents have one parent total), and that’s quantifiably less. And yes, even if that single parent gives twice as much as they’re capable of giving, the kids still end up with half as much as they would have had. That’s math (kind of). But love doesn’t really work that way. Love isn’t quantifiable based on the number of hearts in the room. And because of that, kids of single parents are no less loved.
Single Parents are Superheroes … and Also Need a Nap
Labeling single parents as “superheroes” makes single parenthood sound somehow pretty or magical. It’s not. It’s gritty and hard and marked by a constant hope that the best you can do is good enough. (And being fairly sure it’s not.)
Then again, maybe that’s all a superhero is, at heart—someone who gives all that they can for others and hopes that it’s enough.
These celebrity moms talk about raising their kids on their own.