The “Sometimes Single Mom” Situation

A_beautiful_day_to_enjoy_the_wildlife_refugeThe term ‘sometimes single mom’ is inaccurate.

Single moms don’t say, “I’m a sometimes single mom.” True, some have the support of their exes, financially or otherwise, but many just do not. They are actually a single parent in the true sense of the word. They are responsible for a child or children they are raising alone. It seems as if those who call themselves ‘sometimes single moms’ are usually the ones who are actually married with a husband who is sometimes there.

This is a subject that keeps coming up lately, and it’s not the first time. Recently, it was sparked by the Michelle Obama video where she flubs and says in the interview with CBS News affiliate WCAX in Burlington, Vermont:

“Believe me, as a busy single mother—or, I shouldn’t say single! As a busy mother… sometimes, you know, when you’ve got a husband who’s president, it can feel a little single, but he’s there!”  

I understand this was a gaffe. Mrs. Obama pulled back and corrected herself. But this was the flub heard ‘round the parenting community, particularly by actual single moms. You are not a single mom — even sometimes! — if you’re married to your husband who comes home at the end of the day, brings in some income and helps raise the child you have together. Yes, there are situations where the husband/father isn’t available for whatever reason. However, when you are a single mom, (or single father, for that matter) you have sole responsibility for your child or children. Even if the father is paying child support and has visitation, you are still responsible as the primary caregiver. I understand how some people can feel like a sometimes single parent. Parenting is hard and having a spouse who’s gone for months at a time (for work, military service, or whatever else) is challenging. But it’s not the same.

After the FLOTUS flub, Kristen Chase of the blog Motherhood Uncensored wrote an article here at The Broad Side titled “Michelle Obama Calls Herself a Single Mom. In Many Ways, She Is.” I know quite a few single moms, including myself, who would disagree vehemently with Chase’s article and the First Lady’s statement, even if it was a slip. This particular post generated a huge response on Facebook, with many single moms saying they were not OK with Chase proclaiming that she’s OK with Michelle Obama calling herself a single mom.

Chase has written about being a sometimes single mom before. She acknowledges that the term is a “misnomer” and a “figure of speech.” And I’m OK with moms like Kristen and the First Lady talking about parenting solo, just don’t call yourselves a ‘sometimes single parent,’ because that’s not what it is.

I don’t have the support of my daughter’s father. In my case, it’s probably for the best. But maybe that’s my own fault as society suggests. Maybe I should have kept my legs closed and stuck an aspirin between them. Then I probably wouldn’t be in the situation I am in now. But it’s thoughts like this that degrade, humiliate and shame single mothers.

There just simply isn’t the stigma against single fathers as there is against single mothers. You don’t hear society calling single fathers “whore,” “slut,” “welfare queen,” (or king) or saying, “Should have kept his dick in his pants.” That sort of running commentary just doesn’t exist. Do single dads get a hard time? Do they get slurs slung at them to the extent that single mothers do? Do they get asked why they had a kid with such a loser? Probably not. Are they sometimes seen as heroes for stepping up while the moms get vilified? Sometimes.

My mother was a single parent for many years. Instead of being responsible for just one child, she had three to take care of alone. She works as a seamstress and has for years. I remember her staying up through the night sewing, finishing up a client’s garment while my brothers and I slept; then she would go to work in the morning. I often fell asleep to the sound of her sewing machine hammering away. She did have financial support from my father, but not much else.

She was lucky, as were my brothers and I, that she had a rather large family to help. Sometimes it would be my grandmother, who was single herself, raising not one, not three, but five kids singlehandedly with no help from the fathera By the time I came along, my grandmother was still single, but down to three kids and the older two were married and out of the house.

What is the true definition of single parent? What if you are the only parent, but you are living with your extended family? Does that still make you a single parent? I don’t think being married would be on that singles list, whether the spouse is gone for most of the time, or whether you get the emotional support you need from that spouse or not. If that situation is happening, and you do feel as if you are doing all the parenting, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your marriage.

This post hardly covers all I want to say.  Other writers have, however, including Annie Downey, author of the book Hot and Bothered, who wrote a critically acclaimed article on being a single parent called, “Is There Life After Welfare?” I also recommend reading Tracy Mayor’s essay called “Single Mom Stigma, Alive and Kicking.”

Here’s what if comes down to: families are more diverse today than ever. There needs to be a reconfiguring of the misnomers ‘single motherhood’ and ‘single parenthood.’ Perhaps we need to create a more suitable vocabulary appropriate to both single parenting and other relational aspects of parenting

Guest contributor Kris Underwood is a poet, writer and mother. Currently, she is the Social Media Editor for Hunger Mountain, journal of the arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poetry has appeared in Literary Mama, Poetry Midwest and The Barefoot Review. Other writing has been featured at the Hunger Mountain blog, the VCFA blog: 36 College St. and the Ploughshares blog. She specializes in creative writing, but sometimes the political slips in. Visit her blog to find out more. Follow her on Twitter: @krisunderwood

Image via Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

  • As I said before we need more words. The whole phrase single mom is not a very accurate one to begin with. Single refers to her marital status, not necessarily her parenting load.

    A “single father” could be a total deadbeat dad who should have kept his dick in his pants. Or someone who fathers every other holiday.

    Single mom doesn’t mean what it used to mean, though there are holdover connotations.

    I’m recently divorced after parenting with a husband for 11.5 years. The fact is I bore the major parenting load doing everything from staying home with the kids and housekeeping and filling out all the paperwork, running kids to doctors, and all the other “parenting” duties. I did it to “support” my husband’s career, just as Ms. Obama has done. Not only since her husband became president – but ALWAYS, including when he was a lawyer and a state legislature.

    The elephant in the room is this: it’s still totally acceptable for dads to drop the parenting ball if they are ambitious and it’s even considered “feminist” to make this okay and do all the parenting, even in the face of your own ambitious career. Ms. Obama has made public statements to the effect that she was so run ragged doing everything while he focused on his political ambitions and it became an issue in her marriage. Then she decided that while she needed support in parenting it didn’t have to come from him, it could come from other sources like her mom.

    Free pass on the parenting, Barack, you’re ambitious.

    The whole thing is so unprogressive and smacks in the face of feminism itself. The leader of the supposed “women’s party.”

    I am now a “single mom.” However, I have written posts that explore the idea that this is a phrase that’s not applicable to me. ( ) . I am a co-parent. See, as soon as we decided on divorce and papers were filed my wasband stepped back in as a parent. Suddenly it became very important to him. Suddenly he’s filling out registration form for school and searching for instruments for band. Suddenly he’s taking responsibility for the parenting, if not half the time, at least 1/3 of the time.

    Being a “single mom” is a relief of responsibility for me. It frees me to do other things, like grow my business and have five minutes of quiet time for myself.

    We need more words to accurately describe our ever-changing familial responsibilities and relationship statuses. Myself, I prefer being referred to as a co-parent now. Being single has nothing to do with my parenting status.

  • Beth

    So well put, particularly the part about the double standard. We judge women for having babies, and judge them for not. We judge them for getting assistance for those babies, and judge them if they don’t seek help. We suggest they keep their legs closed but mock them if they remain childless. For too many years, it’s been a lose-lose for females. It’s time we become the winners and, most of all, not judge each other. Let the conservatives do that, and do it badly.

    • Beth-your comment sums it up succinctly. It truly is a double-edged sword. It seems as if women can’t win in any way-whatever they choose. Thanks for commenting!

  • I am the only parent in the home for several months at a time. When my husband is home, I typically make all of the parenting decisions as a result of this situation. I hold back from using “single parent” but truly, there is no better way to describe our life half of the year. I have a “visible means of support” but many single moms do as well. I often feel awkward when discussing my life with moms without a spouse. It really is another version of the mommy wars.

    • @mamikaze

      It’s like a bad contest “my mom-job is harder than your mom-job.”

      Which is silly. In my experience being a mom was 10 times harder when I was struggling through a marriage on top of it. And I’m better off financially too because I’m getting his support and I get to make all fo the decisions about what happens to the money in my possession.

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