Who deserves to call themselves a “single mom”?


confused woman with maths

As can only happen in class-weird America, people in this great nation can be heard vying for the right to claim rights to refer to themselves as a “single mother.” It is an interesting and relevant debate — one that speaks to how unmarried moms move forward with our lives as individuals, but also how we collectively define with our place in the world. First, let’s get out of the way all the broads who are not single moms.

Ladies, if your husband is away on a hunting trip for a weekend, you are not a single mom. Or even, as Michelle Obama accidentally did earlier this year, you call yourself a single mom because your husband is really, really busy with his fabulous career, you are out. And FYI, when you refer to yourself as a single mom you piss off a whole lot of people–people who have little or no financial help to raise their kids, or partnership that provides the emotional and logistical support that all families need. Not that you meant anything by it. But when you say that we want to kill you.

On forums and in casual conversation, I hear people (usually men – men who pay lots of child support) grumble about women (usually their exes) who define themselves as single moms. “They have no right to say that — I pay for her manicures and weekends in Cancun with her 26-year-old personal trainer boyfriend!” is the usual gripe.

Which leads us to examine what “single mother” really means. Yes, you are unmarried and romantically available. Fair enough. But “single mom” is a heavily loaded term with lots of social and political connotations. Depending on how you vote, a single mom is responsible for bearing fatherless criminals and living off of the taxpayer’s dime; or she is a saintly martyr for her children and a victim of a chauvinistic society that tells men it is OK to abandon their children by a male-dominated court system that let him way, way off the hook.

But what if you’re living in reality and fall somewhere in between? What about families where custody is civilized and shared 50-50? What if you get a fat support check every two weeks? Or the parent who is saddled with 100 percent of the responsibilities, but remarries into a supportive relationship? Or you get no financial support, but lots of logistic and parenting cooperation? What if you’re doing it all on your own, but have the financial means to hire extensive help with the kids and house? What about the married mom whose husband has a lil somethin’ on the side, lends zero help with the kids and blows the mortgage payment on electronics and poker games?

I feel totally fine calling myself a single mom: I float my family financially and am the primary caretaker of my kids. If my ex’s situation were different he would gladly participate in a different way, and he very well may in the future. My status (and yes this is all about status) as a single mom because that is a fact. But would I call
myself something else
if I were not so very independent in my parenting?

The crux of this issue is that “single mom” carries with it at least a twinge of status in many circles — in other groups it lends serious street cred. Being a single mom can be inherently hard, and in America we uphold hard as a virtue. In most of the country, bragging rights belong to the person who put herself through college, saved up for the downpayment on his house, and never took a cent from parents after graduating high school. If you happen to have a trust fund, inheritance, or cashed in on a tech start-up, you keep your pie hole shut and keep your lifestyle in line with your middle-class friends (or go find rich friends).

Which brings us back to single mom semantics. On one hand, we could agree to dismiss the issue as a big, WHO THE EFF CARES?! On the other, the fact that this topic warrants a blog posts underscores bigger changes afoot: changes in family structure, marriage, family economics, and gender, class and money — all my most favoritest topics of conversation, but also some of the most important and compelling issues of our time. As we figure out where women and mothers fit into the worlds of work, money and politics, we need language to help us along the way.

Until we iron out the details, I’ll stick with my title of “single mom.” But not too tightly. After all, to toss off a casual “I’m a single mom” can suggest a belief that you are automatically deserving of respect — an attitude that pisses off pretty much everyone.

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35 thoughts on “Who deserves to call themselves a “single mom”?

  1. that’s the thing… I guess “single” relates to relationship status, but the way “single” and “mom” get put together as “single mom” makes it sound like you are parenting alone. That’s why I’m not sure what to call myself. I don’t want to call myself “divorced mom” but I feel like that is more accurate. I’m a mom and I’m not married, but I was and that person is contributing to my kids support. I do feel like describing myself as “single mom” would almost negate any support I’m receiving from my ex. Not that I care about him getting credit, but I don’t need to get extra credit that when there are women out there doing a lot more.

    I’m not sure there’s really a right answer so I just try to avoid describing myself in these terms if possible.

  2. It seems that by claiming “single mom” it is a dig on our kids’ dad — which is not necessarily the case.

    Better question may be: When can a man deserve to call himself a single dad?

  3. Thank you for opening up this intriguing conversation. Obviously, married women/those in partnered committed live-in relationships are NOT single moms. And they sound frankly pathetic and whiny when they characterize themselves as such. It was an uncharacteristic misstep by Michelle Obama to do so — count on it NEVER happening again.

    Every permutation [choice, chance, divorced . . ] under the “single mom” heading has advantages and disadvantages — and there is no way and no reason to measure who carries the heaviest load.

    1. Thanks Dr. Leah! I agree, but what about these caveats:

      >>>What about families where custody is civilized and shared 50-50? What if you get a fat support check every two weeks? Or you get no financial support, but lots of logistic and parenting cooperation? What if you’re doing it all on your own, but have the financial means to hire extensive help with the kids and house? What about the married mom whose husband has a lil somethin’ on the side, lends zero help with the kids and blows the mortgage payment on electronics and poker games?

    1. Great post! Seems most single moms gripe about that topic at some time or anther. But what are your thoughts on unmarried moms who have many advantages – like financial wealth, lots of free time, a great relationship with their ex, etc.?

  4. To me, if there is a child with no father or male in the house, then they are a single mom. If they are getting alimony or child support they’re still single. They have to do all the stuff to keep the house running, they should get credit for that!!

  5. I have been doing a lot of soul searching on what it means to be a single mom. I am not with my son’s father, or anyone else for that matter (romantically/partner-wise). I do recieve child support from him. Although in the single mom (parent) continuum, I am doing pretty well. I have a job that I love that pays me a decent salary, I completed my schooling before I had a child and I live where I have family and friends support.

  6. @Seanna – I hear you saying you struggle to call yourself a single mom because you’re thriving. Interesting, and suggests that “single mom” has such a negative connotation for you.

  7. @ Emma, I haven’t meet very many single moms who are thriving in real life, or have very many single mom friends in general. Most are either married with kids or have no kids and single. Most of the media protrayals of single moms are pretty dismal. I think I struggle in own the title of “single mom” because it has been this way since day one, single parenthood is my norm. I think it would have been much harder if I started out co-parenting and had to adjust then.

  8. An interesting article re terminology. I am a divorced dad paying child support but not alimony to my ex-wife to cover among other things the shelter for my children while they live 50% of the time with her in our old apartment. She is engaged band when she remarries her new husband is moving in with her.

    Do I call myself a Single Dad? I have wondered whether I have that right. As the kids don’t live with me 100% of the time?

    But I do pay 100% of the child support under NYS law to their mother. In effect I pay 150% of the required food / shelter / clothing formula as in addition to paying the support to her I support them fully when they live with me. Does that give me the right to say I am a single dad?

    Probably not as the kids receive emotional support across two households from two parents etc.

    As the writer states there is a certain street cred of stating you are a single parent but the term should probably only be reserved for those parents who are doing it fully on their own with no second parent in the picture financially or emotionally.

    Does my Ex think of herself as a single mom? I cannot say. Would it bug me if she does? probably. Especially when I have no proof that 100% of my child support is being used fully for my children’s needs or knowing as I do that it covers the roof over head when she is gainfully employed, granted she earns substantially less than me and I am happy my children continue to live in our old 3 bedroom apartment where with me we share a single bedroom apartment in Queens.

    Do I have gripes? Of course but what divorced single parent doesn’t.

    1. Eric, this stirs up so many thoughts including many stories I’ve heard in recent months from disgruntled divorced dads. These — like you, I sense — are good guys, devoted dads, with feminist politics. But something goes amiss in the divorce process and they do seem to be getting screwed. A few examples:

      -One dad who earns about the same as his ex– in the six-figures — but because he earns maybe $5k more he is subject to NYS child support laws and pays her 25% of his gross. Like you, his living arrangements are far, far inferior to hers, even though he too has 50% custody.

      -Another’s ex earned a PhD while they were married, never contributed financially during the marriage, and now pays her $100k per year in support and alimony, and has 40% custody, and again, lives in inferior housing. He said that during a meeting to discuss taxes she flat-out refused to admit the sum that he gives her “because she wants to see herself as a struggling single mom.” (his words, but …)

      It seems that the pendulum has swung too far in so many cases … part of the problem is that the majority of parents who are not in committed relationshisp with each other – the guys are loser, negligent dirt bags. So judges have little sympathy for these dudes. And alimony is still in effect (though being phased out).

      In short, the underfunded legal system has not yet caught up with the nuances of what is going on in professional families where both parties are capable of supporting a household, and both parents are equally involved, rendering obsolete the argument that one parent should have a bigger/nicer home on behalf of the children.

      I’ve heard plenty of grumbling bitter men, and don’t think you fall into that category.

  9. It really felt unfair when I was an impoverished single mom, greiving for my ex who had become abusive and mentally ill, we got no child support. My mother mocled me and laughed at me saying I told you so …even though she did nothing when at 15 I met my 30yo future ex….and other women with tons of helpful aunties, grandmas who babysat more than twice a year when I had to go to the dentist, support checks and housing that wasn’t drafty/haunted/a former meth lab and who could send their kids to school unlike me bcs my ex was trying to kidnap our son….with all that help and ease they called themselves SINGLE MOMS?!

  10. I call myself a single mom because the father of my child is not in the picture at all he has never once bought a pack of diapers he never saw him besides the five mins at the hospital in 06.did the whole child support thing but he said he would never pay a dime and the court found it in the best interest for the child to just leave it alone… i have never had help from his side of the family….. i have worked my butt off to make ends meet…. So i see it as if you get help from the other parent like money he keeps the child sometimes and is in the child’s life then you are not a single mother…

  11. I am a sixty year old grandmother of 5. My son is married and my daughter is going through a divorce. She and her husband (ex to be) share joint custody and she gets some alimony. I don’t consider a “single parent”. I have always considered a “single parent” as a widow or widower, or someone who is raising children with no other parent in the picture. (Raped or accidently got pregant and the father doesn’t even know they have a child) To me “single parent” means the children only have one parent. My daughter is not going to be a “single parent” because her children have two parents that are alive and known. That’s just my two cents.

  12. Can any mom who get help and support from friends and family,be called a real single mom she is not married and the father is gone with another woman. Only one child is involved.

  13. This topic is pathetic. Whoever said parenting would be easy. Married, divorced, widowed, widower, single or involved, parenting would still be difficult. I recieved custody of my kids, before that I was paying child support, health insurance, schooling & clothing. Now the point to this being said is that times will be hard, discouraging or even hopeless. We all face this possibility of single parenting., nothing guaranteed but death. We all have or had choices to make and you must stand by it. Overall your kids see more than you know. More attention on kids and not your individual status for self gradification.

  14. I am a step mom of two (now grown) kids. I have a rare situation in that their father and I raised them because their “mom” wanted to “find herself”. Her self-appointed role was to take them shopping and on vacations. She would call our house every night to tell them she loved them and see how their days were. Now I find out that she has touted herself to be a “single mom”, which I find very insulting. She did not want to do the hard work of raising her kids, and by claiming to be a single mom, she has discounted, even dismissed, their dad’s (and my) contributions to their lives. Raising kids is hard work and a thankless job. I praise all those truly single parents who devote their lives to raising their kids to be well-adjusted, hard-working adults. Kudos to you!

    1. That is a really interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. I wonder if there can come a time when you can develop some empathy for the mom – sounds like she has all but abandoned her kids, and her guilt is leading her to play the victim card. Tough situation for all involved. Your stepkids are lucky to have you.

  15. The ‘single’ in single mother is not about relationship status, but rather how many parents are involved, in any way, in the child’s life. If the other parent is involved then you are a co-parent and not a ‘single’ parent. I was asked once to help with a local girl scout troop. I had seriously considered it when I had informed the leader how busy I was and the fact that I was a ‘single’ parent. She then went on to tell me that she was too and had plenty of time to lead the troop… I then asked, ‘So, the father isn’t involved in any way in your children’s lives?’ She told me that of course he is involved and that they have joint custody. So

  16. If you have your child 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year without any support financially or emotionally… Then you have earned the title of ‘single mother ‘… If this isn’t the case, then count your blessings and stop complaining.

  17. Gosh your articles are so well-written, I have to comment on every one of them lol. I have had a lot of relatives claim they’re single moms by virtue of the fact that their husbands are usually away on business trips, or some other weird reason. This apparently is to keep me in line, even though I never complain about being a single mom (man it’s tough, honestly). Literally have to bite my tongue to refrain from saying that a single mom is one that is divorced, a widow, or never got married.

    1. Oh I’ve been there. I try to remember: It’s all relative, ya know? Then I think nasty thoughts and hope they don’t come out my mouth.

  18. I have to agree that “single mom” should be reserved for those moms who have to learn to be both the mother and the father in their children’s lives and fulfill both roles. Moms and dads play such different roles for their children and each provide a different perspective for the children. A true single parent has to fill both roles. Even more scary for the single parent is the huge concern for how to handle the unthinkable if it happens. A single parent doesn’t have that backup if they become incapacitated or dies. And the job is 365 days a year with never a break.

    While I am married, my parents divorced and my dad was always there. Oddly enough, their divorce meant I ended up two moms–though it took a while for that transition because I felt very bad for my mom. I was taking care of my mom more than she took care of me in the early times.

    If “single mom” means that there is a dad in the child’s life but they are just divorced, then this seems to just translate into whether a woman is determining to juggle dating and raising a child. When a woman uses that term, I think of a woman meaning that she has to do it all and doesn’t have back-up–which is completely different from having joint custody and sharing responsibilities. I have a friend whose husband travels 3 weeks out of the month, so she has less support than many joint custody situations. And of course, there are military wives whose husbands are deployed overseas for significant time frames and navy wives. I’m confused about what “single mom” is suppose to mean when the dad is in the children’s lives–do the children have a “single mom” and a “single dad”? Is this just a dating term? Because if “single mom” is suppose to mean those parents without emotional and logistical backup, why wouldn ‘t it apply to all those in that situation? I am really curious and don’t understand . . .

  19. Thank you for this post. I am doing some research for personal reasons. My mother recently told me that I often say that I “did it all by myself” referring to the years my son was a baby and I was single. She disagrees with this point and said to me “You did not do it all by yourself. I bought you things to help out and your sister moved in with you to help with childcare and yet you always say this and it is incredibly frustrating.” I could not believe how mean she was being to me as my sister was not the father and therefore was never expected to do anything to help me out in any way. If the baby was sick, I had to call out of work out or I had to find help. The responsibility fell to me in the end. Always. That, to me, is a single mom. Some have it much more difficult than I did but we don’t need to be that specific. Being a single mom is hard. No matter what. And should be respected. No matter what. This article and all of the comments helped me release a little anger towards my mother because she isn’t saying “You weren’t a single mother and therefore don’t deserve all of the accolades that comes with it.” In fact, she was saying “You didn’t do it all by yourself. You had help.” Very different sentences but when you consider yourself a rockstar for accomplishing some of the hardest years of your life, sometimes you misconstrue what people are saying when they critisize even a small piece of it. It took reading this to gain some perspective. Point being…thank you for your help.

    1. Thanks for sharing / venting. Ultimately, 3 things: 1. It is very hard to be a single mom. 2. You probably did have a lot of help. 3. You still felt alone. All true.

  20. I am a single mom. I am married but seperated from my three beautiful childrens dad. He was abusive towards me and justified his harsh treatment of our kids by saying they need to learn to fear him. He justified his treatment of me by saying he was trying to prepare me for the real world. Now I won’t tolerate that kind of justification from anyone. I work, and was lucky enough to find a job in which i can work from home and can be at home when my kids are sick or get out of school, have full custody and care of the kids, have the support of my family. The dad wants to be involved but due to our history i can’t trust that his obsessive and abusive behaviour won’t continue if given a chance, he still blames others for his misfortune, can’t hold a job for more than 2 years because he gets fed up with the supervisors. I get $3 a month in child support and when i give the dad a chance to show he can help with the kids he finds a reason that he can’t make it, finds that his friends need him more at the moment, or makes the time and helps but i find that he has been negligent. You can look down on me, you can say what you like about what a single mom is or is not but the important thing is that i have full custody to make sure my kids are happy, healthy, and inspired. I am single mentally, emotionally, and physically if not in writing. I am a mother and my kids and i have no reliance on their dad. I call myself a single mother because that is the reality of things.

  21. I have a tough time deciphering if I am considered a single parent or not. My personal status (single married etc) has nothing to do with it, it’s all about the child. I have one son. I will not take him to court because I feel like we should be able to be civilized. (If he gives me a reason to change that I will) at the time (still now) he can’t afford to pay me child support. I dnt bother I just say whatever I ask you to get him, please pay for it. Our son is 4. He would pay for the diapers and formulas and clothes when he was younger. Now he in school and I say get his uniform ( tuition is paid for by my family member) he was upset about it. Like I put my son in dance and basketball (because my son like the activity), he dnt want to contribute or support because it’s nothing that he agrees on. And his dad comes to visit every other week and spends the weekend at my place. Refuse to let me go anywhere alone although we are clearly not together. My contribution – he is with me all the time, he is on my insurance, I pay all the bills in my place, barely have food but make sure my son eat, spend nights in the hospital if necessary, sat up many nights with him with his and my homework while finishing my masters, I lose sleep and time off work to go to school conferences events – basically a full time parent. He feel I should not call myself a single parent, all my friends and family do, and so do I. At the end of the day, the bulk of the blame and responsibility (good or bad is on me), not him. Am I wrong for calling me a single parent?

    1. I believe the title you are searching for is called, “mom”. Wear it proudly without regard to how hard you work, how lonely, how poor, how much family or friends helps help, etc. Moms need to stop comparing themselves to each other. All moms are different, different gifts: some moms have aunts, sisters, exes, grandparents helping emotionally, physically or financially, some do not. If you are raising the kid (s) alone for the most part, then you are a single mom.
      Some moms are not so lucky to have any help from others but they can turn it around and find out they are better for it to be alone (for instance, you have poor family relations or there is abuse). Single moms not blessed with help can be blessed in finding successful careers and be the mom and dad far better than parents who have help.

  22. I don’t really take financial support into consideration when determining if I find someone to be a single parent. If one parent cuts a check every month but spends approximately 3 hours a year actually raising the child than I don’t think it’s wrong for the parent who takes care of the child to say (s)he is a single parent even if the support received is enough to cover the financial aspect of raising a kid. Granted I’m not a parent but I do have some knowledge on what it takes to raise a kid and have extensive experience writing checks. Given the choice between the two I’d rather cut a check.

    Also, as a side rant, I’d like people to stop referring to men watching their own kids as babysitters. Unless you gave your kid up for adoption and were hired by the adopted parents to watch the child, you can’t babysit your own kid.

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