5 ways the world shames single moms (but don’t buy into it!)

strong single mom

The world just doesn't seem to know what to do with women who have kids but don't have a husband. We're so far off from America's obsession with a “normal” family (even if less than half of U.S. families fit the traditional, nuclear ideal) that single mothers like you and me simply freak people out.

Single mom — with all the nasty connotations of the term — evokes in society the need to demand a stringent behavioral code designed to shame unmarried mothers into a tight little conservative box of decorum.

To which I say: REVOLT! 

Here are the top 5 shaming messages society lays on single moms:

1. You must focus all your energy, time and money on your children. They have been wounded by your bad decisions, therefore you owe it to them to over-do it with the parenting. 

Reality? Crap happens, and you found yourself a single mom. You're still a whole person who should pursue a rewarding career, romantic life of your choice, friends, healthy lifestyle and time to yourself. Some or all of those things mean that sometimes you will spend less time with your children than you otherwise would. So you will be a happy woman living a full life and a great role model for your kids — and the world.

Other reality: Kids today are over-parented. The science is out: Stay-at-home moms are far more miserable than working moms, and the hours that women spend with their children doesn't make a difference to their well-being, per this study. In other words: Kids don't need their mommies as much as everyone thinks.

2. You're a single mom because you made bad, bad choices. 

Said choices including getting knocked-up outside of wedlock, making babies you can't afford to send through an Ivy League college by yourself, marrying a douche bag, being a crappy wife, not “keeping your marriage together,” choosing to have a baby alone because you were too picky to marry and do it “the right way.”

Reality? Crap happens. Or not. Maybe this is an awesome path for you. But just because your family doesn't look like the Cosbys, well, you are really really happy because we saw what happened there.

Embracing that life doesn't always follow your Plan A, being resilient and pursuing your own path with passion, is perhaps the best life lesson you can teach your kids.

3. If you have sex with a man who you are not certain you will marry, you are a filthy whore. 

Reality? You're an adult woman who has sexual, emotional and romantic needs that will be met in a way that — discretely — suits you. Women who had babies are in no way obliged to adhere to demure sexual habits specific to female parents.

4. If you spend time with a man when you could otherwise be spending with your kids, you are a filthy whore. 

Reality? You are an adult woman who has sexual, emotional and romantic needs. Just like every other adult in the world. By expressing that in a healthy way — including letting your kids see you dress up to go on dates with nice men — you teach your children that it is healthy for them, too, to grow up and expect to have a romantically fulfilling life. Plus, kids need to see their mothers genuinely happy. Plus-plus, kids don't need to spend as much time with their mommies as today's culture dictates (see study cited above).

5. Since you made so many bad choices, you must work really, really hard so that you are never a burden on the state, your family or your children. 

Reality? Sometimes you need a hand to get through really rough times. That might mean a period of public assistance, a loan from your parents, or babysitting from your cousin. But then you figure it out — on your own terms. When you accept that your family can be awesome and whole and not look like the Jonses, you suddenly realize that you don't need a 3,500-square-foot house, or three giant TVs, and everyone in your household does not require the latest iPhone. You see people at work putting in long hours and bragging about the long hours without getting so very much done in those long hours. And you start to appreciate that time with your kids, and single moms — I'm telling you, this happens time and again — they get it. They chose careers and build businesses where they can make a lot of money in hours that allow them to make little league games and dance practices, and eat family dinners around the supper table most evenings.

Once you reject the ideas everyone else has for you, you are suddenly, magically free to create a life that is better than what everyone else is living for themselves. Which is pretty awesome.

Bonus from a reader: 6. You are a selfish mother if you don't (re)marry so your kids have a father figure/relationship model. 

Reality? Maybe you don't want to get married. Maybe single life suits you. Or you have a satisfying relationship with a man that does not include cohabiting. Or you just don't give a flying shit about what everyone thinks you should be doing with your personal life. Also, your kids have a dad. Maybe an awesome dad, or a crappy dad. But that is their father.

As for failing to create a “healthy” family role model? Well, you know, and I know, and deep down everyone else knows, too …. ain't so many really great marriages out there! The nuclear family fantasy is largely a myth. So you and your single mom brethren are creating healthy, wonderful families. On your own terms.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Teresa on August 27, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Let me add that if you don’t find a man to love you, you are a failure. I’ve been solo parenting for so long it’s kind of ridiculous (16+years) and I’m pretty damn good at it these days…but the guilt trip that people like to give me for not finding a dad for them (and someone to love me, too) annoys me the most. So I’m a lousy mom if I’m okay being single? Too many societal norms destroyed for anyone to just accept that I’m happy being both solo and a mom.

    • Emma on August 27, 2015 at 1:50 pm

      So #6: You are a miscreant if you are happy as a single mom. Brava!

  2. Beck on August 27, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Oh yeah. One of my biggest struggles as a single mom is how people can be so hateful and judgmental to me just because I’m a single mom. I just wrote about my own identity crisis because of this kind of stuff over on my blog: https://becklist.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/on-being-a-single-parent/

    And lol that comment about the Cosby’s! A damn good point that everyone has struggles…

    • Emma on August 27, 2015 at 4:01 pm

      Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Tony S. on August 27, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    About #2:
    Please don’t forget widowhood as a way to become a single mother. As a widowed father of a pre-teen daughter, I see little discussion online of widowed parents as single parents who want to date again.

    It is almost as if divorce (or having a child “out of wedlock”) are the only routes to single parenthood.

    • Emma on August 27, 2015 at 3:59 pm

      True – you should start a blog! I generally speak to my experience / the majority: divorced professional moms. It’s not my goal to represent everyone in the world.

      • Tony S. on August 27, 2015 at 4:13 pm

        Oh, I understand that you aren’t representing everyone in the world. I read you even though I’m *not* in your target audience!

        As for starting a blog, I’ve thought about it (and read your previous post), but I’m still trying to figure out the new normal with my daughter and my (academic) job.

        • Emma on August 27, 2015 at 4:41 pm

          perfect rec

        • Tony S. on August 27, 2015 at 7:32 pm


    • Kristi on August 28, 2015 at 1:14 pm

      I also am widowed and we also have all the judgements along with the guilt . i am judged daily i just movved even finding an apt is difficult when you say its for me and my 3 children. Oh and family members have opinions about dating etc. Beibg widowed at 34 was so very difficult. I am judged as ive had 2 kong term relationships in 8 yrs that didnt work out . they tell me to be happy alone . ok i tell them to do the same . our struggles are real and we all deserve happiness and an adult life !

      • Emma on August 29, 2015 at 8:38 am

        Thanks for chiming in, Kristi — wondering … what challenges are specific to widowed single mothers?

  4. Alexicographer on August 27, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Right and — we know that overall, kids raised by single parents in the U.S. have “worse” outcomes on any number of measurable variables than do kids raised by married parents (on average). But — hello! If we stopped approaching raising-a-child-without-having-a-spouse (for whatever reason(s)) as a defect/moral failing (and maybe even embraced some parent-friendly policies here and there, including policies friendly to parents who don’t have partners), and/or being-the-child-of-a-parent-not-married-to-your-other-parent as something to be stigmatized, maybe (surely) the (overall/on average) differences between children-of-single-parents and children-of-married-parents would diminish or disappear.


    • Emma on August 28, 2015 at 7:02 am


  5. Maya Ray on August 28, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the wise words! My kid was 2 when I started dating again, now two and a half, and I’m loving my new romantic life as a single mom. At first I felt guilty whenever I spent time messaging someone online or going on a date, thinking I should be spending the time with my toddler. But dating has made me happier and, I think, it’s allowed me to rediscover myself as a whole human being, not just a one-dimensional sleep-deprived mombot. Why do we buy into the guilt trips? Reading your blog has helped me figure out a way to have a fulfilling single mom life. Lesson number one is to say “f*** you” to the negative messages.

    • Emma on August 29, 2015 at 8:37 am


  6. LeAnn on August 28, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    I became a subscriber because I was going through a rough patch in my life. I found someone I thought was “the one” & he ended up cheating, marrying her within 5 months of knowing her, (15 years younger than myself) & getting her pregnant. In the meantime I had no idea my teen was running amuck. I was so in love with this man & feel so guilty for what happened to my daughter. This was all in the past 12 months. It was so bad in fact that I thought she may go into foster care because she was a complete stranger & I did not know the child I was living with. I was, & still continue to be, ashamed that it was all my fault for not being a good parent. It has been a year this month since I last saw him, or had a date of any kind, & the first time I’ve spoken about any of this. Today she is thriving, a junior in high school, cheering the JV football squad, & enrolled in a pre college criminal justice program which will count towards 2 years of college when she graduated high school. I am currently in my final 2 semesters of chemical engineering & will graduate with my bachelors 6 months before she graduates high school. Though I am very proud at how far she & I have come in our relationship, I am extremely lost in my life & my past life with my ex seems almost surreal. I hate to admit it but I feel it was a blessing in disguise or I’m not sure what would’ve happened to my daughter & I feel terribly guilt ridden over this today. That said, dating seems like a lost cause. I’m too scared to even go there now. The deceit & pain I went through over him combined with what I went through with my daughter, I feel if I step out there again I could cause something else to happen. My daughter is turning out to be a wonderful, beautiful, mature woman & I just can’t take a chance of hurting the balance I worked so hard to achieve with her again. I’m sorry, I’m rambling & im still very hurt.

  7. Kristen on August 28, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    Any one can become a single parent at any moment. No one knows what it’s like until you’re in it. I’m tired of feeling shameful about it. I wish I knew about you in my earlier years of single parenting. Now, I’m looking forward to boosting up single parents like you do!!

    Thank you, Emma!

    • Emma on August 28, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      Aw thank you Kristen!

  8. Raquel on August 28, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Yes! This post is awesome and needs to be shouted from the roof tops….these are all the icky ways I have felt put into words. It’s so strange and insidious how these thoughts creep in and cause us to compromise our very lives because we’re trying to please some unspoken request that we not be a burden or “too much”……too happy, too horny, too successful, too…….enough!! For myself personally, this is a huge struggle and I recognize I have definitely been catering to these unspoken beliefs and not allowing myself to live fully after my divorce. It’s not a fun place to live. I am done wearing the scarlett letter of being “S”ingle and happy or “D”ivorced and happy…….I will no longer pay a penance to society with my unhappiness. Thanks, Emma!!

    • Emma on August 29, 2015 at 5:07 pm

      “I will no longer pay a penance to society with my unhappiness. ”

      LOVE IT

      As Oscar Wilde said … The best revenge is living well.

  9. Amy on August 29, 2015 at 12:37 am

    Hi Emma,
    Thanks for reminding us that WE ARE WHOLE people even if we are single! Yes, sometimes I don’t feel that way, but I am slowly liking this single life. I wouldn’t mind a healthy relationship with the ‘right’ man, but I am in no rush. So as far as people shaming you-sometimes it’s the ‘unsaid’ actions like in Church no less, I have had women snub me, not even say ‘hello’, even to my children which really hurts! I am trying to not let it bother me. I have actually met a few women who are single or in the process, so I am meeting new friends! Any suggestions on how to handle above situation? Thank You for your site!

    • Emma on August 29, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      Advice on how to deal with snubs …. Onward and upward. Teach your kids to be respectful and polite to everyone, no matter if your beliefs or lifestyles differ, and move forward with your wonderful new friends. Brava!

  10. Angela on August 30, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    So stay-at-home mothers are miserable and this is relevant to your defence of single mothers how exactly? Are stay-at-home fathers also miserable or did you just cherry pick one “study” to single out another type of parenting scenario that works for *some* families? I stopped reading this after clicking through: you are correct that single mothers have an uphill climb in our society and deserve all that you have cited. You are *incorrect* in yet again throwing another type of mother under the bus.

  11. Shun Jackson on September 1, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    While I don’t agree with your comments on stay at home moms or the “study” mentioned, I do agree that I’m sick and tired of people bashing single moms and making us feel like we are the spawn of society. While the men that left us hanging gets to go on with his life, remarry, ignore his offspring with the women they leave behind, we, the single moms, are made to feel guilty for doing the same exact thing. It simply isn’t fair. So, yep, I’m totally over being bashed on one end and being told our children are going to end up in prision and then being made to feel guilty for having a life outside of our children.

  12. Allyson on September 3, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Yes! This post nails it. There’s one more I’d like to add:
    #7 — You are a selfish mom (and a filthy whore) if you do get remarried, because you will put your man first, not your kids. And it will screw the kids up/confuse them.

    Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. I live in a rabidly religious, politically-conservative state where single moms are supposed to stay single, thankyouverymuch, and not date or go out looking for a man. When I got remarried after four years of single parenthood, the condemnation and judgment were incredible. People said things to me, like, “How could you do that to your children?” To my face. A lot. I’m now single again (and having a great life), but people’s awful behavior towards single mothers and their personal lives never ceases to shock (and horrify) me.

    Love your blog, Emma!

    • Emma on September 4, 2015 at 7:46 am

      Really – you are a bad mom for happily remarrying a great guy???!! GAHAHAHAHAH!!!

      I thought I’d heard it all, but I guess not!

  13. LV on November 3, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    The stigma is unfair. I didn’t choose to be a single mother, I was in love and we talked about a future. We were having unprotected sex and I got pregnant. He left me because he didn’t want to lose his freedom and I wouldn’t have an abortion.

  14. Blessed Lady on November 5, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    I say the heck to all of the nay sayers when they find out that I am a single mom. If they come off as judgemental I do not allow them into my world. I notice that some of the harshest criticism comes from married women who are dumb founded by my attractiveness and financial success. These women act as if I am supposed to be a desperate broke damsel in distress because I am a mother. Also, get so sick and tired of these women’s hhusbands coming after me thinking that I am desperate easy prey. These sorry men are also dumb founded when I reject their advances. The world is truly an ugly place to single moms.

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