Are single-parent families whole?


I wrote the below a few years ago. I stand by it — and then some. In fact, I've started to look at two-parent, monogamous, heterosexual families as kind of weird. Statistically, they are a 49 percent minority — a figure poised to plummet in our lifetimes. After all, 57 percent of Millennial moms are unmarried, marriage rates are at a record low in the United States — and around the globe.

As I personally see fewer and fewer marriages that I aspire to, and more and more happy thriving people in all kinds of configurations outside of June and Ward Cleaver, my own assumption about what my romantic and family life should look like has settled into more than acceptance of the status quo, but rather a thrill in enjoying the life I have created. In other words:

My family is complete, and yours is, too.

I urge you to accept this, not only for the political benefit of all families, everywhere, but also for your own well being. Saying your family is whole does not mean there is no room for more people, or that you are closed off to romantic love and partnership — far from it. It means you accept your family for what it is, now, as complete. If you go through life with the sense of a gaping hole in your heart, life and family, a hole that can only be filled with a man, you are indeed likely to fill that hole with a man — and the wrong one. And if you go through life believing that your family is incomplete, this informs your parenting, which you do from a place of shame and with a sense of scarcity, opposed to acceptance and pride.

I recently started a conversation about the desire to remarry (or, for many, get hitched for a first time) in my Facebook group, Millionaire Single Moms. There were 82 comments last time I checked, and all but a few said they had no interest in getting married. Most were happy dating, open to serious partnership (or were currently in one), but the rest found the idea of a marriage draining, a hinderance to their careers and enjoyment of motherhood, and generally cramped the freedom they've came to enjoy. Plus, they said, what is the point? To wit:

  • 67 percent of second marriages end in divorce, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • 74 percent of third marriages end in divorce (41 per cent of first marriages end in divorce before the 30th anniversary)
  • Adults whose parents divorced and remarry are twice as likely to divorce than adults whose parents divorced but never remarried.
  • The biggest risk for kids in single mother homes is not that she is single, but instability caused by different romantic partners (and their children) moving in and of the home. Of course, one hopes that a marriage or moving in with a boyfriend (or girlfriend) might be forever, but there is always that very real risk hover about.

[Single mom statistics: Prepare to have your mind blown]

Also, as many women do after divorce, so many moms commenting in the group found their professional and financial groove, and were reluctant to share that success with a man inside of the institution of marriage. These women are no fools: In a study of 4,000 married couples, the University of Chicago found that once a woman started to earn more than her husband, divorce rates increased. Other supporting research: Single women are happier and healthier than married women, and women are far less happy in marriages than men.

Science, I love you. But, also, speaking off the cuff: It is hard to find a reason to marry. I'll skip the history of marriage, its 10,000-year history of matching powerless women with men for everyone's economic and political security, and the mere 150-year history of love marriage, which, citing the above divorce rates, has proven to be a disaster.

I'll go straight to summing up our lives today: Very few things you or I do every day has anything to do with any tradition. You likely work in an industry that has been invented in the past 10 years, or completely changed in that time. The fact that you are a female and have equal rights to attend university, earn, open a bank account, vote and own property are facts in their blissful springtime. The way you eat, socialize, raise your kids, your sexual politics, all have nothing to do with any tradition at all. So, why, especially after finding yourself an unmarried mom, would you be excited to wear a white (huh?) dress and a man's 2.5 month's salary and try to shoehorn yourself into a box that is rooted in another century — or millennium?

[9 reasons dating and sex are better as a single mom]

I am all for you doing you. I really am. But let's think about this for a minute.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Millionaire moms were over it. Most of them happily so. It is tough to live outside that box and forge your own way. I know I have received lots of pressure from well-meaning family, neighbors, and men I've been involved with to have a “real family” — you know, with a man. I'm married to. Living in the same house. I try to give them the benefit of doubt, understand that this is simply an uncreative way of approaching life, one limited to simply what one knows — something we are all guilty of at some time or another (I still cannot shake the advice my mom gave me 30 years ago: “Never wear open-toe shoes without your toenails painted!” Or the rule that a meal is incomplete if it does not feature meat, a vegetable, starch (ha!), and dairy. Shoot me now.). But when faced with facts, and given the freedom to live one's own life in such unprecedented freedom, it becomes irresponsible to lazily follow the herd on to the marriage train. Again.

When I was at the height of my family drama a few years ago, my mom – also a single mother for most of my life – comforted me. “You and Helena and Lucas are a whole family,” she assured. I was a little surprised. That we weren’t never occurred me. But I could see that had been a struggle for her. After all,  she was part of that crush of divorces in the 70s and 80s that followed her own very 50s nuclear-family upbringing. Raising children alone didn’t look a thing like what she had known “family” to be.

An upside of being raised by a single mom is that once you become one yourself, it’s less of a shock to your paradigm. I was chatting with a single dad friend who said he’s struggled so with single parenthood because family is so important to him. That shook me a little – I mean, family is important to me, too. My family just looks different than a J.Crew catalog. And I’m pretty cool with that.

[31 reasons being a single mom is awesome — according to other single moms!]

Just yesterday Helena and I were talking about families, and how each one is different. Some kids live with a mom and a dad, others with their grandparents. If her dad remarries, she’d have a stepmom – or if I do, a stepdad. When our friend Matthew goes on dates, he goes with other men (to which she noted: “And some families have two daddies. And then they put their penises together to make a girl baby.” Oh. Good to know.).

“I’m slowly accepting that the kids, my ex and I are still a family,” my friend said. I’m not sure I agree 100 percent. Of course many of us are involved with our exes, and as Helena so sagely noted, family can mean anything we can imagine. I hope to be closer with my own ex for lots of reasons including what that might tech our kids, and also to maintain a relationship that has been part of my life for a long time. But the reality is that when we divorce, we start new families – those that includes our respective exes less than before. We build new lives that are separate from our former husbands – in different romantic relationships, different homes and separate time spent with the kids.

That doesn't make it any easier for all parties involved. Helena has sometimes disparagingly compared our's to other families. And while we all want to feel normal and accepted, the reality is: life sometimes stinks. And then it goes on. And then we find a new normal, which will ultimately be upturned sooner or later. And each time, we pull ourselves together, gather our loved ones close, and find that we are still — remarkably — whole.

I cried when I compared my life to a perfect family's but the joke was on me

Last month, as part of our big Midwestern roadtrip, my kids and I stayed for 10 days in a gorgeous five-bedroom turn-of-the-century lake house in northern Michigan, a home swap with the older couple who live there and, in turn, stayed at my apartment in Queens.

The kids and I drove more than six hours from Niagra Falls that day, still fresh road warriors a mere few days into the adventure. As we cruised by Toronto and up through the fields of Michigan, I thought a lot about a good friend whose mother recently passed away. There was a line in her obituary that got me:

“They lived in Biloxi, M.S., Fulda, Germany , and Rapid City, S.D. In October, 1968, they returned to Illinois to continue to build their life and family together.”

Build their life. 


A lot of the time I am happy in my single-mom life. The kids and I have a good thing going, they're turning into great people. I am building my business, and as a family we have friendships and family relationships that grow. But a whole lot of my time and energy is spent dating guys who are not part of my family. People who pass through. While they might be fun or interesting or help me figure my stuff out, I am not building anything with anyone. Much of the time, I feel I am just passing through motherhood and family. Doing a fine job keeping the ship afloat. But building not much.

At our Michigan destination, the Subaru cruised into the beautiful resort town just as the son was setting over Lake Michigan, and pulled into the driveway of our temporary home. It was 9 p.m., we were all hungry, but ran through the rooms of the this giant house, which was far lovelier than the online pictures (I found the arrangement through the very excellent — which costs  $199 per year — and allows you to connect with other home swappers, including my host in Copenhagen, where I am spending three weeks for, essentially, free). Being from the Midwest, I have known many big old homes, and this was an excellent one, the kind with solid walls and surrounded by giant Sycamore trees, both of which leave the house cooler inside than outside in the summer.

Scattered throughout the house were many family pictures of the hosts, Harry and Nancy, in their 70s, and glowing and smiling alongside four of five grown, blond children with their handsome spouses and a mess of blond grandkids of all ages who appeared to excel in nautical sport.

The home was so lovely, filled with very good antiques and lots of floral bedspreads that coordinate perfectly with drapes and rugs without being stuffy — but rather call to be featured in Traditional Home magazine.

This is a real family home, I thought. I imagined this couple must have known each other since college. That she must have stayed home with the kids and devoted herself to this beautiful place and her beautiful blond children and her smiling, committed husband with whom she is nuzzled in the silver-framed photo on the walnut dresser in the giant master suite that I now occupied. This is why women stay home. To create all this wonderfulness. 

While my own kids ran through the rooms, turning on all the lights and deciding which rooms would be theirs (sharing a room in our apartment, they opted to sleep in the same queen bed all week), I hit the kitchen, outfitted with an enormous assortment of good china, endless baking tools and a second refrigerator in the adjoining pantry where Nancy, clearly a prolific cook, kept an overflow of excellent cheese, beer and condiments.

I could hear the kids squabbling upstairs, and in the kitchen I, too, felt exhausted and ornery. The car would need to be unpacked, towels located. But first I had to feed my kids. My children were hungry. I wasn't at my quickest. Not sure what foods might be rude to use from the kitchen. What would be quick and tasty to cook. The assortment of bottles and cans and boxes and pans and utensils was so vast, so overwhelming. Harry and Nancy were so perfect. I was such a mess. I couldn't even feed my children in that moment, much less build a life for them. I am a failure in this moment. And I am a failure in life! I thought, and a giant, desperate sob overtook me before I was able to collect myself and boil some expensive, imported pasta in a shape I had never seen before.

The next day I called a contact Nancy had left for me, and the lovely woman who contributes to the local magazine came by to chat about kids and writing. I asked what she might tell me about my hosts. “Oh Nancy was a divorced mom, too — for many years,” she said. “Her first husband was a terrible alcoholic, and she was a successful real estate agent here.”

I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because, really Nancy. Oh Nancy! I had told myself so many stories about who you are, and they had nothing to do with anything at all except for my own bullshit. My own bullshit about not being or doing enough. That everyone has it better than me. That out there, somewhere, there is a perfect family in a perfect big house on the lake that a stay-at-home mom decorated and bakes all the live-long day so that her gorgeous, functional extended family can come together for weekends and drama-free holidays.

When I got done laughing, I started to see. I saw that yes, Nancy, you have some lovely traditional oil paintings that coordinated perfectly in your rooms that are indeed traditional, but also so graciously laid out and in colors like bright apricot or the palest of lime green that are quite modern and sophisticated. Your art collection was not what it first appears, but includes sly folk pieces, like a painting featuring a 3D papier-mâché woman with the hand written words: “She looked in the mirror to find her youth had disappeared. The bitch never even bothered to say goodbye.”

Your books throughout the house — a wall in one of the sitting rooms, on end tables, not to mention the cookbook collection spilling from the kitchen to the breakfast room — say a lot about a person. But in the master bedroom, between two windows opposite the king-sized bed, is that narrow shelf of titles that I could not help but imagine are your favorite. Carson McCullers, Memoirs of a Geisha, biographies of Hillary Clinton and female Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Nancy, you are smart, and you are edgy. Complex. You've been through it, just like everyone. Just like me.

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About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, 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.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.


  1. Emma-Louise Smith on July 4, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    God, I LOVE this Emma! Especially the part about how much pressure we single mums get to be coupled up ie. married. I call it ‘solved’. People just can’t figure us out! Like we’re some kind of ‘problem’ or unsolved puzzle. Secretly I quite like being seen as a conundrum, but to me, my single status is not problematic. For all the reasons the women in the group gave – and more. My life is so much simpler for one. I decided to become a single mother when I found myself still ‘unmarried’ at the age of 38 – 38 years of following the herd, and where did it get me?! So instead I took advantage of the unprecedented freedoms we enjoy, freedoms that have enabled me to create the family I wanted without a man’s ‘permission’. And I like to think I’m part of a movement that’s carving a path for other women to do the same.

  2. BKS on February 24, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    We have a pretty strange family unit. I was friends with a guy all through high school. In college, his relationship ended and so did mine. We got together for a few months before deciding it was weird and we were better off friends. We broke up before I found out I was pregnant. I’ve been friends with his girlfriends over the years, and he finally married his college sweetheart, whom I get along with very well. His mom and sister love me to death, and we can manage co-parenting and birthday parties with their family, along with my large family of many siblings and lots of cousins for my daughter. I’ve recently gotten engaged to a guy with two kiddos of his own, and it has just been one huge family unit. It’s weird, but it works for us, and I’m so thankful we worked our way passed the bitterness and weirdness that seems to plague other blended families.

    • Emma on February 25, 2014 at 9:56 pm

      BK – I love this story! I wouldn’t lead with “strange family” but rather a non-traditional awesome family! Congratulations on the engagement! xxoo

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