When people learn you're a single mom, is the pity automatic?
“I don't know how you do it.”
“You're amazing— must be so hard to do it all by yourself!”
“It must be so hard for the kids, I'm sorry.”
Etc., ad nauseam, blah blah, right?
Welcome to my world. I frequently meet strangers who, upon learning that I am a single mother tell me that I have the hardest job in the world. They have no idea how I manage it. “It is so TOUGH to have little kids all by yourself!”
Yes, it can be stressful to be a single mom, just like it can be stressful to be adopted/have crooked teeth/lots of body hair, and any other number of things. But you know better than to waltz up to a new snaggle-puss acquaintance and let them know you have their life all figured out — and that that life is worse than yours.
So stop doing the same to me.
Why presumed single-mom pity is so wrong
Here are 4 reasons all your automatic single-mom pity is so, so wrong.
1. Pop psychology 101: don't tell me how I feel. Did I say I had it rough? No way – I JUST MET YOU! In no other circumstance is it acceptable to open a conversation with a stranger with over-the-top empathy for feelings that have not been expressed. WTF?
2. You immediately put me on the defensive. I must choose from this list of responses:
- “Oh no way! Being a single mom is AWESOME! You should get divorced STAT and get on board!” [Though, here are 31 reasons being a single mom IS awesome]
- “You're right. My life sucks so bad I can barely get up in the morning.”
- “Go to hell.”
Clearly, none of these responses is appropriate (that's not to say they haven't been employed). I am not guilty. Don't make me defend myself.
3. Don't say that being a single mom is the hardest job in the world because that is just plain wrong. Sure, there are lots of tough things about being a single parent, but let's keep things real. If you — like me — are a professional person earning a decent living in the United States, you have it better than 99 percent of the world's population.
Even if some days you feel like you will lose your mind trying to keep it all together, all while burning out one set of vibrator batteries after another because you're so lonely.
But still. Toughest job in the world? Bitch, please. Here are a few jobs that are tougher:
- Detasseling corn when you are 12.
- Waiting tables at Pizza Hut when you are 16.
- Writing 30 mind-numbing equities blurbs every single work day for the Associate Press's Financial Wire.
- Being the spouse of someone with a brain injury.
I know. I've had each of these jobs. And they all sucked — but each was way, way, WAY better than a bazillion other jobs people do in this world. To my point: Being a single mom is way easier than all of those jobs — for me. Now, you may find the above duties thrilling or deeply meaningful. I did not.
Again: The assumptions! Knock 'em off.
4. By telling me how hard I have it presumes you have it better. That you ARE better. Maybe you are. But by all outward appearances it doesn't really look like it.
Are all single moms broke?
A few months ago I attended a little dinner party to celebrate my then-boyfriend’s birthday. The scene: two couples at a known Greenwich Village Italian restaurant where the food is about 62 percent as good as the pricetag would suggest, but the remaining 38 percent can be justified by the frequent celebrity sightings and the scent of peonies blasting from the gigantic arrangements populating the place. There was a mink stole present. You get the picture.
I’m making fun of the place, but I had a lovely evening, the food was good, the company delightful, and all was right with the world. Then the bill came, and owning that this was my boyfriend’s birthday, I reached for the bill. And the funniest thing happened: Everyone at the party — in unison — shouted, “No!” and the the tab was quickly split by my boyfriend and the husband. I mean, my boyfriend paid for his own veal rollatini on his own birthday. I felt a little humiliated. This isn’t Europe, for crying out loud! In the United States, other people treat you on your birthday. Yet this national custom was broken that night. Why?
First, I convinced myself that no, I did not dress like a hobo. Then I considered that there were a couple of outstanding factors at play:
First, maybe it was a gender thing. After all, in the other couple, I happen to know that the wife makes at least double that of her husband, yet he’s the one who attacked the bill with the AmEx card. So there’s that dudes-paying quotient.
Also, age. I was the youngest of the group, as the others were about five, 10 and 20 years my senior. There are plenty of social situations where it is an unspoken rule that the young’uns of the group are covered. Like when college students or interns are dining with real adults. I’m a 35-year-old professional divorced mother of two with a mortgage and a chip on my shoulder about the disconnect between the amount of taxes I pay and the state of public education in this country. Pretty sure I qualify as an adult.
The last piece of the puzzle – the explanation that I’m clinging to – is that I’m a single mom. This other couple knew all about my family, and that I’m a freelance writer (which also screams ‘POVERTY!’) . But all four of us work in media, so I have an idea what people earn, and I estimate that I make more than two of the other three in our party. Of course, my boyfriend knew what I make and played along with this whole show even though when it was just the two of us was quite sensitive and fair about paying on dates.
The bottom line: Everyone assumed I’m a poor single mom, felt sorry for me, and denied me the satisfaction of participating in a cultural tradition that is normally a benign expression of generosity, love and getting toasted on one’s birthday.
Another way of looking at it: Joke’s on them, and I’m laughing all the way to the gym with my overpriced (but free to me) meal gurgling in my gut.
But neither stance tells the whole story, does it? Because in addition to that meal in question, as the only member of our party with young children, I was the only one also paying a babysitter $13 per hour. And I was the only one forced to do a quick mental calculation to figure that it was worth spending $20 on a carbide home to save the 45 minutes it would take on the train, so as not to pay the sitter the extra hour. And was the only one who paid the emotional tax of not putting my children to bed that evening, or would fork over the energy surcharge of getting up twice in the night to comfort stirring kids who missed their mom.
So why don’t I just shut up and say to these nice people, “Thank you” ?
Or is it about educating them?
Of course, it is not just other people who buy into the broke-single-mom stereotypes— or other limiting beliefs. Others include:
- “I will be lonely for the rest of my life because no good man wants a woman with children.”
- “I deserve to struggle doing this alone because I got myself into this mess.”
- “I need to work limited hours / earn low because my children need me at home. Especially now that they are from a broken home.”
- “It is OK if I go into debt/ overspend on my children, because I'm a single mom.”
- “I need to fight for maximum time with my children because I am the better parent.”
- “My professional shortcomings are because I am a single mom.”
- “I need a man.”
I break through all these myths in Lies that keep moms broke, overwhelmed and alone.
Advice on how to talk to a single mom:
So the next time you meet a single mom, say, “Nice to meet you,” or “Where do you live?” Try: “What do you do for a living?” and “How about those Mets, huh!?” And then, if we develop a rapport and we're laughing at the same jokes, go ahead and inquire — politely, with trepidation — about my family status. And then I may just tell you something that you don't want to hear: That you don't really have it so much better than me.
Married people always want to give single people advice
I know this scene, and so do you:
You're chatting with a friend, maybe new, maybe old. Or your sister, cousin, mother or aunt. They are married. You are not. They ask if you're seeing someone?
Oh! you say. I went out with someone last week. Let me tell you about him!
Or maybe you indulge them in a recent hot fling you had while on a business trip to Portland, or hash out some hesitations about someone you've been seeing, casually, for a few months. Maybe you tell them about a recent heartbreak, or the fact you haven't had a date in months and months.
“Don't worry,” that married person will say, giving you a smile so sad it looks like she just watched Steel Magnolias. “You'll find someone.”
Maybe, that pat promise of hope is just what you want to hear.
Or maybe you want to scream: EFF YOU, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!
By a married person responding to your dating experience — whether it be full of fun, love, heartbreak, or a mix of the above — translates into:
If you are lucky and stop being such a slut, maybe you will find the good fortune of having what I have.
Your life is incomplete, while my life is complete because I have a spouse.
Marriage is the answer, obviously.
Is it better to be married or single?
Look, lots of single people want to get married. They have ideas of ‘the one,' and/or and sanctified, traditional unions being superior to not having a sanctified traditional union. Or whatever. Everyone has their jam, and for some people, that is marriage.
But not everyone feels like that, and in fact, increasingly fewer people do. To wit:
- One-in-five adults ages 25 and older have never married, up from 9 percent in 1960, while just 51 percent of adults ages 18 and older are married — marking record lows
- A Pew / Time magazine survey of 2,691 Americans in association found that nearly four in 10 Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete.
- That's an 11 percent spike since 1978
- Forty-four percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 saw marriage as obsolete, compared to 32 percent of those 65 and older
- 57 percent of Millennial moms are unmarried
- Divorce rates have hovered around the 50 percent mark for four decades
Per the divorce stat, assuring a divorced person that marriage is right around the corner is absurd. That person has been married, and at least that marriage wasn't so great for them.
And chances are, marriage wasn't so great for the condescending married person, either.
By nature of my public work around family and romance, and the fact that I'm a single, divorced mom unabashedly out in the world, I am perhaps especially likely to hear, via clandestine emails, murmurs by the booze table when the husband is on the other side of the the party, about how so many married people really feel about their sanctimonious union.
“He does absolutely nothing around the house — and I make all the money!”
“He hasn't showed interest in sex in years.”
“I am living vicariously through your dating life.”
“I hate him and have been trying to divorce him for years.”
“I really, really want to get back to work. But he won't let me.”
“She has zero sex drive, and we haven't had an night without one of the fucking kids in our bed in eight years.”
“We fight all the time.”
“She shops and goes to yoga every day, and acts like she is so exhausted after I get home from 12 hours at the office.”
“We're miserable. Have been for years. We're waiting for the kids to go to college.”
“That tank top is so pretty on you. Really. No, really. What's your number?”
And any number of other confessions about the dissatisfaction and/or horrors of marriage.
All of which highlights the hypocrisy and self-denial that is inherent in so many married people — an institution, along with the nuclear family, that is still upheld as an gleaming ideal, despite the fact that both models are waning in practice or sustainability.
In fact, the majority of families today are NOT nuclear families, thanks to the increases in single-parent households, gay partnership and marriage, multi-generational families and any number of configurations in which people define “family” — whether by choice, circumstance, desperation or because, well, stuff happens, both beautiful and ugly.
All of which is really beside the point.
The point is: My experience as a single person, whether I'm happy or not, whether I'm looking for a spouse, partner, date, lay, adult conversation, to work out my daddy issues, to not be lonely when my kids are with their dad, for professional gain or find someone to pay my bills, is zero commentary on your life, spouse or marriage.
You are on your own path, and I am, too — and maybe there is a shimmering pot of ever-after matrimony at the end of your trip, or maybe you just enjoy the ride, and understand that everyone's journey — married, single, partnered, dating, celibate, open relationship, serial monogamous, whatever — is full of heartbreak and joy, fun and misery, and ultimately, thankfully for those of us who live in a free and Western world, one of your own making.
Sometimes, being a single mom is really hard
I wrote this in 2013, when I was really low, it was late winter and the single-mom thing was HARD.
If I had a nickel for every time I said, “We don't whine in this family!” I could afford to hire a gigolo for a few hours. This guy wouldn't pole dance or get freaky on me. He'd give me a goddamn hug and cook me a reasonably nutritious meal and listen to me go on about everything on my mind. Every brainstorm I'll stream-of-conscious blab about? The best thing he's heard all week. He'd smile kindly, appreciatively at my every quip and then ask what he can do around the house to make life easier for me.
Why single moms need a gigolo
The thing is, my gigolo fund isn't quite vested, and so I need to whine a bit myself to top it off:
I've got the single mom blues in the worst way. I'm totally overwhelmed and exhausted and there is no end in sight! While most weeks my kids do stay overnight with their dad once a week, I've become jealous and resentful of “healthy” divorced families where both parties work together to support two careers and both parents do their best to be flexible and generous and make life work. I don't have that. I also don't have any financial support to run this show. I'm trying to grow my business, but that requires more child care, which would mean less time with my kids and I just can't make that jump. I'm stuck and I'm resentful. I need more time, and I need a break. But there isn't a spouse or an ex-spouse readily available to help make that happen.
I'm overwhelmed and exhausted and being a single mom is HARD
This weekend my SMILF BFF Morghan and I took our kids away to the Pocono Mountains for a couple of days. It was break, sure, but it was also a lot of work. More work than it was fun. I can't shake the full-body ache that comes with this stress-induced flu I've had for more than a week. I'm behind on work, my kids are now sick, it seems everything in my life is being accomplished half-assed and I'm a grump. I snapped at my kids when they don't sit up to the table when asked, and I snapped at the neighbor when she stood in my way. When we got home, the lonely cat kept curling around my legs — one more being that needs me.
Times like these I remind myself that there are plenty of happily married moms who are equally overwhelmed – their husbands often away on business or working long hours. There are other married moms, the ones with crappy husbands who don't care, or the moms who fill with rage when their spouse walks in the room — symptoms of run-of-the-mill marriages gone sour.
And now that my whine fund is full, I'm going to call that gigolo and get my giant hug. And he will take my kids for a few hours and maybe they'll do something fun and educational, but honestly, as long as they come back in one piece with their noses wiped, I'm good. And maybe during those hours I'll take a nap or work out or catch up on work. Or maybe I'll just chill out and stop feeling so goddamned sorry for myself.
What to do if you feel overwhelmed, broke and lonely as a single mom
OK, so shit sucks right now. What should you do?
- Surround yourself with positive people. Whether in real life or online, find your tribe. 5 friends every single mom needs
- Get your money in order. Money is important—don't let anyone tell you differently. Learn how to earn more, manage debt, start that new business, invest and save — and get control of your life.
- Either stop dating (if you're dating all the wrong guys—just take a break!), or start dating (if it has been waaaaayyyy too long). 9 reasons dating is better as a single mom
- Appreciate your own company. 41 things woman should do at least once in her life
- Consider professional help. I'm a big fan of online therapy—text, voice, video or email counseling is super-convenient (do it from anywhere, any time, affordable (BetterHelp has unlimited plans starting at $40 weekly), anonymous and thousands of therapists to choose from.
Real mom's take on “Single moms need gigolos”
I LOVE your version of the gigolo! I’ll take one too, please!!!
I completely understand your feelings, as my kids’ Dad spends a couple hours 1-2 times a week (unless he’s in the middle of a new business project he can’t leave). Considering I know what that “business project” turned out to be last time… but that’s not the point…
Being a fabulous single Mom is hard work-and it’s not our only work-so how could we be anything but whiny from time to time?! I’m sorry you’re going through this whiny period, but it does make me feel better to hear that I’m not alone. We’re on Day 2 of snow day sleepovers at our house and while I did get a “Best Mom Ever”-I’m wiped out and thinking my classroom is much less exhausting;)
Thanks for always speaking honestly!
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, 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.