A single mom by any other name is an … um … er … uh …


I really like this post — published two years ago — because it speaks to the connection between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. Today I feel very different — confident,  blasé even — identifying my marital status. This  acceptance of myself and life spills over in to how I see others. I’m less judgemental about myself, slower to make assumptions of others. How about you?

When I was in college we had this very sexy and elegant professor who had been the longtime chief foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune (again, me and the glamorous men!). All the girls loved him even though he was a million years old, and none of the guys could get it because — as my friend Jack said — “He has man boobs.”

In any case, one day he told our class, “Get business cards made with your name and ‘Journalist’ printed underneath.” He was telling us: A title matters — most importantly to the person wearing it. What other people call you affects how you feel about yourself.

This theme has come up many times in my life, including now. I’ve struggled with my title — and my identity — as an unmarried mom.

Sometimes if I’ve been in a group of new people and it’s relevant, I’ve mentioned that I’m divorced. That’s a fact. But I don’t want my identity to be “divorced.” Divorce is horrible, even if the net result is positive. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life labeled by an atrocious legal process. And I will not let divorce define my family.

I’ve tried out “single mom,” and I’m mostly OK with it. Again, totally true. But what if you’re in a committed relationship? Is it true then? Not to mention that “single mom” is a loaded term. Single mom connotes poverty, bad choices and a political and societal pariah. Of course we could take it back — n-bomb style– and claim it as our proud identity. Which I guess I kinda did when I bought this URL. But I’m not sure that is how I want to roll in my daily life.

Lately I’ve been playing around with “not married.” I like it because it’s accurate. It’s also fun and delightfully ambiguous, which suits me just fine at the moment.  “Are you married?” asks that judgey, annoying mom with the yoga pants and giant diamond at the school, eying you up and down. “No,” you might respond. “I’m not married.” See? Leaves her guessing. Are you a lesbian? Single mom by choice? In an open relationship? Unmarried but partnered with your super-hot Scandinavian boyfriend of 12 years? A filthy whore? She doesn’t know. And it’s none of her business. So while she’s trying to steal your mojo with her snotty question, smile coolly, pick up your kid, and leave knowing that she will now keep even tighter reins on her husband at the holiday show.



Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, 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, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, Oprah.com and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog Wealthysinglemommy.com, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

11 thoughts on “A single mom by any other name is an … um … er … uh …

  1. And then there’s my little world of widows. The consensus for a name seems to not be widowed mom, but solo mom. So many widows I’ve met don’t want to say ‘single’ because they feel it implies there was some sort of choice – a choice we didn’t have. Not sure where I sit on the whole name thing. I just feel that we all are walking a hard path through life (never married, widowed, divorced, whatever) and however we brand ourselves, I hope that we could treat one another with kindness.

  2. Chis – that is just it – who cares, right? And at the end of the day, I agree, it doesn’t really, REALLY matter what we call ourselves. But until I reach that stage of nirvana, I’m enjoying trying out different labels.

  3. When I was in that situation, I quickly learned if I said “divorced,” people asked questions that I thought were none of their business about my ex. Besides, I had sole custody – a rare arrangement now but common enough in early 1990s. Single mom” explained my responsibility.

  4. I loved reading this, especially the last line. I’ve had that “Oh you’re a single mom” reaction from many moms. I felt like I was branded with a scarlet “S” without them knowing anything about me or how I became a single mom. You’d think I was sitting by their husbands scantily clad. When in reality most days I am in my office attire. Thanks for letting me know others have “title issues” when trying to define their solo parenting status.

  5. I completely agree. One of the conundrums I face is when people ask me what I do for a living. I have multiple income streams. I have a corporate job, a freelance job. I’m an adjunct professor, I’m an affiliate marketer, an online retailer – so what am I – I like to say Hard Working.

    1. Yeah, similar to my career, too. Lately if someone is a total stranger, I just say, “I work in media.” Then, if they really give a shit (most don’t, of course), they will ask for more details and I will spend some breath elaborating.

  6. Hilarious. I try to be careful of other people’s sensitivities (mine was infertility – “when are you going to have kids?” we all have our moutains). This is very real and I’ll be careful not to be insensitive, but I do love your take.

  7. I guess being a single dad is a lot easier. Most assume some tragedy and feel bad for you… Not many assume a Scandinavian blonde though.

  8. I also say I am ‘not married’ but I find that response is taken as an invitation. So, I’ve had married men respond in a huff, ‘Well! I am!’ Good grief, your wife has nothing to worry about. Honestly.

What do you think? Please comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *