I have been blogging about single motherhood for a decade and have interacted with tens of thousands of single moms, and have access to millions of data points about moms parenting outside of a nuclear family.
While there are many joys of being a single mother, you will face single mom struggles.
The challenges of being a single mom with no help are real, and statistics about single mothers in the United States and world illustrate the real socio-economic challenges faced by tens of millions of families.
This post highlights many of the stereotypes that our culture serves up to single moms — and how assuming them to be true, we unconsciously hold ourselves back. Shedding sexist and dated assumptions allows you and me to step into our power, change our own narratives and that for millions of families everywhere.
Here are the 9 most common single mom struggles we face and advice for how to overcome them:
- “I will be lonely for the rest of my life because no good man wants a woman with children.”
- “I need to work limited hours / earn low because my children need me at home.”
- “I need to fight for maximum custody of my children because I am the better parent.”
- “It is OK if I go into debt/ overspend on my children, because I’m a single mom.”
- “My professional shortcomings are because I am a single mom.”
- “I will always be a broke single mom.”
- “Being a single mom is hard—right?”
- “I deserve to struggle all alone because I got myself into this mess.”
- “I need a man.”
“I will be lonely for the rest of my life because no good man wants a woman with children.”
Here are some comments I heard when I divorced, most of the from people who love me:
Too bad. And it will be hard to meet men now that you’re a mom.
Better hurry up and get married while you’re still young and cute.
Only really neurotic / poor / loser men are interested in single moms.
A quality man will never commit to a single mom. They consider them used goods.
To one of the above, I actually said, square in her face (we were in a small elevator, crowded by myself, a toddler, baby in stroller, her and her dog): “FUCK YOU.”
Not only are all of those messages rude and unhelpful, they are untrue!
I have met hundreds and hundreds of single moms who have successfully found love and partnership. I have had a few great boyfriends in my single-mom tenure, including my current partner of two years — who loves the fact that I am a mom. I fact, he (like many men I know) prefer to date women with children. The reasons include:
- They are single dads, and feel the shared experience of parenthood is critical to relating to a woman.
- They missed the boat on being a father, and hope to enjoy that experience through step-children.
- They can quickly assess a woman’s character by observing her parenting.
- Some younger men are really into older women and moms.
- They just really fucking like you and want to date you.
Other times, great men simply fall for women who happen to have children!
Continue reading: How to overcome the struggle of loneliness as a single mom
“I need to work limited hours / earn low because my children need me at home. Especially now that they are from a broken home (single mother guilt).”
Here is my favorite piece of research that has been produced since someone proved that masturbation does not cause blindness:
A meta study of 34 related studies by University of Maryland found the pressure to spend so much quality time with children stresses moms out so much that it may actually make us worse parents than if we just focused our time on making more money, and less on frontal-lobe development and deep connection with our children. Because guess what?
MYTH: “Being a mom is the most important job in the world.”
FACT: It doesn’t matter that much how much time you spend with your children.
“How Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children Matter?” authors found that the pressure to spend so much quality time with our children means all parents — working and stay-at-home — schedule both professional and housework around the children’s activities to maximize this presumed critical time together — at the detriment to all parties’ emotional wellbeing. To what effect?
The researchers found that for young children, not much.
University of Maryland meta study that found that after age 2, it makes literally zero difference how much time parents spent with their kids when it comes to measuring the children’s academic or psychological success. In fact, researchers found that the pressure to spend so much quality time with children stresses moms out so much that it may actually make us worse parents than if we just focused our time on making more money, and less on frontal-lobe development and deep connection with our children.
That is right: We are spending TOO MUCH time with our children.
This is stunning in and of itself (though more juicy data are to come).
This finding completely confronts and contradicts the prevalent parenting message of our time: More time with your kids is more.
The stay-at-home mom is not the better mom.
Continue reading: Overprotective parents can hurt their kids
“I need to fight for maximum custody of my children because I am the better parent.”
Forty years ago when Americans started divorcing en masse, early research suggested that very young kids do best by being with the mom full-time. There was a study or two decades ago that supported the idea that children do best with a primary residence (which was automatically presumed to be the mom), and maybe visits with the second parent (dad).
That was the advent of what New York divorce attorneys call “the Friday Night Special” — kids live with their mom, spend every-other weekend and Wednesday dinners with their dad. The dad builds his career, the cliche goes, and pays the mom child support, and maybe alimony.
The notion that kids’ time should be primarily with one parent — the better parent — has instilled in you and me by a culture and court system that dictates: “When parents break up, a fight must ensue. Everyone battles to win — win money, win children.”
Unfortunately, the only winners in these epic battles are attorneys and a court system that profits from your family misery.
To feed the presumption that children benefit when they spend most of their time with one parent, the divorce and separation process is designed to inherently create a conflict over which parent is better.
Thankfully, 60 peer-reviewed studies have unequivocally proven that when children have approximately equal time with both parents, they do best — including in high-conflict situations.
It goes without saying that exceptions apply for cases of abuse and neglect.
In January, 2021, I published the results of a survey of 2,279 single moms and found a direct link between their income and their time-sharing arrangement with their kids’ dad. As it stands, the vast majority of single moms have their children the majority of the time, with 51% of survey participants saying they have their children in their care 100% of the time.
A summary and white paper, endorsed by Anne-Marie Slaughter and others, are here. Highlights:
- Moms with a 50/50 parenting schedule are 54% more likely to earn at least $100,000 annually than moms whose kids are with them most of the time (with “visits” with the dad) and more than three times (325%) more likely to earn $100,000 than single moms with 100% time with their kids.
- Moms with 50/50 parenting schedules are more than twice as likely to earn $65,000+, and nearly three-times as likely to earn that sum than moms with 100% parenting time.
- 13%, or 1 in 8, single moms have a 50/50 arrangement — and 98% of them are content with it.
“My professional shortcomings are because I am a single mom.”
Recently, a single mom who pitched consulting services to me said:
“I understand why you might want to go with the other consultant who is much more experienced than I am. But keep in mind – I am trying to build a business while being a single mom. He’s a single guy with tons of time on his hands.”
You are a businessperson selling me a product, in this case coaching services. My business doesn’t have an affirmative action program for single moms. If I’m going to invest thousands of dollars in your services, it’s because I expect there to be a return on that investment. Not because you are a charity case in need of financial assistance. And when your sales pitch includes blaming your lack of competitive advantage on your personal circumstances I wonder how on God’s green earth you can help me get over my own fears to succeed.
Related story: Last week a divorce coach reached out to bemoan her difficulty finding financially independent single moms to share their stories. I told her that I meet many successful single moms through work and personal networks, but I agreed — most do not lead with the “single mom” title, and instead identify by other parts of their lives: Parent, professional, Junior League President, etc.
For better or worse, “single mom” has negative connotations. It connotes poverty and victimhood. At some point in life you embrace the fact that you are not in a relationship, that life didn’t turn out as planned, and you went through a whole lot of pain as a result. Then you get over it. At least most women do.
Others wallow in that grief and don’t ever really move on. And like these women I bumped into recently, you use your family status as a crutch for poor decisions. The net result was that others (and by “others” I really mean “I”) think even less of you than you do yourself.
When you frame yourself — and use as a manipulation tool — your single-mom status, you really play a victim role, and demean women everywhere. You believe — and assume others to believe — that unmarried mothers are ALWAYS poor, and ALWAYS in need of charity and special consideration. In fact, an increasing number of single moms pay child support to their exes.
In reality, that is sometimes true. Also in reality: You are a woman in who has more rights, opportunity and access than most PEOPLE in the world, and certainly WOMEN EVER IN HISTORY.
Continue reading: 14 jobs that pay well without a degree
“It is OK if I go into debt / overspend on my children because I’m a single mom.”
One woman told me:
“I have this $10,000 credit card balance I can’t shake. I racked it up last year when I paid for my son’s wedding. What was I supposed to do?! I’m a single mom!”
I get why you want to give your kid all the advantages in the world. In this instance, sending him and his lovely new wife off into the world with a beautiful wedding. But personal finance basics apply to everyone: Spend wisely. Don’t finance anything that is not an investment (home, education).
A wedding is no exception. Um, hello?! You are twice divorced! Did you learn nothing from your own over-priced nuptial celebrations?! You don’t get a spendthrift pass just because you’re overspending on a child. And you certainly don’t get a freebie because you’re a single mom! If anything, you there is a GREATER responsibility to be financially smart: without a partner to depend on in retirement or in case of a financial emergency you run a bigger risk of being a burden on your kids. Ask your son — and your daughter-in-law especially — Which do you prefer? A big wedding today? Or for you to live in their home wiping your elderly ass for a decade?
No, no, no.
I often hear about women carrying large sums of debt, living without budgets or retirement accounts or any cash savings, but buy their kids plenty of toys, Disney vacations, clothes, meals out.
The rationale: My kids suffer so much because theirs is a broken home/ their dad isn’t around / they went through so much with the divorce / I work such long hours and don’t have that full-time, stay-at-home mom which is their God-given right, so they deserve all this stuff.
Here is what kids deserve:
- A safe home
- A vegetable once per week
- A hug once per month
Kidding! (Kinda.). All the research is there, and you know in your heart this:
Kids’ priorities and needs are to be safe, healthy, loved, appreciated.
Instead, we see single moms over-prioritize spending on their children over their financial solvency. A few years ago, an Allianz survey found that nearly half (47 percent) of single moms say that saving for their college education is their No. 1 greatest motivation for developing a long-term financial plan — above saving for retirement. Compare that with just 26 percent of other modern families who said the same.
Allianz didn’t surmise why single moms are disproportionately making this financial mistake, but I will: Mom guilt.
Don’t do this. Your kid can get loans for school, but you can’t get loans for retirement. Financial pros will tell you that retirement savings trump college on all fronts: more tax benefits, longer vestment periods, and a higher priority overall.
Here’s the thing: If your financial decisions are made out of guilt, those are lesser decisions. If you go into debt, spend too much doing the holidays, choose a mortgage you cannot afford (even if it is in a great school district, or prevented your kids from relocating), your whole clan is at financial risk.
Continue reading: How to get out of debt on a low income
“I will always be a broke single mom.”
True: lots of single moms are broke. Also true: lots of single moms are not broke. Your family status does not preclude your financial status.
Think about it: In ‘traditional’ nuclear families, in which the dad works, and the mom stays home full-time, there is just one income in the house. One! Yes, the mom cares for the very young babies, which is a huge financial help, since child care in the United States is prohibitively expensive. But now most kids go to preschool around age 2 or 3, because we know that is what is best for child development. Yet, the mom is still home. Maybe she helps the household bottom line because she cooks meals that might otherwise be bought at a restaurant, and cleans the house, which might be outsourced to a cleaning service if she were to work full-time.
But that unemployed mom also costs the family. She needs a car, clothes, food. It is expensive to bring another adult on vacation, and to the theater and sports events.
If that breadwinning dad loses his job, becomes disabled, or dies, that mom’s earning potential is now questionable because she has been out of the workforce for a few years — or even decades.
Yes, in a great marriage / partnership, both partners equally share in household duties, and are equal parents. In reality, that doesn’t happen in most heterosexual relationships. Whether or not the mom has a career, she does more housework and child care.
So many women I meet find their groove professionally and their incomes skyrocket after becoming single moms.
Continue reading: How to survive financially as a single mom
“Being a single mom is hard—right?”
When people learn you’re a single mom, is the pity automatic? Do you hear things like,
“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.
But when you and I are bombarded with these negative messages, that affects how we think about our potential. When you are raised with messages from your family, community, the media, that single motherhood is a shameful, downtrodden existence, that narrative can become a self-fulfilling prophecy once you become a single mom.
“I deserve to struggle all alone because I got myself into this mess.”
Here are some self-blaming messages that single moms often tell themselves:
“I screwed up and got knocked up outside of a committed relationship. If I’m struggling, it is my fault.”
“He left / I left / we broke up. I couldn’t keep my relationship / marriage / family together. If I’m struggling, it is my fault.”
“I chose the wrong guy. Signs of his drinking / addiction / cheating / chronic unemployment / shitty personality were there all along, and I ignored it, so this is now on me.”
“I knew deep down he never really wanted a baby. I basically chose to be a single mom without choosing to be a single mom. I’m pathetic! (But also a single mom by choice — which sounds kind of cool.)”
Your shame is likely rooted in some not-great decisions. My son was conceived during a really bad time, right after my then-husband came home from the hospital after suffering a major brain injury, was out of his mind, and we were screaming at each other all the time. I felt really guilty for getting pregnant then, and he was really angry at me for it, but then I got over it. Having a gorgeous baby who grew into a beautiful child helped.
So did forgiveness. Shit happens all the time. Most mistakes happen in a regrettable split-second. Like automobile accidents, and not pulling out at the last second because it feels so good.
Maybe your mistake was rooted in malicious, manipulative planning (like trapping a guy), or limited self-awareness (like dating a jerk because you didn’t believe you deserve better), or a momentary lack of good judgment followed by months of childlike hope that his neurons would re-connect and life would return to normal, even if all the medical literature assured that would never happen (me).
For the record, almost half of pregnancies are not intended. Which is pretty astonishing considering that we all know how babies are made, and women are only fertile a couple days each month.
Which brings me to the big lesson here:
No one deserves to be punished in perpetuity for having a baby in less than ideal circumstances — including by yourself.
“I need a man.”
You’ve read this far. Do you notice a message threading through all the points?
Here it is:
Your family is whole, just as it is.
You are a whole woman, right now, in the family you head, right this minute.
There is no such thing as a “broken home.”
Today, 40 percent of kids are being raised by what the Census Bureau considers single moms. That is 10 million of us. We will be a statistical majority within our kids’ lifetimes. Single moms are the new normal.
Lots and lots of us prefer to parent without a co-parent living in our homes.
Single-moms by choice is the fastest growing sub-segment of single parenthood.
In other words, you do not need a man.
If you feel like you are incomplete without a man, there is good reason for that.
Until about a minute ago, women did kinda sorta need a man throughout most of Western history. Without the ability to hold a paying job, own property or any other legal rights, women were not full citizens, or even close. Instead, women lived ins societies where they were defined by, hopefully cared for, and definitely controlled by men:
Fathers, brothers, husbands.
Without one of the above, women were left to the wilds of the patriarchy.
It was ugly.
Today, thankfully, things are different. Better.
Yet pressure to be attached persists.
From people who love us most. And people who define themselves by a man. And the media.
Attitudes have not kept pace with our opportunities and successes. All the while, we are told that good men are hard to find.
If your top goal is to find a man, pump the breaks.
This signals to your kids that their family is broken, and they are broken by proxy.
You signal to men that you will accept far less than you deserve — because any man is better than no, man, right?
You do not prioritize yourself. You may have be devastated to find yourself at this crossroads, and that is OK. Single motherhood is no one’s Plan A (that I’ve met). This is an incredible opportunity to find out who you are, what you are made of, the type of mother you were meant to be, and the type of woman.
If you skip the alone-time part of single motherhood (which you are free to revisit at any point), you miss out on a fantastic opportunity at a new life experience, namely being single.
I like to think about divorce and single motherhood as simply another life experience. I have been single, I have been married. I had the experience of divorce, of being a married mother, and of being a single mother. I have dated as a single woman, and I have dated as a middle-aged mom of toddlers. Each experience was worthwhile, as is being alone and without a man while also being a mother.
This includes the type of lover and girlfriend and date and partner you may be.
In fact, I urge you to date, explore, hook up, enjoy your sexuality for everything that it is. You may find the many moms who are stunned to realize how incredible sex is at this stage of life. After all, sex is now for sex’s sake (not for baby making), dating can be enjoyed without the pressure of finding a husband in time to make those babies.
And if and when you chose to be with a man in a committed way, it will be an act of love and choice — not obligation, fear, or necessity.
That, woman, is freedom.
The power of freedom is what you deserve most of all.
I have been thinking a lot about how my work with single moms is my greatest influence in the resistance. I have also been honing my deep understanding that earning and achieving professionally is the greatest act of activism each of us can participate in. You model a different, better story for your children, your friends, family, colleagues and everyone who is silently watching. Your own life either perpetuates a stereotype, or tells the world to FUCK OFF, and write a new set of rules.
Generational poverty and inflexible class structure are real and powerful. Also: each of us is responsible for our own happiness and wellbeing. The moment anyone suggests they are owed anything, their own individual power and society overall crumble.
To women of any privilege — race, class, education — you have an even greater obligation to step into your power. By achieving leadership at work, in your community, in your financial standing, you are in a position to advocate for new and better policy. You become a model that sets new norms for everyone around you: your colleagues, your bosses, other women in your community and family, and your children. You break the cycle for all of us.
By being alive now and living in the Western world, you and I have incredible privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. The biggest impact you and I can make right now, today, is to earn and achieve. Decide right now to not depend on a man, play small for the sake of over-parenting your kids, or not seeming “too greedy” at work. These choices keep the pay gap alive and thriving. That is when the wealth gap widens. Corporate boards and Washington remain void of women. Anti-women an family policy persist. As a person of privilege, it is your responsibility to work to change those realities for those who have less.
I 100% agree with you on universal child care. But there will never be universal child care until the people in power feel the pain of expensive child care. White, rich men with stay-at-home moms don’t care about universal child care because their wives take care of it without question. Single dads don’t care about universal child care because their kids moms take on the responsibility of paying for, arranging and combating the mom guilt and juggle of child care. Only when we have equal parenting, and equal numbers of women in power positions will these sorts of family- and women-friendly policies take place.
In short: When single moms like you and I thrive — the world thrives. YOUR POWER IS REAL!
Continue reading: Try these 39 things to do by yourself for a fuller life
Single mom struggles FAQs
What do single moms struggle with most?
Single moms on this Reddit thread shared some of the main challenges they experience as single moms:
These are some of their responses:
- “I have kids 100% of the time so it's almost impossible to go out and meet friends without them, which is why I don't have particularly many friends left. On the other hand, once they fall asleep and I could actually do stuff, I can't really since I can't leave them alone. And I don't feel like complaining about it to the few friends I have left, do it just mostly feels I have no life outside work and kids.”
- “I used to struggle a lot having the time to cook dinner, get groceries, and get them to activities in the afternoon. I mean, there aren't enough hours. But I made some changes and although it's not perfect, it's way better than before. Carpooling saves me a LOT of time.”
- “My single mom friend is an RN…she has issues getting her children to school at 8am because she often has to be at work by 6am. This seems like a single mom issue. My husband would theoretically take our son to school if I couldn't. Her being my bestie though, I help her out and often play chauffer for his kids' schedules.”
- “Cooking dinner that’s both quick and healthy. After getting home from work, child care pick up, etc. the struggle is real.”
- “Men will play you along and say all the right things until the moment they get in your pants, and since you have a kid, they'll run away as fast as they can afterwards. Not all men but most.”
How do you help a struggling single mom?
If a friend, colleague, neighbor or relative is a single mom having a hard time, here is how you can support her:
- Be a good friend. Feeling isolated, ostracized, unsupported and otherwise alone are some of the top concerns single moms express. Check in with her. Invite her to parties (she will often be excluded). Listen. Urge her to check in with you, and count on you in case of an emergency.
- Careful with indulging the pity. There is a lot of support for single moms to feel sorry for themselves, and blame their lives on their single-mom status. There is some validity to this, but it serves no one to wallow there. Point out to her all the single moms who have built successful careers, bought homes, raised happy kids, found love.
- Watch her kids. Offer to have her kids over for playdates, offer up babysitting. Be specific. Opposed to saying, “Let me know if you need me to watch your kid,” text her: “How about if you drop the baby off Sunday for the day while you go take some me-time!”
Bottom line: Single mom struggles are real, but you can overcome
For specific help with money, finances, emergency services, check our posts on help for single moms and resources for single mothers.