Single mom on the prairie

Helena and I have been reading chapter books, and our latest is On the Banks of Plum Creek – part of the Little House series and one of my own childhood favorites. That Helena, 4, is so interested in the workaday happenings of Laura, Mary and their Ma and Pa thrills me beyond words on a blog can describe.

I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder today, and how much of the tales of spiting that bitch Nellie Olsen and stringing button necklaces and living in a dirt dugout I remember from when I first read it at age 8. One storyline, however, I did not appreciate until today: there are several chapters describing the dark clouds of grasshoppers that descended on the plains and gobbled up the homesteaders’ very first wheat crop and every other green thing in sight. A drought left the land parched and barren and other families departed for fertile land and family support. Desperate, Pa left on foot to find work. Ma stayed behind, alone with three little kids and not much else.

The only shade was in the house. There were no leaves on willows or plum thickets. Plum Creek had dried up. There was only a little water in its pools. The well was dry and the old spring by the dugout was only a drip. Ma set a pail under it, to fill during the night. In the morning she brought it into the house and left another pail to fill during the day.

Spot [the milk cow] was thin. Her hip joints stuck up sharp, all her ribs showed, and there were hollows around her eyes. All day she went mooing with the other cattle, looking for something to eat. They had eaten all the little bushes along the creek and gnawed the willow branches as high as they could reach. Spot’s milk was bitter, and every day she gave less of it.

Now, when I say Ma was left alone, I mean alone. She was in the middle of the prairie, remember (albeit in what sounds like an adorable little house adorned with calico and a wood-burning stove). But they were so far from town that the kids were homeschooled in the winter, and they couldn’t go to church during this this period for the sake of preserving the soles of their shoes. No extended family is mentioned, and every week the family waited desperately for word of Pa by the Saturday mail. In the more than six months that he was gone, they received just one letter – and $5.

The only help poor Ma every got was the occasional pile of split firewood from her neighbor Mr. Nelson. Now, of course, despite the girls’ many worries and prayers, Pa did come back and they lived happily ever into syndication and reruns.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ma. She was probably so young, had little education or marketable skills beyond that of a farmwife – not that that there was much of a market for skilled women anyway. Plus, Ma’s resources – including and mainly her husband – were few and dwindling. What did she imagine would happen to her three little girls and herself should Pa never return? What was her Plan B?

This story also reminds me that single motherhood is no new phenomenon. Since the history of time women have been left stranded with families when their husbands went off to war (and died), to sea (and died), on land expeditions and pilgrimages and because I’m-sick-your-nagging-how-do-I-even-know-those-kids-are-mine-and-I’m-outta-here!

Sure, in other times and places extended families were tighter and multigeneration homes were the norm. But when I go to bed at night and give a shout-out for my blessings, I always try to remember that I live in a time and place where women have more educational, professional and economic opportunity than ever before in history. And I think of Ma.

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,, 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.

4 thoughts on “Single mom on the prairie

  1. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books growing up. Now I need to go back and read them to see them from Ma’s point of view! We’re really lucky, indeed. When I was in Malawi, it amazed me how hard the women worked, with little or no support from the men in their lives. Even today, those women live in much the same way as Ma did, and for the most part, they have just as few choices and resources.

    1. Sara – I can imagine you would love those books, too! There is an excellent report that maybe you can help me find that found that women globally take on nearly all their family and household duties, and something like 70% of the work outside the home — are you familiar with that?

  2. Emma-
    Fantastic as always, Ma was a saint. I started reading the books with my 9 year old.. one question… did Ma make her own moonshine?? No mention of that, but I’m guessing she was a smart enough cookie to figure that one out!
    Brilliant commentary by you as always, thank you!

What do you think? Please comment!

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