The next time you see a black person on the street, approach him or her and say: “Oh my gosh! I don't know how you do it! It must be so hard to be black!”
What's that you say? No way? Makes you feel uncomfortable? Rude? Scared?
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 a racial minority (according to studies! This is not my opinion!). But you know better than to waltz up to a new African American 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.
Here are 4 reasons all your overt 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!”
- “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 stupid. 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 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.
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 (more on this in another post).
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?
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.
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, 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.