Stop telling me it’s hard to be a single mom

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.


About 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.


  1. Alex Kennedy on April 6, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    I am so happy to find a blog that I could run to in my time of frustration.

    I just left a lunch meeting with my co-workers(Attorneys) and one of the women that I dislike the most said in the front of everyone that her husband left town and she was so stressed out this morning and She didn’t know how I did it being a single mom. I was in shock because there were other people around the table who don’t know me and quite frankly I wouldn’t want them in my business.

    My problem is this is the 2nd time that she has mentioned it. I have been hesitant about saying anything because I felt well Its sort of a back handed compliment. But today I will be speaking to her privately about it.

    I am a single mom by choice. Life or Death in all literal terms. And she would be to if she knew my story!!

  2. Joanna on September 27, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I agree; it can be annoying.

    When someone gives me the “I don’t know how you do it” line, I get perplexed. It doesn’t seem that hard! I don’t know any other way. Plus, there’s a LOT of joy in being a mom, single or otherwise.

    Thanks for the blog.

  3. Richard on September 20, 2013 at 2:49 am

    Emma, I just discovered your blog and I’m enjoying your views. Although I am a stranger, I have to say that I pity you for having had to write those equities blurbs. Now please don’t punch me in the throat :)

  4. Kahtryn on September 18, 2013 at 3:47 am

    Some of those “you have it hard” -comments can be sincere, you know. I think it’s rather sad outlook on life to think that people say that kind of phrases only to belittle you and feel better themselves.

    I can’t remember a time that anyone would have said that to me, though, that I have it hard. Most people who know that I am a single mom also know that it’s by choice.

  5. Zakiya on September 12, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Hmmmmm I’m very sensitive to criticism and to people trying to lord their perceived superiority over me but I must say I do not get annoyed by this comment. I take it as a complement actually. My son is a wonderful child and he excels in all of the ways we would like our children to excel. So, when someone says this I take it as acknowledgement that I’m doing double, triple, or sometimes quadruple duty and still doing a great job.

    But then I am an underpaid nonprofit worker who commutes three hours per day to make sure her child goes to a good school and like many many others cannot afford some of the perks that make life a little bit easier. So when I’m frazzled. at my wits end, and feeling guilty about all the things I’m NOT doing this comment reminds me that in fact I’m accomplishing quite a bit.

    • Emma on September 16, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Hi Zakiya – Thanks for this comment. A married mom friend messaged me upon reading this post and pointed out that maybe I’m feeling defensive and angry about being a single mom, which is why I’m testy about such comments. She said she doesn’t pity me, but admires me and thus sometimes says thinks that make me want to punch her in the throat :) It seems you have a healthier attitude about being a single mom…. something I need to chew on.

  6. Linda on September 8, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    I get where you are coming from, although im not a single Mom. I am a married mother of 5, and people who don’t even know me come up to me and say how hard my life must be, and that it will get better when my kids are grown. I had someone in my home a few weeks ago, say at least you still have a smile on your face. I didnt mention my life was hard in any way, my kids are just home playing, and it’s almost disgusting what comes out of some peoples mouths. What do you say to that, and they make you be defensive with the rude remarks.

    • Emma on September 16, 2013 at 10:01 am

      Lord knows I’ve been guilty of saying inadvertent rude things to people – maybe I should be more gracious about these single-mom comments — it is really more about them and their insecurities or fears than me and my (shit)show.

  7. Erica on September 4, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    #4 is the MAIN reason this comment is so annoying…

  8. Emma on September 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Honoree — did not know you were a detasseler!! No one on the East Coast even knows what that is. You’re my soul sister!!!

  9. Honoree Corder on September 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    You’re cracking me up! I have both shucked and waited {same age, same places, ironically} and you’re so right!

    In many ways, being a single mom was a breeze once I got the hang of it.

  10. Jordana Green on September 3, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I vote for “go to hell” with a smile.

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