Who deserves to call themselves a “single mom”?

how do you define 'single mom'?

Updated May 17, 2019

Below, you will find a polite, academic picking-apart of the who-gets-to-call-themselves-a-single-mom debate. It rages on, constantly, and after 7 years of blogging about single moms (and being one myself for 9 years), I have come to this conclusion:

The argument about who is, and who is not a single mom is one of white privilege.

One of the tireless discussions in the single mom community is, “Who gets to call themselves a single mom?” This conversation has long enraged me, because it is solely designed to promote infighting among women and elevating the shame attached to the term “single mom.” After all, if you insist you are not a ‘single mom,' but a ‘divorced mom' because you were once married (64% of Millennial moms are unmarried, according to Census data), the subtext of that designation is:

“I am better because my child was conceived inside of a socially sanctioned partnership, which presumes the kid was wanted and planned for, and presumes I have an active co-parent now that marriage ended — none of which apply to babies born to unmarried mothers.”

Of course, none of these perceived privileges are necessarily true — nor are the presumed hardships of moms who never married, many of whom do plan their families and do have healthy co-parenting relationships.

The key word here, however, is PRIVILEGE. I cannot remember hearing these hair-splitting arguments made by anyone but white, privileged women, and angry, white men — the latter of whom are usually bitter dads paying a lot of alimony/child support with little access to their children [related: How to argue against alimony].

I am challenging the white women who go out of their way to distance themselves from calling themselves a “single mother.”

If you are doing socioeconomic gymnastics to get around calling yourself a single mom, you are really trying to get around a social stigma that has for centuries been attached to mostly poor, women of color.

Historically and to this day, households headed by unmarried mothers have been majority African American, and more recently, Hispanic women, both groups of which are statistically poorer than white people, and continue to experience higher rates of giving birth outside of marriage than white women. For a very long time, we have called these women single moms, without much debate at all. Unfortunately, for a very long time, single moms have been considered social pariahs, derided by politicians and religious leaders as the blame for most social ills. That is how stigmas are institutionalized.

Today, thanks to the amazing work of feminists before us, women now have many wonderful choices on how to build our families. Financial, career, reproductive and legal rights and opportunities mean that women can now afford to chose have children without committed partners, are less likely to marry, and are more likely to initiate divorce. White, educated women benefit disproportionately from these strides in gender equality, and the numbers of white women having babies outside of marriage and divorcing are skyrocketing. Again, it is white, educated women who scramble to distance themselves from the term “single mom” — even though we all check the same “single” box when we file our taxes (though “head of household” is no more, thanks for nothing tax reform!), apply for health or life insurance, or are counted by the Census.

So, even if you are divorced, you are a single mom — no matter how much you want to distance yourself from THOSE PEOPLE who never married. If you enjoy a handsome sum of child support and co-parenting from your kid's dad, or have a helpful boyfriend or high-paying job, you are a single mom — even if your family or financial situation does not look like what you associate happens inside the families or bank accounts of THOSE PEOPLE.

This is call for unity for gender equality, for race equality, and for just being a decent person. When you own your life and family and relationship status (because this is a conversation about STATUS) with acceptance instead of shame, you elevate all single moms, all families — and women everywhere.

How do you define ‘single mom'? The answer is complicated and rife with bitter debate.

As can only happen in class-weird America, people in this great nation can be heard vying for the right to claim rights to refer to themselves as a “single mother.” It is an interesting and relevant debate — one that speaks to how unmarried moms move forward with our lives as individuals, but also how we collectively define with our place in the world. First, let's get out of the way all the broads who are not single moms.

Who is NOT a single mom

Ladies, if your husband is away on a hunting trip for a weekend, you are not a single mom. Or even, as Michelle Obama accidentally did, you call yourself a single mom because your husband is really, really busy with his fabulous career, you are out.

And FYI, when are a married mom and refer to yourself as a single mom you piss off a whole lot of people — people who have little or no financial help to raise their kids, or partnership that provides the emotional and logistical support that all families need. Not that you meant anything by it. But when you say that we want to kill you.

On forums and in casual conversation, I hear people (usually men – men who pay lots of child support) grumble about women (usually their exes) who define themselves as single moms. “They have no right to say that — I pay for her manicures and weekends in Cancun with her 26-year-old personal trainer boyfriend!” is the usual gripe.

Definition of a single mom

Which leads us to examine what “single mother” really means. Yes, you are unmarried and romantically available. Fair enough. But “single mom” is a heavily loaded term with lots of social and political connotations. Depending on how you vote, a single mom is responsible for bearing fatherless criminals and living off of the taxpayer's dime; or she is a saintly martyr for her children and a victim of a chauvinistic society that tells men it is OK to abandon their children by a male-dominated court system that let him way, way off the hook.

But what if you're living in reality and fall somewhere in between? What about families where custody is civilized and shared 50-50? What if you get a fat support check every two weeks? Or the parent who is saddled with 100 percent of the responsibilities, but remarries into a supportive relationship? Or you get no financial support, but lots of logistic and parenting cooperation? What if you're doing it all on your own, but have the financial means to hire extensive help with the kids and house? What about the married mom whose husband has a lil somethin' on the side, lends zero help with the kids and blows the mortgage payment on electronics and poker games?

I struggled with how to define myself as a single mom

Today, I feel totally fine calling myself a single mom: I float my family financially and am the primary caretaker of my kids. If my ex's situation were different he would gladly participate in a different way, and he very well may in the future. My status (and yes this is all about status) as a single mom because that is a fact. But would I call
myself something else if I were not so very independent in my parenting?

The crux of this issue is that “single mom” carries with it at least a twinge of status in many circles — in other groups it lends serious street cred. Being a single mom can be inherently hard, and in America we uphold hard as a virtue. In most of the country, bragging rights belong to the person who put herself through college, saved up for the downpayment on his house, and never took a cent from parents after graduating high school. If you happen to have a trust fund, inheritance, or cashed in on a tech start-up, you keep your pie hole shut and keep your lifestyle in line with your middle-class friends (or go find rich friends).

Which brings us back to single mom semantics. On one hand, we could agree to dismiss the issue as a big, WHO THE EFF CARES?! On the other, the fact that this topic warrants a blog posts underscores bigger changes afoot: changes in family structure, marriage, family economics, and gender, class and money — all my most favoritest topics of conversation, but also some of the most important and compelling issues of our time. As we figure out where women and mothers fit into the worlds of work, money and politics, we need language to help us along the way.

In the meantime, how you define yourself to the world as an unmarried mother has ramifications for women and gender equality.

In my early years as a single mom, I struggled with my title — and my identity — as an unmarried mom.

Sometimes if were in a group of new people and it's relevant, I'd 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.

Sometimes, in my early days as a single mom, I'd play 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.

Until we iron out the details, I'll stick with my title of “single mom.” But not too tightly. After all, to toss off a casual “I'm a single mom” can suggest a belief that you are automatically deserving of respect — an attitude that pisses off pretty much everyone.

Why do married moms want to call themselves ‘single moms'?

Not once but THREE TIMES in the past week I have received messages from married moms who want to be part of my single-mom Facebook groups (join Millionaire Single Moms, BUT ONLY IF YOU'RE AN ACTUAL SINGLE MOM!).

Here is one:

Hi Emma! I'm not technically a single mom, but can you please add me to your groups? My husband hardly does anything at all around the house, I manage the finances, run the kid around and work a fulltime job!

My answer?

Uh, no?

P.S.: No. Buh-bye.

And by the way: Are you fucking kidding me?

Any single mom will tell you how we bristle when a married mother casually calls herself a “single mom” because:

a) her husband is out of town on a golf weekend.

b) works all the time.

c) doesn't do his share at home or with the kids.

d) has checked out of the marriage and makes her feel fat, old and unattractive.

Those scenarios may indeed be very hard. Painful, frustrating, hurtful, lonesome, unfair and bad examples for the kids.

I feel for you. I also identify with you. I used to be married. It wasn't so great for me. My marriage was indeed hard, painful, frustrating, lonesome, unfair and a bad example for the kids. But the marriage ended. I got out, and I found a new life. For me, single motherhood has been pretty great. It is for a lot of people, maybe especially women, so many of whom I've met whom THRIVE in their newfound independence and are forced to find their way financially, logistically, romantically and as parents.

For some of us, being a single mom is better than marriage, and sometimes, indeed awesome.

Anecdotally, I don't know so many really happy marriages, and scholars have found the same. Per Rebecca Traister's very excellent bestselling All The Single Ladies:

Psychologist Ty Tashiro suggested in a 2014 book that only three in ten married people enjoy happy and healthy marriages, and that being in an unhappy partnership can increase your chances of getting sick by about 35 percent. Another researcher, John Gottman, has found that being in an unhappy union could shorten your life by four years.

A recently published Stanford study found that women initiate divorce 69 percent of the time.

In other words: Married mom desperate to hang with single moms: You are not alone in your marital misery. You're good! Normal! 

Meanwhile, single motherhood is losing its stigma, so much so that all these married moms go around flaunting faux singlehood! The “traditional” nuclear family with married parents and kids now constitutes the statistical minority of American households, with single-mom led homes constituting the majority of the remaining portion. Further, and somewhat astonishing, the MAJORITY millennial moms are unmarried.

That is right: Single mom-led families are on their way to being the majority.

Statistically, it is economically tougher to raise kids without a spouse. It can be scary, stressful, socially isolating, lonely, painful and worrisome. But with 10 million single moms in the United States, you probably know one or 20 who are thriving, fully embracing the economic, educational, sexual and social opportunities afforded women in this country today. It might look pretty good.

To which I say:

Hey married mom: Maybe you sense that single motherhood will be awesome for you, too. But no matter how sad you are, how alone in your marriage you feel, you do not 100% have to be financially, romantically or logistically independent. Because you are not. Because you are married. Because you have not taken the risk to go at this family thing without a spouse.

That is OK. Really, it is fine. You are there, and we are here. I'm OK, you're OK. But you don't get the benefits of commiserating with an amazing tribe of women who, every single day, get up every morning, earn a living and support a family financially, logistically and face the prospect of lifelong solitude while schlepping it to the gym and squeezing into that size 6 pair of skinny jeans and braving the wondrous and terrifying world of dating in 2016 — all while hugging and rocking and yelling and encouraging and singing to and laughing with and scolding their children every day.

And yes, that is what it means to be a single mom today: less than a quarter of dads who do not live with their kids are actually involved, and about as many moms receive any kind of financial support from their children's fathers.

That's right: The vast majority of single moms are really, truly solo moms.

If you think that because your husband won't freaking unload the dishwasher and complains when you ask him to pick your son at his sleepover instead of watching the game, and you haven't had sex in weeks or months and that makes you feel really bad, I am sorry for that. But you don't get it both ways. You don't get the financial security of a second adult living in your house, or the psychological security of knowing that if you have a brain aneurism in the middle of the night someone will drive you to the ER and then get the kids to school in the morning, or the social comfort of couples' dinner parties and not having to face your mother's judgement for getting a divorce —  and also get to hang with us.

[Now, you know and I know this all doesn't apply to abusive situations.]

Because you are not here with us.

You didn't take that risk.

Maybe you will, and maybe you will thrive in your newfound solo life. Maybe you will stay, work through a rough patch in your marriage, and never, ever regret that.

Or, maybe you will stay and be really, really unhappy — unable to share your unhappiness with your married mom friends because you all assume that the others' Instagram personas are accurate, and not being accepted by actual single moms — moms who bristle at your self proclamation of being part of the club. Because you're not there.

Not yet.

Worth reading: Washington Post: “Why I Can't Call Myself a Single Mom”

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, 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.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

118 Comments

  1. Pam on June 17, 2019 at 9:27 am

    I loved this commentary on “who is a single mom”. I was married 13 years and was forced to get divorced while pregnant and with a 2 year old with special needs. I was only ever a single mom and raised both my boys alone from infants to sending my last to college next year with no help. But I had a strong career and was able to give my boys a good home and my flexible job in sales allowed me to be there for school activities.

    I was laughing so hard at your comments on married women calling themselves “single moms”. I have heard many women do this when there husband is away for a while or when they may have to travel alone with their kids. It does make you want to take them to the guillotine! Thanks for putting that out there it’s nice not to feel alone. And sister – those “tax reforms” this year were so painful! They really took successful single Moms (outside of business owners) to the cleaners when they took away our “Head of Household” Really enjoy your blog!

  2. Sarah on June 9, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    I think a single mom who kids are not even living with her is not a single mom….when one kid is living with dad…another is living with an ex boyfriend and the two yoinger ones is living with tbe curre t ex…just so that tbe oldest ends up living with one of the grandparents thats no a single parent thats a single woman….

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  5. Wes speece on May 16, 2019 at 10:11 pm

    I have a question that’s bothers me. I’ve got a 7 year old her mom dipped out and isn’t in her life at all. Well 5 years later I met my best friend she had 3 kids all 17, 14, 12 years old. Well we had a kid together she is 11 months old. We don’t live together but we are together I’m with them all the time but bed and work. I even give her 50$ a week for her and buy her things needed. Which isn’t child support but is for the support of my child. I do not pay for her 3 kids as she doesn’t pay for mine kid that isn’t hers. Which is both of our choices. Now my problem is simple she calls herself a single mom. I don’t call myself a single father. She says it’s a man thing which may be true. Us man get stupid over women, money, sports, and most importantly our pride. And I can’t stand hearing her call her a single mom because she isn’t single. Yes she does support her 3 kids that isn’t mine as I do mine that isn’t hers, but I’m there for the one that is mine. So is she a single mom? And even if I’m wrong I will never be in my own opinion only be called a single father.

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