`Related: Why do so many married women want to join my single moms’ groups?
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 you 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.
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’ve 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 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 I 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.
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.