Ever since I was thrust into the suddenly single world of motherhood nearly a decade ago, I’ve been slowly unpacking the nuances and spoken and unspoken rules of the single mom. I learned that I quickly turned from friend to foe when it came to hanging around my girlfriend’s husbands. I learned that my happily married friends secretly envied my child-free weekends and six-week summers, when my children were with their dad. But I also learned that there is a hierarchy to single motherhood, one that has been historically constructed by societal norms and patriarchal influences but still rules with a tyrannical hold today.
So when Sheryl Sandberg, the best-selling author of “Lean In”and the chief operating officer of Facebook, recently penned a touching mea culpa to single mothers acknowledging the unique struggles of single moms as she faced the anniversary of the untimely death of her husband, I was cautiously optimistic about her message. But with one big side eye. Sandberg’s well-intentioned and widely shared post, though packed with sentimentality and truisms, was blind to any acknowledgment of who actually bears the brunt of the social stigma of single motherhood and who does not.
I understand that no one — zero of us — wants to have the title of widow. But Sandberg missed the huge difference in perception when you are a single mother because of a death vs. other pathways. That perception is powerful, and it affects how society and others interact with you as a single mother. Society secretly categorizes single mothers in gradients of respectability depending on income, race and, most important, how you became a single mother.
First are widows, who receive sympathy, compassion and understanding for the tragic situation they are in beyond their control. Next on the chain are divorcees, where I fall, who also receive a level of social acceptance and empathy because they were married at one point. The highest levels of respectability are afforded to those who were once married — “validated” by a patriarchal structure, which has become the defining element for valuing a woman’s mothering journey and, by extension, valuing her children when that structure no longer exists.
Then there are those, specifically referenced and given a “shout out” by Sandberg, who become single parents “by choice.” In that camp, single motherhood becomes an empowering and revolutionary act of womanism. Escaping that social stigma is usually reserved for high-income white women and celebrities. (Women such as Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie, who pass the celebrity test and then adopt a child from a third-world country, score the double win of adding humanitarian hero to the respectability mix.)
And while it is true that no matter how you entered single motherhood you will struggle with time management, sole decision-making and career compromises, the perception of your single motherhood often shapes the experience of your single motherhood. For example, a widow is likely to receive much more support from friends and family than a woman who is perceived as becoming a single mother because of her own poor decision-making or even by her own choice. If you stepped into this circumstance by your own fault, then there is little compassion for you. If you were never validated by the institution of marriage, then there is little but shaming and struggle for you.
But anyone who lives outside of the “norm” will have to endure judgment and a lack of support. Worse, so will their children.
“So many laws are designed to punish and/or discourage women from living outside of these patriarchal relationships. The message is: if you do so, your life will be hard. That very much preserves male power,” says Patricia Leavy, a sociologist who has shared her experiences as a single mother whose child did not know her father until she was 5 years old.
In fact, Leavy’s personal story highlights another common ranking system — based on the level of participation of the father. “People constantly asked about her father or made assumptions that there was a father and I had to say, she doesn’t have one,” Leavy says. “Then, my daughter herself had to learn to say, ‘I don’t have one.’ My daughter’s experience was impacted by the assumptions of others, and that often impacts the mother’s experience.”
The complexities of race shape this experience even further. Years after my divorce, I continued to wear my wedding ring when meeting new school teachers and principals, acutely aware that as an African American woman — even with an Ivy League education and a middle-class income — I was still subject to the stereotypical perception of “the black single mother.” And I did not want any teacher interacting with me or my child based on that negative perception. I took on additional freelance work to make sure my children had access to the same opportunities and experiences as the other, mostly white students — including piano lessons, trips and sports leagues — so that they would not be viewed as deficient or lacking in any way. I’ve included my ex-husband on email lists I’m sure he never read and shared his phone number (he lives in Britain, so what’s the point?) to make sure everyone knew that my children had two involved parents, i.e. a real family — equally aware of the damning stereotype of uninvolved black fathers. I would include “I will discuss it with their father” in every conversation and spoke in “we” talk even at times when he and I were not even on the best speaking terms. I’m not proud of these tactics, but they were survival strategies in a society that often puts all single black mothers — and, by extension, their children — in the same deficient-parent pot. You will not deal with me or my children based on your perceptions and what you think we don’t have. That was not the framing I was going to allow for our interactions.
I have double-degreed, black single mother friends attending mostly white schools who use hyphenated names just to appear married to school officials. “I am who I need you to think I am in order to meet your perceived notion of respectability,” as one hyphenating friend put it. My professional bio specifically notes I’m a “divorced mother of two” — a qualifier of my single motherhood and a sign of my own desperate attempt at external validation. In our world of single motherhood, there is a constant struggle to defy the perception of not being good enough, to prove our respectability, to be legitimate. I admit, it is exhausting.
What all single mothers need, no matter how they got there, is not more lines of demarcation — glorifying some while demonizing others, mostly across racial and socioeconomic lines. Single parenting is not a competitive sport with badges of honor and various prizes of support and social acceptance based on how you entered the race you probably never expected to join. When we can shift the focus to the children, not the former marital status of the parent, and ensure every child of a single-parent home is valued and supported, and not stereotyped, then we can all win the gold. That’s a societal badge of honor worth celebrating.
Allers is a journalist and author. A former writer at Fortune and senior editor at Essence, her next book, “The Big Let Down: How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding” will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. A divorced mother of two, she lives on Long Island. Follow her on Twitter @iamKSealsAllers.
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