I’m not sure what I hate being called more: a single mother or a single mother by choice.
The first term is technically true. I have a 2-year-old son. And I am not, nor have I ever been, married. Nor do I have any particular desire to be — although I do expect to date and to be in relationships, as I have been for most of my adult life.
What is there to like about being labeled a single mother? The term only distances me from other families, making my son and me seem different, lesser, wanting. Our culture derides single mothers under a false veneer of respect and honor. “You are so valiant,” we’re told. Followed by: “What a shame that your kid is going to be messed up.”
Many like me are placed in the “single mother by choice” category. We are older and well-educated, typically, and more financially secure.
But for me, it’s a problematic label. First, it’s not completely accurate. Like many, I longed for a child for years and spent most of my 30s trying to make less-than-ideal relationships work. I would sit in my therapist’s office and weep, despairing about the fact that my boyfriend went on vacations by himself (red flag?) or that his mother kept a copy of his doctoral diploma under her bed (Oedipal issues?). It was a means to an end, but the desired end – a baby – never came.
When yet another relationship ended and 40 was rapidly approaching, I decided it was time to take action. I found a fertility specialist. I asked a gay friend to be my donor. I organized my life around monthly blood draws and ultrasounds; obsessed over my menstrual cycle; and despaired about my “ovarian reserve.” I barely held it together when I got a call, while walking into a meeting, with the news that I wasn’t pregnant. Or when I got my period minutes before introducing the governor of California at a conference.
After five unsuccessful attempts, I found a new doctor and prepared to commute from Washington to New York for treatment. But when a friend offered to set me up on a blind date, I also said yes. After months of thinking about nothing but (in)fertility, I was in need of diversion.
On our first date, we hit it off. After a couple of more dates, I decided to put getting pregnant temporarily on hold – not because I harbored any fantasy that we would end up together, but because I desperately needed a few nights spent flirting at a wine bar. Weekend bike rides. Parties where I didn’t have to show up solo. Sex.
After a couple of months, that budding relationship fizzled, and I contacted my clinic to restart the process. When my doctor called, she told me I was already pregnant.
Was my path to single motherhood a choice? The result of a bizarre set of circumstances? Divine intervention?
I reject the single-mother-by-choice label because it doesn’t fully honor my story. But I also reject it because it divides mothers into a hierarchy, a stratification that, as Kimberly Seals Allers notes, “glorif[ies] some while demonizing others, mostly across racial and socioeconomic lines.”
Single mothers by choice fall just behind widows and divorced women, both of whom carry the social cache of having once been attached to a man. But underlying this hierarchy is a racist and classist myth that assumes that middle- and upper-class white women want their children and plan their pregnancies, whereas low-income single women of color do not.
No doubt, I’ve benefited from this hierarchy. Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding my son’s conception, the news of my pregnancy was celebrated. Family members and friends cheered, threw baby showers and told me I was “sassy.” There was gossip, naturally, particularly because I haven’t said much about my son’s father to those beyond my immediate circle. My ex – for whom the news of my pregnancy was equally surprising but less welcome – and I are figuring things out, and his relationship with our son is evolving. But no one ever questioned the validity of my family or my love for my son. No one doubted my ability to be an excellent mother. People tell me that my son is “lucky.”
Yet the “you go, girl” shout-outs ring hollow for me. Although it does feel empowering to have built a family that brings me so much joy, mothering solo is hard. I start every day at 5 a.m., end it no earlier than 11 p.m., rarely pause in the hours in between, and still can’t get everything done. I have circles under my eyes so dark that my reflection startles me. I long for someone to help me with drop-off, pickup, meal prep and an occasional load of laundry.
And I have it easy. Many single mothers pull off feats far more impressive than mine. They work multiple jobs; care for multiple children; and deal with inflexible workplaces, doing work that’s vastly underpaid and undervalued.
It’s time to dismantle the single-mother hierarchy – to stop calling out my family’s supposed difference from that of other single moms, as well as from two-parent families. At the end of the day, I’m doing something that is as incredible as it is typical – raising a young boy so sweet, observant, stubborn and beautiful that it takes my breath away.
Every night before bed, when he rests his head on my shoulder, wraps his arms around my neck and says, “Love you, Mommy,” I know that everything is exactly as it should be. That our little family is complete.
It’s long past time that we recognized every family that way.