Give me a break. I’ve been married three times — and being a single mother of seven kids is dramatically easier than being married. Negotiating child-care responsibilities and household duties is exhausting. But I’ve yet to find a partner who pulls his own weight. Being married just added chaos and tension to my life, not the stability I craved. And I’m not the only one.
If a partnership is supposed to entail a reasonable — and close to equal — division of unpaid labor like child-care and household chores, men aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain. Women still spend an average of 4 ½ hours per day on unpaid work, including taking care of children and performing household chores; men spend less than half of that. So if my friends think another marriage will save me from my never-ending laundry pile, they’re delusional.
I didn’t get married three times for love. It was fear that drove me from marriage to marriage — fear that I couldn’t provide for my children on my own, and fear that my family would never be a legitimate family without another adult at the helm. Long before I was a single mom, my perception of single parenting was shaped in my teens by listening to then-Vice President Dan Quayle rail against single mothers. Once I became a single mother, my fear of failing my kids was fed by every well-meaning person who told me that someday I would meet the right man or who encouraged me to stay married to men who made me miserable.
I didn’t give up on myself easily. But every time things began to look up for me and my family, I allowed my self-doubt to convince me that I needed yet another partner. Surely, I told myself, if I just kept trying, I would eventually find the right man. So I fell for men who lured me in with promises of partnership and stability, and who played on my insecurities to convince me that I wasn’t enough for my kids. But those relationships never played out like I hoped they would. I never found a true partner, just another obligation that felt more like an extra child than a husband.
This isn’t to say that partners are dispensable. I have friends who are happily married, and it works for them and their children. The problem is that we still project a two-parent household as the ideal instead of accepting that some people are happier single, and their kids are the better for being raised by happy parents. Twenty years after Quayle’s comments, single parents are the norm but never an ideal.
More than one-third of U.S. children are being raised by a single parent, but that has done little to stop the flood of negative portrayals of single motherhood. I am told that I’m doomed to live in poverty, that my children are at a higher risk for unemployment and chronic illness, and that my children will never have the same opportunities as children raised by two parents. No wonder my friends console me with pipe dreams about a future partnership. Who would want to be a single mother if that’s all they and their children have to look forward to? People look at me with sympathy when they hear I’m a single mother because they’ve fallen for the same lie I once did.
When I meet a newly separated woman now, I congratulate her and welcome her to the club with joy. No one ever told me about the beauty of single motherhood; they didn’t tell me that I would glory in my newfound freedom, or that my children would blossom into loud, independent freethinkers. They didn’t tell me it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done but that I would never regret a second of it. What was missing was never a partner — it was confidence in my ability to mother on my own.
I know I’m not enough for my kids, but no parent is. We all do the best we can, but children thrive when they have a community of friends and family to guide them and expose them to different attitudes and ideas. My kids have that community, and they don’t need a second adult in our house to make it feel like home.
When my kids grow up and leave home, I might date again. But mostly, I imagine myself reading and writing in a quiet, clean apartment where things are where I’ve left them and no one forgot to take the garbage out. It’s a quiet, simple fantasy, and it consoles me on days when my kids are fighting, when the dog throws up on the rug and when I need to be in three places at once.
I wasted years on marriages that were destined for failure because I couldn’t conceive of a family without a partner. I can’t turn back time and make different decisions, but I can create a better present for me and my children. That future looks different from what I imagined, but it’s still a family, and it’s my family.