Single Motherhood: It Ain’t Easy (And How to Make It Easier)

Photograph: Christopher Thomond

I was watching an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters” last night where the wife and mother was saying that she could hardly wait until her husband’s commute was shorter because she could use more help with their three kids. My first thought was,”Quit your bitchin’. At least you’re not a single mom.”

I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to her plight, but I’ve done motherhood both ways (married and single) and there’s no competition: it’s a helluva lot harder to do it solo.

Approximately thirteen million women in the United States are raising children alone. Some deliberately chose to be single mothers, others had it thrust upon them by divorce or widowhood. But no matter how they attained that status, the fact remains that it’s a lonely and incredibly difficult undertaking.

Although single mothers are bound to have moments of self-pity (just like mothers who do have partners), for the most part they’re not looking for people to feel sorry for them. One of the things I told my children after their father and I got divorced was, “We are not a broken family, no matter what others say. We’re still a family and we have no reason to feel ashamed or inferior.”

Of course, sometimes I was trying to convince myself as much as my children. Because one thing all single mothers have in common is the lack of support and empathy for their plight in this society (unless they were widowed). Mothers in general don’t get a lot of sympathy, but single mothers get even less. I’ve heard comments that range from, “What right does she have to complain? No one made her have children” to “Why should we have to make allowances for single mothers? Their children aren’t our responsibility.”

The bottom line is, when women find themselves raising their children alone, they soon have to face the fact that they really are alone. Even the mothers who have a strong support system are alone at the end of the day. Except for when their children are with their fathers, single mothers are never off-duty. And when there is no father in the picture (or a very uninvolved one), they soon learn that the buck always stops with them.

There are not a lot of support groups for single mothers, mainly because they wouldn’t have time for them anyway. But one thing they do have is a book that’s been around for 15 years: The Complete Single Mother: Reassuring Answers to Your Most Challenging Concerns by Andrea Engber and Leah Klungness, Ph.D. This 480-page book is now in its third edition and I can see why. It’s the most comprehensive book I’ve found on the subject and it’s full of no-nonsense advice and tips for how to survive single parenthood.

The thing that most impressed me about The Complete Single Mother is its recurring pep talk about not seeing yourself as a victim, but as a winner. It doesn’t gloss over how hard single motherhood can be, but it does present the difficulties as challenges that have solutions. It’s selling now on Amazon, new, for $10.88, but you can probably also borrow it from your library. I guarantee, though, that you’ll want to own it.

Andrea Engber is the founder and director of the National Association of Single Mothers. (See the organization’s official website at Single Mothers Online.) NOSM was founded in 1991 and besides having the website, it also publishes a bi-monthly magazine, Single Mother Magazine.

Further Reading (personal stories of single motherhood): Accidentally on Purpose by Mary F. Pols and Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott.

After a Divorce–When There Are Kids

Jon Gosselin has reportedly said, “Our marriage fell apart and I felt like I was free. And I kinda took advantage of it for a while and didn’t really think about my actions, obviously, until I started getting paparazzi and written about. But that’s maturing. That’s growing up.”

How nice. Our big boy is growing up. Now if he can just do it in time to help his children do the same–hopefully before their thirties and they have children of their own. And notice that it was the media attention that caused him to reflect on his behavior–not what his behavior might have been doing to his kids. Say what you will about Kate, she’s not the one dating several different people, going to clubs, buying an apartment that has no room for the kids. And that’s how it usually is. Divorced mothers seem to feel more of a sense of responsibility toward their children than do divorced fathers.

I don’t mean to pick on men, but in cases where they don’t get custody and only have visitation rights, it’s all too easy for them to become focused on their own issues instead of the day-to-day issues their children may have. It might be more fair to say that the parent who has custody is more conscious of and responsive to his or her children’s needs. But in a society where women are still awarded custody in the majority of divorces, it will naturally be the women who feel the responsibility more keenly than the men do. And so this post is about what women go through when they suddenly become single mothers.

  1. They’re always “on.” There’s no one else to spell them, to take over for even a few minutes.
  2. They have to take care of all the minutiae that makes up their children’s lives. The permission slip, the daily lunch money, the skinned knee, the upset tummy–the list is endless.
  3. They rarely have time for themselves. Not even to go to the bathroom.
  4. They don’t have anyone to share their kids with. At least not anyone who is privy to the same day-to-day information that they are. It’s lonely to not have anyone to turn to and say, “Remember when…?” or “Isn’t that cute?”
  5. They never get enough rest. You can’t when you’re trying to be two people.
  6. They never have enough money, even if they get child support. The little things add up quickly and the child support is basically used up by the big-ticket items (housing, food, clothing.)
  7. They are always being compared to the other parent and to other mothers (most of whom are not single). Especially by the kids themselves. And others: I once had my sister lecture me for being away from my kids nine hours a day, even though I had to work.
  8. They have to exercise superhuman self-control: over their mouths (and the things they want to say about their exes), their emotions, their sexual desires, their consumption habits, and their time.
  9. They are the only ones there to listen to their kids, an important but often underappreciated function.
  10. They have to give up their kids for part or all of every special occasion. The respite from caring for them never quite makes up for the loneliness.

I have a feeling that Kate Gosselin is aware of most of these things. And if she and Jon end up sharing custody evenly (and what do you want to bet that they don’t?), I hope Jon comes to accept these realities like the man he is striving to become.