The Subversive Joy of Being a Single Mother
And finding power outside the nuclear family
This is the mid-week essay for Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the places our politics and our personhood collide. This week’s newsletter is about being a single mother and the stigma and joy of building a life outside the nuclear family. If you love this newsletter, consider becoming a subscriber.
In April of 2020, a friend told me she felt bad for me. “The shutdown is hard enough with a husband, I can’t imagine doing it as a single mother.”
I understood she wanted to show empathy, an acknowledgement of what she imagined was my struggle. But the truth was I was better, better than I would have been doing had I been married. It was a truth universally acknowledged in my friend group texts: “Can you imagine if we had to quarantine with our ex husbands?” Even women who were the primary caretakers of their children and not given the 50/50 custody break agreed—it was easier alone.
The struggling single mother is a tragic specter of our cultural imagination. She’s poor, she’s struggling, she’s without a man.
It’s that last one that is the biggest offense.
According to a 2022 Pew Survey, “Some 47% of U.S. adults say single women raising children on their own is generally a bad thing for society, an increase of 7 percentage points from the 40% who said the same in a 2018 Center survey.”
White people are more likely to see single motherhood as a threat than Black, brown, or Asian. And a majority of men, 59 percent, see single motherhood as a threat compared to 37 percent of women.
Our country hates a single woman. We hate a single mother even more. Single mothers have been blamed for a rise in crime, school shootings, and well, nearly almost every societal problem in existence.
Single motherhood is correlated to lower incomes and higher school dropout rates, yes. But that is because our society punishes women who work and mothers in particular. The United States punishes single mothers economically. The U.S. has the world’s highest rate of single-parent households, the majority of those are headed by women. Working mothers earn 69 cents to the $1 earned by fathers. And women who become mothers see a 40 percent drop in their pay, while fathers see no impact to their income at all. A lack of paid parental leave and affordable childcare all compound that problem. And in response to this inequality, politicians tout marriage as a ticket out of poverty. There is a racial element to this. Single mothers tend to be Black women. So the cultural unease with the existence of single mothers sits at the intersection of racism, poverty, and the mass incarceration of women in America. We don’t like a woman alone. We don’t like a woman alone as a parent. And we don’t like a Black mother alone.
The discomfort sits in the sense of ownership over the female body, specifically the Black female body. A woman alone is worrisome. A woman acting out her reproductive capacity alone is horrifying.
But single mothers are not the problem. Rather, the problem is that our country stigmatizes and undercuts single mothers. And offers as the only solution to get married. But for so many women, marriage is just work of another kind, only it’s uncompensated.
This narrowing of opportunity is happening alongside a historic reversal of women’s rights. Roe is expected to be overturned by the end of the month and the pandemic saw women and mothers forced out of the workforce. Professions like childcare, teaching, and nursing, which employ a large percentage of women, were on the front lines of the pandemic and, as such, are experiencing high rates of burnout and turnover. Locked out of employment, given few options for reproductive access, women will be forced to give birth and forced to become mothers without adequate economic support or healthcare.
And America’s only answer seems to be: marry a man. In 2012, a researcher at the Brookings Institute studied family outcomes for single mothers and concluded women were better off married. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Tish Harrison Warren argued that a miserable marriage was preferable to no marriage at all, for the sake of her children.
Single mothers are not the threat, the American institution of marriage is.
These regressive ideas about partnership are based in a mythology that subverts the desires of women as simply those things that women have to give up — to be nailed to a cross to save children and partnerships. Additionally, a lot of the data that is used to scold single mothers is often untrustworthy, plagued by bias and inaccurate reporting. Still the response is indicative of a tightening bind around the choices and options women have, one represented by the Pew data, and that shows Americans are more willing to control a woman daring to parent alone than they are willing to control guns or the spread of a deadly virus.
And it shows how little people think of women, that they think their happiness is so disposable — that it should be sacrificed in service to the ideal of marriage. Marriage is hard, they say. And sure, some things are hard, but it shouldn’t be miserable. And if it is, then it’s the institution that should be chucked out, rather than the happiness of women.
But the prevalence of this logic isn’t surprising. Free women are destabilizing. Single women, single mothers, their existence, their radical happiness — it upsets the whole enterprise. Women and love are the infrastructure of this exploitative culture. You begin to examine love and partnership, question it, reject it, the entire system becomes weak.
And I am happy. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even when I was broke and ghostwriting op-eds to buy groceries, I was happy because I was finally free. This monolithic image of the exhausted single mother is simply a myth.
In fact, it seems to be the opposite. Even “happy” marriages are inherently unequal. Study after study shows that women still do the majority of the household and kid-rearing tasks in every marriage. Marriage is a raw deal.
Once, at a very fancy party, a woman, wine-drunk, leaned in to tell me of her awful marriage. I told her, “Leaving is easy, you just go.” She frowned. “But I don’t want to be poor.”
“I’ve been poor,” I told her. “But something I’ve never been is free.”
I think about this moment a lot, as I watch joking TikToks about women who don’t want to work and just want to get wifed up. I want to tell them that being a wife is the worst kind of work; it’s unpaid labor. It’s not creative. It’s uncompensated. It’s living for something or someone other than yourself. You get erased. Live for yourself.
It’s no small wonder that multi-level marketing companies prey on the frustrated ambitions of stay-at-home moms, who find themselves without economic opportunity and without a creative outlet.
Single women, single mothers, their existence, their radical happiness — it upsets the whole enterprise. Women and love are the infrastructure of this exploitative culture. You begin to examine love and partnership, question it, reject it, the entire system becomes weak.
There are groups and communities that focus on supporting and celebrating single mothers. Wealthy Single Mommy, a large Facebook group, exists to help single mothers find economic empowerment outside of marriage. This is good. But that still misses the point.
Groups like that exist to justify and ameliorate the cultural anxiety with single mothers. TikTok videos about single moms almost always show them as hot, young women with impossibly good hair, who are making money and going to the gym. They are doing it all. They are attractive to the male gaze without being a “drain on society.” She’s not a scary single mom. She’s one men like. She’s one of the one’s working hard.
And yet, defining the identity of single motherhood in opposition to the stereotype is still giving that stereotype cultural cache. Being the cool girl implies the existence of less cool girls. Working to remain attractive for men, while not parenting with one, still signals an availability, a space for men to see themselves and see need, where there simply is none.
Tying women’s sense of success and happiness to economic outcomes means that we will always be chained to a broken system that will always value the work of men over the work of women. As long as men hold that economic power, women will never be truly free.
In her essay for Catapult, “Why Are We So Afraid of Single Women?,” Heather O’Neill writes of single women and horror movies:
When we watch a horror film, the sight of a woman alone fills us with dread. We expect terrible things to happen to her. But she also fills us with a sense of supernatural expectation, because we know so little about what a single woman’s trajectory in life could possibly look like, without romance at the center of it. In days of yore, the woman alone would have been tied up and tossed in a river, nominally to ascertain whether she was a witch, but more simply just to get rid of her. Culturally, she remains an uneasy figure. It is not only men that are made uncomfortable by the idea of a woman existing beyond relationships—for women themselves this is an uncharted land.
There is a whole cottage industry designed to make women — white women in particular — feel unsafe out in the world. Murder podcasts and murder shows revel in the dark stories of women taken advantage of when they are alone. But as O’Neill so poignantly argues, the most unsafe place for a woman is home — most murderers are the husband, most violence occurs in the home. But the fear is necessary to control women from going out alone, from feeling comfortable in the spaces men occupy, from feeling truly free.
We consume these stories as our laws regress, pushing women down the funnel back into the home, where we tell them they will be safe with a man. Every 11 minutes a girl or woman is murdered by a family member. We have nothing to fear of the dark, we have nothing to fear from striking out alone.
In 2020, I helped my friend move out of her home and out of her bad marriage. I helped her pack, rented a truck, and fed her daughter mac and cheese. Her husband was out of town, and we had only a few hours to get her out of there. Months later, I asked her if she was okay. Was 2020 a bad year for her? She laughed. It was the best year. Even though she had primary care of three children. Even though she was working harder and homeschooling, and doing it all alone, she was free. And that, that was something she had never been.
There are not many good cultural scripts for the freedom of single motherhood. Movies after show the beleaguered single mother finding a new man. Even in my favorite single-mom movie, This Is My Life, based on the Meg Wolitzer book, the single mom turned stand-up comedian still finds a man. Sure, he’s ancillary to the story, almost a comedic prop of a human. But he’s there — allaying fears of a woman achieving dreams and having children on her own.
To quote Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, our culture is “so saturated with male bias that women almost never have a chance to see themselves culturally through their own eyes. So that finally, signals from their direct experience that conflict with the prevailing (male) culture are denied and repressed.”
I am a single mom and it’s the best decision I ever made — to blow up my life, to imagine a new one, one where happiness and partnership are based in community rather than individual relationships. I hear my married friends, even the ones happily partnered, joke all the time about their dreams of a commune, of women living together — the Golden Girls house is the platonic ideal. But it’s also not a joke; it’s an indictment of the misery of inequality and partnership.
In 2022, it is still radical for a woman to imagine her life without centering it around a man. I will never remarry. At this point in my life, I can’t even imagine having someone living with me. I love my freedom too much; I love the way I am finally able to live a life, not in service of others, but for myself.
I left my marriage early last year, mid-pandemic. I never thought I’d be this happy again but here I am. This past year and a half has been one of the best years of my life, and I feel it every time I’m out hiking solo, or going camping solo, or even sitting in my pjs drinking tea. Subtext: not having to smile or pretend or check in or do a damn thing I don’t want to do because someone else expects it, or worse, because I expect myself to do it for someone else. Your newsletters put so much of what I have experienced into a social and political context that validates my sense about what I’ve been through, and my choice to leave. I can’t wait for your book.
I have been a single mother since 1975. The 'children' are raised and doing well. Not criminals. Not in prison. One and electrical engineer and one an academic librarian. I felt such great releif and freedom when i became single. Finances were almost always tight but my son at age 7 pointed out that we were happier when we had less money and when I once told my daughter we were poor she pointed out that we were broke but not poor. I am glad to have lived single and to still be single. The marriages that I know well enough to 'know' i would not want to be part of for various reasons. My life is great both now and past no matter the struggles. I did it myself and did it if not always with class...it turned out well.