The Single Mother Success Story Is No Excuse for a Superiority Complex


I love a piece about parenting that helps us understand different approaches and what works and what might not based on experiences or research. As a parent, I’m free to read it, take from it what might work for me and my child, and discard what won’t. I hate a piece about parenting that argues essentially, that there is one way to do it, whether it’s potty training, sleep training, breastfeeding, cloth or plastic diapers or how much you are supposed to hold your child and look it directly in the eye.

If there’s a “best parenting” dictum at all, it’s that, barring abuse, neglect, starvation or obviously anything that involves harm or not loving your kid, you do “whatever works.” So can we stop saying otherwise? I’m looking at you, person who wrote the essay “It’s Better to Be Raised By a Single Mom.”

Look I get it. You are a single mom, you made the best of difficult circumstances and you raised two lovely daughters and passed along that “winning combination” of encouragement and grit, which you cite from an author who argued that “rich kids get the encouragement and poor ones get the grit, and that one without the other gets no one very far.”

I applaud you. I commend you. You just want to do the happy victory dance of getting through a shit scenario with tons of good news to share. And you deserve it! Raising children is difficult, and the fewer the resources, the more difficult it is. Raising children who seem to have a humility, grace and determination in spite of few resources is even more difficult and praise-worthy.

But to turn around and not just generalize, but, ahem, lionize the experience of single motherhood and conclude that simply because you did it well, single mothering is actually a better parenting approach, is a slippery slope. Not to mention a slap in the face to single mothers who are struggling everywhere and don’t have your “grit.” Which, by the way, I can only assume, must mean you, too, were raised by a single mother. Because according to your logic, there’s no other way you could have gotten that.

What you mean to say is that it worked out for you. You didn’t want to do it, but you did, and it turned out pretty great. That’s what you mean. Say my car broke down, and I had to walk for five miles, but along the way I met someone who showed me how to change my own tire, and as a result, now I know how to change tires. That’s a positive! To conclude, however, that a broken-down car is a desirable thing is illogical. We still want our cars to run well and reliably. It’s still shitty when it breaks down. What is true is that sometimes a shitty situation can yield positive outcomes.

I am not saying all single motherhood scenarios are “broken down cars.” But for most women, it’s not their first choice. Furthermore, to pretend that it is a superior parenting approach for anyone other than the people for whom it is a success story ignores and mocks all the single mothers who are single mothers not by choice, but because they have been abandoned, and cannot make ends meet.

And all the single mothers who struggle every day, with mental illness, or exhaustion, or medical issues or any number of other circumstances that make their parenting experience extremely difficult and taxing, and whose children pay the price of that absentee parent, and the limitations of the one who is present. For all the single mothers who would not write an article saying how hard but superior it’s been. I’m sure it is better than your alternative choice, but what we’re looking for here is better choices and better resources. Not to do it alone.

Yes, it’s terrific and wonderful when a single mother story is a success story, and I’m more than willing to bet that there are more of those stories than we typically see. But the stats are there for a reason. Because usually, it’s really fucking hard, and the outcome doesn’t always have the warm sheen of a sitcommy Christmas special.

I can only guess that when most women become pregnant, their hope for their children usually involves maximum resources. Most women want a partner to help out. Most women prefer to have money, a job, time, good schools, loads of opportunities. What people can’t always control is whether that will all work out. We make the best of what we have, and, yes, sometimes that turns out pretty great. Just like in two-parent households, there are good parents and bad parents. There are also children who have a number of issues no matter how loving their parent is/parents are, deeming them, as the author puts it, “useless”:

Kids of unmarried parents, according to all of those studies (of rich moms and poor, educated moms and not-so), are supposed to be failures. They are supposed to abuse drugs, get pregnant, and end up in prison rather than grad school. One-fourth of them are supposed to experience the kind of emotional havoc that renders them useless forever. There is of course no data suggesting that these particular kids might have had similar paths regardless of the number of adults sleeping down the hall.

(I guess useless in this scenario means the kind of kid who would not start a charity, as her daughters did.)

And I get it, you don’t want to be a victim of the stereotype of the single mother responsible for raising a criminal. I can totally relate. There’s a study that says if you didn’t plan your pregnancy you are less likely to give resources to your child. It makes me so angry! I didn’t plan my pregnancy and all I do is figure out ways to give my child resources. But maybe I am the exception? Maybe it’s still statistically correct that many women are unable to do so?

And yes, we all know there are situations where women are better off alone than with the partners they had children with. If your partner is abusive, obviously you would be better off without them. If the relationship is toxic, obviously the children are better off away from that situation. There are any number of reasons why relationships don’t work, and children are raised by single mothers. (And fathers!)

But again, that doesn’t mean that single parenting is still a better overall approach. It just means it’s slowly becoming the norm, and that it can turn out just fine. And that in some cases, it’s even better, because with lack of resources CAN come grit and determination. Or, you know, not. Depends on the parent, and the child.

Anecdotally, of course, I know some single mothers, including my own, and not a one of them wanted to do it alone or would agree with the sentiment that it’s “better.” They might have preferred to not do it with the father of their child. They might see some of the positive outcomes in spite of the difficulty. But they all need and want help and resources, and the majority wanted that with a live-in, loving partner. And they, and their children, have suffered from not having those resources.

Plus, like the stats show, the single mother who wrote the article suffered a considerably less prosperous lifestyle after her divorce. Still, she was able to stay in the same neighborhood and keep her girls in the same good school. Most of the single mothers I know don’t have their kids in good schools to begin with, or entrepreneurial options, or writing careers that let them work from home. They work all the time, they rarely see their children, and they hope for the best.

There’s a reason we say “It takes a village” to raise a child. It’s because the task of parenting goes well beyond one person’s guidance, and extends to every person — friend, neighbor, teacher, janitor, coach — your child is influenced by, and those influences are desperately needed. Behind every successful child is more than just one parent, or two parents. It’s everyone and everything that has ever come along that child’s path, for better or for worse.

For the pro-single mom author, she concedes you might get this stuff from a two-parent household: “Certainly, kids from two-parent families can cultivate these values from other contexts. But the real rough stuff is harder to duplicate.”

I don’t know. Does a kid who has two parents who are never around learn grit? What about a kid with two parents in a toxically bad relationship? What about a kid with two parents where one or both have mental illness? What about a kid with two parents where one or both are depressed? There are a million ways to experience the school of hard knocks. We don’t have to go pretending that we don’t need the village to say so.

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