Years ago, when I was childless and in college, I began to waitress part-time. One of the other waitresses was a girl a little older than me, and I soon learned that the other wait-staff resented her a bit for the way she brandished her ‘single mom’ title for tips. I began to watch the way she made sure to let slip the phrase ‘single mom’ every time she engaged a table in small-talk while taking their orders. The way she looked down and sighed. Looked up again with a puppy-dog stare. If they inquired further, she would tell them wistfully how difficult it was to make ends meet as a single mom. Maybe she exaggerated her situation. Maybe she even lied when she told tables she had to make enough that night to pay the electric bill. Regardless, she was smart and she got what she wanted: every night when the wait-staff counted up their earnings, her stack of bills was considerably thicker. She’d discovered how to turn pity into profit. She became a savvy businesswoman in my eyes – one who had discreetly revolutionized the basic art of serving food into a psychological moneymaker.
A few years later when I myself became a single mother I learned that the waitress’s pleas for pity were not unique. Many others frequently flung their ‘single mom’ status into casual conversation, except that they weren’t doing it to pay the bills. No, these women did it because they knew that inevitably somebody would coo about their heroism, marvel at their saintly sacrifices, exclaim I don’t know how you do it! Super mom! And once the compliments and reassurances started, they would launch into stories of their perpetual victimhood. At the same time they weren’t interested in anyone’s advice, in recommendations on how to take action or make positive changes. No, they only wanted someone to reinforce their storybook roles as helpless damsels-in-distress.
But what I didn’t expect to find were mothers for whom the title ‘single mother’ was more a badge of honor than an excuse for pity and ensuing accolades about their heroism. They talked insistently, even defensively, about how ‘proud’ they were to be single mothers raising children with little to no father figures. I don’t need a man! One would often declare. (I believed her. I certainly don’t.) But when asked about her son, how he was dealing with the lack of paternal presence, she recycled the same mantra. He doesn’t need a father! She insisted once again that she was enough; a father was irrelevant to her son’s sense of wellbeing.
The problem with this dismissive attitude is that it involves an inherent disrespect of the child in question. A child is deprived of a parent, or at least of a stable two-parent home. She often said she was ‘proud’ to be a single mom, but I bet she wasn’t proud that her child missed out on living with his father. I bet she knew instinctively that her child deserved a father, or at least a healthy male role model. And she probably also knew the overwhelming statistics about children raised in single-parent homes: severe emotional issues, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol use being but a few of them. Clearly, kids who grow up in single-parent homes often feel deep loss, anger and anxiety. I would do my daughter a great disservice to dismiss or sugarcoat or delude myself about the psychological implications of her fatherless existence.
But am I going to wallow in it, or actively seek out the pity of others? No. I vehemently oppose the whole damsel-in-distress mentality. I firmly believe that I can do this whole “single-parenting, raising a healthy kid and following my dreams thing” sans man. But I don’t want this belief of mine to turn me into one of those look at me, I’m a proud single mom types either. I don’t want my own optimism, and my refusal to wallow in sad realities, to distance me from the sad realities of what my daughter will experience. I want to maintain a delicate balance, to be at once sensitive to the hardships ahead but not weighed down by them.
In conclusion, I believe that neither the ‘damsel-in-distress’ mentality nor the ‘defensively proud’ one best serves mom or child. When considering how to approach single motherhood, let us think of the children first: how they should sense that we are both confidently capable, and sensitively aware of the painful complexities. This isn’t an easy task: it requires heightened awareness and much introspection, as well as daily conscious communication with offspring. The rewards, however, are priceless. Every day single moms are raising children who defy the grim statistics and become well-adjusted, confident adults.