While mom-shaming can occur around the standard issues of working versus staying at home, breast versus bottle feeding, and whether or not the mini carrots are organic, single-mom-shaming is an underreported and underdiscussed phenomenon that affects many women’s relationships with their families and communities, professional accomplishments, and even legal challenges.
The shaming usually comes in the form of comments—some are innocent but nonetheless offensive, while others feel downright demoralizing. The culprits can be married mom friends, immediate family members, close friends, colleagues, and religious communities all of whom tend to have very strong feelings about how a woman should raise her children. Here are some of the worst offenders I've experienced. In sharing this, my intention isn't to shame the shamers but rather to raise awareness around single-mom-shaming:
1. "Aren't you going to get married again, soon?"
Whether facing divorce, a breakup, or a pregnancy outside of marriage, family members are often guilty of shaming moms for their decisions to create a family outside the lines of a traditional marriage. "Family is the worst for me," said a California nurse and mom of one. "My father constantly makes comments that I should be getting married in the near future. I constantly tell him I want to focus on my family before I let someone new in. He struggles to acknowledge me and my son as a family unit, complete without a man."
The disconnect between the way things "should be" and how they are is more stark than ever. Today, a third of families with children at home are headed by single moms, and a full 64 percent of millennial moms have had babies outside of marriage. While divorce rates are believed to hover at around 50 percent, it wouldn't be outlandish to predict that single-mom households could tip the majority in the near future. After all, the "traditional" two-parent, married, heterosexual couple with children has no longer been the form of the majority of U.S. families since 2014. Indeed, marriage rates have hit historic lows, and surveys of millennials show that increasing numbers are eschewing the idea of traditional marriage.
2. "You didn't choose your husband wisely."
Of course, it doesn't always sound exactly like this. "The most frustrating is being judged that I didn't choose my husband wisely," said one divorced mom I'll call Karla who frequently withstands comments including, "What did you see in him?" or "You should have been more careful choosing a life partner."
There's implicit judgment and shame in this statement, but the underlying assertion is that a woman and her children need a man in the house full-time, and it's simply not true. "The overall assumption that children without a father grow up worse than children with a father," says one mom. "In my case, it is actually 100 times better that my kid is as far away from her biological father as possible." Every family is different, so be sure you're not jumping to conclusions when talking about her partnership preferences.
3. "Isn't it nice to have a man in the house?"
Karla also fields comments from her male friends that insinuate she can't go it alone. "I also don't like people assuming that I'm lonely. Recently a male friend visited and actually said, ‘Isn't it nice to have a man in the house?’ when all I kept thinking was, 'Gee, I sure would love some alone time now that my kid is asleep—and not with a needy man looking for validation.'"
4. "You should really start dating."
Another single and successful mom, Berta, shares her experience with people urging her to date. "People are constantly telling me I need to start dating, like my end goal should be finding a husband. It seems as if we are not allowed to be happy and successful on our own!"
5. "You're a threat to me and other married couples."
This presumption that single moms are in constant, hot pursuit of a man is magnified by the threat that a perceivably sexually available woman poses to other women. Being romantically unattached often relegates single moms to outsider status in social circles dominated by married couples. Reports one Nashville mom, "I am fortunate enough to live on a street with many sweet families—there are always playmates for my children. Not quite so much for me. Out of the 10 or so couples, there is only one who includes me in the 'grown-up' dinner parties. I’ve seen some of the other wives essentially scold their husbands for laughing at a very innocent joke I made at one of these dinner parties. I know I’m seen as a threat for no other reason than the fact that I’m a single mom."
6. "You're not up for the job."
Single-mom-shaming is far from limited to neighborhood dinner-party scenarios. Workplace discrimination is another common issue for single moms. Alicia, a senior sales manager, said that despite outselling her colleagues by more than 40 percent for years, her single motherhood leads others to presume she is not up for the job. "There have been countless occasions when I have been left off meeting invites, not invited to client or corporate events, passed up for promotions, had my capabilities questioned, and had other perks denied that were granted to my all male colleagues," with the presumption that child care and time management precluded her involvement.
The negative cultural connotations around single motherhood are felt in other ways, too. One extremely successful law firm partner experienced her family status being used against her in litigation regarding her involvement in a business matter. "My single-mother status was raised repeatedly in the pleadings even though it was completely irrelevant to the legal issues at hand," she told me. "That I am a single mom was used as a slur in an effort to delegitimize me as a lawyer. There was no reason to bring it up, and nobody talked about the marital status of married male partners who were also involved in the case.”
7. "Do your children have the same dad?"
Shana Swain, a woman of color and mom of two based in South Carolina, said she believes unfounded assumptions about black families is at the root of frequent comments like, "Do your children have the same dad?" and "Giving your kids the right education will be a challenge for you as a single mom."
"When I was pregnant the first time, at almost 33 years old, a client I saw weekly and was very friendly with asked me if I knew who the father was," said the writer. "I could not let that go!"
8. "You're not a 'real' single mom."
Aside from the assertion from married moms that they are temporary "single moms" because their husbands travel frequently or are away for the weekend with friends, which is enraging for uncoupled mothers, there is toxic infighting among unpartnered moms about who qualifies as a "real" single mom.
This hairsplitting creates a system that shames women who are perceived to have it better than others. Moms who benefit from an involved co-parent, child support, or financial comfort—no matter how it came to be—can be deemed outsiders. This assertion only perpetuates the stereotype that single moms are down and out, whether in terms of financial, emotional, logistical, or social resources.
It's time to look at the root of mom-shaming.
Indeed, it is often the self-shaming of single mothers that is at the root of the issue. Many single moms contend with presumptive, judgy or pitying pressures by remembering that single motherhood is not automatically worse than a traditional marriage—which many know firsthand are usually far less rosy than the public face couples put on.
Single moms are amazing.
"When people say, ‘I’m sorry’ in response to me being a single parent, I say, ‘I'm not. Being a single parent is like going to Burger King—you can have it your way. It’s much easier for me to be a single parent than it ever was to try to co-parent with my ex," says Diana Lilly, single mom of two.
But now more often than not, I find that single moms do feel pride in their new lives—and want others to know. Says Houston professor and mom-of-two Jamie Baker, "Since getting divorced, I have found myself again. I am a happier, fitter, healthier, richer, and more content person, which makes me a better mom, friend, and employee. No apologies or pity needed for this single mom!"
For more inspiring stories of families who've chosen nontraditional journeys, check out mbg's Parenting Paths series.