“Being a Single Parent Is Many Things. But It Is Not Failure.”

Slate readers on the upsides of single parenthood.

Mother holding and kissing her son outdoors.

Mother holding and kissing her son outdoors.

Photo by Polka Dot Images/Thinkstock.

When couples celebrate their 10th anniversary, they might buy important jewelry and give it to each other to wear. Sometimes they surprise each other and hide the jewels under napkins or in soup bowls. That’s because a decade is a long time, a long time to share towels and make compromises and most often raise kids. In marital circles, it is an accomplishment. In unmarital circles, OK, in my unmarital circle, a decade of parenting—alone, without the relationship part—is not an accomplishment. It is a Sisyphean feat. It is like jogging to Uzbekistan. Or deciphering the human genome. I am going to buy a ruby and bake it into a cake and forget that I did it and give it to myself. Surprise! Happy anniversary!

These are the words of Pamela Kripke, who last week wrote an essay for Slate about her experience as a single mother. Under the headline, “It’s Better To Be Raised By a Single Mom,” Kripke detailed the feats and failures of single motherhood and, most importantly to her, the grit she is sure she has passed on to her two daughters—“the beauty that emerges from the strain, the impediments, even the sometimes terrifying knowledge that their parents might fail them.”

We asked readers to write in with their own experiences, either of being a single mother or of being raised by one, and most also proudly identified this somewhat intangible characteristic of grit in their kids, a pride both for their kids and for a parenting job well done. From single mother Sarah Wilson:

I’ve been a single mom for over two years. It wasn’t by choice. I was married and trying very hard to make my family work. My ex-husband walked out two weeks before Christmas while I was in the middle of law school exams, leaving me with a child who had just turned 2, a mortgage on a house that was underwater, and no idea how I was going to make it. Of course my daughter is going to be tougher and more resilient as a result, but not because I’ve short-changed her, or sent her to daycare, or told her there wasn’t money to play soccer this year. Plenty of kids face those kind of “challenges” and much more. My daughter is going to have grit because she’s seen it modeled by me her whole life. Mommy got out of bed, finished school, kept the house, paid the bills, and handled herself with grace in the face of obstacles.

Another single mom, Nancy Mure, echoes this sentiment—that there is a great benefit to what she is modeling for her children:

I am a flawed human most days, always apologizing for being scrambled or forgetting this or that, but my kids don’t see me as perfect, and I prefer it that way. Where our previous life was seen by most as kept in a neat and tidy box as a “together family,” it isn’t now—and we’ve all learned to function in that. We are the privileged ones. We are the ones who have the coping mechanisms needed to get through life.

From those who wrote in, it’s clear that single mothers appreciate this grit in their children, but do children appreciate having had to acquire it? Annie McDonald, who was raised by a single mother from the age of 2, says yes:

My mother, sister, and I would spend family evenings at the kitchen table licking green stamps to fill out the $5 booklets from the local pharmacy. We turned those booklets in not for prizes (as some do), but for cash so that we could buy groceries. 

My mother fixed the plumbing and the wiring when she could. She installed linoleum, ceramic tile, and wall paneling. She framed out a wall in the basement to create that second bedroom. She learned how to make stained glass windows and took on small commissions.

She raised us with a firm hand and was a strict disciplinarian. Granted, she had her faults and was by no means a saint. But she raised us with a capacity for learning and curiosity that was unparalleled among my childhood peer group. And from our experiences, my sister and I have developed incredibly strong coping devices that have gotten us through hard times of our own.

What about having no male role model in the house? For Wilson, the absence of a husband will, she hopes, actually serve to help her daughter find a good mate later in life. “I hope she’ll learn from our teamwork that she deserves a true partner in her future life. If I had stayed married to my ex-husband, I might have inadvertently taught her that women work, cook, clean, and raise the kids while men do what they want.”

Mure goes further, expressing a certain freedom that she feels exists in a household without “the man voice”:

Minus the man voice, the lines of communication here are wide open. There is no intimidation, no judgment, no apprehension. If someone’s feeling something—it’s put out there. We discuss it. We find the humor in it. These conversations usually occur at dinner, the meal we eat together every night. The meal cooked by me and appreciated by the kids. The meal eaten on the table my son sets and my daughter cleans up and the meal over which conversation flows. 

Dave Steel, who grew up without a dad around, doesn’t see it quite the same way. “Like other fatherless boys,” he writes, “my life was defined by my dad’s absence. In fact, never knowing my father shaped me as much, or more, as did being raised by mom alone.” Like the others, Steel goes on to write about the resourcefulness he gained out of necessity:

While other kids my age were given cars when they turned 16, or drove around in spare family cars, I developed and executed a game plan to acquire a car and driver’s license entirely on my own. I took the city bus to a grocery store, got a job bagging groceries, opened a bank account, enrolled in a driver’s ed school across the street from the grocery store where I worked, got my license, and bought a junker for $400. Doing all of this took a year, and the car ended up lasting four months.

But he also writes beautifully about how difficult it is for a young man to grow up without a male model in the house—“becoming a man when you’ve grown up without one in your life is like building an airplane while flying it”—just as single father Robert Danberg writes beautifully about figuring out how to be a good dad to his kids. “I am a father unlike the father I had,” he writes, “simply because a man whose children were born in 1965 understood the blessings and obligations differently than a man whose children were born in the ’90s and ’00s. You could say that, as a father, I’ve tried to be what I’ve understood was a good mother.”

While most of us tend to view the family structure options as (a) two-parent family, (b) single mom-led family, or (c) single dad-led family, Pia Volk wrote in to remind us that there is a “(d)”:

My 8-year-old son and I live in a shared flat with three other adults, a journalist and two doctors. We are like a family, just that we haven chosen each other because we like each other rather than because we are connected by bloodline. My flatmates teach my son skills that I don’t have: One plays chess with him, the other piano, the next one soccer. By law, I am a single mother. By life, my son is a tribal project of the modern kind.

From the sons and daughters of single moms to the single mothers and fathers themselves, one thread that carried through all of the reader responses was a thoughtfulness about what parents pass on to their children—this idea that single parents aren’t just scraping by and parenting from a haggard haze, but rather that they are molding their parenting philosophies to the circumstances of their lives. Take Theresa Verhaalen:

While many of my daughter’s schoolmates have parents who disallow their children from setting foot to pavement on the way to school, I don’t have time for that. While it may be frowned upon, I look at it as granting her a path to self-confidence in a world of paranoia. This way, she learns to use common sense.

I doubt I’ll forget the day when she walked six blocks to a friend’s house. The mom called me while I was at my desk, alarmed. “Were you aware that she was out there alone?” I calmly answered that I was happy she did this on her own, but she hadn’t notified me before (which was the truth, the sly bugger). I had to listen to a litany about danger/responsibility/strangers and on and on. When the convo was over, I later patted my daughter on the back for her intuitiveness, told her not to walk to that friend’s house again, and let it be.

It’s not about throwing caution to the wind as much as it is about using common sense safety. I want my daughter to know how to handle emergencies, to have the freedom to trust her instincts. I am training her to be an adult after all. Where two-parent households may view it as unfortunate that she walks to and from school, that she doesn’t have the amenities that go along with having a larger financial budget, I shrug it off.

Being a single parent is many things. But it is not failure. Not in my house.