You Are Not a Single Mom

Just because your husband is away this week does not mean you are “single parenting.”

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

“My husband’s away this week, so I’m a single mom.”

It’s a line I’ve heard too many times to count. It’s both humblebrag and complaint, an announcement of extra work and, perhaps, an unfair burden. It barely registered for me until I had a baby in a room full of people who were not my partner.

If you break your arm, you wouldn’t call yourself “disabled.” You’re parenting solo, but you are not a single mother. Your challenge is temporary, your relief around the corner. Why does your passing inconvenience make it OK to bogart my identity? Let’s retire this new mommyland slang.

Having a baby on my own is a dream come true, but in my world, there’s no sheepish spouse on his way home from a work trip to offer me a stretch of alone time. There’s no “trading off mornings”—I have slept in approximately two times in the last two years, hangovers be damned. Every day of every month, there is no one to ask if what my child just plunged into her mouth was stray food or a fridge magnet. No one to soothe her from the passenger seat while she bellows in back. No one to clean after I cook.

Yes, I’m complaining about being a single mom by choice. Just because I chose to have a kid on my own doesn’t mean I can’t be occasionally annoyed by it. If we couldn’t complain about anything we actively chose, straight women would have nothing to discuss over drinks. Whether you chose a passive-aggressive husband, workaholic wife, or life of single motherhood, we are all officially allowed—and uniquely qualified—to critique our own life experience. Please don’t pretend you’re living mine.

Of course, partnered women wouldn’t cannibalize the single mother if parenting weren’t such thankless, devalued work to begin with. Ours is not a culture that cares much for the work of care. Married mothers spend nearly twice as much time doing housework and child care than their husbands. We have to work extra hard to be recognized for a job well done. Becoming a “single mother” for the week is a slam dunk in the sympathy and recognition department. Who among us doesn’t need a little more of that?

But, really, the last thing you want to call yourself is a single mother. According to Mitt Romney, we rival the NRA in our ability to raise a nation of pistol-packing citizens. Plus, Americans are just not that into us: Seven out of 10 told Pew pollsters that we’re “bad for society.” Single mothers in France are given preferential access to day care. But here in America, we enjoy no such privileges. Single mothers are singled out, yes, but mostly to be openly judged or quietly penalized. When I inquired about financial aid at the day care I wanted my daughter to attend, I was informed my income would be assessed against the earnings of two-parent families. A couple of weeks ago, a new friend asked me what I cooked for dinner. I told her I kept it simple. When I asked her what she did for dinner, she said, “I cook, because I have a family.” If you’ve ever spent time with a woman who’s thinner than you but worries aloud about how “fat” she is, or the smart person who says how “stupid” she is, you know what I’m talking about.

I am sorry you are on your own this week, but you’re just visiting the life I lead 365 days a year. Besides, I’m guessing you’d probably pass on the more painful aspects of single mother life, like not being able to chaperone a class trip because of work or not having the money to buy what your kid really wants for her birthday.

Single motherhood is not a transient state, nor is it an ornament to your identity as a mom. You don’t give single motherhood more visibility or support when you identify as one. If you want to stand with me as a single mom—and I know so many of my friends and colleagues do—please don’t appropriate my burden as a way to validate your own. To suggest that you are single parenting when you are simply solo for the weekend devalues what real single mothers do. It trivializes the courage we have to summon every day to face, alone, the most exhilarating but terrifying kind of love that raising a child demands. So next time you have to deal with the bedtime routine on your own, maybe you could just say that your husband’s out of town.