Miranda broke down in tears while talking to me. She’d suffered months of abuse by her husband following the birth of her son. He was going out all the time, didn’t show any interest in their son and spent what time he had at home on the Internet or watching TV. Conversations ended in arguments. Arguments sometimes ended in violence.
She knew she needed to get out. She acknowledged that she couldn’t love someone who couldn’t love her or their son as he should. But she continued to struggle with making the decision to leave. Why? “I don’t want my son to grow up without a father,” she said. “I don’t want him to have a broken home.”
Miranda is under the spell of cultural myths that don’t match her realities. She thinks that less than half a dad is better than none. She thinks that her son needs a male role model living under the same roof to grow up to be a man. She thinks that having a single mom will mean that his family is “broken.” We have more talking to do.
I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say it. Making a baby doesn’t make a man into a father. A man who isn’t interested in raising his child isn’t a dad. He’s a donor. Miranda’s son already doesn’t have a father. Having the donor stick around isn’t going to change that reality. Having an abusive man around the house is far more destructive to the child’s growth and development than being raised by a single mom.
She is also suffering from a sense of inadequacy when it comes to raising a boy. Miranda has the mistaken belief that she can’t celebrate his manliness as he grows and can’t provide important positive role models for what it means to be a man. She hasn’t yet gotten clear enough of those biases to consider whether what her husband is modeling is what she wants her son to learn. She underestimates her own importance and abilities.
Of equal concern to me is her notion that raising her son alone means that her home is “broken.” It doesn’t have to be. Single mothers are raising 40 percent of the children in America today. Most are doing it competently and lovingly. Their homes aren’t “broken.” They are whole because the mothers believe in their capacity to provide a safe and secure family that includes themselves and their kids in a complete universe of love. Although unlucky in finding a permanent partner, they’ve provided their children, girls as well as boys, positive, loving experiences with positive, loving men.
Yes, raising kids as a single mom (or dad for that matter) is challenging. But so is raising kids in a two-parent or multi-generation family. The challenges are different, not worse. With some attention to the unique issues of single parenting, single moms can adequately raise their sons and daughters to be good men and women.
Successful single moms have a number of things in common. When I asked a parenting group to pass along their advice, the women came up with this list of essentials:
- Network with other single moms. As one single mom of two said, “My living room floor is covered with kids sleeping over most Saturday nights. By giving other single moms a break, I earn time off for myself. By getting to know the mothers of my kids’ friends, I’ve developed a group of friends who are also parents. We give each other support, advice, and practical help.”
- Network with men as well as women. Both boys and girls need to have positive males in their lives. The boys need good models for who they can be as adults. The girls need to see that men can be worthy of their love. Surround your kids with positive male relatives if you have them, with male coaches and youth leaders and the positive partners of your friends if you don’t. Being a single mom doesn’t mean that men have to be absent from your children’s lives.
- Don’t try to do the work of two. It’s just true. When there are two parents, there are two people to share the load of household maintenance, cleaning and cooking chores, carpooling, and homework help. To single parent successfully means not trying to do the work of two. Kids don’t need gourmet meals to be well fed. They need clean clothes but they don’t need them all to be perfectly ironed. They do need you to play with them and read to them. You may have to give up making beds or planting a garden to have the time. Hire out what you can. Trade off with other parents. Find ways to reduce the number of things you have to do each day so you can do the important things well. One parent I know, for example, has her kids shower and get dressed for school before they go to bed. That’s right. They sleep in the clothes they are going to wear the next day. The kids certainly don’t get dirty while they are sleeping. And it reduces the stress and busyness of the morning so the family can enjoy breakfast together.
- Make time for yourself. When there are two parents, there are opportunities for one or the other parent to go off to take a class, have coffee with a friend, or go to the gym. Not so when a mom is on her own. But alone time is no less important because you are alone. Remember that mom network in No. 1? One of the many reasons to cultivate relationships with other single moms is that you can trade off supervision time. It’s important to take care of yourself. It’s important for your kids to understand that you have a life apart from them some of the time. It’s crucial to your own mental health to get a regular break.
- Do your recovery work. If, like Miranda, you’ve been hurt and disappointed in your relationship with the children’s father, it’s important to your own mental health and the emotional well-being of the children to deal with whatever anger, bitterness, or regret you carry. Your attitudes and emotions are in the air your children breathe. The kids need a mom who has been able to put that episode behind her and move on to make a happy life for herself.
- Embrace your kind of family. Successful single moms aren’t apologetic for their families. They don’t see themselves as second-rate or second-best. They truly believe they have as good a family as those fortunate enough to have been lucky in love and marriage. Their families may not reflect the cultural ideal but they can support children’s growth and development in their own way. When moms are proud of their family, the kids are too.