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Single Mothers: Not a Homogenous Group

Nov. 21, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

One woman's reality of single motherhood can be vastly different than another's, and yet we lump all single women who have children into the same group, as if they face the same challenges. It's worth noting that while 93% of single parent families are helmed by women, we should not forget the 7% who are men, and frequently overlooked. But the following paragraphs refer to typical situations, and other than the first, they reflect a society that is still bound to the traditional roles of mother and father.

The newest incarnation of the single mother is the one who shares parenting with her ex. Let's take "Sarah." Sarah was married to a lovely man, "Tom," and they had an amicable divorce. Because Sarah is a working woman and because Tom wants to spend as much time as possible with his children, the kids live one week at Sarah's and one week at Tom's. They live on the same block and are the definition of co-parents. Sarah has more free time than her married friends - Sarah's got it good. But she still calls herself a single mother, and this causes a certain amount of silent resentment amongst her women friends who think Sarah is living the life of riley, while plying for sympathy at the same time.

A much different group of women married men who make "big bucks" in demanding careers. These men provide both alimony and child support. "Tina" has the day-to-day job of raising the children, which is no small feat, but she doesn't have to work outside the home. Bill takes the kids every second weekend, for two weeks in the summer, and for a week during Christmas holidays. Bill is a good and loving father who has begun to resent the high-powered job that requires him to work 80 hours a week, and only offers 3 weeks vacation a year.

The next group of women is similar to the one above, minus the alimony. These women, like "Sharon," are far more stressed than Tina. Every second weekend can't come fast enough. Sharon's husband does provide minimal child support but Sharon has to work, as well as raise the kids mostly on her own. She was married for 12 years and didn't plan on working. She has few skills and now finds herself working for a pittance as an office assistant. She wishes that her ex was willing to share parenting time, as she finds the demands of working and being the only parent at home more than exhausting. She can't help but think she should have been more superficial when she married, maybe checked his income-tax report.

Things get even worse for the next group. This is the group of women who are the sole parent. This includes women who are widows. Wealthy widows are far better off than poor widows like "Jane"; money does not erase grief, but is certainly makes life smoother for both the widows and their children. Jane's children have to deal with a mother that is both grief-stricken and frantic - she is trying to solve the impossible riddle of how to be two people at one time, the provider and the nurturer.

Then there are the women who fell for men who can not manage fatherhood on any level, but had a devil-may-care attitude towards procreation. "Linda" is virtually the only parent simply because her ex "Billy" has chosen to throw his energy into demonizing Linda rather than caring for his children. She wishes he would get some therapy so that her children will not need it instead. Not only does Billy never see his children, he's never provided any financial support. As his children mature, they will see this as yet another sign he didn't care. When the kids are older, Billy will probably seek them out and blame their mother for the lack of contact. There are, however, no consequences for Billy, which only encourages Billy to resist finding the help he needs to become a responsible father. If men who abandoned their children were treated with the same antipathy as the women who do so, they would be far more likely to seek help.

This same society that forgives Billy has little sympathy for Linda; she has "made her bed" and not only will she suffer the consequences, so will her children. Linda is even more upset by a society that doesn't care about children living in poverty, as she is with Billy. A society that punishes women for picking neglectful men is one that punishes children for the "sins" of their fathers, while the fathers get off scott free.

Single mothers are not a homogenous group, and neither are the men who fathered their children. The range of realities for mothers who are not living with their original mates is vast, and the above categories are not all inclusive, however, they do demonstrate that circumstances can be far more difficult for some single mothers than others. I have barely scratched the surface; I have neglected to even mention the fathers that are so inconsistent in their support and contact that they can be as detrimental to their children as men who entirely abandon them. Picture the kids all dressed up waiting for Daddy on a Saturday morning, and he doesn't show up. A parent who does this on a frequent basis has created a torture chamber of fearful anticipation and crushing disappointment for their children.

Have I neglected to mention that women can be lousy parents, too? We can be lousy parents, but while women, like men, can be good or rotten parents, society not only expects women to be the primary care givers, the standards for "good" and "bad" are not the same. Women who give custody to the father are treated as unnatural abominations, and until that stops, we can expect that few women will opt to be the secondary care-giver.

Prior to the invention of the pill, men were generally held responsible for "getting a girl pregnant," and there was enormous pressure on men to uphold their responsibilities as fathers (hence the phrase: shotgun wedding). Since the advent of the birth-control pill and the accessibility of abortion, the responsibility has shifted almost entirely onto women. When this fallacious perception that men can not prevent pregnancy combines with the erroneous belief that women are biologically wired to mother successfully, no matter the circumstance, we create tragic situations for women like Linda, whose ex has vanished into thin air.

We need to change our beliefs about male and female roles in regards to caring for children. It takes a man and woman to bring a child into the world, they are equally responsible, and should be viewed as such. A shift in the traditional views of man as provider and woman as care-giver could lead to happier results in custody cases. The most urgent change needed is to realize that "single parent" does not properly describe the situation of sole parents, and women (or men) like Linda and the widow Jane, and their children, need far more help than they receive.

But there are few men, or women, who grasp the extent of the pressure that sole parents with minimal resources sustain. I would challenge every MP in Canada, man and woman, to spend a month in Linda or Jane's shoes. I imagine that policies in regards to sole parents might change, and that there might be more aid offered to these parents, whether female or male, who are faced with such a challenge.