A few months ago, social scientist W. Bradford Wilcox insisted in Slate that it’s worse to be raised by a single mother even if you’re not poor. Children of single mothers, he argued, are more likely to end up as pregnant teens, or in jail, or otherwise in trouble. For centuries Wilcox’s has been the common view. But in an age when single motherhood is becoming more common, these mothers (and social science research) are starting to challenge that view. In fact, some believe that in an era when children are coddled and dependent for way too long, being a child of a single parent has distinct advantages.
Readers, we invite you to submit your testimonies on why being raised by a single mother, or being a single mother, has its benefits and might even be better than having both parents around. Send your essays to firstname.lastname@example.org and write “single mother” in the subject line. (Please check out our submission guidelines.) We will choose the best ones and run them on the blog. We’d love to hear from single dads and boys raised by single mothers, too.
If the forms ask, I check off the box that says “head of the household.” Gender: female. Eyes: brown. Occupation: queen. Queen of the castle. If there were a moat, it would be my moat. I would orchestrate all activities in the moat. Canoe races, water aerobics, turtle hunting, you know. This year marks the 10th that I have held such an esteemed domestic status. One decade. My first milestone.
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!
Ten years ago, I was not as ebullient, fearing the logistics, mainly, of my new arrangement—making house payments, changing filters in the attic, getting to soccer practices and ballet without splitting my body in half surgically. The apprehension was warranted; the details have been hard. I worried less, though, that my two daughters, now teenagers, would grow up as well as they would have had a proper father lived in their house. Now, I see that they have grown up with so much more. More than, I daresay, their peers from two-parent families have. Hence, the ruby in the cake.
Kids of unmarried parents, according to all of those studies (of rich moms and poor, educated moms and not-so), are supposed to be failures. They are supposed to abuse drugs, get pregnant, and end up in prison rather than grad school. One-fourth of them are supposed to experience the kind of emotional havoc that renders them useless forever. There is of course no data suggesting that these particular kids might have had similar paths regardless of the number of adults sleeping down the hall. But beyond that there is also the beauty that emerges from the strain, the impediments, even the sometimes terrifying knowledge that their parents might fail them. No single mom wants to fail them—provide less, teach less, support less, be less—but it is in our minds that we might. So we struggle, and over the long term, we impart to our children that struggle can be good. This is something they know intimately.
First, the easy lessons: money. Work hard for it. Save it. Choose what to spend it on. My kids have seen me write for a living at home, tutor, teach classes, and sew purses at the kitchen table so that I could be available to them after school. They know that I could earn more as a “regular” employee, but they’ve figured out how to assess the value of each option and of other things. They never ask for anything that costs a lot. They thank me for making dinner each night. When they were in elementary school, they put $124.58 in an envelope and gave it to me. It was everything that they had saved. I took one of the dollars and wrote on it: “This is my birthday present from my wonderful daughters who are selfless and sincere and my very special comrades.” I gave the rest back to them and told them not to ever worry. The bill is in a frame on a bookshelf by my desk.
Growing up in a house of girls, they’ve learned about independence, about teamwork, about climbing on ladders and lifting couches and fixing (OK, attempting to fix) leaky shower faucets. We have a tool box. We have a grill. (We also have a plumber if we need him.) Looking at the gear in my car trunk, a mechanic once asked if I was a gym teacher. Female strength is worth nurturing, and it just happens organically in an all-gal house.
Certainly, kids from two-parent families can cultivate these values from other contexts. But the real rough stuff is harder to duplicate. During a two-year period, process-servers pounded on our door during dinnertime. Once they pushed envelopes at us as we left ballet school on a day parents were invited to visit classes. Another time they ambushed us as we walked to the driveway to get into the car. The kids were young, so I made up stories: someone trying to sell us roofing services, someone mistaking me for someone else. When my daughters were in elementary school, I went to court for five different lawsuits, ultimately representing myself. When they were old enough, I told them the truth about where I had been. I told them about integrity, morality, and honesty and the difference between emotion and reason. I told them about the boyfriends they would one day have and the qualities that they should look for in a mate.
There is power in the negative example, and my kids have witnessed it first hand. They have felt the rancor, lived for a time in the forbidden middle. Yet they have learned and have emerged with the kind of human insight that will serve them well—the kind of insight I wish I had had before making a bad choice. Instead of hiding things, I started conversations about options, self-knowledge, trust. As a result, my daughters know how to make decisions for themselves and advocate for their needs.
Before the divorce, we lived just six blocks away in a large house, a fancy French-style manse that made me feel as if I were living in someone else’s house. After, to avoid a change in schools, we moved into one of the neighborhood’s original stone cottages, which is about one-fifth the size of our former home. It is charming and solid, though it needs a new roof and front path and bathroom vanity, testaments to the pressure of income, the continual weighing of worth. What’s a tight corner, anyway, when there is hardwood under the kitchen linoleum and college tuitions ahead. The girls would learn about value, and craft, and history, yes, they would. I, having already learned about value, and craft, and history, would find meaning in how the freezer door handle hit the wall.
We are surrounded by huge homes and the other accouterments of wealth. Kids here, and in similar bubbles of affluence, find gift-wrapped cars in the driveway when they turn 16, as well as one of the greatest predictors of success: support. In the recently published How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough argues that rich kids get the encouragement and poor ones get the grit, and he claims that one without the other gets no one very far. It is hard to spot the millionaire’s kid who mows the lawn or the middle-schooler on a free-lunch program who sees his parents before nine at night. I would maintain that children with a single parent get the winning combination.
A few summers ago, we held a tag sale on our front yard. I could have had the items picked up for donation, but the extra cash was helpful at the time. A little boy, about 5, made a beeline for my kids’ old soccer jerseys and, in minutes, had collected matching shorts, shin guards, and a pair of cleats. When his dad took out his wallet, my daughters did not want to accept his money. They told him it was a gift. A few days later, they started a charity that collects and distributes athletic shoes to kids who need them. They’ve given away hundreds of pairs.