Defining what it means to be a single parent

Guest post by Jessica
Mom & Me early 1960's

I feel like I haven’t been up front about my “single mom” status. You see, I’ve always had this idea that a “single parent” was one that single-handedly raised a child without much help from the other parent. The reality of “single parenting” is much different.

Technically, any parent who is not married is a single parent. This means that even a couple who has been together for ten years and has chosen not to get married will go down on paper as single parents. Doesn’t seem fair.

Here’s where I feel I haven’t been up front: Chubbs’s dad just officially moved out. We haven’t been a couple for some time, but he was living with us. When I hurt my neck last December, he moved in to help out, and ended up staying longer than planned.

During that time, I felt some guilt calling myself a single parent. I knew that, by definition, I was, but I had such an image in my mind — a stereotype, I suppose — that I felt that I was lying if I said I was a single parent. Even though my ex and I have no romantic relationship, and he was dating while he was staying with me (which he probably doesn’t know that I know). On some level, I still felt like I had too much help to be a single parent.

I am relieved now that my situation matches up with my mental image, even if it is a stereotype. Not that Chubbs’s dad won’t be there for him; he just won’t be here to do things for me — like take out the trash — any more. We’ll stick to a more “traditional” single parenting style. And by “traditional,” I think I mean stereotypical. I’m a little disappointed in myself for that.

I’m nervous, but if I could go back to school full-time with a six-month-old baby while living alone with him, I think I can do it with an eighteen-month-old one. Still — please wish me luck!

What is your idea of a “single” parent? Do you think stereotypes like this one are damaging to families?

Comments on Defining what it means to be a single parent

  1. Hmm… imagine that, instead of Chubbs’s dad moving in with you to help out while you were sick, it was a relative of yours – a parent, a sibling, or even for some families a grown child who moves back in. Would you still consider yourself to be a single parent?

    I guess the difference is that, when Chubbs’s dad is in your home, he has nominally equal say in the raising and care of the child. A relative would, essentially, be babysitting the child under your direction. As a “single” parent, you have sole discretion over the well-being of your kid. When you’re co-habitating with the other parent, you don’t have that freedom, and consequently that burden.

  2. Thank you for this post! My husband is in El Salvador waiting for his visa to be able to come join our son and I here in the US. It has been very hard obviously to be apart. People frequently refer to be as “being a single parent”. While I feel like technically speaking I have been operating as a single parent I feel guilty saying that because I do have a husband.

  3. everyone has different view on being a single parent. it’s funny after my son was born everyone called me a single parent which i didn’t understand because well i live with my partner and we are together — just not married. yet i would never consider myself a single parent. so my idea of a single parent would be someone who’s on their own raising their child

  4. Interesting post! I never thought about my mom as a single parent although we lived with her after our parent’s divorce. Our dad insisted on having a say in so many things and was always there (whether we liked it or not, mostly not.) I think I would have balked at the time if someone called her a single parent. Words on paper (like checking the box single or married) are different than the complex variations in real life.

    I think of my husband’s mom as the stereotypical single mom: the father almost completely removed from the picture, raising kids without his input, visits, money, etc. I think I have a schema that puts parents who do have support from the other parent in a different category, like “separated parents.”

    It is really interesting that you perfectly describe yourself as falling into a social role. Almost to the point of stereotype threat? Single mom is such a loaded label, it deserves a lot of attention and maybe some rethinking.

    • I think there is definitely a difference between single parent and solo parent. The difference is practical (like, it’s never “your weekend” to have the kids, EVERY weekend is your weekend) and it is also psychological – like, nobody is ever coming to help. You are there morning, noon, night, eves, weekends by yourself. It feels really terrifying just the weight of it.

      • That’s often been a nark of mine when married friends have joked about their husbands going away and telling me they’re going to find out what it’s like to be a single parent like me. Uh … no sweetheart. You know your husband is returning at the end of that week, and in the meantime you’re still living on that shared income, and your haircut and doctor’s appointment can wait until he’s back. I know they’re just joking, but it’s still a bit insulting.

      • good point. I guess I always thought of “single parents” as SOLO parents–moms or dads who go it alone by choice, or by death of partner, partner leaving town permanantly, etc. I have so many friends who are no longer in romantic relationships with their child’s other parent, but are still really active in raising the child…Anyways, very thought-provoking. Thanks!

        • Yeah, I never thought of the “single” in single parent as a relationship status. I always thought of it as a numeric thing. The phrase “I am a single parent” to me would mean “I am the single parent that is raising this child” not “I am a parent and I am single.” I guess it’s good to know that there are people who use it the other way so that I’m not beyond confused when they mention the other parent like he’s still around or has a major say.

      • Kelli – I totally get this. I’m married to an awesome dad, who works in a job in such high demand that he is at work and can’t talk 12 hours a day, 6-7 days or nights a week. He trained long and hard to get here and we will be able to pay off our enormous loans this way, but the weight of raising our 3 kids is all physically mine. I have family and friends to lean on, but 95% of day-to-day parenting/housework/maintenence/shopping is my solo job. I’m not single, but I don’t fit in the regular partnered category either.

  5. I have another thought, too: are moms who embark on parenting as a single mom (ie, a single person choosing a sperm donor or single-parent adoption) the same “single parent” as someone who had a partner with whom they expected to raise their children? I think this is interesting because there must be a different frame of mind and different expectations between a person who embarked on parenthood without a partner and a person who had a pact of sorts with another person, understanding that the raising of the child would be shared.

    • Yeah, single-parent-by-choice is a whole fascinating evolution in family these days. The idea that no, I’m not parenting alone because things didn’t work out — I’m parenting alone because they worked out just how I wanted!

      • Well, even this label can be tricky. I called myself a single mother by choice when my son was born and was part of a support group of same. Rodrigues is right that is it a different frame of mind from a divorce or a parenting relationship not working out…which is why I thought the label was appropriate. I felt guilty if anyone felt too sorry for me, because I walked into it with my eyes open. But it wasn’t my first choice, and the same was true for most of the others in my group. I really wanted a partner, but when one wasn’t materializing, I decided to start with the baby.

  6. How about this… I live with my fiance and 3 month old daughter. I’ve decided to stay take a semester off of school to stay home with my little one while my fiance works full time and goes to school for 4 hours everyday. I’m not a single parent, no. But I’m alone with my daughter from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to sleep, when we’re lucky, Papas comes home to change between work and school and we get to hug and kiss him for about 10 minutes. During the night he’s home, but he’s also asleep, which means I’m still the only parent on duty for every 2 hour feeding and diaper change. Maybe that’s what being a house mama is about, and I know it would be harder if I didn’t have him working so the bills could be paid (and yes, so the trash could be thrown away!) but when it comes to the actual parenting part, it can feel very “single”.

    I grew up in a single parent household. My mom worked full time and took care of us all on her own. It’s interesting to me how having one parent working and one staying home really changes an experience.

  7. What an interesting post…and how sad it makes me that society labels those not married as “single parents.” I’m in a loving, committed partnership and I’m not sure we’ll ever get legally married, but we’re absolutely clear on having a family. Will I be a single parent? Hell no, I’ll have all the support in the world. And my folks, who divorced when I was 12, still shared custody and parenting of us kids, and I never thought of them as single parents. I guess my opinion on what makes a single parent is someone raising a child without the help of a committed romantic partner. But maybe that’s limited too though; if a mother moved in with her sister, who equally helped parent and raise a child, would that mother be considered a single parent?

  8. I’m married, but when I was pregnant my husband was living in a different city for school, and then when our daughter was 2-6 months old he could only find work in a different city, so there have been a lot of times that I have felt like a single parent.

    Single parents deserve a lot of respect. If I didn’t live close enough to my parents for them to help out, I don’t think I ever would have left the house during the months my husband was gone, and single parents do it every day.

  9. I’m not married to my partner, but we are a family and having a baby in December. One of my coworkers sent me an e-mail stating that she hoped I didn’t mind, but she had told “Betty” that I am pregnant because Betty is also a single mom and might have words of wisdom etc.
    I didn’t respond except to say that it is not a secret around the office so it’s ok. Then Betty came up to me to tell me that she was here if I ever needed to talk. And “I’m a single mom, too and I know what it’s like to do it alone.” For some reason I felt awkward saying that I am *not* single and *not* alone, but I appreciate the offer of support.
    We made a baby because we love each other and want a child together and it was a very natural and wonderful thing. I wanted to tell her that, but she may have taken it the wrong way or been offended. People seem to think it was a big “woops!” because we aren’t married, therefore I’m in some kind fo distress. (Not that there is anyting wrong with surprises! I think surprise pregancies are romantic and sexy and wonderful, too!)

    • “I think surprise pregancies are romantic and sexy and wonderful, too!”

      Oh I love this! Describes my situation so perfectly! ^-^

  10. I’m going to agree with some of the other commenters that someone with a partner, just not married, is not a single parent. That’s pretty “WIC”-y to say “unless you’re maaaaarried, then you’re a SINGLE parent,” even if you have been with your partner for 10 years. What about gay/lesbian/trans couples who might not be able to legally get married? I wouldn’t call those partnerships “single parenting.”

    This might be an American/Puritan leftover view (a lot of things are here…). In Europe, my impression is that a lot of couples have children before getting married, or with no intention of becoming married. If you look at some of the UK parenting forums, you might see that this is the case.

    The more we get away from these restricting puritannical concepts, the happier we will likely be, rather than vilifying or “labeling” everyone.

  11. When my son was younger and I first left his father, and then went back to school, I got a lot of sympathy from married or otherwise coupled parents about how they could never do what I was doing and it must be so HARD. I wanted to tell them to shove it mostly, I loved being a single parent (it’s easy with only one child I thought!), so much so I had wistful moments about being a single mom after I got engaged again. My parents were always around to help, and my son’s father was around, erratic as he is.

    Newly single with parents who now live 3 hours away and no other family in town, I’m realizing it’s tougher than I thought. My son’s father IS around, but he is not around much due to work so his every other weekends are shorter than the norm. I have so little time to myself, my son gets dragged to all kinds of appointments etc. just because there is no other option. I find it tough some days because I have always been used to having me time – and now that time is in such short supply.

    But at the end of the day…I still love it. My home is my home, the rules are made just to suit me and him. And he’s better off being raised by a happy solo mama than the alternative. Just no one feel sorry for the single moms!

  12. Throughout my dating life I met/ briefly dated several men who called themselves single fathers and capitalized on this to get women to fawn over them. The men would sort of claim “single dad” which gave women they met the impression they were raising their children entirely and that the mother was either dead or had abandoned their children, but that was never actually the case. In reality, they were just divorced fathers who saw their kids 1-2 times a week for the “fun” outings, like going to the zoo. And their mothers were raising them and sending them off to school every day. I thought that was really gross for the fathers to capitalize on their singleness, like if they bought a puppy to parade around in a park for female attention.

    I think a single parent is someone who has “full custody” or is doing most of the rearing with little help or support from the other parent. If they are divorced/separated and doing joint custody, they are more a parent who happens to be single.

    • Agreed. I’m not sure what term I would use for a parent who has sees their child once or twice a week for an outing but “single parent” isnt it.

      “Single Parent” to me means a person who is doing the day to day raising of the child with little or no help from the other parent. If they have joint custody or a lot of support from the other parent I would probably just consider them a parent that happens to be single.

      P.S I think it is awful that if you’re not married you’re considered “single”! Its very common in aus for defacto couples to have children and never bother getting married, but they dont get labelled as single parents.

    • Hi Liz,
      I’m a father with more-or-less equal-time custody of my daughter. As soon as it’s just the two of us, then *it’s just the two of us*. I’m fully responsible for all aspects of her care, entertainment, nutrition, and development (uh… not necessarily listed in order of priority). There’s no backup. If I’m having a bad day, there’s nobody to quietly slip my responsibilities out the door. It’s just us and nobody else, and that’s what being a single parent is all about.
      In my experience, it’s never a worthwhile exercise to try telling people what names they can use for themselves.

      • “If I’m having a bad day, there’s nobody to quietly slip my responsibilities out the door.”

        Couldn’t we say the same for any parent, especially any stay at home parent with a partner who works long hours? The inferences behind the label “single parent” are complex, but you’re right that it isn’t anyone’s job to decide what anyone else should call themselves. It is interesting to me to hear what different people think of when they hear “single mom.”

  13. I agree with what people here are saying, that raising kids without your partner, is single parenting, if you are married or not. But the feds don’t agree though. And so my wife is going to have to adopt our baby to be legally considered it’s mama too. Currently we are in the process of finding a lawyer so we can be all ready to file the paperwork when the little one arrives.

  14. I’m so thrilled to have my post featured here! Thanks for your comments, everyone, you’ve really shed a lot of light on the subject.

  15. This discussion is so fascinating to me because the things people are using to define single parenthood seem to overlap parenthood experiences and definitions for people who wouldn’t call themselves “single parents”. An interesting thing is also how much some of this has changed; my grandmother had a baby shortly after my grandfather left to fight in WWII, and didn’t see his kid for years. But having a father and some (not much) financial support from him, she would never have considered herself a “single mother”. But in those days, that term had even more heavy associations than today. In one sense it is fascinating to hash over labels, and then in another it points out just how useless they really are in understanding anyone’s experience.

  16. Considering the father of Jessica’s baby still helps out with taking care of said baby, I personally do not consider Jessica to be a single parent. The father is still very much in the picture.

    Now if he was not there at all, then I’d consider her to be a single parent.

    Suppose it depends on the person of course!

  17. I too have wondered about the conventional definition of single parent. I consider myself a single mother, because my daughter’s father has never been a part of her life. Fortunately, I have since found a boyfriend. We’ve been together for over a year, and my daughter is two. He helps out a lot with playing and watching over her, but I still consider myself a single mother, because I’m the one that deals with all the difficult situations!

  18. I have a question, and I don’t mean to insult anyone. I have read several comments concerning what the definition is of a single parent is. I have read many descriptions which seem to be more like shared parenting or part-time parenting. I have a friend who told me he is a single dad, he gets his child every other weekend. Then i wonder if he is a single parent, what does that make me? I am a proud father of my boy, now 14 months. I have had him on my own since he was 2 days, his mother has no involvement. I brought him home from the hospital, been 100% single and on my own, only a baby sitter for when i am working. So hats off to all those who truly are raising their children on their own, every night and every day! And please, I also commend those of you who are doing all they can to spend whatever time they can with their kids, they truly deserve all we can give.

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