The stereotype and the single mother

A quarter of this country's children are being raised by single mothers. They, and their moms, need support, not judgment.

I've been thinking a lot lately about single mothers — the concept and the people.

Maybe it's because I'm still receiving emails from agitated readers about my column crediting single mothers, among others, with helping reelect President Obama. That sounded to some, as one reader put it, like "tacit encouragement of single-parent over two-parent homes."

Or maybe it's because we're getting close to the date on the calendar when my husband died 19 years ago — leaving me with three little girls to raise, and shoving me into a demographic I never imagined I would join.

Or maybe it's because this Thanksgiving was, finally, a wake-up call. As I watched my daughters at the dinner table — so smart and charming and thoughtful — I couldn't help but marvel: Who are these delightful young women, and how did they turn out so well?

And that forced on me a broader question:

Why did I spend so many years obsessing over distressing statistics and mourning our family's fracture?

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I could never have imagined this bright tableau during those scary early days. I was worried, uncertain, even ashamed at points along the way.

It wasn't just the practical burden of going from two parents to one, or the emotional weariness of years of birthdays, track meets and parent-teacher nights alone.

It was the shadow of statistics and stereotypes that helped to weigh me down. Single mother, I realized, was not just a descriptor, but a license for strangers to criticize my children, my prospects, my morals.

There's no question that single-mother families struggle in ways that two-parent families don't. Unmarried women juggling jobs and children are apt to have less money, less time and fewer emotional resources to devote to their kids.

Those kids, statistics tell us, do worse in school and in life than their two-parented peers. They are less likely to graduate and more likely to be unemployed. The girls are at higher risk for teen pregnancies; the boys challenge their mothers with discipline problems.

But that big picture is layered in ways that make generalizing faulty: The middle-class divorcee with good child care and a steady job has different prospects than the teenage dropout raising children on welfare in the projects.

The label "single mother" doesn't recognize that. Its fallout swirls around all of us raising children without fathers, like the dust cloud that followed Pig Pen around in those old "Peanuts" comics.

The term seems straightforward enough. Single: unmarried, solitary. Mother: a female parent.

Yet we've larded it with so much cultural baggage, we can't agree on who qualifies or what the title signifies.

I used the term only once in my column, and was surprised by the tempest it unleashed.

"I personally think it's a good idea to be married before you have a baby," one man wrote, in an email dripping with sarcasm. "Are you advising your girls to give birth out of wedlock?"

His stereotype is clear as a bell: A single mother is a woman who's careless, selfish, irresponsible, comfortable with a welfare check and dismissive of a dad.

Other readers gave me a pass because I didn't choose my status.

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