Christina Robert holds a PhD in Family Social Science and Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Minnesota. More importantly, she is in the process of learning what it means to parent a very strong willed and independent toddler. She blogs about her journey and Parenting with a Purpose at www.singlemomontherun.com.
Being a single mother is not easy. Finances are hard; dealing with exs can be challenging; and balancing the needs of the child with the stressors of divorce, separation or co-parenting are all daily challenges for many single mothers. These realities are true for all types of families and couples: married, unmarried, dating, living together.
But what about those mothers who were never married or never living with the father of their child? How does one share a child that has just come into the world? Do you split the child down the middle with one taking one half and the other the other half? Obviously not. But that’s what it feels like at times.
Being a never-married single mother, I am more familiar with these challenges then I would like to be.
There’s a commonly used online-forum acronym, SAHM, which stands for Stay at Home Mom. Why isn’t NMSM used for Never Married Single Mother in the same way? I’ll tell you why. It’s not cool to be a NMSM. In certain parenting circles, single motherhood is swept under the rug like yesterday’s breakfast crumbs.
Three years ago, at the age of 41, with the clock ticking quickly, I chose to bring a life into the world. I made the choice to become a mother. My decision to bring a child into the world initially involved the vision of the oftentimes strived for ideal of a nuclear family. However, shortly into the pregnancy it became clear this was not to be. And so I began the journey of learning about single parenthood, alone.
Surprisingly, along with my decision came a host of societal implications about what motherhood should and is supposed to be. I was naive going into it all. I was not prepared for the fact that as a pregnant woman, I would be on the receiving end of so many conscious and subconscious beliefs and opinions about what a pregnant woman’s life should be like. For instance, there was the time a colleague of mine discovered I was pregnant while we were at University departmental holiday party. I said to her “Yes…I am pregnant.” Her eyes got bright and she looked very excited. And then she said “Oh!!! I didn’t know you were married!” Hello, societal expectations. This came from an almost PhD woman who worked professionally with families.
One of the hardest lessons I learned along the path of single mother pregnancy was that I would not be as accepted as I imagined I would be. I learned that it’s not easy being green. Unfortunately, I also learned that as a single pregnant woman you are not part of the “in crowd.”
The world sees a pregnant woman as one half of a whole, not as the whole. No matter where you go–doctor’s appointments, hospitals, coffee shops–there is an invisible man walking with you that the world sees and who has a name. He is Your Husband.
But in my case there was no husband.
Everyone would see this invisible man but it wasn’t until I would make it explicitly clear, verbally and otherwise, that the shadow would disappear and in its place a question mark on people’s faces. I think this was especially true because the information was coming from an upwardly mobile, well-educated white woman. “What do you mean there is no husband?” their faces would silently ask. “What do you mean there’s no boyfriend?” “Where did that baby come from?”
The most commonly asked question?
“How did this happen?” followed by a slight wave of their hand towards my belly.
I really don’t think I need to spell out the answer.
But just to make life fun, on occasion I did. At least I got to enjoy some shock value from time to time as I announced “I had sex.” What do you say to that? Clears it all up, doesn’t it?
I found myself gearing up for the ‘’We’re not married mode” whenever her father and I went somewhere together that involved birth preparation. One set of materials per couple. “We don’t live together.” “Ohhh…” and then a scramble on the facilitator’s part as he or she tried to find a spare set, or relinquishing her own, or agreeing to bring another set to the next class.
Forms to fill out? One area for the parent and the address of the parent. On some occasions two spaces yet still awkward and cumbersome. I also had to memorize her father’s social security number, address, phone number and birthday. Insurance materials: they can only go to one home. They go to the one who pays for the insurance, not the parent who manages the child’s health.
I can’t tell you how many times I was called “Mrs.” while pregnant. A good male friend of mine with whom I spent a lot of time was called “Dad” on multiple occasions while we were out for Sunday brunch. One waitress even pointed out how much my two-month-old daughter looked like my friend. We had a good chuckle over that. But even though I was laughing on the outside, making light of the situation, there was still a part of me that was crying on the inside.
This isn’t her father! She has a father but he’s not here. He is somewhere else, playing the role of part-time father.
I am writing this is because recently a 29-year-old woman was fired in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, from her job as a science teacher and volleyball coach because she became pregnant out of wedlock. She had been named “coach of the year” in recent years. The Christian school where she worked did not see her fit to serve as a role model for 4th graders. They did find that it was okay, however, to leave her unemployed and uninsured while she was six months pregnant.
What does that say about our society and its views towards unwed mothers?
For some it’s simply inconvenient and at times emotionally painful to be green. For others it’s downright cruel and harsh. I will never forget the vision I have of a woman in my single mothers’ group who was pregnant and also raising a toddler. She was put on bed rest while living alone in a trailer home with her first born. She would lie on the floor while her toddler played in the same room. She later lost the baby in utero while playing in the backyard with her child. The late term miscarriage was most likely due to poor prenatal care. I often wonder if things may have been different if she had had more support.
I realize that I have not painted a pretty picture of single motherhood in this piece. Obviously, there are many benefits and joys that come along with it as well. But at the same time I want to bring attention to society’s perceptions and expectations of single mothers and the ramifications that can result. For me, it has been simply a case of challenging some social norms. For that science teacher, however, being a single mother may have serious consequences for her and her child. How can we chip away at these negatively held beliefs about single motherhood? How can we make the world a more accepting place for all types of families? These are questions that deserve our serious consideration.