Stop Telling Sons of Single Moms That They Have To Be 'The Man Of The House'

by Elaine Roth
Kentaroo Tryman/Getty

My house is very female. There’s me. There’s my daughter. Even my dog is female.

My son is the only male in our house. He has been, ever since I became a solo mom, when my husband, my children’s father, died a few years ago after a swift and vicious battle with brain cancer.

Growing up, my house was very female, too. There was my mom, my sister, and me. My brother was the lone male amid all that estrogen. Like me, my mom was a solo mom, though not due to death. In her case, my father left and never looked back—aside from the odd, day-late birthday phone call.

Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to hear folks pull my brother aside and tell him he needs to be the “man of the house” now that my mom is on her own. He was six when my dad left.

I remember watching these interactions, seeing my brother’s chin dip to his chest, watching how his gaze dropped to the ground and stayed there, as if the weight of all that was expected of him was too much.

It was too much. Even as a child, I knew it was too much to ask of a child. I knew that my little brother shouldn’t have to suddenly be an adult. He couldn’t be. What I didn’t know—was that I could speak up.

Now, those same words are being said to my son—thankfully, at least, with less frequency than my brother heard them. They—usually older men—look him in the eye and say, “You know, you need to be the man of the house now.”

This time, I know to speak up.

Telling a child that he needs to be “the man of the house” now that his father is gone—for whatever reason—is wildly problematic.

For one, what exactly does it mean to be “the man” of the house, anyway? That statement is steeped in outdated gender norms and heteronormative culture. Why does a household have to have a man in it? What does a “man” bring to a house that a woman can’t? For nearly four years, I’ve run our household by myself. I can definitively say that while it would be nice to have another adult to share the mental, emotional, and physical load of running a household, it’s not a “need,” nor does that adult have to be a man. (I’m fairly sure that if I teamed up with another widowed or solo mom, we’d run a kickass household.)

For two, and along the same lines, telling my son he must be the man of the house undercuts me as a capable parent. While I know the sentiment is well-intentioned—a way to prompt my headstrong son to do his chores without arguing, perhaps—it says to me that the speaker doesn’t believe I’m enough. It says the speaker believes I’m not capable.

Of course, we all need help. Realistically, no one can do it on their own. That’s why they (whoever “they” are) say it takes a village. But calling on my son to be that help pokes at the insecurity that already underlies every decision I make.

Not only does it then have an effect on me, but it also subconsciously sends him a message that I’m not enough, and then puts the burden on him to fill in the holes.

Which brings me to the part that truly guts me. That burden.

I remember seeing how much my brother struggled under the weight of other people’s expectations. How often he felt like a failure because he couldn’t fill shoes that were never meant to be filled by him. How he grew up feeling like he wasn’t enough.

I refuse to let my son struggle under that same weight.

My most important job as a parent is to protect my children. It’s a job I take seriously, one that takes precedence over all my other jobs.

Which is why my response to the statement that my son needs to be the man of the house is often swift and visceral, scorching a path up my spine in an effort to quickly erase it from my son’s consciousness. No, he does not need to be the man of the house now. He has no extra responsibility beyond the responsibilities he had in a two-parent household with a mother and a father.

What he needs is to be a kid, who feels loved and protected. A kid who doesn’t suddenly have to step into size eleven shoes with his size one sneakers because life threw our family a curve ball.

It’s 2021. It’s long past time to stop telling the sons of single (or solo) moms that they need to be the “man of the house.” To be honest, it’s long past time that we retired that phrase altogether.