Let’s Take the Stigma Out of Single Motherhood

Until recently, my family was considered socially acceptable because we are white, heterosexual, and my parents were married. However, my parents’ recent divorce has made the way society views single mothers clear to me.

When I first began to notice the way my mother was treated based on her marital status, I tried to ignore invasive conversations between strangers and my mother. I would put headphones in my ears and turn the music up loud enough to block out the conversation. I now realize that this problem and societal opinion is impossible to avoid.

Unfortunately, I cannot always put on my headphones when I am bothered by a certain question or conversation. I was recently traveling on a plane with my mother and sister when a flight attendant stopped at our row. She hesitated before giving my mother the customs and immigration forms and said, “Is your husband up front?” Her words seared through my chest, making me cringe. The attendant only spoke a few words, but with those few words, she was implying that my mother could not possibly be traveling with children without a husband, and that my mother was probably sitting in coach and my father in first class because she probably assumed he might have more money and status.

The attendant also seemed to be implying that my mother was incapable of filling out official documents by herself. I suddenly felt a deep discomfort and anger toward this seemingly new way my mother was being treated. When my mother responds to these types of questions with, “no husband,” many, especially men, look to her as if she owes them an explanation as to why she is not married. My mother is a strong, powerful woman, yet as I travel with her, I notice a sense of disrespect towards her when people notice the absence of a ring.

Our society clearly believes that being an unmarried woman with children is shameful and bad for society.

Today, in 2016, a woman’s value is placed on her marital status and on the man who is by her side. In her speech, We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about how women are still treated as second class citizens, not deserving of their own money or achievements. Girls are conditioned from a young age to see heterosexual marriage as the end goal or the biggest achievement, however, boys are told to not worry about marriage. Adichie writes,

“Our society teaches a woman at a certain age who is unmarried to see it as a deep personal failure. While a man at a certain age who is unmarried has not quite come around to making his pick.”

Women “of a certain age” who are seen without a ring on their finger are shamed by society as if not having a husband is punishable. In addition, single mothers are told that they are irresponsible and slutty. They are labeled as lazy, especially if they are poor. Mothers are criticized and told that they do not care about their children. Many of these criticisms often come from white males who do not understand the struggles of being a single mother.

If an unmarried woman has children she is seen as a disgrace or as destructive to society. Our society also silences the voices of women who do not fit the traditional wife and mother role. Women of color are also incredibly affected by the stigma of single motherhood. Our refusal to accommodate for non-traditional families has left many struggling without childcare and housing support. We live in a global community that accepts a single minded “feminism.”

When a woman is married to a man, her financial status and success is often credited to her husband. Our society assumes and perpetuates the idea that a woman would never make more money than a man, and that she would not be able to manage her own finances. For example, Adichie speaks about an instance when she tipped a valet, but instead of thanking her for the extra money the valet thanked her male friend.

In her critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In in a piece titled “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” bell hooks reveals that women who are credited for their success are often married, upper class, white women. By all accounts, Sandberg is a socially acceptable feminist, a woman who fulfills the traditional wife and mother role in a straight, cisgender household. Sandberg calls herself a feminist, yet she does not advocate for an end to sexist oppression. Instead, she encourages white women to be courageous and demand more for themselves in the workplace.

Sandberg provides a single narrative of feminism, which hooks calls faux feminism. She writes, “Sandberg confesses, she would rather not think about money matters when she could be planning little Dora parties for her kids.” This 1950s motherly image of Sandberg makes her feminism “unthreatening” to a racist and sexist patriarchy.

Of course, she need not worry about money because of her secure job as well as priviliged race and class status. She also does not need to worry about childcare because of her financial status and at the time, husband. Sandberg acts as if it is easy to have it all, but this is only true if you are straight, white, and wealthy. Sandberg does not acknowledge how her privilege provided by her race and class have played a role in her success. Sandberg uses the word woman, but is only referring to one who is white and privileged.

bell hooks remarks, “by not confronting the issues of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women in poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based shared struggle and solidarity.” Sandberg conveniently groups all women together without recognizing their differences and struggles in order to uplift herself and her “struggle.” For Sandberg, feminism is not a movement, it is an effort that each woman must fight for herself. Sanberg promotes the false idea that the capitalist business world is accessible to all, if they only just try to obtain it.

Unlike Sandberg, Audre Lorde successfully and poetically defines the racist patriarchy that oppresses all women. Lorde reminds us that we cannot understand sexism without acknowledging and valuing the differences that exist between all women. We must examine the many different systems, such as racism and classism, that intersect with sexism to contribute to the oppression of women. In her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde expresses that we cannot attempt to advocate for women without renouncing the very systems that oppress them. She writes,

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only sense of support.”

We cannot focus on the advancement of one type of woman, and especially not within the racist patriarchy that perpetuates the oppression of women of color. Through only acknowledging one woman’s story and idolizing her success as a married woman and businesswoman we are ignoring the experiences of women who are not married, straight, and white. By praising Sandberg for her “faux feminism” we are continuing to promote racist patriarchal oppression that allows only white, upper class women with husbands to succeed.

In her article “Wifey Material,” Farah K reveals that the sexualization and demeaning of women regarding traditional roles as wives and mothers is not a subject of the past. Farah speaks of how the term “wifey” or “wifey material” used on social media sites by youth perpetuates the idea that a woman’s place is in the home and her sole job should be to serve her husband. Any woman who does not fit the idea of a perfect wife, one who is white, skinny, and yet sexy is labeled as a slut: as worthless. She writes,

“It was disheartening for me to see a fellow teenage girl so blatantly rank herself above another girl based on these superficial, sexist qualities — qualities clearly based on men’s standards and preferences.”

Young girls are taught that they are only valuable if they fit a male’s perspective of beauty. If they do not fit these standards they are somehow a failure. Our male dominant society instills the idea in young women that their worth is solely determined by how a man views them.

Our society is also unaccommodating for the increasing changes in the traditional family household. The stigma of single motherhood disproportionately affects women of color. In the article “Breaking Through The Single Parenting Stigma, Carla Murphy discusses the perception of single mothers of color as a “social problem.” Many are quick to blame single mothers for childhood poverty, yet governmental programs and employers are not accommodating for “non-traditional” households. However, about 10 million children in the United States live in single mother households.

Murphy states, “A disproportionate number of black children (nearly 70 percent) are being raised in single-parent families.” Unfortunately, about 37% of single parent households are living in poverty. Single mother families need more accommodations for child care and housing options from employers and governmental programs.

The U.S. government has also been assessing poverty based on standards from the 1960s, which in no way can measure the level of poverty and assistance needed for individuals living below the modern poverty line today. Public housing is often unavailable for single parent households. In the same article by Murphy, single mother Chandra Pitts remarks, “In HUD housing complexes [privately owned subsidized housing] if there’s a male in the home, a single mother may not be qualified to live there. And if it’s a two-parent home, there’s just not as much support.”

Governmental policies are making it difficult for families in poverty to acquire housing which, in turn, creates single parent households.  Single mother families of color are also largely affected by the mass incarceration of men of color. The mass incarceration of men of color creates single mother families. The stigma surrounding single motherhood is a multifaceted issue. It intersects with child care, economic issues, governmental assistance programs, and mass incarceration.

Hanifa Barnes speaks of how women are often faced with risky and difficult decisions because of the lack of child support and are then labeled as neglectful in her piece entitled “A Tale Of Two Mothers.” Barnes tells the story of a single mother of color who left her children in a storage locker during the day and was later charged with child endangerment. This mother was out of options, as she could not afford housing and was forced to live out of a storage locker. Our society fails to place the blame on systems of government that do not protect and support single mothers.

Image from “A Tale Of Two Mothers (image credit: The Feminist Wire)

How can we bring about change and advocate for the women who are not white, not married, and not straight, women who do not fit our societal norms? Adichie argues that we must raise boys and girls differently. We cannot continue to raise girls with the mentality that their self-worth is determined by their husband. We must also change the way men and boys are expected to show their masculinity through demonstrating their financial status and hiding vulnerability. In doing so, we are perpetuating the idea that women cannot be in a position of power. We must change the way we determine respect. Adichie writes,

“A wedding ring will indeed automatically make her seem worthy of respect, while not wearing a wedding ring would make her easily dismissable- and this is in a modern workplace.”

Respect can no longer be determined by a woman’s worth to a man.

We must also uplift the voices and struggles of those who are often silenced. We cannot accept a single-minded idea of a successful woman. We must value and listen to the stories and experiences that might not be our own. We must create policies separate from the “master’s house” and the policies rooted in the oppression of women in order to bring about change for mothers largely affected by the stigma of single motherhood.

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