For as long as society has existed, single parents – particularly single mothers – have been looked down on, blamed for everything from child neglect to declining academic attainment to, as recently as last week, the increased use of AK-47s by insurgents and serial killers (!!). This decidedly risible premise, however, is one that seems to have taken root in some segments of the population… A kind of modern-day witch-hunt that, frankly, has got to stop.
Before I go any farther, let me clarify I’m not out to glorify or glamorize the idea of having and raising a child out of wedlock. I believe in the idea of family, and the positive effects of this essential unit of society in the development of well-heeled citizens. Yet the reality today, though, is that 26.2 percent of households in the U.S. are single-parent households (according to a 2010 analysis by Ascend, the Family Economic Security Program at the Aspen Institute). These increasingly large figures call for a different look at single-parenthood, if we are to have significant impact on policy and create an environment that supports the millions of children currently growing under this family structure.
To start off, there’s the offensive genderization of this issue: female-centered conversations about single parenthood seem to be based on pre-conceived notions about what “parenting” and “family” mean. Today’s single parent families come in all colors and sizes: there are divorced and widowed parents (male and female); successful single people who decide to become parents without a partner; committed gay couples who are unable to marry (thus, legally single) but have decided to give birth, adopt and/or become foster parents. In other words, not all single parents are women.
Beyond that, something even more pernicious is the fact that most single-parenting discussions ignore what is perhaps the most common, other side of the equation: the high incidence of paternal desertion, abuse and irresponsibility… thereby implying that having a child is the woman’s sole responsibility. But that alone could be the subject for a whole other series of articles.
Making things harsher, very few support programs are available to help these family units achieve some level of financial and emotional stability. The myth that these parents are the quintessential “moochers” who live off of the welfare system keeps being perpetuated, but it is simply not factual. According to the most recent figures from The Women’s Legal Defense & Education Fund, although two fifths of all single mothers are poor, only one tenth of all single mothers receive cash welfare assistance, and only two fifths of all single mothers receive Food Stamps.
The same study confirms that about two-thirds of single mothers work outside the home. This means we have an increasing amount of overburdened parents with limited financial resources and little or no support other than whatever community they are able to muster up in their limited free time. Most single parents carry a mind-boggling larger share of responsibilities than most, and do so while providing love and nurturing support for their children. And that, I believe, is the true requirement for a child to thrive: to live in a stable, loving home.
As a child, I witnessed first-hand the decay of my parent’s once-idyllic marriage into an increasingly unbearable relationship. After their divorce, my mom (as “the woman”), was left with three daughters but none of the financial assets from the marriage. I often witnessed my mother sob in silence when, for example, one of us got sick, as she faced the equally worrisome prospects of either leaving our side or losing the job she so desperately needed. I saw her sacrifice her own education in order to pay a good private school so we could get ours; letting good job and training opportunities pass her by so she could be around when we needed her.
With time, my mom succeeded in getting our family back on its feet, and in bringing us to this country so we could pursue a better life. She never complained or wallowed. She was – still is – our rock, taking on every adversity that befell our family with grace and love, all while facing social stigma and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Despite the odds, she eventually became a successful businesswoman, as did we, and we have her selfless sacrifice, perseverance and determination to thank for it.
For every example of an abusive single parent out there, there are millions more who, like my mother, give their children every available ounce of strength and love they possess. For every missed soccer practice or school recital, parents like her share a million first-hand examples of resilience, resourcefulness and bravery for a growing child to emulate.
The witch-hunt has got to stop. It is imperative that the antiquated, prejudiced views surrounding single parenthood stay where they belong: in the dark, distant past. It is time for our society to recognize the modern-day realities of single parenthood, and focus on searching for policy solutions that address the lack of support systems, economic inequality, and yes, the covert sexism inherent in the discussions about the topic. It’s time to stop using single parents as scapegoats for every malaise that affects this country.
Rather than romaticizing one kind of family, it’s time to give every family, every child a chance to a brighter future.
Elianne Ramos is Principal/CEO of Speak Hispanic Marketing and Vice-Chair, Marketing and PR for Latinos in Social Media (LATISM). Under LATISM, she is also Chief Editor of the LATISM blog, and hostess to weekly Twitter chats reaching over 18.8 million impressions. Follow her on Twitter @ergeekgoddess.