Single women vs. single mothers

We often hear women lament their status as a single mother, which implies that they are wholly responsible for their children. But is this necessarily true or are we confusing a single woman with being a single mother? A while ago there was an interesting post doing the rounds on social media. It stated simply:

“If your child’s father is emotionally, physically or financially available to their child, you are not a single mother, you are a single woman.” 

This poses a conundrum. On the one hand, the sentiment has attracted a fair amount of backlash. There are people who feel that society is getting too sensitive and too hung up on titles, words and implications. “Is there a difference?” some say.

However, the person who originally created the meme clearly struck a chord because it has been spread far and wide, and continues to pop up on newsfeeds everywhere. Defenders of the statement remind their followers that it takes a pretty exceptional set-up for fathers who are no longer with their baby-mamas to provide all three of the aforementioned support systems. Unless they have 24/7 access to their children, is it really possible for a father to be emotionally, physically and financially available to his children?

“The terms “single mom” and “single dad” evoke a sense of bravery and tenacity.”

To really understand why the complexity of the issue, it’s important to appreciate why the term “single mother” evokes such a strong sense of sympathy and solidarity. Traditionally, single mothers provide for their children on their own. They work full-time jobs, and attend school sports days and parent evenings on their own.

The responsibility of school fees, uniforms, extramural activities and all the accessories that come with childhood fall entirely on her shoulders. Unless she has managed to secure a really good medical aid plan at her job, she must also face medical bills – all this above and beyond the basics like food and shelter.

When the father is involved in his child’s life he pays at least 50% of these expenses. He makes sure that he spends as much time as possible with his children and makes himself available to them when they need him. But does this mean that the mothers who share parental responsibility with loving fathers do not “deserve” the “single mom” moniker?

And what about single dads? Are they more, or less, deserving if they gained custody of the children? Must they spend more time with their children than the men who get every second weekend?

The terms “single mom” and “single dad” evoke a sense of bravery and tenacity. But all this bickering online over the title implies that people don’t want to share it. If we’re going to be more careful with how we pigeonhole parents, what would be our criteria? We can all agree that we know what “single” means. And we know what mother and father means. Do you lose your right to be called a single mother or father if you’re co-parenting? Must you suffer more to deserve the term, or can simply being one suffice?

This argument also opens up a painful, but very real issue for single fathers. In South Africa, mothers are still more likely to get custody of their children. A single man who takes care of his children every other weekend is surely still a single father.

As parents – married, co-parenting or single – we must show more compassion to those in the trenches with us. It really does take a village to raise a child and there are both mothers and fathers who do it all alone; there are couples who continue to be there for their children despite no longer being in a relationship with each other.

We must build each other up. I do not believe that a loving mother or father should have their title revoked. I do not believe that the term “single mother/father” should be a closely guarded phrase. Parenting is a gift, and life is hard enough already.

Also read:

Rules of ‘how to be a dad’ are changing as gender roles continue to blur
Meeting the challenges of being a single father