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Roughly 24 million, or one-third of all American children under age 18, are living with an unmarried parent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis last year of US Census Bureau data. And 81% of those single parent homes are headed by a mom.
This has been a growing trend since the late 1960s. The number of kids being raised by mostly single moms has more than doubled between 1968 and 2017.
Yet despite growing up in the middle of this trend, in the 1970s and ’80s, when divorce was increasingly common and “Kramer vs. Kramer” felt like the documentary of our childhood, and despite being part of a generation of latchkey kids who came home from school while parents were still at work, I was, I confess, embarrassed to be raised by a single mom when I was growing up.
For the majority of my 12 years of Catholic school, I was the only student who lived with one parent. And for that reason, I was also, demonstratively, the poorest kid in my school. We lived off one paycheck, or paychecks when my mom held multiple jobs at once. The modest child support went to school tuition.
Like most kids, I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be “normal.” “Why can’t we just be normal?” I’d often lament to my mom.
I was embarrassed by our car, which broke down; embarrassed that we didn’t seem to go anywhere for vacation; that I didn’t have brand-name clothes (thank God for school uniforms that greatly leveled the playing field); or video games; or cable TV; or anything else that my classmates had. I was embarrassed that my dad, who lived in a neighboring state, never came to any school events.
And I was teased for it. “Why don’t you get a new car?” “Your gym shoes are fake Nikes.” “Do you even have a dad?” I was often angry. I got into a lot of fights. When the principal’s office called home because I got into it with another kid, it was always my mom who had to come in.
Of course, my mother, like all parents, only added to that embarrassment. She was, and still is, artistically inclined and health-conscious. We went to museums and art stores instead of amusement parks and toy stores. I went to a summer camp run by cloistered monks … in heavy brown robes. My mom performed in community theater and sometimes roped me into bit parts. We went to clown school … together. At Christmas, I often got books and clothes. And my mom shopped for groceries at health food stores, which was much more unusual back then and involved a lot of bulk foods, homegrown sprouts and warm, freshly ground peanut butter. I had an all-carob Easter one year. I was embarrassed by my un-tradable school lunches and embarrassed at meals when friends spent the night.
Sitting under a framed movie poster of Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi,” my friend would stare at an unappetizing breakfast bowl of “natural” cereal I poured for him out of a bulk food bag. His breath would blow a few rice puffs out of the bowl and across the table. “We can drizzle honey on it!” I’d say, as if that would solve everything. And then he’d go home to eat his Honeycomb or Count Chocula or whatever.
“Why can’t we just be normal?”
The kids are all right
There has been a lot of research over the decades that has shown children of single parents report more family distress and conflict and live at a lower socioeconomic status compared to those growing up in two-parent households. Two-parent families usually have more income and are generally able to provide more emotional resources to children, and that’s also a reflection of how little the United States in general does to support working mothers with parental paid leave and access to more health services and quality education.
And of course, it’s difficult to compare single parenting outcomes to hypothetical alternatives. For many, a single mom can create a much safer or more stable environment than living with an abusive parent and spouse. Just growing up in an unhappy marriage has an effect on children.
A recent study, however, looked at the long-term effects of single parenthood on kids and found that it had nearly no impact on their general life satisfaction. The authors also found no evidence “supporting the widely held notion from popular science that boys are more affected than girls by the absence of their fathers.” What mattered most in terms of thriving, they concluded, was the quality and strength of the relationship between children and parents.
A separate 10-year study on single parenting that collected data from 40,000 households in the UK came to a similar conclusion last year. “There is no evidence of a negative impact of living in a single parent household on children’s wellbeing, with regard to self-reported life satisfaction, quality of peer relationships, or positivity about family life,” the report states. “Children who are living or have lived in single parent families score as highly, or higher, against each measure of wellbeing than those who have always lived in two parent families”
Speaking for myself, I’d go further and say there were benefits to being raised by a single mother, that it was foundational to becoming the adult I am now.
Being raised by a single parent required an Emersonian amount of self-reliance. I got myself to school in the morning, figured out how to apply to college, paid my way through that education and embarked on a career with no shortcuts or introductions. Our poverty made me class-conscious even as I earned my way into the middle class myself. My role model for what women are and should be was smart, strong, independent and deserving of all respect.
Even my childhood embarrassment was character-building, giving me a deeper sense of self-worth that is dependent neither on material things nor the opinion of those I don’t admire.
I’m not embarrassed now. Being raised by a single mother means the opposite to me today: I have a pride in her for enduring so much (including the indignity of a son perpetually embarrassed by our situation).
But even as a kid, I thought of her as a role model of resilience and resourcefulness. She imparted integrity, a love of the arts and a sense of occasion for the things I loved, like “Star Wars” and Orioles baseball. Before the age of 10, I was exposed to classical music, classic film, anti-nuclear activism, boxing (as participant) and yoga (long before it was a thing people did at gyms). And her exuberant creativity meant she was also a lot of fun growing up. We once invented a board game about the holidays of the world’s religions. On weekend mornings, we went to a park near a music conservancy to hear musicians practice while we ate our granola breakfast.
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Nothing about the financial and logistical stress of our years together kept her from raising a responsible, decent, curious, creative and accomplished son with very high life satisfaction. She gets more credit for that than any other individual, except maybe me. I’m not embarrassed, I’m grateful.
Let us now praise single mothers. All of them. The “weird” ones. The struggling ones. The driven ones who choose to parent alone. The widowed, who didn’t. The brave ones who divorced for the well-being of their kids and/or themselves. They are all raising about 19 million children right now, and they need all the support they can get.
David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Health, Wellness and Parenting. He also writes “The Wisdom Project” about applying philosophy to our daily lives. You can subscribe to it here.