By Benita Aalto
IN MY EARLY 20s, I worked as a receptionist at a community health centre. It was the kind of place that gave out free condoms and ““ when that was too late ““ prenatal vitamins. On a wall in the waiting room was a public health poster of a pregnant teenager with the caption, “Chances are,
you’ll end up poor and alone.”
While being a teen mom certainly wouldn’t be easy, there was a tone in that public health message that went beyond the wake-up call that was presumably intended. It was the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong in being a single mother, that it’s a well-travelled path to despair. The girl in the poster was already pregnant, so the message wasn’t only, “Be careful if you’re going to have sex,” it was also, “You’re going to be a single mother? Now you’re screwed.”
I often think about that poster, particularly since I am a single mom who budgets on the sub-atomic level and whose romantic life is often limited to fantasies about the Kratt Brothers. But I don’t feel like I’m on the path to despair. In fact, I think I have advantages in my solo life with my daughter, ones that I wouldn’t have as part of a “regular” family.
It took me awhile before I realized that it’s possible to get eyeball to eyeball with your worst fears and come out feeling like an Amazon warrior. In a world where so many see single moms as destitute, ashamed or even shameful, standing tall can sometimes be a challenge.
So, yes, the societal deck is stacked against single moms and, yes, our experiences have led us to ditch the romantic ideal of a smiling Ken doll happily co-parenting with us. But since nothing ever came of rolling over and playing dead, I’d like to challenge some creaky old assumptions and
show off the rewards of flying solo.
ASSUMPTION #1: Single moms know nothing about birth control
Concerns about the dangers of unprotected sex and unwanted parenthood among teens are perhaps the root of this assumption. But the problem is, all single moms get lumped into this category, no matter what their situations.
Single motherhood is often seen as a sign of downward social mobility. I know this because of the surprise I’ve noticed on people’s faces when I tell them that my daughter was a planned pregnancy and that, no, I wasn’t
dumped ““ I chose not to marry her dad.
Single mom reality check: I can spell nonoxynol-9; can you? With so many Canadians opting to live common-law, a child born to unmarried parents shouldn’t be a Hester Prynne-ish spectacle, but it is. Don’t most people have kids with the goal of raising them in a happy ““ traditional or non-traditional ““ family? Part of the bittersweet reality of adulthood, though, is that people get together, have kids and, sometimes, split up. We all know this in our hearts, so why the presumption that I was absent from that crucial health class in grade 9?
(And while we’re on the topic, why is it OK for anybody to ask me anything about my choice to have a child, just because I’m raising her alone? I certainly don’t ask married couples about their decision to start a family, though it could be amusing. “So, was your daughter a Chardonnay-induced accident, or are you trying to shore up your shaky marriage with enforced domesticity?”)
ASSUMPTION #2: A single mom is always looking for a replacement daddy which ““ rightly ““ scares men away
The fear that some single men have about single moms reminds me of the fear some straight men have about gay men ““ that if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll be all over you. As if just by being male they are automatically
our type. Please.
Single mom reality check: I know how to put men in their proper place. I actually like raising my child on my own. Of course I’d like to have more cash in the family coffer, but I’m not going to date a guy because I’m hoping he’ll cover the phone bill or come to the parent-teacher meeting. The less-mentioned corollary is that some men want to get a piece of the mothering action for themselves and will compete with your child for your attention. Like the man who took my daughter and me to the beach, then kicked over her sandcastle.
The deep dark secret about motherhood is that we don’t need full-time dads for our kids so much as we need butlers. The demise of the servant class may have been good for democracy, but it’s a drag for the single parent. Maintaining the domestic infrastructure gets us down: the tidying, the errands, the scheduling, the transporting of people, pets and playdates. But you don’t marry the help. You learn not to confuse the tasks you wish to delegate with the man doing them. Pool boys excepted.
ASSUMPTION #3: A single mom is a tragic figure until she finds a man
According to popular culture, a single mom must (a) find a man by the time the credits roll (Miranda on Sex and the City, Rachel on Friends, Renée Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire); (b) deal with the grief of losing her child (Terms of Endearment, Mask) or
(c) prove she is worthy of keeping her child (The Good Mother, Kramer vs. Kramer). One of the few single-mom characters “allowed”
not only to keep her children but also to triumph is Erin Brockovich. But to pull off that cinematic coup, she had to do battle with a corrupt multi-billion dollar corporation that was poisoning a small town. Oh, is that all?
Single mom reality check: Being single isn’t tragic ““ I get to run my life my way. Don’t tell me any married mom wouldn’t like to call a few more shots, given the chance. Trust me: it’s much simpler. I don’t have to ask or remind or nag anybody to do anything ““ if I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. That’s a big responsibility, but it also means my energy is focused on the task itself, not on figuring out whose turn it is to do it. And I don’t have to deal with an additional set of neuroses, passive-aggressive tendencies or deep-rooted inner child issues. Bliss.
ASSUMPTION #4: Without a consistent male influence at home, my child
will become a felon
Apparently, there are two types of mothers: single moms and good moms. Read your newspaper carefully ““ you’ll be surprised by how often a story about youth crime mentions that the young offender comes from a “mother-led” or “single-parent” family.
Even when the perp is a middle-aged career criminal, if he came from a “broken home,” you’ll read about it. There is something odd about a society that is so in love with the concept of the nuclear family it has to insinuate a causal connection between crime and single moms. Single motherhood? More like “single mother of a hood.”
Single mom reality check: Without a consistent male influence at home, you can become enviably close to your kids (when they’re not out robbing liquor stores). Ok, I’m joking with that last part.
But kidding aside: I think other parents would envy what I’ve got with my daughter. We can’t rely on the traditional nuclear framework to give us a sense of family, so we’ve come up with our own version ““ one with a private language of jokes, funny voices and Blackadder marathons. We’ve become a team of two, and because we don’t have a third person to act as a distraction or defuse tension, we are continually figuring out how to coexist. I’ve had to learn early on how to give her autonomy so she doesn’t feel constricted by our closeness. But at the same time, she knows I’m all hers.
DO I EVER FEEL OVERWHELMED and overextended as a mom? Absolutely. Do I wish for fewer bills and larger paycheques? Sure. But I don’t see our mother-daughter dyad as a fixer-upper for some Mike Holmes wannabe. The people who get to know my daughter and me are lucky, because she and I are pretty amazing. The only regret I have is that I didn’t know that earlier, and spent several years feeling ashamed and chasing a sitcom-inspired happy ending for my daughter and myself. There are no happy endings, I discovered, just lives well lived. And who else will teach my daughter that, if not me?