Mother and son play together in the park
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“Is It Hard To Do It Alone?”

What single moms want the divorce-curious to understand.

I met Anna at a garden party where we had pulled up lawn chairs to watch the World Cup finale. It was an ungodly hour — much too late for our toddlers to be awake — but there was no way to catch the game without them, and so we had strung a white bedsheet over the clothesline, a makeshift projection screen, and let the kids run around the backyard until half-time. When they finally went inside to sleep, she cornered me.

“Is it hard to do it alone?”

As the first in my circle of mom friends to leave, I had been asked the question over and over; there was never an easy answer. There are many things I could have told her: how the divorce process had been dragging on for years. About the impossibility of parallel parenting. The struggle to find a job that aligned with day care hours and along with it, the trouble I had earning enough money or finding suitable housing in a tight urban market. The sadness that came each night when, after putting the kid to bed, I went over all of the day’s milestones and mishaps alone, having no one to commiserate with or share the joys of watching a baby blossom. The unbearable loneliness of parenting alone.

“I don’t know it any other way,” I told her, because I’ve learned quickly that other women do not want to know the truth of single parenting.

There was something about revealing the private details of my life to a near-stranger that I knew would be shaping not only my own narrative but also my child’s, and that felt like a betrayal.

Many married women prefer to sigh with understanding, then post #solomom selfies each time their husbands go away on business. But as America’s foremost hot young widow, Nora McInerney, puts it, “You don’t realize how fast and loose people play with meaningful words like ‘single parent’ until the words mean something to you. … All of these people had an out — a potential break from the tyranny of childrearing, somewhere on the horizon. Truly, truly single parents do not. … It is just you.”

“It isn’t about the time you had together but how you want to spend your time in the future.”

Even if more of us are opting out of the nuclear family than are opting in today, people do not, as a rule, look kindly on women who parent alone or their children. There is a hierarchy of acceptance, however, with widows and those who elect to go into parenthood on their own gaining at least an empathetic glance. The trope of single mothers as sinners and sluts a la Cher in Mermaids has not changed in many circles, including political ones. In Germany, where we lived during my child’s earliest years, the stigma is so strong that few women identify or willingly label themselves as single mothers. It isn’t a choice made out of shame, researchers say, but rather that these women see their singledom as temporary, a rest stop on the transition back into partnered life.

“How did you know it was time to go?” Anna poked, making it clear that her concerns did not lie with me. Anna was contemplating leaving her husband. She was mad about bearing all the responsibility for parenting; they had just gotten into a barn-burner that morning.

I shrugged and gave her the only answer I had, one which a friend had given me just a few years earlier: “It isn’t about the time you had together but how you want to spend your time in the future.” Marriage as a sunk-cost fallacy.

Anna’s question is one that more mothers are asking in the post-isolation years of the pandemic, when we are burned out and boiling with rage, when our rights and our lives are shrinking. We have read countless memoirs of leaving and learned more about the ways the institution of marriage and parenthood exploits us and decided that we can’t do it anymore. We have heard, from those who have been there, that a 50-50 custody split is not only possible; it’s emancipatory. We could have our cake (be moms) and eat it, too (get half our lives back when they’re at their dads)!

Except it is hard to conjure a realistic vision of the single-mom future when you’re in the throes of marriage, surrounded by other marrieds. And if we look at those who have left, we can see that 50-50 only works in the most ideal circumstances. In Germany, one of the most vocal proponents of the rights of single mothers, the writer Anne Dittmann, recently admitted that the so-called Prenzlauer Berg model of parenting, named after the yuppified district of former East Berlin where many kids shuttle between two homes, was no longer working for her child. After starting elementary school, her kid had asked to have just one steady home and Dittmann wrote on Instagram that she was going to step back from writing and speaking engagements to be more present. Simultaneously, Germany’s justice minister wants to push through reforms that cement 50-50 physical custody as the post-split standard, a move that has women’s rights groups sounding the alarm. What is liberatory for a small subset of women could lead to great harms for those who are fleeing relationships with violent partners, they argue, as the family-law system is already ill-equipped to protect women and children from domestic violence. (A truth the UN agrees is the case in nearly every country.)

As individual as our relationships were, so too are the ways in which they came apart.

To note this is in no way meant to degrade the experiences of those moms who have found great happiness with their post-divorce arrangements nor to suggest that shared custody doesn’t work (though experts are divided on its impact on kids). Rather, it is to acknowledge that the system is not set up to accommodate every unique situation; the undoing of a relationship when children are involved is complicated, and what works for one does not work for all, something especially true when we consider more vulnerable demographics. These divorce memoirs and stories of mom rage that envision a beautiful life without a checked-out husband, universal though the frustrations and feelings they capture may be, cannot be read as prescriptive, as their authors admit. As individual as our relationships were, so too are the ways in which they came apart.

This is important to keep in mind as we consider the way forward in a society wherein a quarter of all children, or more than 18 million kids, live in families with a single head of household, most often headed by a woman. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic saw the death of a caregiver for more than 200,000 kids, 1 in 3 white children, 1 in 2 Native American children, and 2 in 3 Black children were being raised in such families. Even if the divorce “contagion” has not yet infected your friend group — and it likely may not have if you’re a person whose life is financially comfortable — there is good reason to consider women who parent alone and their children as part of your community. Because as the German sociologist Sabine Hübgen wrote in her book Armutsrisiko Alleinerziehend (At risk of poverty: single moms), the experiences of single mothers do impact us all, married or not.

How a society treats women who parent alone can serve as a warning sign for other women, this argument goes. In other words, women who parent alone can be the canaries in the coal mine; others look to the plight of the single mom when making decisions about whether to have children or when wondering if they should stay in an unhappy relationship. Which is why books like Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege generate such controversy. Though we are reading more happily-ever-after divorce stories of forming “mommunes” and traveling solo without stress, the reality is that spending time as a single parent remains one of the biggest predictors of poverty for women. Leaving, even amicably, comes with a cost.

But if an economist can acknowledge that raising children on a single income creates an atmosphere of disadvantage, shouldn’t we be arguing for greater support in the country with the highest number of parents doing it alone rather than promoting marriage? It feels, some days, as though Hillary Clinton’s recitation of the old proverb that it takes a village to raise a family has been misunderstood to mean that the village is either the nuclear family or hired help.

The reality is that spending time as a single parent remains one of the biggest predictors of poverty for women.

It also explains why women like Anna are so invested in knowing the intimate details of the lives of single moms: our lives can offer some reassurance that their marital troubles are not bad enough to bother leaving. Knowing this was why, as I listened to Anna complain — about the way he loaded the dishwasher, how he still spent every Saturday mountain biking while she woke with the baby — I swallowed my snark. Partnership and parenthood should not be viewed as a competition for who can bear the greatest suffering, but part of me wanted to tell her that her problems seemed so minor in comparison to the potential future that awaited her if she got a divorce.

Anna appears to have agreed, deciding as she did to stay with her husband. The next time we encountered each other was in the foyer of her building, where she turned away upon seeing me and hurried into her apartment with her head down. I get it. It can be shameful to admit that things aren’t as rosy in your relationship as you’d hoped them to be, even if you are willing to accept them. But ignoring the women parenting alone in your midst, or using them only as a measuring stick for how #blessed you are, won’t help you to avoid a similar fate. Instead, consider what you can do well and what you can do consistently and offer them that as your support. Because whether we like it or not, the chances are good that one day, each of us will be doing this life — and parenting — thing on our own, either when the babes are toddlers or once the kids have flown.