Parenthood and judgment, sadly, seem to go hand in hand. And while no parent or caregiver is capable of completely avoiding the shame and ire of others, shaming single moms seems to be a particularly "popular" pastime within, and outside of, the parenting community.
Even in this day and age, when it's well-known that there are many kinds of families, single parents are often, for lack of a better term, singled out. But the second most common family arrangement in the United States is children living with single mothers, according to the Federal Census Bureau's 2016 America’s Families and Living Arrangements report. A reported 23 percent of children live with their moms only, so single parents are more common than not.
There are lots of reasons why someone might be a single parent. Sometimes the story is painful, like an untimely death. But sometimes the story is strong and empowering, like a mom leaving an abusive or toxic relationship, or like the stories from the impressively independent, accomplished women I met in the Single Mothers by Choice groups.
I planned on single parenting, then found a partner and we decided to co-parent together. And because a lot of people don't know about the single-parent part of my experience, they aren't careful with what they say or do around me. As a result, I witness a lot of low-key ways people unintentionally shame solo parents. Whether it's people trying to help, or people intentionally saying hurtful things, often times the careless comments and actions of others just make a tired, awesome, hardworking solo parent feel judged and excluded.
I think we all get it — that single parenting can be hard — and we all want to be supportive. But check yourself. Is your "concern" or "empathy" really helpful, or is it making the solo parent in your life feel isolated, alone, and judged? Because if you're saying or doing the following things, chances are it's the latter:
1. Wishing Them "Luck" On Finding A Partner
A partner isn't someone's "better half" or "missing piece," and adding a partner to a family doesn't make a family "complete." A single parent is fine as a solo parent. Her family is great. Her choice to have a partner or not doesn't define the quality of her family any more than getting married defines whether someone is a "real woman" or not.
Don't assume a single parent wants a partner. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't, and her reasons for either are absolutely none of your business.
2. Asking About Their Partner
Sometimes it's the obvious things that are hardest to remember not to do. It's not the, "Do you have a husband?" question, because I think that's usually avoided. No, it's the mom chat at the park while your kids play. "My aggravating husband can't remember to put the bottles away! Does yours do that too?" or, "Well, I liked the name 'Penelope,' but my partner preferred 'Mildred.' How did you get your partner to agree to 'Persephone'?"
It's hard, but remember to actually find out if someone has a partner before asking about their partner.
3. Assuming They Haven't Filled Out A Parenting Form Completely
It's built into every form you'll ever fill out about your kid. We've moved beyond the days of being listed as "Mr. and Mrs." and progressive-minded school forms now say "Parent/Guardian 1" and "Parent/Guardian 2." Some even have space for each parent to have a different last name, a different address, and an assortment of gendered titles.
But every single form, from the birth certificate onward, has space for two — exactly two — parents.
If it's your job to make the forms, maybe you could write "Optional" on the "Parent 2" space. Or, if you're collecting the form, at least don't "remind" a mom to fill out the whole thing. Chances are, she already has.
4. Hosting "Girls Night Out" Gatherings
"Let's all leave the kids at home and go out on our own for once" sounds like a great idea. But when you invite a single mom — who maybe doesn't have free or affordable childcare on demand — it can make her feel left out. And, worse yet, it can make her feel like a bad friend if you guilt her for not joining in on the fun.
Instead, try a different approach. "Everyone bring their family to my house, and the partners can supervise the kids while we go out."
5. Saying "I Don't Know How You Do It"
Phrases like "I don't know how you do it" can be a great way to express admiration for a single parent's hard work. But in the wrong tone of voice — or if she's just having a bad day — it can sound like, "I don't know why you do it" or, "Thank god I don't have to do it."
It's the "bless your heart" of single parenthood.
6. Referring To An Absent Parent As A "Sperm Donor"
Many single moms, especially those who chose to become single parents, may have actually used a sperm donor. Some people purchase sperm from a sperm bank, and some get it from a friend or someone else they know. Either way, a sperm donor is a person who helped make a baby possible, and that's a pretty awesome thing.
Using "sperm donor" as an insult is hurtful, because it implies that a sperm donor is a bad thing to be. There are lots of other things to call fathers who are willfully not involved in the care of their children, so exercise your vocabulary or try out one of these insults.
7. Claiming You Know How It Feels To Solo Parent When Your Partner Isn't Helpful
I get it. It's 2019, more moms are in the workforce than ever before, yet moms are also doing most of the childrearing and housework. I get that it's annoying, even infuriating, to have a partner who isn't helpful. But even a lacking partner is more helpful than having no partner at all. Equating your marginally useful parenting partner to a single parent's situation is minimizing the challenges, small and large, that your single-mom friend deals with.
Instead, try being impressed by how hard she works for her family — she'll love hearing that.
8. Voicing "Concern" About Their Children
"Those poor kids. They'll never know their dad." Condescending empathy is still condescending. It's also misplaced. In 2017, a study published in the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology found that children from single-mother-by-choice families are just as well off as children from two-parent families.
Don't use a single parent's child or children as a reason to low-key shame them.
9. Making Assumptions About How She Created Her Family
Or, worse yet, asking nosy questions. It's not your business whether she got divorced, used a sperm donor to get pregnant, adopted, decided to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term and parent, used a surrogate, is fostering a child, or is a widow. There are lots of ways to become a parent and lots of ways to become single.
10. Over-Apologizing If You Mistakenly Think Someone Is A Single Parent
So you made a mistake. You thought someone was a single parent. Turns out, she's not. "Oops, sorry," is a fine reaction. But don't act like you accidentally insulted someone. Being a single parent isn't a bad thing, so thinking someone is a single parent isn't a bad thing.
11. Using Phrases Like "Broken Home"
Language evolves and changes. While "broken home" was considered to be an acceptable term years and years, it's not anymore. The same goes for the term "intact family," which still implies that other kinds of families are somehow "broken."
Instead, use alternatives, like "solo parenting," "single parent by choice," or simply "family."