Mother’s Day is a moment for families to celebrate quality time together. In this essay for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News, Alison Stine writes about the challenges, joys and unexpected life lessons of single mothers and their families.
I’ve been a mother since a misty, gray New Year’s Eve nine years ago, when I gave birth, in the hills of central Appalachia, to a son. But Mother’s Day isn’t for me.
Though we were three when he was born, soon we were just two: my son and me.
I can’t remember much about those first Mother’s Days as a single mother. I think my own mother probably gave me cards. But there were no dinners. No breakfasts in beds. There were never any flowers. My son works hard to make me a present every year, but it’s a lonely day.
These experiences are echoed when I reach out to friends and contacts also parenting alone. J.D. Myall, a single mother of four, tells me: “Their smiles and hugs make the day special. But as a divorced mom, I rarely receive cards or flowers or any major gifts to mark the occasion.”
No adults think of the single mom on Mother’s Day. But my dislike of Mother’s Day – because I do dislike and dread it – isn’t about presents. It’s about the idea that what we are celebrating isn’t all mothers: It’s only a certain kind of mother. Idealized. And definitely not unmarried.
To be maligned every other day of the year, to be counted out – or worse, explicitly punished – in policy decisions. To be ignored in discussions of motherhood in the media, yet blamed for the demise of the institution. To be held solely responsible for the raising of children, while leaving fathers conveniently out of the equation. A day isn’t enough to make up for that, or to explain that discrepancy in our huge responsibilities versus our reviled roles as single mothers.
It isn’t enough for me – this day that doesn’t celebrate me or the millions of other parents raising their children alone in this country. It certainly isn’t enough for single mothers in even more difficult circumstances, ones who don’t have the benefit of my White privilege, ones separated from their children by policy or policing.
As a single mother, I don’t get a day.
I do get, within the confines placed upon my son and me by my limited income and mobility, some freedom to parent as I would like to alone, which is lovingly, honestly and openly.
Molly Spencer describes parenting alone similarly. “Single parenting is really hard,” she says, “but not as hard as being a single parent even while married – which, practically speaking, I was. I no longer spend my time and energy trying to convince my kid’s father to be a parent to them … to spend time with them, and yes, to help me raise them. That’s time and energy I have for other, more life-giving things.”
Alone, my child and I do get to do what we want – sometimes. Without arguments from another parent. Without interference. Without judgment. Sometimes that’s going to a dance performance, leaving at intermission because it’s boring, dancing some of the steps on the sidewalk outside of the theater, and hitting the drive-through on the way home for fries. Sometimes that’s eating carryout in bed.
Or skateboarding to school, which my son does every day while I walk behind; at the school door, he passes me his helmet and board and I carry it home. We make our difficult life work in ways that are creative, loving and meaningful.
Of her first Mother’s Day officially as a single mom, Spencer says: “I’m looking forward to sharing the day with my kids and making it special in our own way, rather than wondering if my now ex-husband will even mention it or do anything to mark it.”
With four children, including twins, to parent alone, Myall describes all her days as “highly atypical … but my children fill it with joy.”
My son never wants anyone with him like he wants me. This can be difficult. On weekends, he still gets up by 7 a.m. and wants to read comics or watch videos with me. But it’s also special. Like on Halloween, when he insists we dress in themed costumes and trick or treat together. Last year, I hobbled together costumes from the video game Fortnite. Even though I had no idea who I was, his friends loved it. The year before, we both went as Ghostbusters.
For most of my son’s life, it has felt like us against the world. For the most part, it is.
Being raised with a mother who does not fit the standard of idealized motherhood, of what is celebrated on Mother’s Day, also gives our children a sharper sense of justice and injustice, maybe because they see what we go through.
After leaving her spouse, Myall had to move with her children, two of whom have special needs. “I’ve had to relocate to get the kids a better education, and had to sacrifice my own goals for the good of the children.”
I know that part of my job as a single mother is to not make more single mothers – to raise my child to respect his partner. To fulfill his promises and responsibilities. And to value his partner’s work, contribution and self-actualization.
“My kids are great helpers,” Spencer says. “They always were, but they are more so now. They’re incredibly understanding when I’m worn out from teaching all day, for example. Sometimes, they make me sit down with a cup of tea while they pull dinner together.”
Spencer says there’s an upside to single mothering. “It’s good for us (everyone) to learn to ask for help, and … single parents get a lot of practice asking for help.”
This spring, my son and I got skateboards together. He wanted us to both learn – what mother can say that about her son? My first time on my new skateboard, I sprained my wrist. But he wants to go out to the skatepark with me as soon as it’s healed. He’s been practicing every morning in the meantime.
He’s promised: I’ll teach you everything I know.
Alison Stine is a writer and editor, based in Appalachia. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Guardian and Longreads. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted content specifically created for Equal Voice can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.