In the United States, almost 35% of households are made up of single parents.
And historically, that wasn’t a number I gave a lot of thought to.
But after my partner’s unexpected death a few years ago, I found myself part of this group, and issues that I cared about in a peripheral way suddenly became personal.
In many ways, I was in the uncommon position of garnering a lot of sympathy for my situation. My boyfriend died when our kids were three and six and being thrust into widowhood – unlike starting out as a single parent, breaking up with a partner, or having a partner leave the family – tends mean you avoid a lot of the judgment thrown at folks in those situations.
I was also fortunate enough to have supportive family and friends, a stable job, and a school that embraced my kids during their darkest hours.
But I also learned a lot about what is helpful for single parents, and, regardless of whether the sentiment is well intentioned, what simply isn’t.
So in that vein, here are eight things to avoid saying to single parents – and a few ideas for how to offer support.
1. Let Me Know If You Need Anything
This offer sounds great (and it can be!), but not having specifics can make it really hard for a single parent to reach out.
After my partner died, I got a lot of expressions of sympathy that came with a “Call me if you need anything.” But I couldn’t always tell which of these offers were sincere, and I felt weird reaching out to people who weren’t part of my inner circle when I needed babysitting or a ride somewhere.
It can be a lot more useful to suggest concrete ways you can pitch in.
I really appreciated people who said things like “Would you like me to take your son to swimming lessons on Wednesday and then bring him home?” or “I’m driving to the grocery store this afternoon, do you want a lift, or can I pick you up anything?”
2. My Partner Is Out of Town – I’m a Single Parent, Too, This Weekend
I admit it – I find this one particularly irritating.
I know that for a lot of single parents, this comment wouldn’t be a big deal, but every time someone would try to bond with me by using this line, I would cringe – not to mention the Facebook posts like, “Hub’s out third night in a row. Single parenting is the worst!”
As single mom, Rachel Simmons writes in Slate:
Single motherhood is not a transient state, nor is it an ornament to your identity as a mom. You don’t give single motherhood more visibility or support when you identify as one. If you want to stand with me as a single mom – and I know so many of my friends and colleagues do – please don’t appropriate my burden as a way to validate your own. To suggest that you are single parenting when you are simply solo for the weekend devalues what real single mothers do. It trivializes the courage we have to summon every day to face, alone, the most exhilarating but terrifying kind of love that raising a child demands. So next time you have to deal with the bedtime routine on your own, maybe you could just say that your husband’s out of town.”
For legions of parents, raising kids alone is a not just a one off.
And even if you have a partner who, for example, is deployed or otherwise working out of town, this is a very different situation from those of people who don’t have a co-parent, local or otherwise.
3. You’re So Lucky You Never Have to Argue with Another Person About the Kids
Arguing about childrearing is awful, and plenty of couples have really different views about how to raise their kids.
Single parents (not to be confused with co-parents, who often find themselves battling like anything with someone with whom they share a child, but not a romantic relationship) can generally avoid a lot of the complications that come from negotiating about kids with another person.
And I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t something freeing about never having to run decisions about your kids by anyone else.
But when you parent alone, you also don’t get the benefits that come from having that other person in the world who is going to care equally about whether or not your kid bothered to brush her teeth, or got a gold star on his fish farming project.
You don’t have that person who is invested in talking you down from your parenting freak out (Getting suspended in eighth grade does not mean Suzie will never get into college! Yes, it’s normal for Sam to still wet his bed!).
And you don’t have that person who can regularly remind you that you’re doing a good job as a parent, and that someone whose opinion actually matters has noticed.
4. Aren’t You Worried About How Your Child Is Going to Turn Out with Just One Parent? Don’t They Need a Father/Mother Figure?
People love to make outrageous statements about how poorly the children of single parents fare.
Take the notorious Ann Coulter, whose 2009 book, Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America, includes a chapter entitled “Victim of a crime? Thank a Single Mother.” In it, she argues that basically every societal problem in existence (from crime and teen pregnancy to substance abuse and draining the public coffers) is due to single motherhood.
Such declarations might grab headlines and resonate with people looking for someone to blame, but this kind of rhetoric is utterly false.
Research has demonstrated that it is not the absence of a parent alone that increases negative outcomes for kids, but rather it’s poverty.
Similarly, a study out of Cornell of 1,500 12 and 13-year-old children from white, black, and Latinx families found that single parenting can actually have positive effects on children.
These included being more responsible, being more independent, and being closer to family and friends. Additionally, the study found that positive single parenting did not show any negative impact on children’s social and educational development.
Then there’s the often expressed idea that, for reasons not always articulated, kids need two opposite gender parents.
This view marginalizes both children being raised in a different family structure, as well as the adults who are raising them. (It also doesn’t take into account things like the studies that have found that children of queer parents actually often do better socially and educationally than do the children of hetero ones).
The most important thing in children’s lives isn’t living with two opposite gender parents. Rather, it is financial and emotional stability, community, and education. Yet many people seem to take it as a given that the presence of a mom and dad dynamic alone is at the heart of children’s success.
5. Why Aren’t You Seeing Anyone? (Or: How Can You Even Think About Dating?)
When it comes to dating with kids, everyone is going to be in a different place. Some people have zero interest, others have zero time, and still others have zero opportunities to meet anyone.
I started dating relatively soon after my partner died – and while most people were supportive, I did get enough of the “Are you sure you’re ready?” questions to feel pretty shy about doing so openly for quite a while.
Partly, that’s because single moms are often portrayed as slutty partiers who care more about some deadbeat guy than about their kids.
Indeed, as one woman writes on Cafe Mom, “I’ve even had someone say single mothers shouldn’t expect some man to pick up the pieces of her bad choices. It makes me feel ashamed that I even want to remarry.”
On the other had, plenty of single parents get bombarded with questions about their lack of romantic life, especially if they’ve been single for a while.
In these cases, people can act as if a single parent who isn’t dating is either stuck in the past, not making an effort, or is somehow willfully removing themselves from their community and social life.
And if the messages that single parents get from their social circles about the importance of pairing off aren’t bad enough, there are government sponsored marriage initiatives aimed at single parents!
These are based on the same tired beliefs that single parents (though mainly moms) are a drain on social services, and that kids who don’t have two parents will automatically fare worse than those who do.
Single parents face a lot of social isolation both due to a lack of childcare options and also because many social opportunities for parents are incredibly couple-focused.
Ensuring that you create space for single parents in your life – whether they’re in a relationship or not – will make a huge difference to someone’s sense of community.
6. Where’s Your Kid’s Other Parent?
There are so many assumptions about how people enter parenting, and a question like “What’s up with your ex?” can bring up myriad complicated issues that someone simply might not want to get into.
As one single mom told me, she constantly has to deflect questions about whether her daughter sees her father. To make matters worse, she is currently dealing with a school that is hosting a father-daughter dance, something her daughter is automatically excluded from.
7. You Don’t Really Have a Right to Complain Since You Chose to Do This Alone
First of all, a lot of what we call “choices” are far from that – for example, in the case of someone managing to leave an abusive partner.
But whether or not someone chooses to single parent – either from the start, or at some other point down the line – should have no bearing on whether or not that person is entitled to express dissatisfaction!
Yet we seem to have an awful lot of the you made your bed attitude going around. People post terrible things online about whiny single moms, and pundits seem intent of decrying their “lifestyle choices” anytime another damning report about the children of single moms come out, or whenever there’s a discussion about a social program that might actually benefit this segment of the population.
Ultimately, the path to single parenting is a twisty one – and only allowing people in certain situations to openly acknowledge their challenges is just another way we reinforce an unjust social pecking order.
8. You Must Be Getting Great Child Support/Benefits/Life Insurance
Wouldn’t that be nice!
Unfortunately for the average single parent, this is far from the case. The vast majority of single parents are struggling financially.
I’m sure there are some people out there who got that mythical life insurance (I know I didn’t, and I can’t say that the handful of other parents I know who lost partners did either).
And yes, I’m sure there are folks with sweet alimony or child support deals. But really, according to according to the US Census, among children living only with their mother, 45% live below the poverty line.
For those living with just their father, about 21% lived in poverty. In comparison, only about 13% of children with both parents present in the household live below the poverty line.
And as CNN Money reports as of 2012, over $100 billion was owed by Americans in unpaid child support.
How to Help a Single Parent Out
First of all, it’s important for us to check our judgments about single parents and to stop creating a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable reasons for single parenthood.
One way to see how this hierarchy plays out is to look at the fact that studies have found that children of widowed parents do better than children of other types of single-parent families with similar characteristics.
This is partly due to the fact that widowed parents tend to get a lot more community support than do parents who have split with a partner or who are parenting alone by choice.
We also need to check the assumption that children of single parents will automatically fare worse than those of people in couples, since this allows us to frame being a single parent as an inherently negative thing that is bad for society, and as such, worthy of condemnation.
The best way to help single parent headed families thrive is to advocate for better childcare and social services, include them in community, and not isolate them out of discomfort, a focus on couples, or disdain for their household make-up.
If you are someone who parents, think about those times you were swamped and overwhelmed and just wished you had another adult around to help out on that afternoon, or weekend, or month when you were dealing with your kids alone.
Then imagine what would have made your life easier and offer to do that for someone who is parenting alone full time.
And if you are someone who doesn’t parent, I’m sure you can come up with some ways to help as well! Everyone need groceries, or shelves hung, or company from time to time, and none of those things require any skill with kids.
Far too often single parents face stigma and isolation, but thinking about how we talk about single parents and their families can go a long way towards changing that.
Ellen Kate is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometime writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College (something she also did at Rutgers University). Ellen also runs About.com’s LGBT Teens site. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.