Content And Community For Black Moms

The long-standing history of shaming single moms is steeped in patriarchy and government failure, not reality.

I want to change the way we think about single moms.

Seven years ago, when my son was small and mostly wordless, I took him to the local library to get his energy out before naptime.

He was in his stroller, happily distracted by a snack as I searched for a good spot by the “littlest reader” books to plop him down. As I passed the librarian station, I saw a bright orange flyer on her desk promoting a music class for babies and toddlers. 

I picked it up, and before I could finish reading it, the librarian said, quite matter-of-factly, “We have financial aid available for that class. Do you want me to get you an application?”

I looked around, sure that she wasn’t speaking to me. 

She was reciting an old, tattered trope. Not just that Black moms were all single, but that all single moms were struggling.

“I… We don’t need financial aid. But…thank…you?” 

For good measure, she asked me if I was sure. As if, I really needed help but was too ashamed to ask. I walked away, steaming. 

At the time, I was a married, stay-at-home mom who was living a very comfortable life. But what the librarian saw in front of her was an unaccompanied Black mother, undoubtedly desperate and alone in the world. 

Single Moms: Painted As Society’s Villains

She was reciting an old, tattered trope. Not just that Black moms were all single, but that all single moms were struggling. By default, I represented all the statistics about single mothers and their children, what they look like, how they think, what they need, and who their children will grow up to be. 

This wasn’t the first or the last time I would be assaulted with ignorant assumptions about my status or ability.

I’ve had people offer unsolicited parenting advice to me based on the assumption that my momentarily unhappy child was abused and neglected.

I was once asked which grade I was in, by someone who automatically assumed I was a teen mom. (I was 31 at the time.)

I’ve had the question, “And where is Dad?” tossed my way at doctors’ offices, schools, and even in a job interview. The very phrasing of the question assumes “Dad” is missing.

These are the optics for single mothers, particularly when they are Black and brown. (Go ahead and fact-check me, I’ll wait.)

When I Google “single motherhood” the first link that comes up is an article called “The Consequence of Single Motherhood” from 2011. (I won’t even link to it because it’s so terrible.) It essentially hails marriage, villainizes unwed and divorced mothers, and lists a slew of statistics that paint single moms as the sole reason for all of society’s pitfalls. High school dropout rates, mental illness, unemployment, and teen pregnancy  were  all linked to single moms. 

The statistics aren’t made up: These are, in fact, depictions of what some single-parent families encounter. It’s true that of the 8 million single-mother-led families in the U.S., about a third of them are poor, jobless, and food-insecure, according to 2019 statistics

Based on this, one could assess that these women are in fact failing at and struggling with motherhood. But mothers do not inherently struggle alone. Society is failing them because it is rigidly built to fit a different family model. 

Single Mom Shaming: Society’s Favorite Pastime

Single moms have been shamed in one way or another since the dawn of time.

In the mid-20th century, it was common to send unwed mothers away to have their children out of sight or give them up for adoption.

Single motherhood is often seen as a sin, with consequences falling more on the shoulders of the woman than the man who helped her get there. 

Even the story of Rosa Parks is steeped in single-mother bias.

Among her predecessors was Claudette Colvin. Ms. Colvin refused to sit in the back of a Birmingham bus nine months before Ms. Parks. Despite her arrest and historic role in the Browder v. Gayle case that overturned bus segregation, the NAACP decided not to acknowledge her. Rosa Parks, a married woman with no children, provided a more PR-friendly face to Claudette Colvin, who was a 15-year old unwed mother.

Society is failing [single mothers] because it is rigidly built to fit a different family model. 

A few years after that day at the library, I filed for divorce and effectively became a single mother. At first, the idea ripped right through me. I fell into a deep depression, completely paralyzed by fear.

I was the daughter of a divorcée and the granddaughter of one. I had watched both matriarchs of my family travel that very rough road throughout my entire life. They had to be less present, less rested. They had to show up later, wake up earlier, and pull the dead weight of painfully absent partners. 

Beyond that was what the media taught me. The depiction of single moms was constantly negative, especially for Black women. In movies and TV, it was a “realistic” plot point used to explain despair and struggle. Single mothers were either totally haggard or carelessly aloof and neglectful. 

But often missing from those depictions of single moms is the other side of that truth.

Single Moms Aren’t ‘Built for Burden’

Anyone who has given birth (or gone through the rigors of surrogacy, adoption, or foster parenting) has technically accomplished parenthood. Thriving there then heavily depends on the environment around them.

Do they have familial support? Community support? Access to good education and child care? Employment that supports family needs? Healthcare that is economical and accessible? Affordable housing that provides safety and proximity to quality resources?

The idea that single mothers are the fractures of the family framework is steeped in patriarchy. Hanging over our heads is the expectation that we should build and keep a nuclear family or shrivel up and disappear. A rental agent once told me to note that I was divorced on my application, implying that unexplained single motherhood would be unattractive to the property owner.

Feminism (with all its failings and missteps) is over 170 years old. Cultural critics say we’re in the fourth wave, one focused on the empowerment of women. But when it comes to single mothers, only a slow trickle laps at our feet.

Single moms encounter incredible bias, particularly at work. Our children are seen as weaknesses and our obligations are seen as professional flaws, while our male counterparts are hailed for remembering their kid’s names. 

Then, there’s the steady stream of microaggressions from non-parents.

Single motherhood isn’t some hole you fall into when you’re not paying attention. 

“You must be superwoman” and “I could never do what you do” may seem like compliments, but it sends the message that we are separate and built for burden.

The message comes in alarmingly loud and clear. Everything from the misalignment of observed holidays between schools and workplaces to the average closing time of a pediatrician’s office … There are hundreds of moments where single mothers are essentially told that they are missing their other half, and to please come back only when they’ve been found.

The daycare program that costs 40% of your income and only keeps them until 6 p.m. before charging by the minute.

The employer who side eyes you and questions your commitment because you have to leave the office at exactly five o’clock.

The best schools in the neighborhood that don’t bother to offer after school programs so that they can passively cater to partnered, stay-at-home parents. 

Enough already.

Single motherhood isn’t some hole you fall into when you’re not paying attention. 

It is not exclusively attached to bad decisions, or irresponsibility, or neglect. 

It is a simple twist of fate that could befall absolutely anyone for a myriad of reasons. These are women who dared to leave abusive or unfulfilling marriages, forgo abortions, or survive the death or incarceration of their partners. Whatever else a single mother is, she is first and foremost a survivor of something. 

Yes, single motherhood is hard. But so many of the hardships you see on a page of statistics or a movie screen or a city bus or in line at the grocery store, stem from broken systems, not broken people.

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Ashley Simpo is a digital content, social media strategist, freelance writer, and mother of one based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s also the founder of The Mothership, a weekly newsletter that opens up the discussion on topics we don’t normally build conversations around.

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