Does One Label Fit All?

Maybe I’m the only single parent who wonders this at times, but am I really a single mom? Do I have the right to call myself one? Sure, I have two kids. I happen to be divorced and not yet remarried. I’m single. I’m a mother.

Technically, the label fits. I’m just not sure I’m wearing it the way it was meant to be worn.

About two years ago I noticed that I was starting to pull what I would call “the single mother card.” I had resisted referring to myself in this way for a long time because I’ve never liked being lumped into a specific category, and I didn’t want anyone to treat me differently from before. I certainly didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or sorry for me. But I discovered that telling others about my situation often helped me explain why I was so tired some days, or couldn’t go to an event after work or travel out of town on a particular night. I could tell by the “Oh, okay” responses that people “got it” then. What they were “getting” out of this label was another matter.

Growing up I realized that not everyone lived in a two-parent household. For the most part, however, the people I knew did, so single parents had a kind of a mystique to me. I assumed they fell into one of a few specific categories:

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First and most common were those who had suffered through (or caused) bitter and evil divorces, complete with sharks dressed up as attorneys, and morally bankrupt characters clear out of an episode of Dynasty.

On the other end of the spectrum were the widows and widowers who had experienced the tragic, untimely death of a spouse. It was a given in my naïve and romance-saturated mind that these sad souls would learn to move on one day and find true love again.

Next, came the unwed, teenage mothers. These girls were a lot like me except for the choices they made — bad, unfortunate choices… like the fourteen year-old girl a grade ahead of me in school found out. She left school one fall to go live with cousins in Florida under a cloud of pregnancy suspicion. More mystery!

I had also heard of suburban wives abandoned by their husbands, leaving these mothers confused and angry – but also resilient in raising their children (even future presidential candidates) on their own.

Finally, I knew welfare mothers were single moms – in fact, when I was younger, this was the single mother scenario I imagined first when I heard the term. Stereotypes aside, it was clear to me even back then that few of these mothers had the resources to pursue happiness like in the movies; they were just getting by each day.

Of course, many single parents find themselves in these exact situations today. In my book, they’ve earned their stripes.

I, on the other hand, became single after leaving my marriage on relatively peaceful, low key terms. (Note: peaceful divorces are still painful.) The Ex and I were able to work out our divorce and custody arrangements ourselves, and managed most days to put our children above the fray. Today, we co-parent, splitting duties and time, and share responsibility for our son’s and daughter’s well-being and upbringing.

During my separation and divorce, I also had as strong network of family and friends to comfort and support me, even when they didn’t always agree with my decisions. I had a stable job and was able to support myself financially from the beginning. I only had to work one job, unlike so many women I hear about having to hold down two or more.

Some days are a struggle to pay the bills on-time, to put the kids in clean underwear and to keep the house clean (enough), but I get by. I more than get by. While it’s not all sunshine and roses, I have more time to focus on these things – and myself – than many married folk I know. I’m doing okay on my own. I’m doing better than many other parents, regardless of their marital status.

So what gives? This isn’t a misery-loves-company competition. I didn’t miss the new “CSM” (Certified Single Mother) degree program – did I? Am I suffering a case of cushy single mom’s guilt?

Maybe.

I don’t feel a need to apologize for being who or where I am; in fact, I am grateful for the skills, support, and luck I’ve been given to help me through this phase of my life. So when I wonder why other parents have had a more difficult or different journey than mine, or whether I should describe myself as a single mom, I will try to focus not on the “whys” but the “hows” – how can I give back time and resources to those who haven’t been as fortunate? How can I be a better mom?

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