It was very early in the morning when I woke up to my friend who was sleeping over talking to her mother on the phone. It didn't take very long to figure out she was talking about me.
“I don’t know how to help her, mom," she said. "I feel like she has this emptiness around her; she must be so lonely. It’s just her and her mom. It doesn’t seem right. I don’t understand it. What should I do?”
I pretended to be asleep, and said nothing. My friend’s words stung. "What should I do?” This question made me feel like something was wrong with my family. It made me wonder if it was unnatural to just live with my mom, and if something should be done about my dad not being in the picture. I felt judged, and also scared. I couldn’t understand why my friend was so confused, and I felt very hurt. It would take many months before I once again felt good about my family situation and knew that nothing was wrong with living in a household headed by a single mother.
My friend was right about one thing, she didn't understand. Living with a single parent for the most part has made many people incredibly curious about what my life is like, but many assumptions have also been raised. People who haven't lived in single parent households expect for me to feel like there’s some big hole in my life where they think a father should be. People gently ask about him, and when they learn that we don't have a relationship they feel bad for me and give me the 'Pity Smile'. Other times, unsatisfied with my short answers, people continue asking me probing questions about my father. I don’t appreciate that either because they rarely ask me anything else about my family life. I don’t get asked about my mom or any of the other family I have unless I make a point to talk about them. People concentrate on what they perceive to be absences in my life without acknowledging the rich relationships I already have.
All of this isn't to say that I don’t appreciate where my friends are coming from. I can see that they are genuinely concerned. Yet I also know that we've all been living in a two-parent normative society for way too long. My friends' questions, pity, and confusion confirm this.
My mom and I are not living what others consider to be the American Dream. My mom isn't a homeowner, doesn't own a car, and she doesn't have credit cards (and never will, she says). She's not supported by a man, isn't partnered with a man, and she doesn't receive child support. She pulled me out of school so that she could raise and educate me so that I'd learn to think outside the box. We live hand-to-mouth, and we travel rather than buy holiday gifts. It's an unusual life, and I think many people who subscribe to the American Dream feel threatened by it.
I’ve known from a very young age that my family has been punished for stepping outside the ideal standards of what a family should look like. I have always noticed society’s eagerness to reward married couples and demonize single mothers, and it's impossible to ignore the fact that my mom does not get what lots of married couples have. The United States has this mentality that every single one of us can make it, and that we can all improve our lives by just working hard. I also know, however, that this is a wrong and unreasonable view.
It is so obvious to me that poverty and family structure have a lot to do with one another. According to the Jacqueline Kirby, M.S. from the Ohio State University, about 60 percent of U.S. children living alone with their mothers are below the poverty line. It's important to note that single mothers' bank accounts aren’t empty because they’re lazy or irresponsible. Kirby writes: "Mother-only families are more likely to be poor because of the lower earning capacity of women, inadequate public assistance and child care subsidies, and lack of enforced child support from nonresidential fathers. The median annual income for female-headed households with children under six years old is roughly one-fourth that of two-parent families. However, the number of children per family unit is generally comparable, approximately two per household."
Living in poverty for single parents and their children is a systemic problem. I know all kids living with only one parent have vastly different experiences, so I won’t speak for all of us, yet I think it's safe to say that for most of us, it's really hard. It hurts knowing I live in a a society that perpetuates toxic rhetoric against my family, and it's exhausting needing to explain what my family is life and also to stick up for my household.
I'm sure life is also difficult for single fathers, yet in the United States, they're thought to be stepping up, and they're praised as heroes. The stigma against single parents is reserved only for single mothers. Single moms are less reputable. They must've somehow gotten themselves into trouble. Their pregnancies are thought of as criminal, and they're blamed for deciding to have children out of wedlock.
The idea that single mothers aren’t capable of raising their own children is very harmful, and it actually rips families apart. Often, single mothers who work outside of the home are told that they are neglecting their children when actually they’re just trying so hard to keep it together and survive. Instead of penalizing them we need to evolve into a culture that supports and accepts all types of families. We need to become a society where a family can survive off one income, and where it's not expected that a woman need a man to be complete or a child need a father to be in a solid family.
Instead of discriminating against single mothers, we should instead tackle the real problems: poverty and misogyny. I’ve felt the bite of stigma against single mother households my entire life, but I'm here to tell you that I don’t live in a troubled home, I live with my supportive, smart, responsible, caring, and hardworking mom. People have often judged her choices regarding her parenting, the ways she's chosen to educate me, and her commitment to a life filled with experiences rather than money, but she's built an amazing life for me. I’m not living with a hole in my heart that needs to be filled with a second parent, My mom is a powerful woman who has created a community for me made up of supportive biological family and chosen family alike.
If I could go back in time to that early morning when my friend had slept over, I wouldn't pretend I was sleeping. I'd roll over, look her in the eye, and tell her that I consider myself extremely lucky even when my mom can't afford all of the luxuries some of my peers have, and despite not having a father in my life.
Anevay Darlington is a student living in Brooklyn who was gifted the love of learning. Her favorite pastimes include people watching, feeding birds, staring into space with her mouth open, and playing various instruments in music shops. She's very passionate about solving social and environmental problems. A 2016-2017 Advice Project Media intern, she wrote this article while on assignment.