This column is the first in a series by Leslie Gray Streeter about single motherhood.
I remember the first time someone referred to me as a single mother. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t like it.
It was technically true: I had been widowed for about a month, meaning I was no longer partnered and was the only parent of my not quite 2-year-old son. I hadn’t gotten used to the idea that I could throw my husband’s toothbrush away, let alone accept this sudden change in status. But my issues with going it alone went beyond the struggle to accept my new reality: It was that the term “single mother” didn’t sit right with me. It’s such a loaded descriptor, full of assumptions about one’s values and choices.
My shame in my initial reaction to that moniker being applied to me comes from having considered myself, up to that moment, a liberal, accepting person. The village that has supported and loved me all my life includes many single moms. Heck, both of my grandmothers were, at one point, single mothers because of divorce.
I know those who have struggled as the only parent and those who have thrived. All of them have worked really hard, and don’t always get credit for it. I didn’t want to be one of those people — to be the subject of stereotypical opinions that quickly slide down a slope slippery and slathered with almost exclusively negative generalities about race, class, finances, sexuality and work ethic.
“They make the assumption that you have no financial support, no insurance. They assumed I was getting welfare,” said Bobbie Hargrove, 71, of Parkville, who chose in 1980 to raise her son alone. “And, yes, they assumed I was sleeping around.”
Bingo. When I say the words “single mother,” do you automatically imagine a Black woman on public assistance with a lot of “baby daddies”? Or a fat white woman in a trailer park day-drinking beer? Be honest. The truth is much more nuanced.
Here’s some more truth: According to the American Association of University Women, the labor force participation rate for single, widowed or divorced mothers as of 2019 was about 78%. It makes sense: I know single moms who clean houses and those who teach college classes, some who make lunches and others who make policy. I am proud to be among them.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be examining the ins and outs of single motherhood — specifically here in Maryland — because I want to dissect the stereotypes that made me so wary of the label. I’ll get into teen motherhood, which was so prevalent in Baltimore in the 1980s that our slogan, “The City That Reads,” was twisted into “The City That Breeds.” I’ll talk about dating as a single mother (spoiler: it’s terrible), mothers who actively chose to parent alone, how single fathers are faring, and even the effect single parenting has on the economy, as explored in a recent book written by a University of Maryland economist that has ruffled some feathers while making some points.
Before I get going, it’s helpful to get the definitions right. The U.S. Census defines a single-parent household simply as one with only one parent present in the home. A recent study by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which conducts research and philanthropy that supports children and families, includes parents who live with a partner but aren’t married.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2022, there were 10.9 million family groups led by single people — 80% of them women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40.7% of the women who gave birth in 2021 in Maryland were unmarried. The AECF found that same year, nearly 30% of single parent-led families lived in poverty, and those led by women were worse off financially.
Whether or not a father is involved in some capacity, it seems that everything bad that might happen to those kids and in those families gets blamed on the mother.
“When you have a baby, that is your baby. As a mother, you can’t say ‘Well, let me take this baby to my mother’s house real quick,’” said Sharblise Rawlings, the creator of For Single Moms, a Baltimore City-based support group. “When that baby is sick, the school is going to call mom first, no matter who the secondary contact is. The mom is always held accountable, whether you’re married or single.”
Rawlings’ definition of single motherhood is much simpler than the official ones. She, like me, had help raising her children — “a village,” she called it — but believes that a truly single mother “is a person who is fully on their own and doesn’t have that foundation, that village, don’t have that co-parent.”
It was that population that Rawlings’ group, which currently has about 700 active members, was created to help. Founded in 2019, the need ratcheted up a year later when COVID shut down schools and daycares. I was fortunate enough to be able to quarantine and work safely at home with my mother and son, all ensconced on our laptops with our reliable Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, many of those village-less moms, who in some cases were those essential employees who made my seclusion possible with food delivery and stocked shelves, did not.
“It’s a personal thing” to be able to provide support for mothers who shoulder absolutely everything, said Rawlings, whose group provides connections to food pantries, to rides and job postings. “We helped each other. Friends understand what friends are going through.”
That certainly applies to my situation: I would not have been able to get through single parenting, a journey initially punctuated with so much grief, without my friends and family. I have no illusions that my circumstances, in terms of finances and support, were far more privileged than the average single parent in Maryland, who makes about $35,000, according to ZipRecruiter. I had my own job, insurance, credit and health care before I was widowed, a foundation most people don’t. My mom, who moved in with me as my co-parent about a month after my husband died, used to split rent, groceries, utilities and impromptu Friday night samosas with me.
But even though my mother was there to divvy up diaper changes and frantic searches for pacifiers, at the end of the day, the person most entrusted with keeping this little person alive was me. I decided where we lived, where he went to school and with what beliefs he would be raised. When she moved out in the summer of 2022 to get married, that state of solo responsibility became permanent. I leave work early every day and continue working from home, because there’s no one else to do it. My schedule revolves around soccer and bass lessons, because I’m the only person whose job it is to take him to these things. It’s all on me.
It’s about more than money and schedules, though. My biggest struggles have been the “what ifs” that come with your entire life changing in an instant. I was supposed to have an equal partner in my husband — in parenting, money, sex, housekeeping, travel planning, real estate … all of it. In the more than eight years since his death, I have struggled with loneliness, with not having an adult around to back up my decisions and form a united front, or just to talk about things that aren’t Pokémon cards and soccer cleats. If I let myself wallow too long, I think about how I’m not supposed to be dating at 52, or taking my fourth grader as my plus-one to weddings. But I am out there on those apps, even if I don’t know what I’m doing, and I do put that kid in a tux and stand in the buffet line. I am the only parent. I am making it work. Just don’t mind the dust bunnies.
So what do I want to get out of this series, for myself and for you, the readers? I want to be part of the solution to this terrible cycle of disinformation and hate we are in, in which strangers reserve the right to tell you about your life on social media. I want to talk about the financial realities of single motherhood and the stigma that puts the onus of responsibility for that almost exclusively on women. I want to focus on solutions that are about economics and not about morality. I want somewhere to share my single mother dating stories — like that time a dude on Hinge pretended to be a widowed dad and then asked me if I rented or owned — and not feel alone.
Mostly, I want to have a conversation without judgement, without fear and without shame. Parenting is hard. Parenting alone is harder. We need understanding and help, not harassment.
Let’s talk about it.
The Baltimore Banner has received funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation as part of its efforts to form a Baltimore news collaborative.