The Atlantic: In Praise of Single Mothers

May 11, 2012

Politicians have accused them of destroying “the fabric of this country.” In fact, as one daughter attests, their powerful example is holding society together.

A lot has been said about single mothers. Most of it has been less than flattering.

In a notable nugget Senator Rick Santorum said at a town hall meeting, “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms.” Not long after that, in a public appearance in Erie, Pennsylvania, he accused single mothers of “simply breeding more criminals.” This past fall, he argued that single mothers voted Democrat because their lives were so hard and urged Republicans to “build two parent families” in order to “eliminate that desire for government.”

This Mother’s Day I confess that I am very proud to be from what some would call a broken home. Not because it was easy watching a young woman struggle to be a mother on her own after ending a violent marriage, but precisely because it was so very hard. And “hard” seems to be a word we now avoid, disparage, and devalue in our insta-everything culture.

In other words, the very values that Senator Santorum and so many others say these solo moms undermine are just the values I learned from mine — and the community of women like her I grew up with outside Washington, D.C. What did we learn from these women who worked one or more miserably paid jobs while battling domestic turbulence, hunting for child support, hustling to pay rent, and forcing us to do our homework all on their own?


Perseverance, perspective, determination, the need to clean up your own messes and confront your own problems, no matter how difficult. Above all, resilience. And the importance of realizing how much you have, even when “much” feels like nothing.

One evening when I was eight years old, my mother and I drove the four miles home from my babysitter’s house in darkness, a pouty silence on my side. I felt tired of getting up early, getting home late, and staying with babysitters for hours on end. I felt tired of joint custody and tired of dealing with a difficult father. So I punctured the quiet of our drive by complaining to my mother, who had awakened at 6:00 a.m. to get me ready and out the door before working a thankless day handling unhappy customers’ calls at the telephone company. I vented in a childish stream of frustration about how hard our lives were compared to the handful of friends I knew who belonged to the shiny club of two-parent families. They didn’t have to wake up so early to go to daycare, I complained. They had big homes, fancy stuff, and family vacations, not small apartments, yard sale fare, and layaway at Marshall’s.

My mother said nothing until she drove her silver Ford Futura into a parking space, her face assuming an expression I later realized was grim maternal determination to hide her hurt. She hit the pale, white overhead light above me and fixed her eyes on mine. And then she said, “On a scale of major world tragedies, yours is not a three.”

Her comment was neither soothing nor funny at the time. But I have thought of it over and over these past 30 years, as I gathered up my pride and sought the courage to take risks and tackle failure. She was my example in all this. And she was right, of course. We had no tragedy at the time (that came later), we just had struggle — and only compared to the people I envied. I could easily have looked economically downwind and seen lots of kids I knew who had it far worse — they didn’t have the rock of parental strength that I relied upon. Right away, I felt ashamed to be so ungrateful, though of course I would never have admitted it under the glaring interrogation light bulb of the Futura.

The other thing my mother and her cadre of single moms known as the “Mothers’ Club” taught all of us kids was to take care of ourselves and one another. If anyone needed dinner or a cup of sugar or a lift to the garage when their Fords collapsed on the Beltway, as ours did regularly, there was no question that one of the other mothers would be there. And when a sitter called in sick just as my godmother’s night shift awaited, the evening would turn into a sleepover for all of us. When a snowstorm struck or Hurricane David tore through, we all banded together and camped out, four or six of us in a living room huddling over leftovers and playing board games by candlelight.

Later, at the age of 33, when my mother learned she had Stage 4 breast cancer, she did not flinch in the face of the disease that would kill her less than three years later. And she did not shield me from the fight ahead. Instead she taught me to confront life head-on with whatever dignity and courage I could summon, making clear that she thought it a waste of precious time to wish things were otherwise. And neither she nor I ever had to face the wreckage of disease alone. My godmother and my aunt, who survived years of marital beatings before deciding she had to build a better life for her children, joined us for the whole stench-filled swamp ride through spinal taps, chemo afternoons, and radiation zaps. We decorated hospital rooms for the holidays and watched Jeopardy with the nurses. We dug up laughs amid all the medical indignities and in the evenings played Boggle on the white sheets of the hospital bed.

Through all the dismal troughs and the occasional high points, we had our own community. We never asked for others’ approval, though it would not have occurred to any of us little ones that people disapproved of our “lifestyle.” Heck, we didn’t even know that people didn’t mean us when they talked about coming from “good families.” Instead, when I heard criticisms of single moms, I always wondered why no one seemed to talk about the dads. It was as if our mothers had created us by themselves as a unique burden they’d chosen to bear. As I joked to one of my friends, if anyone had actually come to our house and seen our mothers’ lives, they would have known that precious few would have landed in that daily fight for economic survival by choice.

The way we saw it, the women we grew up with were accidental role models. Some, like my mother, found themselves trapped in marriages collapsing under the indignities of abuse and disrespect and decided their children deserved better. Others simply watched their husbands walk out when they decided they’d had enough and that fatherhood was too much responsibility. In either case, the moms put back together the shards of our little lives. They did not complain or wallow. They simply offered us their quiet example of doing anything necessary for those you love, of facing adversity with grace, of finding humor and community even while swimming in challenge. And of continuing the fight even when everything felt hard.

The lessons I learned from my mother and her friends have guided me through death, birth, loss, love, failure, and achievement, on to a Fulbright scholarship and Harvard Business School. They taught me to believe that anything was possible. They have proven to be the strongest family values I could ever have imagined.