My son and I were on vacation last summer visiting an old friend in rural Summertown, Tennessee, on a 1,750-acre hippie commune called The Farm that was founded in 1971 by traveling San Francisco hippies. It began as a counterculture LSD-infused experimental intentional community of pacifist sustainable farmers and radical natural-birth midwives. Though its population has dwindled, it remains a haven for free-thinking liberals and hippie-types who want to give birth in the woods or experience a peaceful yoga retreat.
It was hot, Tennessee hot, July Tennessee hot, and I was laying in the sand on the little beach by the swimming hole, watching my son play in the water, my eyes occasionally taken away by the gorgeous yellow butterflies congregating in the sun-glistening sand. A woman who looked to be in her thirties was in the water about to her thighs, helping her 2-year-old swim, and she started making small-talk with me. I’m not very talkative, but I engaged her, and within the first 30 seconds, I got, “So, what does your husband do?”
It was sunny as hell, but I had to lift up my sunglasses for a second to look at her. Really? My husband? Are we seriously sitting on the beach of a hippie commune in 2015 and you’re from Brooklyn on a yoga retreat and you’re asking me this?
How, in this obviously liberal place, could I be confronted with such a sexist assumption? The truth is, this kind of thing happens to me all the time—because, even among liberals, there is a socialized tendency to assume a certain kind of parenting. The wrongful assumptions don’t stop at “you’re a mother, so you must be married”; many also assume that if I am a single parent, I must have once been married, and that my partner must somehow still be in the picture.
Recently, the Huffington Post published an article entitled “14 Annoying Misconceptions About Single Moms” that contained an introduction with a general message of something along the lines of “don’t assume I’m looking for a man just because I’m a single mom.” I was caught by the title and smiled, thinking it was written by a woman exactly like me, for a woman exactly like me.
One featured woman after the next referenced her ex-husband. I realized upon reading that the entire premise of the article presumed heterosexuality and a very particular relationship status: a straight woman who had been married to a man, recently divorced. What was so disturbing to me about this piece is that, in the name of breaking a stereotype, it actually perpetuated one. In defense of the article, it was published in the “Divorce” section; however its title did not indicate so, and left the reader with the impression that all single moms are divorced and heterosexual.
Why does this bother me so much?
Well, I’m a single mom. But not the kind of single mom that theHuffPost article assumed. That’s right, I’m a single single mom. Meaning I didn’t just split with my husband last year, I don’t get a child support check every week, and I don’t share custody. Sometimes at a certain angle, in a certain fleeting expression, I catch a glimpse of what would have been my four-year-old son’s second parent, but that’s the closest I’ll ever come, and it’s gone just like that, vanishing faster than I can snap a photo. It’s my only reminder that there ever once was anyone else besides just us two. He’s never met his biological father. We split when I was two months pregnant, and we haven’t spoken since.
I’m not the only one with a non-traditional parenting situation. According to a Pew Research Center study, over half of births among Millennials in 2008 were to unwed mothers (which, of course, also encompasses those who co-parent but aren’t married), compared to only 39% among Gen Xers a decade earlier, when they were at the same age as Millennials in 2008.
And more than just numbers—attitudes are changing. The same Pew Research study found that each subsequent generation cares less than the previous about traditional family structure. So even if most unwed mothers do have the biological father somewhere in the picture and co-parent to some degree, Millennials are far less likely than previous generations to subscribe to the rigid belief that a child needs both a father and a mother to grow up happily.
And yet, despite these changing family structures and worldviews, I confront many instances of biased assumptions about my own family structure—assumptions that, as the HuffPo article helps illuminate, are often perpetuated by a media that focuses on one single-parent experience. I find myself constantly dodging questions of how long my husband and I have been together, what my husband does for a living, or who my baby’s father is. I must navigate a world that assumes I am anyone but who I actually am, leaving me to cater to assumptions by awkwardly explaining myself.
I met a mom in a park this summer while she was there with her boys. We chatted a little and discovered that our boys would be attending the same local Pre-K program, so we exchanged contact information and agreed to meet up at the park a few more times before the summer’s end so our boys would each know at least one other kid in their new school. We met with the kids a time or two more at the park, and within a few weeks, I got an invitation to a casual BBQ in her and her husband’s backyard. She messaged me, “Your husband is welcome to come too!” I didn’t know what to say, so I messaged back, “LOL. Ummm . . . I don’t have a husband.”
I know she was trying to be nice, but I found this really alienating. Not only is it frustrating to have someone assume your family structure, but it also creates the awkward situation where I am now wondering if you still want me to come over, or if you just wanted a couples’ night, and wouldn’t have extended the invitation if you’d known it was just me, and not “us.”
I’d said nothing about a husband. Absolutely nothing to indicate that any man was involved. In fact, I mentioned that my son and I live in a one-bedroom apartment, which would mean some pretty awkward sex if I had a husband living with me. So why would she assume I had a husband? Did I say something that made her think I had a husband?
We, single women, rack our brains with these questions, when the bottom line is: We didn’t do anything at all to solicit the heteronormative and assumptive comment. It’s not our fault that people can’t think outside the box. It’s their fault. And we shouldn’t have to walk around with tattoos on our foreheads that indicate our relationship status, or constantly explain ourselves.
All moms should feel like valid moms, regardless of whether or not they co-parent, or if or how a man is involved in their parenting. Assumptions about family structure leave out lesbian women, non-binary womyn, trans women, women who are married to women, women who are dating women, asexual women, women who are single, women in polyamorous relationships, women who had children out of wedlock, women who went to a sperm bank as single women to conceive, and a slew of other women who don’t fit the mold of the conventional single mom.
My own world doesn’t happen to include a man at all. Just a boy. He’s four. He’s beautiful. And our mother/child narrative is just as valid as any other.