Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Why Do We Call Them ‘Single Mothers’?

Mothers and the important people in their lives

I like to write about single mothers but I don’t particularly like the way that label is used. Why is it that married mothers are just “mothers,” but mothers who are not married are “single mothers”? The key criterion is whether you have kids – that’s what defines a mother, isn’t it? What does marital status have to do with it?

American society is obsessed with marriage, and so we know a lot about trends in motherhood over time, and about particular demographic patterns for mothers who are not married. I do think this kind of information is useful and important. But if we are going to use the term “single mothers” then let’s also use “married mothers.”

There is another reservation some people have about using the term single (to refer to anyone who is not married, regardless of whether they are a parent): It may seem to convey the sense of being alone. Although I use the term ‘single’ myself, I understand that concern. To some, it seems to convey a sense of being alone. That is especially inappropriate now that we know it is inaccurate. People who are single are actually more connected to parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors than are people who are married. Studies have shown that people who get married turn away from the other important adults in their lives, staying less connected with them and spending less time with them than they did when they were single.

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I like “single” better than “unmarried,” because “unmarried” defines single people in terms of what they are not – married. To me, single is a word that begins with the individual. Individuals who are single are both independent (they make many decisions on their own, and if they are single-at-heart, they like it that way) and interdependent (they are connected to other people). Interdependence for single people is more flexible and open-ended than it is for married people. If you are married, you may feel more constrained to include in your social circles people who are connected to your spouse, regardless of whether you like those people or want to spend time with them.

(I discussed terms for single people and definitions of ‘single’ at greater length here, here, and in the first chapter of Singled Out.)

When conventional thinkers take on the term “single mothers,” they do so by noting that many are living with a romantic partner. I’ll call that the cohabitation clause. It is true, as the Census Bureau reported (in its 2013 “Facts for Features” for Mother’s Day), that in 2011, about 408,000 mothers who gave birth in the past year were living with a romantic partner. I don’t know how many single mothers, regardless of living arrangements, gave birth in the year before 2011, but that 408,000 is likely to be just a small fraction. I do know that in 2012, the total number of single mothers living with their kids (not counting grown kids) was 10.3 million.

I describe that cohabitation clause as conventional thinking because it is so very matrimaniacal. People who think that way can only imagine one kind of significant other – the kind you might have sex with. They seem totally oblivious to all of the other important people in the lives of mothers without spouses. Sometimes those mothers live with other people, such as other family members or friends, and sometimes those other people are not under the same roof, but right there in their lives, reliably available. Either way, “single” mothers are in many ways not raising their children single-handedly. I think the term “single mothers” obscures that.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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