Ever since I moved out of the family home with my two young children and lived separately from their father, I’ve considered myself a "single mother". It’s common parlance for women like me: mothers no longer with the fathers of our children.
We may not like it – there’s a lingering stigma attached to single motherhood (unwelcome and misaligned, denoting misfortune and hardship) a little less worthy of our place in the world – but we’ll take it. Depending on the circumstances that got us here, some of us even celebrate it.
But it turns out I – and many women like me – may not be eligible for this category.
“You’re not a single mother,” a friend of a friend pointed out to me recently when I described myself as such, just by the by. This is because, she helpfully clarified, my children have a father. She, on the other hand, had her child via anonymous donor which makes her a bona fide single mother.
When I ask my friends who are single mothers, there is a simmering disgruntlement about entitlement to the moniker. Too many mothers are willy nilly aligning themselves with single motherhood when their circumstances don’t strictly fit the bill, apparently. And we’re not talking married women who reckon they know what it feels like to be a single mother when their husband goes interstate.
“A single mother is one with no ex where the father of the child is not in the picture,” a mother with no father in the picture explains to me. “I don’t get every second weekend off to go to yoga.”
There may be no yoga but she has endless family support: financial, logistical and emotional. That’s far more backup than many women get, including those with alive and kicking ex-husbands. Yet it seems, in the single mother pecking order, co-parents don’t cut it.
“You notice the snide comments,” says psychologist and founder of Sydney prenatal and postnatal support service The Parents Village Kirsty Levin. She has observed the "single mother" debate gaining traction on social media and online parenting forums which she describes as often “highly critical and judge-y”.
Levin says the single mother landscape has changed in the past decade, with an increasing number of "single mothers by choice" – a result of advancements in IVF and accessibility to sperm donation – meaning many more women are technically raising children on their own.
“A mother might vent about having her kids all week and someone else will chime in, ‘That’s not solo parenting. Try being a parent with no ex to fall back on.’ It’s a competition of who’s doing it toughest,” she says.
Like so many aspects of parenting, it comes down to degrees of hard slog. Single motherhood is the next frontier. When, through a variety of circumstances, women find themselves raising children alone – even part of the time – "other mothers" will too often revert to a barometer of struggle, silencing those who they deem have no right to complain.
“It’s a hierarchy of who’s worse off,” says my friend, Lou*, a single mother of two teenagers. Despite having no support from her ex-husband, she believes she’s better off than many single parents, and even some married ones, not having to deal with a hostile ex-partner.
The major difference, Lou believes, is financial. “The biggest single factor in the difficulty of single motherhood is money,” she says. “I have a good job and a high income. If I wasn’t in that position, we’d be living in poverty because my kids’ father makes zero financial contribution. I have the kids 24/7 and no family support.”
Yet she says it’s impossible to judge another mother for their perceived situation.
“Single mothers struggle, whatever way you cut it."
Sara*, a mother of three kids under ten, is often accused of not being a single parent, despite being divorced six years, because she’s since remarried.
“People say ‘you’re not a single mother because you have a live-in partner’, and it annoys me because he’s not the father of my children, he doesn’t support them and will never love them like I do. There might be a father figure in the house but we’re still a split family and I’m still the primary carer of my kids.”
It’s not like women get to switch off when their kids are with their dad. Mothering (single or not) is a full-time gig. Research consistently shows it is largely women who carry the emotional and logistical load for their families, whether their kids are there or not. And, when the other parent goes away or works late, it’s often the mother who’s expected to pick up the slack. That’s not co-parenting. That’s single mothering.
“A single parent is anyone with sole responsibility for children for extended periods of time and not in a relationship with the other parents," offers Levin.
And that’s pretty much all of us.