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A Conversation about Single Parenting: Challenging the Stereotypes

Dealing with biases and stereotypes is depleting, and serves to tear single parents down, rather than build them up so they have the best chance of succeeding.
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Co-authored with Donna Y. Ford, Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, author of Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice

Single parents get a bad rap. There's a cultural bias against single parents; an assumption that these households are less than, incomplete, and children suffer as a consequence.

There are racial nuances that cannot be ignored, with a litany of allegations that Black mothers in particular are negligent in their parental duties and fathers are deserters and missing in action.

There's a gender dimension, too. There's an assumption that it's undesirable to be a single mother because mothers won't be able to follow her own dreams, build a good life, and become successful.

There's a cultural bias against single parents; an assumption that these households are less than, incomplete, and children suffer as a consequence.

It cannot be denied that being a single parent is challenging. It cannot be denied that some mothers achieve and succeed as solo or sole caregivers. On January 9, Madonna posted the following on social media: "It's possible to be an entertainer and a good mother!!! Too bad we don't live in a society where many encourage and support strong independent single working moms! The next great Frontier!"

A post shared by Madonna (@madonna) on

Seriously, Madonna felt the need to say this! Does anyone challenge that she is astronomically successful?

Bias impacts single fathers as well, as their motives for parenting are often questioned. The reality is, you can be a successful professional and single parent. It is in this spirit that we have come together for a conversation about single parenthood, bias and success.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: Thanks for having this conversation; it's an issue near and dear to me. I became pregnant in graduate school and learned firsthand how single mothers are vilified in our culture. I immediately experienced people's negative judgments. People made it clear they thought I was heading for failure.

What's remarkable about this to me is I already had a Bachelors and Masters degree, and was in the midst of getting my Ph.D. Why people would automatically assume I was less capable of career and personal success than people in any number of other situations is beyond me.

As it was, I was the first person in my cohort in graduate school to receive a Ph.D. It took me five years, whereas it took others a minimum of six years. I supported myself teaching at local colleges; by the time my daughter was two years old, I had a Ph.D., tenure-track job as a professor, and I had published my first book with Oxford University Press. I did receive help from my immediate family, but many two-parent families receive babysitting and other support from their parents or siblings.

No one can completely take the place of an absent parent. But one person can make a difference in filling a few voids.

I am now married and my daughter has a stepfather but I was a single parent for seven years during which time I earned tenure, a year early, published numerous books and articles, served as chair of my department, and served as founding director of a gender studies program. I share all of this because when people hear the phrase "single mother," it often evokes images of failure and hardship.

There are many single parents who are productive and successful. Further, there are many people in two-parent households who are less productive and successful. As for our children, the same holds. You can have two parents that can be lousy and one parent that can be great, or vice versa.

What bothers me is the cultural bias against single parenthood and the host of negative connotations that come to bear, all of which single parents are forced to deal with daily, through micro-aggressions.

For example, when my daughter was a toddler in her stroller, she dropped a ball she was holding when I was in a department store. A salesperson picked it up and said, "I bet you like to play ball with your dad." These kinds of interactions happened all the time, when people falsely assume. I also had many interactions with students who found it "shocking" to learn I was a single parent because "I was so successful." What they meant was that I challenged their stereotype of what a single mom is. I know you have your own experiences you might want to share.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford: I always appreciate and seek opportunities to flip the narrative and share alternative views on single parents. My desire and sense of urgency increased last year, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. This infamous report had a significant impact on people's psyches and national policies about single parents, especially Black mothers. It cannot be denied, as you noted, that challenges come with being a single parent. Likewise, it must be acknowledged that it takes a lot of work to live in nuclear or two-parent homes. Divorce rates are astronomical.

I appreciate hearing your story. I was barely 18 when I had my son. I had recently graduated from high school and was attending college on a full scholarship. Need I say that all were shocked to see this honor student (I was also President of the National Honor Society) becoming a parent?

I hid my pregnancy for eight months, dropped out of college, and fled to another state to live with my father -- all of out shame and disappointment at letting my mother down. I grew up in a single-parent home once my parents divorced. I think those who grow up in single-parent homes due to divorce or loss of a loved one are not as negatively stereotyped as those who have children 'out of wedlock,' which is a phrase that makes me cringe even today. Terminology aside, now I was becoming a single mother but not due to divorce. And the stereotypes ran rampant.

I can identify with all of the negative and dismal comments you faced. I was determined, like you, to defy those stereotypes and associated odds. This is not the lottery yet the odds are real. I was going to gamble, so to speak, on beating the odds that said I could not win and succeed at reaching my goals.

My mother took care of my son while I attended college. When she could not take care of him due to work conflicts, he attended day cares or my younger sister babysat. Once I got my mind in order -- accepted being a mother and became determined to continue my educational journey -- I graduated with a double major in four years, earned a Masters degree in one year, and went on to complete a doctoral degree in less than three years. In essence, I graduated from college faster than virtually all students in my entering classes -- married, divorced, single, and with and without a child. I was barely 30 when when I became Dr. Ford. My son is my biggest fan.

I am currently writing an edited book called Telling Our Stories: Culturally Different Adults Reflect on Growing Up in Single-Parent Families. Several dozen authors share challenges where one parent was absent. They are all successful personally and professionally. The book does not glorify single parent families. The book does not glorify two-parent families. The book does not demonize single-parent families. The authors want their stories to be told; they want their successes to be noted; they want to encourage other children and families to do the best with their circumstances. And that is why you are and I collaborating on this piece.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: Thank you for sharing your experiences. I can imagine how inspiring your story will be to others. You touched on so many important points that I'd like to pick up on a few of them. I appreciate you mentioning the cringe-inducing phrase, 'out of wedlock.' This is something I heard many times when I was pregnant and serves to glorify the nuclear family ideal and simultaneously demoralize and demonize single mothers.

I had a profound experience during my first year at my full-time college teaching job. I met a woman on the staff and during casual conversation it came up that we were both mothers to daughters. We then learned we were both single mothers. She said, "Yeah, but I'm not divorced or anything. There's no father in the picture. I'm her only parent." I said, "Me too."

I should note that years later my daughter developed a relationship with her biological father but at the time, she did not know him. When I said the words, "me too" to my colleague she burst into tears. She had never connected with another single mother raising her child alone. We bonded, sharing stories of the micro-aggressions we experienced, cultural and gender biases, how we felt our families responded to our pregnancies because of our single status, challenges with parenting and working, as well as positive experiences, including the unique bonds we felt with our daughters.

I get very frustrated when people say things like, 'but the ideal would be two parents.' By that standard, single-parent families are always less-than.

I couldn't agree more that it's not about vilifying or glorifying any one type of family. I get very frustrated when people say things like, 'but the ideal would be two parents.' By that standard, single-parent families are always less-than. I think the ideal is that children feel loved, supported and well cared for. That can come in, or be lacking in, any sort of family configuration.

I also appreciate you noting that it takes a lot of work to be a parent regardless of the kind of home you are living in, single parent, two parent, or some other configuration. This is why it is so important to support all kinds of families.

Dealing with biases and stereotypes is depleting, and serves to tear single parents down, rather than build them up so they have the best chance of succeeding. And as you noted, the biases have a racial dimension as well with single Black mothers facing a litany of societal stereotypes -- thanks to the spread of disinformation.

This is why the book you are editing is necessary. I love that the title reflects the word "family." So often, children in single parent homes can be made to feel as if they don't have a family, when in fact, they do. Perhaps you'd like to share a little of what you have learned from the contributors? Is there any advice they may have or you may have to build a successful life as a single parent?

Dr. Donna Y. Ford: Reading the upcoming book's contributions and writing this piece is cathartic and refreshing. We are giving voice to the voiceless and those who have been silenced based on this or that study and report. Research is essential to guiding policy and practice, but those individuals who have little to no social capital often read what others say about them. Their input and rebuttals do not get published nor the attention deserved to tell another story worth hearing. Counter narratives are rare but necessary.

Thus far, I have identified several themes from people of color who've been generous enough to share their stories. For many, sharing their personal story is a risk - their friends and colleagues are unaware of their trials and tribulations; their stories of resilience have not been shared to inspire others. The contributors include university presidents, professors, P-12 teachers, authors, artists, and more who 'made it', despite having one parent as the primary caregiver. Let me highlight a few key findings.

As expected, most of the males and females grew up in homes headed by their mothers. Single parent status was mainly due to divorce or parents never being married. Several of the divorces and break ups occurred due to financial constraints and unemployment and fathers leaving due to a sense of failure and shame. This hopelessness and struggle with life is real, causing stress, frustration, and tension. Noticeably, while the father may have not been in the home physically, many indicated that he was involved, to varying degrees, in their lives (e.g., homework, sports, birthdays, vacations, phone calls).

Black and Hispanic families are often supported by extended family members, such as grandmothers. That was definitely true for me. Grandparents and aunts, for example, can be found living in single and two parent homes of all income levels. A case in point is President Obama. The children's grandparent lives in the White House. She, like many extended family members, 'takes up the slack' to support single parents and their children. The extended family is a source of support and strength. There are, therefore, actually at least two adults in the home. My mother was such a strong provider that my son used to call her 'mom' too. I loved it.

These stories of resilience also shed light on what is known as 'fictive kinship', which is common in Black and Hispanic communities. Close friends and neighbors often come to the rescue, so to speak, of children raised by one parent. They babysit, cook, provide transportation to extracurricular events, help with homework, attend meetings if permitted, and more - like extended family members.

Finally, at least given space limitations, many contributors speak about educators who saw potential in them, despite family structure. These teachers were willing, like grandparents, close friends, and neighbors, to fill in or stand in the gap. They ensured that students attended events, knew about scholarships and opportunities, and were empathetic when it came to accommodating the parent's schedule and conflicts with attending meetings, even making home visits.

All of the above have one thing in common -- the power of one other person to fill, as much as possible, the absence of the other parent. No one can completely take the place of an absent parent. But one person can make a difference in filling a few voids. It is time to focus not just on quantity (number of parents in the home), but also on quality (the significance of relations and the others supports children have).