In Praise of Single Mothers

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

mothers-day.jpgLeft to right: The author with her mother; with her best friend and fellow "Mothers' Club" daughter, Brenda Cameron Spaulding, on the first day of school; and in a dance costume at age 5 or 6. (Gayle Tzemach Lemmon)

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.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program. Her most recent book is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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