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A lot of press about single mothers seemed to surface recently. I’m not sure why.  It’s on my radio (NPR, Tell Me More) and in my morning paper (The Difference Between Feeling Like a Single Mom and Being One, WashPost, 4/18,2013). Whatever it used to mean, as an identifier “single mother” it is not very helpful now. As almost half of all births now occur to unmarried women, and most of them in their 20′s at the age of first birth, it isn’t shorthand for teen mother or one with minimal education.  Single mothers may have been married at the time of birth, widowed, divorced or separated. They may have had partners when their children were born. They may remarry or engage in a different kind of committed relationship in the future. The “single” part of “single mother” is not a permanent condition. Nor do they belong primarily to any particular race, class or income level.

To add to the complexity, people with “single mother” challenges may possibly be married. Married parents might have a husband or wife on military deployment, so the spouse at  home is operating as a single parent, in fact. A spouse could be in the kind of all-consuming job that just makes any  real caregiving at home impossible in practical terms. (Michelle Obama has said she feels like a single parent.)  When you get down to it, single mothering and single parenting can accurately describe such a variety of different situations and circumstances, the phrases don’t really tell us very much.

I was reminded of this when reading Single Moms:  The One and Only in the latest Working Mother magazine. A breezy, upbeat essay, it makes single motherhood sound like a straightforward logistical program. Author Lori Gottlieb advises punching up your routines, staying super-organized, accepting imperfection, dismissing the opinions of others, and taking time for yourself. How this is any different from what you’d tell any mother, or any parent, or even any well-adjusted person generally, I cannot make out. Yet, there is no discussion of the stress of making both the mundane daily and lifelong decisions for your children alone, shouldering all the worry, concern, emotional and financial support by yourself. Very curious.

Single mothers defy conventional wisdom – in other words, what you assume or think you know could be inaccurate. Poverty rates for single mothers are the highest in the country, but not because they are out of the workforce and subsisting on public benefits. Most of the 27 million women heading households with children are employed. Their poverty results from public policy failures, not their personal shortcomings, poor decisions or rotten luck.

According to  “The Face of American Poverty Today“, a product of the Women in the World Foundation, one factor is the lack of effective child support laws. State standards range from the totally inadequate to barely making it, and often go unenforced.  Another reason is the expense of child care – the U.S. does subsidize the cost for some low income households, but less than one in five eligible children actually get it. What’s more, eligibility standards are set so that you can make too much to qualify for the subsidy, but not make enough to pay the unsubsidized child care fees. To deal with the sketchy child care availability, moms often end up in jobs with meager pay and no benefits.

To top it all off, what we now call “welfare”, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), comes with strict rules, and only lasts for a maximum of 60 months, requiring recipients to be in jobs or job training, which usually does not offer paid sick days. Missing a shift because you have the flu or your child is vomiting means you lose your job, which means you become ineligible for TANF, which means you and your children go hungry. Oh – and going to school to work towards a better paying job doesn’t qualify as “work” for TANF. So, you can only get those 60 months of benefits for minimally paid work with little or no chance of promotion, and it’s not enough to cover basic expenses, either.

Single parents, and all family caregivers, are in a time bind, overwhelmed by obligations, and engaged in an eternal quest for that elusive work/family balance and economic security. Some of the most effective policy solutions, if we had the will to implement them, would strengthen our social safety net for all parents, as well as anyone who has a family care role. Anyone can get sick, or have to take care of a sick child or spouse, or even a sick parent. Paid sick days as a statutory guarantee, and not dependent upon the whim of your employer, could get you to the doctor today and back at work tomorrow. Making the minimum wage a living wage would positively effect household incomes, stimulate the economy, and move people off the welfare roles. Making sure that everyone has health insurance means mom doesn’t have to decide between whether to buy medicine or food. Having affordable, quality child care available on a reliable basis means moms can go to work, no matter where their income – or marital status – happens to be. Policies that would help women raising the children upon whom all of our futures depend are good for most everyone.

Are you a single mom?Were you? What were the biggest preconceptions people had about you? And what would have helped you most in raising your children?

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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