Mother Martyr / Motherfucker

By Amanda Thomas

Earlier this year, I began my Artist’s Residency in Motherhood, and connecting with other mothers in residency at the same time has led to a lot of reflection on the role and status of mothers within creative and alternative circles. One thing I’ve noticed about the group is that most of the women in it are supported by a partner. They struggle enough to find time to create and to be recognized in a white cis male field and world (and a lot of them are making some really biting, powerful stuff about motherhood!), but being a single parent, I find that there is an added layer to the level of difficulty I face in pursuing my work. Single motherhood, despite being such a common, prevalent occurrence, is a topic that often goes unexplored both in the dominant cultural narrative and in creative and activist circles.  We are a largely impoverished group of people, and our position should be examined more often in discussions of social justice and building community. I want to start off this article with a short list of statistics:

-There are nearly 12 million single parent families in the United States; 83% of those are headed by single mothers.

-In 2011, while only 8% of married couples with children lived in poverty (and only 24% of single father households), a full 43% of single mothers lived below the poverty line.

-The median adjusted income for a three person household headed by a mother is $26,000, as compared to $40,000 annually for single father households, and $70,000 for households headed by married parents.

-41% of single fathers have a cohabitating partner [who ostensibly is supportive with childcare, financial support, etc.], versus only 16% of single mothers.

-The national average of the annual cost of child care at a center averages over 40% of the median income of a single mother for an infant, and 32% for a school aged child.

-Two thirds of single mothers receive no child support.

As you can see, financially, the situation for a single mother in the United States is pretty bleak, if easily quantifiable.  (Side note: these statistics are for full-time single parents, not people with joint custody arrangements.) I hate to reduce the problem to numbers based on a capitalist ideology, but the reality is that it is pretty hard to provide for a child without being entrenched in the capitalist system, and living in poverty with children is a huge struggle. The thing about statistics is they’re not just statistics; behind each number is a profusion of human lives, with so many people’s stories behind it.  In this case, that includes mine.

I realized I was pregnant right after my 22nd birthday.  A confused child myself, I made a decision that I was not ready to make, but had to make anyway.  Despite all the promises, my son’s biological father left before my child was ever born, and was never meaningfully involved in his life.  The paltry $53 a month in child support that I was awarded rarely gets paid.  Last year, for instance, I received only $100.

Just before my son turned 2, I tentatively welcomed a new partner into my world.  After about 4 ½ years of being hugely, deeply involved in our lives, he, too, walked away, deciding his dreams of being a wandering punk and starting a band in the city were more important than the child who told everyone this was his “real dad.”  To this day, over a year after he began drifting out of our lives, my son still refers to him as his real dad, and struggles deeply with the abandonment and absence.

I am a passionate and creative person: an artist, a musician, an activist. I have so much potential and determination within me, but, as it is with most single parents, I have literally only a handful of hours a week to spend on anything outside of the endless deluge of work, school, meal preparation, housecleaning, laundry, appointments, bills, the kid’s homework, and just BEING THERE and being present with my child.  It is not easy.  It is beyond not easy.  When I am exhausted and overwhelmed and depressed and sick, I still have to pull myself up at 6 am to get my kid ready for school.  I still have to wake up at 3 am if he’s having a nightmare and be emotionally available for that.  I still have to remain patient and be as much of a shining example of humanity as I can possibly muster.

It is literally impossible for one person to wear all of these hats and do as good of a job as they want to do at any of it.  It is even more impossible to fulfill all those roles and have the opportunity to meaningfully pursue one’s interests and one’s own dreams.  This is the reality: behind every father figure who has left to do something else, there is a mother bearing the burden and having to sacrifice or postpone a lot of her own dreams.  The father figure’s chosen path in life is only possible at a mother’s expense.

It’s beyond time to shed the old idea of children being a “woman’s responsibility.” It is long past time for fathers (biological and otherwise) to know that they are expected to stay and put in real effort, and that a child is a lifetime commitment that one does not back out of.  It’s time for them to know that they are equally responsible, and time for fathers to care for their children with the willingness, dedication and grace they deserve.  This pattern of child-rearing being placed on the mother’s shoulders is, of course, also present in cis/hetero/two-parent nuclear families, but the single mother is the penultimate example.  We are literally doing everything, inside of an often painful and isolating existence. It’s also time we remember that children are the future adults of the world, and it should be a cohesive, community effort to ensure they’re getting the guidance and support they need to create a future that’s worth living in.

If there are nearly 10 million single mothers in the United States, think of the massive potential, brilliance, inspiration, and creative force we are all missing out on because all these people with a valuable perspective are struggling, largely alone, to survive in this culture while carrying the next generation on their backs.  We are depriving ourselves as a society by ensuring so many people are perpetually too overwhelmed to explore and contribute in the ways they wish they could.

It’s time to make sure we don’t lose that potential. If you are part of an artistic or activist group, do your best to facilitate parents, especially single parents.  Can your event, meeting, group, or space accommodate children?  If not, perhaps you could consider providing quality childcare so parents can still attend.  A group that meets regularly could have members take turns being with the children.  There are a lot of solutions and options that take just a little imagination, a bit of effort, and a sliver of compromise. Not only is childcare exorbitantly expensive, it’s also incredibly discouraging to be unable to join a group due to the inability to obtain childcare. It makes it hard to feel welcome when the support doesn’t exist for a person to be involved. Having this kind of support is often the difference between someone being able to be involved in activist group, or pursue their art form, and them being isolated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done things like feel bad that I can’t go to a protest or art/music event due to not having childcare, or dragged my kid along to an art opening or a “community presentation” and been shamed for being the annoying parent with the loud, obnoxious kid. It feels terrible, and certainly doesn’t encourage me to get involved.

Do you personally know any single parents?  Offer them direct help.  Not just “If you need a babysitter sometime, let me know.”  Develop a real relationship with your friends’ kids and make specific offers like, “I’m free on Saturday and can come over at 7 and spend time with (insert child’s name here) for the night.  You should go out and do something if you’d like to.  There’s going to be this event here at this time if you’re interested in that.”  Visit them at home; sometimes it’s just too much work to drag kids around to places. When you visit, quietly do small things to make their lives easier: wipe the bathroom counter, wash a few dishes, read the child(ren) a book. The societal pressure to be unremittingly self-sufficient is compounded here with the cultural expectations of mothers that lead them to feel guilty about doing things for themselves, so don’t even leave them the burden of having to ask,. They probably won’t ask for help with childcare with anything other than a doctor’s appointment or some other obligation or necessity.

When my partner was thinking of leaving us, he had people advising him that he shouldn’t think twice or care because it wasn’t his biological kid – never mind the fact that my child told everyone he was his real father, never mind that he admired and looked up to and loved and needed him, deeply.  My son’s biological father, also, continues on in his artistic circles with no repercussions for the abandonment of his child.  People have even defended him to me, and say he’s a “good guy.”  I’m tired of hearing it, and I’m tired of looking around and seeing so many of my friends who are mothers raising their children alone and unsupported.

Confront men who walk away; don’t let them slide, and definitely don’t defend or encourage them.  If a mother leaves her children behind, the social stigma is crushing, as is the guilt.  A patriarchal culture dictates that a mother who is not with her children has committed some unforgivable sin and essentially failed as a human being. A patriarchal culture is, at the same time, accepting of an absent father’s justifications for leaving as reasonable and valid, or excusing him for his supposed inability to meaningfully be there for his child(ren).  To excuse an absent father is to be complicit in the overburdening of women. Let’s demand equal standards here.  Let’s demand equal responsibility.  This dynamic will never change if we don’t inisist upon better, and reinforce within our own circles that such behavior is unacceptable.  Mothers will continue to carry the future of the world on their shoulders if we don’t start holding fathers accountable for their fair share.

*Please forgive the binary-reinforcing terms in this article.  It was relatively impossible to find comparable statistics that didn’t reference “mothers” and “fathers” specifically. I also am speaking to the terms “mother” and “father” as social constructs that need some reexamination instead of as some sort of correct or true default. I am also placing myself under the umbrella of “mother;” even if I don’t entirely align with that word, it is a relevant representation of the dynamics I experience living in this culture.  I also want to apologize for not including family structures other than the nuclear family and the single parent.  I am not at all trying to invalidate multi-parent families – in fact, I think the more present, supportive parents a child has, the better off they will be.

*The statistics in this article come from the Pew Research Center and the US Census Bureau.


Addendum: This article stimulated an intensely heated debate in the collective. Some thought the article should run exactly as submitted while others felt strongly about asking the author for revisions (most articles get revised). As a compromise, we’re running the article as is and offer this additional note to sum up some of the controversy.

While most of us agree that more childcare (and support of other sorts) for parents (especially single parents!) would be a good thing, the Slingshot collective, and The Long Haul infoshop, don’t offer any childcare services. Both projects limp along on a barebones crew of committed volunteers, a not uncommon predicament for radical projects of all sorts. Calling on others to do something we don’t do ourselves is somewhat hypocritical. And while we all feel strongly about parents taking responsibility for the well being of the children they bring into the world, calling out a boyfriend who fails to do so is a complex and problematic assertion. Some of us critiqued the role of “the artist” as a problematic expression of individualism, an assertion that sent our discussion sideways off a f**king cliff! Whew!!

One thing we all agree on is that we don’t want to cast a shadow on the many parents locked up in the injustice system. We hope you find the article as stimulating as we did!