I know what my friends mean when they say they’re a single parent while their spouse is out of town. Everyone knows what they mean. Obviously logistics and stresses are increased without the usual in-home support of the spouse, and a two-parent household is more likely to have a lifestyle that requires two adults to maintain it while maintaining sanity.
I’m not a single parent myself, or a parent of any kind. If you call me my cats’ mother I will mock you, and if you look for any nurturing examples to suggest I have mother-like qualities I will cut you. It’s really not an insult not to say I’m not a mother. And yet hearing coupled people call themselves single parents makes me cringe. That’s my issue, and no one should stop using the natural shorthand, and I’d feel bad if anyone felt bad for using it, but here’s why it I cringe.
My mom became a single parent when my brother was 3 and I was 10 months old, after the death of our father. I know others who are single parents by circumstance or choice. Some co-parent with an ex, which can be fraught with other issues. Some have supportive families, some are very alone. There’s no one face of single parenthood.
But the faces I’ve seen most closely, the ones that deserve to be seen most closely, have half the income, if that, of those whose spouses are on a business trip. They haven’t signed their kids up for as many activities, if any, because they can’t afford it or can’t find ways to get them there or can’t find the time and energy. And they can be almost invisible to those of us who look around our social circle and see people mostly like ourselves, not those who rely on subsidized housing and food banks.
A friend who’s single parenting this weekend explained that her kids are too young to do anything for Mother’s Day by themselves. The thing is, if they were growing up with a single parent, they wouldn’t be. They’d give her the homemade card they made in school or daycare, and maybe some toast and peanut butter. Birthdays would be sketchy because there are no societal reminders of the day, so she’d be lucky to get a Mars bar and a comic book a couple days late. They’d likely be coming home from school alone younger, cooking the family dinner younger, taking public transit younger than kids with two parents at home, and that’s their normal.
There’s no reason for anyone to stop using the term single parent to describe a temporary state, or to assume single parenthood means deprivation, but there is always reason for us to open our eyes for those who are struggling around us. So if a spouse’s business trip can help build empathy for the struggles of some actual single parents, I’m all for the shared label.