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Why Do Single Mothers Get Shafted?

Posted: 05/06/11 05:07 AM ET

This year, on the day when we celebrate our mothers, the first Happy Mother's Day call I will make is to my sister. She has been one of those women on the front lines of motherhood, with the most difficult job in the world: A single mom. Of teenagers.

I love my sister and her two great children, and I am in awe of her. As a divorced mother, I have an inkling of the incredible amount of responsibility and work that single mothers undertake. So I was surprised, and saddened, to read that, rather than praising their hard work, we denounce single mothers. Nearly seven in ten Americans, according to a recent Pew study, say single motherhood is "bad for society."

What is it about motherhood that we are so quick to pronounce on and judge other people's choices? I have been reviled as a bad mother for leaving my children for four months to work, and then being the one who moved out of their house after my divorce. I have been scolded for admitting publically that I had not wanted to be a mother. People have commented that my children must be ruined for life, and even though I have said they are fine and well-adjusted, these people insist they couldn't possibly be. My two boys find such comments presumptuous, but also very amusing. They like to joke with me, these days, about how I "left them on the side of the road" while they do their homework on my couch.

But it is not just me -- far from it. If you don't take primary custody, you are a bad mother, but you are also a bad mother if you push your children too hard to play the violin. If you think you are being a good mother when you enroll your child in a school district where his father lives and you do not, think again: you will be arrested. The same thing will happen if you are homeless and therefore have no school district. Reality TV can offer the opportunity for us to obsess on just about any kind of mother, from loveable to loathable. And now, we are judging the woman who does stay, who does work. The woman who takes care of everything that two parents usually do, five million of whom are owed child support.

Why?

Is it that old bugaboo, the welfare mom, raised most recently in connection with Natalie Portman? In defending his comments about the actress, Mike Huckabee claimed, "most single moms are very poor, under-educated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death." Not true. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, 80% of single mothers work and less than a quarter receive public assistance. But fighting and accusing and attacking is what captures our attention. How many of us were able to escape Ann Coulter's nationally televised claims that single motherhood is "a recipe to create criminals, strippers, rapists, murderers"? Here is that dire warning about my children being ruined coming back through a bullhorn.

These are our children she is talking about. Our next generation.

I would like to think that the study shows that we understand how hard single motherhood is. So overwhelming, in fact, that we worry that the strongest, best-intentioned mother can't give her children everything they need. It is probably fair to say that most of the single mothers working to make all their ends meet aren't living in luxury. They could use more time, more help, more money. Couldn't we all?

What this study does say is that a majority of us see a need. The question, on this Mother's Day, is: how do we meet it? Nearly ten million single mothers are caring for twenty million children. They are us: our neighbors, our family members. In the end, we judge mothers based on whether or not they give their children enough support, and the right kind of support in our view. If we care about these children, we should be putting our money where our mouth is as a society. Instead of criticizing, and cutting funding for nutrition, education and other services for women and children, why don't we focus on helping single mothers do what every mother, regardless of her circumstances, truly wants to do: Protect, love, support and care for the children.

My niece and nephew are adults now, on their own. They love their mother, and can certainly appreciate better than I can what she did to bring them up as good, kind, loving and responsible people, none of them "bad" for society. Even with the three hour time difference between me and my sister, I know I won't be the first one to get to her with my Mother's Day wish. Her children will. And, like the other twenty million children of single mothers, my niece and nephew certainly won't be thinking of the word "single" when they call.