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Once upon a time,
we too were legitimate

By Tere McDowell & Insanity House, Inc.

We are thirteen million women raising approximately twenty million children as single parents. We are the failed representations of womanhood and motherhood, of American families and American society. We are the women and mothers to be scrutinized and scorned. Questioned and pitied for our failed lives. How did this happen?

Once Upon a Time, we too were legitimate. The majority of us were married or in what we thought sacred, secure relationships. A more independent group (35% of single parent women) simply gave up on that notion and chose to go it alone right from the beginning. I think they are having the easier time of it, void of all notions of support and responsibility from long forgotten donors. Not so with the rest of us.

“Single moms” evoke an image of low class, low income, poorly educated women who simply made bad choices. We know these women. They work at the local diner serving up burgers and fries. They have three children from some drunken bum, and have the appearance of being heavily burdened by their lives. When we encounter these women, the first thought that pops into our heads is: “I’ll never be like her.”

We also hold other images of single moms. We have an image of poor young teenagers who went out and did the wild thing and got caught because they got pregnant (although less than 5% of single moms are teenagers and only 11% are young ladies under the age of 25). We have an image of welfare queens sitting at home eating ice cream while watching Jerry Springer all afternoon on their cable television set. We know these images well. They were provided to us wrapped in ribbons of pink and purple as an example of what we never want to become.

The reality is very different. 70% of all divorces filed in this country are filed by women. This should be of grave concern, as we imagine hundreds of thousands of women running into the fields behind their homes with desires of partaking in a Dionysian festival. Not! What is it that the majority of divorces filed are filed by women? According to research, the number one reason for divorce in this country is financial strain. However, 70% of the women who initiate divorce cite domestic abuse as the reason. This is something that we, as women, should truly be concerned about.

Most single parent women looked like all women in married relationships. As married mothers, we reflected what our society likes to see in a woman. As no-longer-married or never-married mothers, we are illegitimate. We violate the comfort zone. We are hoydens. We fill the ranks of America’s working class poor, regardless of our levels of education. For you see, we have failed at the most basic patriarchal relationship, and as a result we are automatically questioned as to our ability to work within a corporate structure of a larger one. Added to this is the insult of a potential employer asking: “and who will take care of your children when they are sick?” Don’t all mothers--regardless of their marital status--give the same answer?

The majority of single parent women work full time. 45.5% have multiple jobs. A large percentage of single parent women continue on with higher levels of education: 59% over their married women counter parts at 46%. The national average household income for a single parent woman is $24,000 – which offers just a 13% margin above the federal poverty level for a family of four. 41% of single parent households headed by women live at or below the poverty line -- the national average is 13%. Children from single parent women head of households have replaced the elderly for poverty, food hunger and food insecurity in America. Single parent women and their children are the least likely of all Americans to have health care coverage.

When marriages come undone, it doesn’t take long for the reality of single parenting to hit. When a woman divorces her income drops to approximately one-quarter of what it was while she was married. She now is paying one-third of her weekly income to child care, and if she has two children this amount nearly doubles. Child support stops coming, or it only comes sporadically. “Sure, we can take him to court”, says the wonderful attorney at the other end of the line. “Pay me $2400 as a retainer and we can get this process going”. What a single parent woman learns quickly is that the courts are not collection agencies, and the only person who gets any money out of the arrangement is the attorney who is collecting his fee.

There are literally millions of women who have foolishly walked down this road. After all, the law is the law. What women learn through their legal adventures is that the law of child support is not a law that was ever intended to be taken literally. According to a year 2000 report on child support, $39 billion was owed to 29 million children in back support payments. And fewer than one out of every four children who are owed child support receive it. No one is collecting child support. The majority of women who receive state assistance would not require financial aid if they received child support.

There are many other factors tied into child support. Domestic abuse is one. Since a large portion of women leave a relationship due to domestic abuse, attempting to get child support keeps them locked into a relationship with their abuser. They must continually fear for their own safety, and for that of their children. Many women, who rely upon the court system to get child support, also find themselves facing a custody battle for their children. Attorney fees for child support could easily move from $2400 to $10,000 or even $20,000 when custody is challenged. Most men know that the easiest way to control the woman is to go after custody of the children and bankrupt her at the same time. The courts appreciate this. They are dependent on it. Custody and child support battles are a revenue generator for the legal profession.

In addition, federally funded research states that single parent women are raising the next generation of emotionally damaged children, criminals and drug addicts. These studies recapitulate America’s deepest fears about the dangerous power of “unfit” mothers – meaning single parent women – to wreak havoc in our society. What these reports fail to mention is that the number one determining factor affecting our children’s emotional and psychological well being is not how well or poorly they are mothered, but the level of poverty they experience. The major causes of poverty in single parent women households are 1) the inability to collect child support and 2) lower wage rates for jobs and careers that are traditionally women centric professions, such as the helping and teaching professions. Children’s involvement in the Juvenile Judicial system is directly related to those who have experienced or witnessed domestic abuse. Of the 70% of women who stated the reason for filing for divorce was domestic abuse, 50% of those children had already experienced abuse or were witness to it.

Several years ago at a woman’s conference I heard an older woman say, “Oh my gosh! I forgot that women come with children.” I smiled when she said this, for I felt for that brief second that I had found a golden nugget to the problem that separates women from women. Women do come with children, but only if there is a husband attached to the structure are they legitimized as mothers. When the “husband” is removed, we fall silent. We become an invisible part of the world of the working poor, or we are denigrated as the cause of every imaginable social ill. We have now entered into the category of the sacred hoydens of American society.

mmo : march 2003

Tere McDowell is the president of Insanity House, Inc., an online advocacy and support network for single parent women. She is an art therapist and a teacher with degrees from the College of Sante Fe and University of New Mexico in Archetypal Art Therapy, and has done post-graduate studies in Multi Cultural Special Education. She claims she also has the student loan debt to prove it. She writes: “I have three children that are mine and several others that are mine as well, I just didn't birth them. I have been a single parent woman for ten years this go round... And if we are counting single parenting if you have a marriage license, I did that too.” www.insanityhouse.com

Tere is also Co-Executive Director of Raise The Nation, a non-profit organization that awards grants and scholarships to single parent women and their children to continue on with their education or to repay student loans. www.raisethenation.org

You can find more commentary by Tere McDowell & Insanity House, Inc. in MMO’s Mom Watch

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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