Being raised by a single mother has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. I wrote my common application essay on how my mom has shaped me into a strong, independent woman. I would consider my mom to be a single mother success story; she single-handedly raised two daughters while working full time. My sister and I both attended a private boarding school and Wake Forest full scholarships. We attribute these accomplishments to my mom’s relentless encouragement.
Despite this, I think I, as long as a society, can romanticize the experience of single motherhood. Outwardly, anyone can see the success my mom forged for my sister and me. However, no one truly knows the magnitude of hardships she encountered on her journey. She tried to hide our financial problems, as well as the emotional toll being a single mom, had on her. Therefore, for this project, I wanted to sit down with my mom and discuss her experiences in relation to historical narratives surrounding single motherhood.
I based my analysis on a primary source newspaper article from 1979 entitled “Single Mothers.” This piece includes interviews with different single mothers, highlighting themes of their experiences, including support networks, resentment towards the father, financial strain, and the lack of a father figure. I then had my mom read this article and reflect upon her experience as a single mother in relativity to these themes. I also focused on how single motherhood has evolved over time, as this article was written in the 1970s.
I entitled this piece “Single Motherhood: Walking the Tightrope” because the interview with my mom reveals that being a single mother is an incredibly difficult balancing act. She had to balance acting as a mother and father, working full time, cooking, cleaning, and more. Just as walking on a tightrope, falling was not an option. My mom had to learn to adapt to this difficult role without an option to fail. She had two young daughters relying on her.
Madison Cerami: This newspaper article is from 1979. Do the things said by the mothers in this article resonate with your experience as a single mother? Do you share any common experiences with them or any completely different experiences?
Sandi Cerami: The article mentioned the importance of support systems. Unfortunately, I was isolated. When I got divorced, we had just moved to New Jersey so I didn’t have many friends. My two sisters live in Florida and Texas, which is a plane ride away. The only family close by was my ex-husband’s family. Although over time we overcame our differences, for the first few years, my ex-husband’s family would not speak to me, which was heartbreaking. Essentially I was forced to raise my two daughters completely on my own.
The article also mentioned one single mother being concerned about her children not having a male role model. Although it is important to have a male role model, it is much worse to have a bad role model, which in my case, was my ex-husband, unfortunately. I would rather my kids have no male role model than a bad one. Therefore, I had to step up as the only role model and fulfill roles that are typically filled by the father. I had to learn to put together furniture, mow the lawn, take out the trash, teach my kids how to play basketball, protect my family, and be the sole financial provider. As one mother mentioned, I also did feel resentment towards my ex-husband. Although I was wise in my decision to divorce him, I resent him for falling short on his responsibilities as a dad. Finances were a huge issue between us, and I resented having to support my two kids completely alone.
MC: Do you think things have gotten harder, easier, or stayed the same for single mothers from the 1970s to now?
SC: Although there is some truth in the beliefs of feminists of the 1960s and 1970s that "a woman doesn't need a man, she can do everything-and have both a career and family,” it is analogous to saying you can climb Mount Everest. Yes, I suppose if I intensively trained I could climb Mount Everest, but sometimes the demands of being a single mother are so insurmountable that nothing could have prepared me. Juggling a career, children, and managing a household is really not a one-person task. How did I do it? Lots of coffee and hard work, very little sleep, sheer determination, and strength of mind and body. There were many situations where working and being a mother conflicted. If my child was sick, I had to call out of work. I had to arrange childcare for business meetings and whenever I had to work long hours.
Things have gotten much harder for single mothers since the 1970s as career demands for women are far more intense. There is no such thing as a true 9-5 job. I used to be a buyer at Toys-R-Us, which was a high-intensity career. I would work twelve-hour days and Madison would cry whenever I picked her up from the babysitters because she hardly knew me. My company had no family values and did not respect my role as a mother. On 9/11, when I asked to go home to check on my family, they told me that I had to stay and work. I eventually quit that job after I became pregnant with my second daughter. When I told my boss I was pregnant, she told me to get an abortion because she did not think I can handle the demands of the job of having a second child. While I was still with my ex-husband at this time, this story shows the attitudes towards mothers in the working world.
Furthermore, children are involved in far more extracurricular activities now than they were in the 1970s. Not only do you have to worry about getting your kids to and from school, but you also have to worry about getting them to sports practices, music lessons, etc. Extracurricular activities require time and money. Also, school has gotten harder for kids. I found it difficult sometimes to help my kids with their homework. The amount of homework they receive is way higher and the methods they teach kids are different from what I learned in school, which made it difficult for me to help. The things that kids want are also far more expensive. When I was a kid, I wanted a $19.99 bike. Now kids want a $700 IPad.
In the 1970s, people were more likely to live with their extended family, who acted as a support system and helped raise the children. Growing up, I lived with my grandparents and near my aunts and uncles who would help out with the kids. Now the idea of living with extended family in the United States is practically unheard of.
MC: If you could give advice to single mothers, what would it be?
SC: You have to take one step at a time when it gets overwhelming. The dishes are piled up, the laundry needs to be done, dinner needs to be cooked. You have to put things in order by importance. You have to prioritize the most important tasks because it is impossible to get everything done. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with getting 80% of everything done. The dishes might have to stay in the dishwasher. Your kids come before the maintenance of the house. Do not beat yourself up for not being able to accomplish everything because it is impossible.
Enjoy every single second. Even if you are stressed out, you have to find the small special moments with your children and enjoy them. Take that extra 15 minutes to cuddle your kids in bed and read them a story. If they ask you to go on a walk, leave the dishes in the sink and go with them. Every baby step of an accomplishment that you make as a woman, you commend yourself. You also have to remind yourself of your children’s successes, which is ultimately the most rewarding part of being a mom.
MC: Any more comments?
Being a mom is terrifying. If you make a poor choice for yourself, that’s one thing. It is a completely different thing to make a poor decision for their child and see them suffer as a result. You have to trust your gut when it comes to decisions about your kids. You can ask for advice, but at the end of the day, you know what is best for your child.
As evidenced by this interview as well as the primary source newspaper article, being a single mother is an extremely difficult role to fulfill. Mothers already face immense pressure to be perfect and never make mistakes. Being a single mother increases this pressure, as you are solely responsible for your children’s wellbeing. These difficulties weigh upon single mothers from the 1970s to the present day. I am extremely grateful for my mom and all that she has done for my sister and me.
Madison Cerami is a senior at Wake Forest University majoring in History and Sociology. She plans on attending law school upon graduation and becoming a family lawyer in order to help women and children.