There's no question that single-mother families struggle in ways… (Sean Gallup / Getty Images )
I've been thinking a lot lately about single mothers — the concept and the people.
Maybe it's because I'm still receiving emails from agitated readers about my column crediting single mothers, among others, with helping reelect President Obama. That sounded to some, as one reader put it, like "tacit encouragement of single-parent over two-parent homes."
Or maybe it's because we're getting close to the date on the calendar when my husband died 19 years ago — leaving me with three little girls to raise, and shoving me into a demographic I never imagined I would join.
Or maybe it's because this Thanksgiving was, finally, a wake-up call. As I watched my daughters at the dinner table — so smart and charming and thoughtful — I couldn't help but marvel: Who are these delightful young women, and how did they turn out so well?
And that forced on me a broader question:
Why did I spend so many years obsessing over distressing statistics and mourning our family's fracture?
I could never have imagined this bright tableau during those scary early days. I was worried, uncertain, even ashamed at points along the way.
It wasn't just the practical burden of going from two parents to one, or the emotional weariness of years of birthdays, track meets and parent-teacher nights alone.
It was the shadow of statistics and stereotypes that helped to weigh me down. Single mother, I realized, was not just a descriptor, but a license for strangers to criticize my children, my prospects, my morals.
There's no question that single-mother families struggle in ways that two-parent families don't. Unmarried women juggling jobs and children are apt to have less money, less time and fewer emotional resources to devote to their kids.
Those kids, statistics tell us, do worse in school and in life than their two-parented peers. They are less likely to graduate and more likely to be unemployed. The girls are at higher risk for teen pregnancies; the boys challenge their mothers with discipline problems.
But that big picture is layered in ways that make generalizing faulty: The middle-class divorcee with good child care and a steady job has different prospects than the teenage dropout raising children on welfare in the projects.
The label "single mother" doesn't recognize that. Its fallout swirls around all of us raising children without fathers, like the dust cloud that followed Pig Pen around in those old "Peanuts" comics.
The term seems straightforward enough. Single: unmarried, solitary. Mother: a female parent.
Yet we've larded it with so much cultural baggage, we can't agree on who qualifies or what the title signifies.
I used the term only once in my column, and was surprised by the tempest it unleashed.
"I personally think it's a good idea to be married before you have a baby," one man wrote, in an email dripping with sarcasm. "Are you advising your girls to give birth out of wedlock?"
His stereotype is clear as a bell: A single mother is a woman who's careless, selfish, irresponsible, comfortable with a welfare check and dismissive of a dad.
Other readers gave me a pass because I didn't choose my status.
"I don't consider widowed or divorced women with children 'single mothers,' " one woman wrote. The term "implies that you had children outside of marriage, a loaded issue [that] sends the brain reeling in many directions."
What she's suggesting is that some single mothers deserve grace, and others condemnation.
There was a time when that perspective suited me, when I worried about what others would think about three children and no wedding ring.
Back then, I reflexively courted pity rather than risk the possibility of being stereotyped as some kind of black welfare queen. I'd find ways to work my husband's death into conversations with strangers. I understood the moral ranking: I knew a widow trumped a divorcee, and both were better than never-marrieds.
It took a nudge from a mortified daughter to stop me: "Do you have to tell everybody that Daddy died?" she asked, after one particularly awkward chat with a man in line at McDonald's. In arming myself against disapproval, I'd hurt and embarrassed my daughters.
It took years for my discomfort to fade and my girls' resilience to brew.
I realize now that my daughters thrived not in spite of what they lacked but because of what they had:
A mother who learned to trust her instincts, ask for help, listen to her children — and ignore the numbers that claim to calculate our family's fate but can't account for the power of our love.
There are worse things than not having a father. What puts children at risk is not their single mother, but the instability — financial and emotional — that often comes with being un-partnered.
It's mom leaving junior at home alone because she can't afford a sitter, or subjecting her daughter to a parade of men because she's desperate for a lover.
Certainly, two good parents are better than one. That's a truth that can't be avoided.
But one-quarter of this country's children are being raised by single women. And what those 18 million children need most is support for their mothers: better education, quality child care, a fair workplace with equal pay, more access to job training.
What they don't need is the burden of society's judgment. The broad-brush portrait that paints our families as failures will change when single mothers are embraced and our children expected to thrive.