When I talked to Michelle Strain at 9 a.m. on a Thursday, she had already gotten her three kids up, ready and fed—all after finishing her 12-hour shift as a nurse at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
After our interview, she would go sleep for a while, before getting up again late afternoon to spend time with her children before heading to her next shift at 7 p.m. During the school year, she’s up by 3 p.m. to pick up her older two from school and ferry them to sports practices or other activities.
Michelle Strain is a single mother. And she is not alone. From 1980 to 2008, the percentage of single-parent households rose by nearly 30 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. As of the 2010 census, about 27 percent of children lived with a single parent, and the vast majority (about 81 percent) of those are single mothers.
Anecdotally, when Baltimore’s Child posted to Facebook asking to hear the experiences of single mothers, we got dozens of response—far too many to be able to feature all of their unique stories. But, talking to single mothers, some themes
Being a single mother, whatever the reason, is far less taboo than it once was, but that certainly doesn’t make it easy. It takes organization, flexibility and a whole lot of love.
“I thank God for my Google calendar,” says Shauntell Campbell, a single mother to 6-year-old Kendal.
Campbell, who works in software engineering in Baltimore, tries to make life as normal as possible for her daughter. She also works hard to stay present—taking advantage of the time she has with Kendal.
“It’s a day of meetings and ‘professional mode’ and then [it’s] turning on ‘mommy mode,’” she says. No matter how tired or frustrated she is, Campbell reminds herself to be patient and calm with her daughter. It helps that, at 6, Kendal now understands that sometimes Mommy just needs a minute.
Nikia Brown, who helps coordinate credentials for mental health professionals contracting with the U.S. Department of Defense, is able to work from home, which was a choice she made specifically so she could balance her work life with her life as a mother to her 13-year-old son Christion.
“It’s just constant for a single parent,” she says.
Talking to many different single mothers, the one challenge they all described was the lack of validation that comes with a partner and co-parent. They’re making all the decisions and don’t have anyone who is also there every day to bounce ideas off of, or even just affirm they’re doing it the “right way.”
The real secret? There is no right way. That’s what Brown has learned.
“I think the biggest piece of advice I would say [to other single parents] is: There’s no right way,” she says. “There’s no one way to get it right. As long as you’re trying, you’re doing it right.”
It can be a hard lesson to learn. Cheryl Smith, mother to 9-year-old Therise, remembers running herself ragged the first few years, trying to be “Supermom.” Eventually, she says, “you have to take off the cape.”
For Smith, finding a support group was key. Her ex, Therise’s father, lives in New York, as does most of her family. At first, she had a single-parent support group through her church. But since that group has folded, she has started her own—Moms on a Mission, a Facebook community of single mothers who support each other and meet up once a month or so.
For Strain, having her father around to spend the nights she works with her kids is a huge relief. For all the mothers, it has been a process to building a support network of family and friends they can rely on when needed.
Another aspect all the mothers emphasized was spending quality time with their kids. Whether that is through the children’s activities, spending time exploring the city or even just on the way to other places.
“The car time is probably some of the best quality time we have,” Strain says.
The fact of single motherhood often inspires a certain stereotype—one these mothers are all too familiar with. Campbell, who is African-American, says she knows people see her and her daughter and make assumptions.
There’s this idea that African-American single mothers are poor and uneducated, she says—an image she works hard to deconstruct.
“I’m not ashamed of these circumstances,” Campbell says. “I chose to do what was best for me and what was best for [my daughter].”
Brown is also African-American and, in raising a teenage son, is well aware of the role race plays in their lives.
“Being a single mother is less shocking than it was years ago, but the thing that sticks out to me is being the single mother of a male, African-American child,” she says.
Her son, Christion, is a competitive swimmer, honor roll student and part of the Civil Air Patrol. And yet she talks to him about current events and the state of the police.
She also finds that people tend to assume something is “lacking” from the children of single mothers—a fact the other mothers echoed in some form. Campbell said she is intentional about showing her daughter relationships to emulate, and Smith’s daughter visits her father—as well as Smith’s family—in New York a handful of times each year.
Women become single mothers for a variety of reasons—sometimes a marriage or relationship just doesn’t work out, others are leaving an abusive relationship and, in other cases, a partner dies. A growing trend, too, is women who choose to become mothers on their own.
Karen Wockenfuss approached a fertility center when she was 21, having no desire for dating, but still wanting to be a mom. She is now the proud mother of 8-year-old Emoree and still grieving the loss of her second child, Anya, who was born with a critical heart defect and passed away at just a few months old.
Still, she does not at all regret her decision to become a single mother. “All I ever wanted to be was a mom,” she says.
None of these mothers will tell you that being a single mother is easy. It’s hard and it’s time-consuming and it’s exhausting. But, for them, the sacrifice is worth it.
“My children were a blessing no matter what,” Strain says.