Ode to single mothers

Tomorrow the world will celebrate Women’s Day, recognizing the contribution of women to society and denouncing the unjust conditions under which many continue to live today.

In this piece I would like to pay tribute to a special group of women – single mothers.

Single mothers fall into several groups. There are those who, through choice or circumstance, were never married.

Rachel was 40 when she had her daughter Angeline. Her on-and-off boyfriend, whom she had known for two decades, fled when he learned she was carrying her child. Rachel works in the city during the week and sees Angeline only on Sundays.

Janet bore twin boys out of her relationship with a man she could never hope to marry. They are now in grade two. Recently, one of them asked her what “illegitimate” meant. Janet told them about their situation and how they were loved unconditionally anyway.

And then, there are the widows.

Lou was 23 years old. She and her husband were fixing up their new apartment when he got electrocuted. He died in her arms. Now she wishes he can be there for their first-born, fast becoming a young man.

Charito and her husband had been together for 35 years. They were in their empty-nest stage; their four children had finished college and gotten married. The couple was enjoying the occasional visits of their grandchildren. One day, he fell into a coma. He died two weeks later. Now she cannot bear to stay in the room they once shared.

Tina, 38, lost her husband when he had a heart attack. He had his faults, but he spoiled her and made their children laugh. Now Tina has to move mountains to continue sending her kids, aged 12, 14 and 16, to private schools – and make sure they don’t permanently lose the smiles on their faces.

And then there are those who used to be married but have since separated.
Aileen’s husband, on whom she was entirely financially dependent, beat her up for flimsy reasons. He soon left her for another woman. Now she and her daughters are awaiting their papers so they could join their relatives in the United States. Along the way, she has gotten employed and reaped writing awards.

Beth had to endure constant belittling from her husband, with whom she has three children. She put her promising career on hold and devoted herself to the family, but he still said that what she was doing was not good enough. After years of planning, she mustered enough courage to flee. All her children have since chosen to live with her.

Single motherhood has its challenges. Imagine doing the work that two people normally do. Think about sending several children to school, and later on university. And what answer can one give to “How does it feel to be circumcised?” How does one talk about reproductive health to a teenage boy? What does one do when the faucet leaks or the drain clogs? How does one grow old alone? All these have to be balanced with one’s job.

But perhaps the greatest test is to be perceived as “normal.” A single mother is thought to be terribly unlucky, or to have made a bad decision earlier on in life. She is stereotyped as saddled, unhappy, bitter, lonely and desperate. Sometimes she is targeted by predators who think she is vulnerable. She is either pitied or talked about in hushed tones – and you’ll be surprised by whom.

The good news is that the stereotype does not hold.

Cast off the baggage. Don’t underestimate the drive that children can inspire in their mothers. As Alanis Morissette sang in the 1990s: “You live/love/cry/lose/bleed/scream, you learn.” This is how we progress as human beings.

The Rachels, Janets, Lous, Charitos, Tinas, Aileens, Beths – not their real names, by the way – are masters of optimism. Their lives are not easy, and sometimes they doubt whether they would do a respectable job. But they, along with the millions of single mothers who lead less-than-storybook lives, give us a lesson in faith. They embrace one day after another, believing all will be fine.

A father-mother-children set up is ideal, but a family is still a family when there is love -- regardless of the composition of its members. Single mothers are expanding the storybook. And it is going to be a bestseller.