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December 20, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

Single mothers, their kids, and the big American holidays

This week, Leslie Bennetts crafted an ode to American moms, who are doing the best they can in this lousy economy.

The latest Census data revealed that 42 percent more women than men now live in poverty—and among those over 65, twice as many women live in poverty, compared with men. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable; more than 40 percent of their families are poor, and more than half of all poor children live in female-headed households.

My father passed away when I was seven, so for most of my life, it’s been just me and Big Mama, kicking it live. She is a SuperMom if there ever was one, working at nights and weekends writing books to supplement her income as “the assistant to the editor of the Home section” (her official title) at the New York Times.

Single motherhood is associated with all kinds of negative life outcomes for the next generation. I’d argue that the outcomes are correlated with many of the other factors that, in turn, correlate with single motherhood — poverty, lack of access to or education about reproductive health services, etc. Those factors, in my case, were not present.

Both of my parents were writers and had high expectations for me. We lived in a safe, low-crime neighborhood in Manhattan. When my father passed away, we weren’t well-off, and we weren’t even financially “comfortable” (that’s not how I’d ever describe my mom while I was growing up), but we were definitely not poor by either the federal definition nor in our day-to-day life, which was rich with love, with learning, museums, books, basketball, and friends. So I was fortunate in my circumstances to avoid the negative life outcomes (lower school achievement, lower lifetime earnings, etc). In my more rebellious phases, I went out of my way to date a drug dealer and stay out really late, but that was a phase. In my family, by which I mean “in my mom’s eyes,” there was no question that I would go to college, do well at college, and go on to work. My friend with whom I regularly debate this says I am the exception, not the rule. If that is the case, I do not think the mothers nor the fact of their singleness are to blame.

One thing that never bugged me was what to do over the holidays while everyone else was getting together with their greater-than-binomial families. We always had places to go, loving family friends who took us in, a large table to sit at with many people around it, many plates of food on it, and two seats saved for my mom and I.

My dear friend Cara Hoffman reminded me of this today when she sent me this little essay, “How do Atheists and Families of Two Celebrate Christmas?” Good families are about quality, not quantity. And to her and my mom and all the other single mothers, I dedicate this song:

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One Comment

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  1. Cara Hoffman / Dec 20 2011 12:17 am

    Awww. Nice piece. Thanks Li’l Champ.

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