How We Show It: Single Parenting

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Struggling. Exhausted. Alone. The representation of single parents is full of stereotypes. Here’s how to change that.

When I was twenty weeks pregnant, I decided to make a vision board. It was New Year’s, and I was single and back in the United States after more than a year traveling abroad. My life looked drastically different than it had the year before, when the board was full of exotic beaches, far-flung cafes, and laughing twenty-somethings at a cocktail bar. I wanted to imagine what my life would look like in the months to come, as a solo mom.

The exercise was harder than I thought and left me feeling depleted. The truth was, seven years ago, it was tough to find the images in magazines or Pinterest boards that looked like what I wanted my life to look like. There were some examples I liked: I still remember one photo I clipped of a giggly toddler and her mom engaged in a gentle snowball fight. But, for the most part, single parents looked stressed, exhausted, and so alone. 

At the time, the images terrified me. Now, they make me mad. Portraying solo parents as miserable train wrecks doesn’t just scare individual people (which is bad enough). It also broadly reinforces negative thinking about the demographic. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of adults said that the rise in single women raising children solo was bad for society, and 48% said the same about the uptick in unmarried couples with kids.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

The public perception of single parents has gotten better over the last half-century, of course. But, six years into solo parenting, I can tell you from firsthand experience that there’s still work to be done. Many people still hear “single mom” and wince, frown, or withdraw. Personally, I don’t even use the phrase “single mom” in everyday life—it makes me cringe. I’m single, and I’m a mother. Both labels are valid, but when they’re put together, they conjure so many stereotypes: struggling, weary, unhappy.

The good news is, creators of all kinds are doing a better job of representing families, and showing that parenting—solo, partnered, whatever—is so much more than standing at a kitchen counter making a packed lunch. Because, isn’t that what all parents want? To be authentically represented?

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

I try to find honest moments in my own social feeds and professional writing for that very reason. I highlight my village of solo and married friends who make parenting fun. I share the adventures that are easier when it’s just one kid and one adult (10 p.m. walks to see the moon are a fave for my night-owl, Lucy). In other words, I offer real, unscripted snapshots of a family that’s growing, evolving, and loving—just like any other family.

Here’s what I keep in mind as I write and think about representation, and what I wish more brands would consider, as well . . .

Solo Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Alone

The thing that surprised me most about my own single parenting experience was how my community expanded when I had a kid. Of course, that doesn’t happen for all parents, and everyone’s experience is different. But I cherish the parent meetups, parties, and Taco Tuesday gatherings my daughter and I have with other families—solo and coupled.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

I also know so many solo and partnered parents who welcome grandparents, aunts, uncles, and babysitters into their circle, too.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

Remembering that “single parent” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “all by myself” has definitely shifted my perspective as a parent. And I love that if someone were to take a candid snapshot of my family of two, we would most likely be surrounded by others, as well. Let’s see more of that in our media.

Solo Parents All Look Different

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

I have one solo mom friend who frequently gets mistaken for her child’s grandmother at functions. She’s not sure whether that’s because of her age, the fact that she chooses not to dye her hair, or that she shows up at functions on her own, rather than as part of a pair.

Regardless of the reason, it leaves her feeling marginalized. If a range of moms were represented in media, maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to make assumptions.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

Parents can be young, old, and many shades (which may or may not be the same shade as their child). Showing diversity of solo parents—and the diversity within families—is a reminder that there’s no “right” or “typical” approach to solo parenting, just like there’s no right or typical family.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

Solo Parenting Can Be Gritty … Just Like Any Other Parenting

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

There’s stressful and sweet, and I think the challenge in portraying parenting is to find and capture the in-between in a way that’s not cliché. It’s not all shared ice cream cones and beach vacations. But it’s not all laundry piles and temper tantrums, either. Finding moments that ring true—helping with homework, having your child help you clean the house, walking your kid to school in work clothes and an overstuffed backpack—portray the real moments that make up any parent’s day.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

There’s No “Right” Way to Portray Parenting

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

Can anyone encapsulate the entire parenting experience in a single photo? Of course not. I think that realization gives creators freedom to use, explore, and play with a range of images.

Some favorites from my personal camera roll over the past six years include: A shot of me on deadline with newborn Lucy in the carrier, my laptop balanced on my lap and an iced coffee by my side. A messy-haired selfie with the two of us and our three guinea pigs. A candid, snapped by a friend, of Lucy trying to help me build a fire during a camping trip.

Images via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.

By ditching stereotypes to dig into images that resonate, creators can do more than just tell a story—they can connect.

As for me, turns out I didn’t need to abandon my old vision board when I became a parent. I just needed to add to it. While my personal experience includes the inevitable harried lunch counter prep, it’s also exploring beaches, hitting up far-flung cafes, and having the life I always envisioned—just with a sidekick.

For more on conquering stereotypes:

Cover image via Shutterstock’s Single Parenting Collection.


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