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Dealing With Hurtful Remarks About Solo Motherhood

Written by Erin Feher

Photography by

Photo by Heather Moore

Welcome to Asking for a Friend, our column where we track down answers to your most burning (and sometimes awkward) questions. To answer this week’s query, we called on personal coach Abigail Sommerfeld, who, in addition to working with individual clients, heads up a series of parenting discussion circles in her hometown of San Francisco.

Q: I’m a solo mom by choice, pregnant with my first child (a girl), and planning to have a home birth. In preparation, I am taking a wonderful birth class. The class is taught by a couple of whip smart and progressive doulas that assured me the material would be appropriate to a solo mom—and they’ve kept their word. I am the only solo mom in the class. In fact, all of the other class members are heterosexual married couples. And while dear friends on my birth team will be joining me at a couple of classes here and there, I will mostly be attending by myself. At our second class, I was out of town and Skyped in to the class. As we went around the room for introductions, a husband who had missed the first class said, “Hi, I’m Carrie’s husband. Sorry I missed the first class. Don’t worry, she’s not a single mom!” I’m not going to lie, it hurt. I am proud of and confident in my choice to do this solo and understand that people can be clumsy with their words, but it still stung. It isn’t the first time someone has inadvertently said something that has hurt along this journey and I know it won’t be the last. Still, I’m struggling to get my own back, to not take things too personally, and to recover in the wake of moments like these. Any ideas, mantras, or mindsets I can arm myself with as I embark on this wonderful yet fraught journey?

A: Ooof. That’s a heart sinker of a moment for sure. I’m trying to decide who I’d rather be the least in that moment. I think I feel the worst for Carrie’s husband, then Carrie, then the teachers, then you. In that order. You coming in a distant fourth.

Clumsy, clueless, or generally insensitive, Carrie’s husband seemed in that quick moment of introduction to be more concerned with getting a cheap laugh than being intentional or thoughtful about his words. Not only do I feel badly for him for that reason, but also because maybe he actually didn’t know better and thought in some way it was sad or bad to be a solo mom. I feel especially badly for him if he was just misinformed or naive and let himself buy some pretty uncreative bullshit: that some families are “better” than others. And then there’s poor Carrie. I wonder what kind of mixed feelings she experienced as those words tumbled out of her husband’s mouth. She was there the week before, so she knew there was a solo mom in the class. Was she feeling embarrassed? Mortified? Angry? Like she was wishing she was a solo mom? Sure, she’s not responsible for her husband or what he says, I’m not going to put this on her. Either way, I wouldn’t want to trade places with her in that moment. Or in subsequent moments. I’m just flashing forward to back-to-school nights down the road, with (hopefully) even more diverse parent populations. Carrie sitting next to him, gritting her teeth, holding her breath and hoping he doesn’t say something like, “Hi everyone, I missed the kindergarten family playdate this summer, so this is my first school event. But don’t worry, little Dashiell has a dad!” Poor Dashiell. Poor Carrie.

Speaking of (hopefully) more diverse parent populations, I think that’s why I feel sorry for the teachers of your class too. My guess is, a couple of “whip smart and progressive doulas” teaching a fantastic home birth class were hoping for more of a diverse mix of parents and backgrounds in their class. They probably know that honoring and welcoming diversity and intersectionality of any kind in any group setting makes for a richer, deeper experience for everyone. And this is only class number two! They’re probably bracing themselves for the reactions and questions of their unintentionally heteronormative class when they start talking placenta encapsulation and showing serious 70s bush in a Russian waterbirth documentary.

But I digress. This isn’t about me, or them, or Carrie or even Carrie’s husband. This is about you. And your daughter. You’re right, it isn’t the first and won’t be the last time someone says something careless that stings. There are sure to be many points along the way where people’s reactions or perceptions of you and your choice will feel like an unwelcome and unsolicited mirror. Welcome to parenthood. Or personhood really. If we listened to every careless comment someone threw at us over the years and decided to let that be the mirror through which we regarded and saw ourselves, we’d be in trouble.

To the mom of the only child, “Are you sure you don’t want to have another one? I know when we had our second, it finally felt like we were a real family. Like our family was finally complete.”

To the graduate student who turns down a position at a prestigious university, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll never have another opportunity like this one? What if you don’t go on to do anything as impressive as this?”

To the bride who elopes, “You might regret this. You don’t want to give your dad the satisfaction of giving you away?”

To the working mom, “I’m just glad I’m raising my child, you know? I mean, I didn’t have a child so it could be raised by someone else.”

Oh, people. C’mon. Really? But we don’t have control over what people say or think, Carrie’s husband included. What we do have control over however? Our words. Our thoughts. Our choices. And how we own and frame those choices.

The essential question at the core of this heart sinker of a story for me is actually a gem of a heart lifter and a damn important question to consider: What will be your mirror?

In addition to yourself (in my opinion, the most important one of all), which mirrors will you allow to reflect your experience and which ones will you cast aside as somebody else’s clumsy, misinformed, or limited perception of your experience? As a mother, you will also be the first and most important mirror for your daughter. She will initially and often see herself through your eyes, as you see her. And isn’t she, in some ways, an extension of you and your choices? How do you see her? How do you want her to see herself? The world? Her place in it? Perhaps the knowledge and awareness of this honor can take the shape of a little shield, protecting your heart from the onslaught of clumsy, hurtful, offensive, or stinging comments that might be lobbed your way in the months and years to come. Let’s arm you with that little shield and the knowledge of these truths: you are a strong, smart, sensitive, courageous, vulnerable, powerful woman and mother. You are enough. Your daughter is enough. You are not alone. You are a real family. Your family is complete.

You’ve got this, mama. Onward and upward.

Have a question for our experts? Email us at [email protected]. We’ll publish all queries anonymously because we know—you’re totally asking for a friend.

Write a Comment

  1. Ellie says...

    Such a great reframing of a painful situation. I look forward to reading more from Abby!

  2. Jennifer Moss says...

    I love Abby’s insightful perspective and sharp wit. I would also enjoy this as a regular feature! Great piece.

  3. Margaret says...

    I can totally relate to this as the mother of an only child. The world is full of other people’s slings and arrows. Those are their mirrors, not mine. I love how the author reminded us to reflect / mirror our own truths.

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