Featured photo: Tamara Jeffries and her daughter, Mali (courtesy photo)

Of the roughly 24 million, or one-third of all American children under the age of 18 who are living with an unmarried parent, about 80 percent of them are being raised by single moms. When compared to the total population of children, that means about one-in-five or 21 percent of kids live with a single mom, according to 2018 data collected by the Pew Research Center. And despite the prevalence of this parenting dynamic, old myths about single parents, particularly of single moms and motherhood, continue to persist.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, the number of Americans who see women raising children on their own as “bad for society” rose from 2018 to 2021. The survey, which gathered responses from almost 10,000 people, found that around 47 percent of US adults believed that single women raising children on their own is generally bad for society, an increase of 7 percentage points from 2018. But why the bad image?

According to research conducted by Dr. Nicola Carroll from the University of Huddersfield in the UK, single parents face a significant amount of stigma such as the broken family narrative and the stereotype of the young, poor mother who got pregnant due to her own irresponsibility. When race is involved, the stereotype of the Black, single mother living off of welfare funds remains strong due to racist portrayals of single mothers throughout history. And while there are real challenges to being a single parent, including financial, these mainstream misconceptions of what single motherhood looks like don’t tell the whole story.

To get a closer look at the diversity of single motherhood, TCB talked to three mothers and their children ahead of Mother’s Day this year. These are their stories.

Joan Tao, 52

Joan Tao and her kids, Andrew and Sophie Strugnell (courtesy photo)

Joan Tao never forgets to post about her late husband Stephen Strugnell on her Facebook. She mentions him every October 9 on his birthday and on July 28 on their wedding anniversary. And she’s been doing it every year since he passed away in July 2012 of internal bleeding. Their two children, Sophie and Andrew, were nine and two years old at the time.

“At the age of 40, I found myself trying to manage on my own,” Tao says.

Tao’s transition into being a single mother isn’t the typical story that’s played on movie screens. She had a loving partner who passed away too soon and she was already rooted in a successful career. She was also the primary breadwinner of the family, having been working as a lawyer for more than a decade. Still, the shift was as difficult as it was heartbreaking.

Joan with her late husband Stephen and their kids Andrew and Sophie. (courtesy photo)

“It just made it really clear that of all the jobs that parents do, there was no one way for one person to cover all of that,” Tao says. “Everything from laundry to dishes, managing kids on where they’re supposed to be, to keeping a household together, and never mind paying for it all. I had to duct tape a system together.”

For Tao, that meant relying on her friends and family and paying for extra help around the house.

“Coming from an Asian family, we’re not used to paying for services like that, but it became crystal clear to me that I didn’t want to spend my weekends doing laundry,” Tao says. “I had to figure out a way to be present to be both mother and father, to play both roles.”

And that’s difficult, especially when there are family emergencies or big milestones. She mentions how Andrew had a heart issue a few years ago and how if you have a partner, there’s another person to shoulder the responsibility and emotional burdens with you.

“Everything parents usually do as a team, you do by yourself,” she says. “So that’s hard.”

Tao explained how when she needed help, her village stepped in. Notably, her sister Tammy, who was working abroad, moved back to the states to help her with childcare.

“She’s even bigger than an aunt,” Tao says.

When Joan’s husband Stephen passed away suddenly, her sister, Tammy stepped in to help with caretaking. (courtesy photo)

Another support system came in the form of tennis. According to Tao, her late husband was a tennis fan and would take their daughter Sophie out on the courts to hit as a young child. That fostered Sophie’s own love of the game which blossomed all the way to her playing for Columbia in college. Andrew followed suit and now Tao plays as well.

“Tennis and our school community, these places have become so much more important than they would have otherwise,” Tao says. “They were like huge extended families for us.”

Andrew, now 14, says he sees his mother’s efforts over the years and doesn’t take them for granted. He talks about how his sister, who is seven years older than him, helped raise him and acknowledged how hard his mom worked to take care of them both.

“She did everything for us when we were little,” he says. “She would take care of us, make sure we were okay. If we were sad, she was sad. She’s nice and she’s open; I feel like I can go to her with anything.”

Sophie, now 21, agrees. She says that despite knowing that their family faced difficult times, that she never saw her mother falter in her dedication to her kids.

“My mom never really showed me her struggle,” Sophie says. “I’m sure it’s been there, but I recognize the strength that it took.”

Sophie says that when her dad passed away, she felt like she had to fill a kind of parental role. That meant that she and her mom were more like partners, a team. That brought them closer together.

“I just appreciate her a lot,” she continues. “That’s one of those things that you don’t say all the time and I feel very lucky to have a mother like her. I know I have been affected by her parenting and her as an individual, and I’m glad I have been.”

For Tao, becoming a single mother has opened her eyes wide to the unrealistic societal expectations of motherhood.

“There is this ideal of motherhood that I think hurts women,” Tao says. “Nobody can fulfill it; it’s too high a bar.” 

She points to how schools let out early when most people are still working and how it’s difficult to get promoted when you’re the sole parent and employers may not see you as reliable. Then there’s the age-old idea that to be a mother is to be selfless.

“Motherhood should be about doing whatever you can to enable your kids to be happy, which means being self-sufficient and happy yourself,” she says. “And if you do your job right, they should fly from the nest.”

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, 43

Gwen and August Frisbie-Fulton at Yellowstone National Park (courtesy photo)

When Gwen Frisbie-Fulton became pregnant at 26, she was living with a ton of roommates in a punk house in the Midwest. It wasn’t something that she was expecting or planning, but she made the decision to be a single parent.

“I think I always knew that I was going to be a single mom, and that was okay with me,” she says. “I am a single mother by choice, which isn’t everybody’s story.”

Shortly after her son August was born, Frisbie-Fulton says friends and family would come over to their drafty, 150-year-old house and do dishes, bring food and take shifts watching August. At first, Frisbie-Fulton says she felt guilty and embarrassed about the level of support she got. 

“But then over time, I realized that this was something they were choosing to do along with me,” she says.

That kind of community caretaking followed Frisbie-Fulton when she moved to Greensboro in 2009. She moved into a friend’s house at first and afterwards, when she bought her house, she found more and more people who happily partook in raising August with her.

“I was so fortunate that so many people around me flooded into that space,” she says.

One memory in particular stands out. When August was two years old, Frisbie-Fulton says she put out a call to celebrate his birthday and a bunch of community members, including a radical street band, showed up.

“All these people showed up including people I didn’t know with children,” she says. “They and Cakalak Thunder, we all did a two-block march down the sidewalk of Mendenhall, and it took forever because these are two year olds marching. And I realized that I had made one of the biggest and most important decisions for my child by moving here.”

When Frisbie-Fulton couldn’t be at August’s violin recital, she called on friends who would show up and cheer the loudest during his performance. Even on a recent Thursday when TCB called August for an interview, he was being driven home from school by a family friend because his mom was working. And Frisbie-Fulton says that this kind of family-making has had a significant impact on their life.

“People will say all the time that kids need a father figure or kids need this, and that’s true, kids need all kinds of stuff, but I think the success I’ve had is from allowing so many people in [August’s] life from biological family to mentors to friends,” Frisbie-Fulton says.

August, now 17, says he remembers those moments when his mom couldn’t make it to various events but that it never bothered him.

“I’m really okay because I have so many people to support me,” he says. 

The community that the two have had has been invaluable to Frisbie-Fulton, she says, because being a single mom is tough. In fact, it’s made that way by society.

“Almost a decade of my income went into childcare,” Frisbie-Fulton explains. “That’s a major blow to an individual in lost wages and wealth. You kind of do the math and the math isn’t fair. And this has nothing to do with him, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with me. It has to do with a society that is not equipped for parenting, and it’s not designed for children, and it’s certainly not designed for single mothers.”

Even still, she points to the misconceptions around poverty and hardship being inherently part of single parenthood. 

According to Census data collected by the Single Mother Guide, a website that outlines data about and for single mothers, less than a third of single mothers were living in poverty in 2021. About a fourth were food insecure and less than half received food stamps.

Even though some of the stereotypes are rooted in truth, that doesn’t mean that everything is terrible, Frisbie-Fulton says.

“Things are kinda cool,” she says.

For those looking to support single moms, Frisbie-Fulton says that Mother’s Day can be a tough time. So she suggests people reach out to the children of single parents and help them make cards for their parent.

As for August, he wants his mom to know that she’s doing a good job, whether she believes she is or not. Some of his earliest and favorite memories are of the two of them walking in the woods or going to protests together. 

“She should give herself more credit for how much she is able to do for me and I think she underestimates how much she does do,” he says. “I hope she finds more peace in her job so she can go hiking more and I’d be happy to go hiking with her.”

Tamara Jeffries, 59

Tamara Jeffries and her daughter, Mali (courtesy photo)

It was never Tamara Jeffries’ intention to become a single parent, she says. 

“I knew single parents, and it looked really hard,” she says.

But when she and her ex-husband separated when their daughter Mali was 5 years old, that’s what Jeffries became.

But it’s a choice she made, she explains.

“It’s what I wanted; it’s what I preferred,” she says.

And that’s because sometimes, when you disagree fundamentally with your partner or spouse on ways to parent, it can be “hobbling,” Jeffries says. 

When Mali was a young child, Jeffries recalls how she and her then-husband had to take her to the doctor because she wasn’t putting on weight. Her then-husband was vegan and it took going to the doctor to convince him to incorporate meat into Mali’s diet.

“I cried because I finally had permission to feed my child what I thought made sense,” she says. 

Still, as a Black woman, becoming a single mom meant facing misconceptions and stereotypes about single motherhood.

“I think people assume that her father is not present,” says Jeffries, whose ex-husband has maintained a relationship with Mali. “Those are stereotypes about absent dads, and that has to do a lot with race.”

While it’s true that Black and Native children are more likely than white, Hispanic or Asian children to live in single parent households, the percentage of Black single mothers has continued to decrease over the last three decades from 54 percent in 1991 to 45 percent in 2022.

And although things were difficult in the beginning, Jeffries says that because she became a single mom at 39 years old, things were easier for her than they would otherwise have been for other moms. Part of it was the fact that she had a career in academia teaching at Bennett College. That meant she made a decent salary and could make her own teaching schedule. The other was the fact that she had family and friends close by when she moved to Greensboro.

“I had this really strong and diverse support system,” she says.

Growing up, Mali remembers running around on Bennett’s campus darting in and out of different buildings.

“I grew up on Bennett’s campus for the last 15 years,” says Mali, now 20. “There are professors who my mom calls my doctor aunties and students of my moms that I think of as sisters to this day.”

Mali also says that being the only child of a single parent means that there’s a level of closeness that may be different than kids who have two parents.

“For most of my life for any given period of time, she was the only person I was talking to,” Mali says. “That means that as I got older, we argued a lot, but also my mom is my first call for everything.”

Tamara Jeffries and her daughter Mali (photo by Raquel Bethea)

That closeness is something that Jeffries doesn’t take for granted. She shared how Mali was her third pregnancy after two miscarriages. Watching her daughter grow up and become her own person has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her life, she says.

“There’s never a time when this child is not the person you love more than anything on the planet,” she says.

For Jeffries, motherhood “means ushering a person into the world who ultimately will be their own person but who will also be very much influenced by you and what you do.”

“It’s an incredible responsibility because as a friend of mine says, ‘Kids are a black box; you don’t know what they’re going to pick up,’” she says. “They are watching you.”

But even if she messes up, Jeffries wants mothers to know that single parenting is hard work and that they should give themselves grace.

“You’re not going to do it perfectly,” she says. “There’s no perfect mom.”

And though that may be the case, Jeffries says she hopes that her daughter knows that “she has her back all the time.”

Mali echoed her mother.

“I would tell her that I know we’ve had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of stuff in the middle,” Mali says, holding back tears. “And through all of that, even in a down, she’s my rock and she’s always there.”

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