Single Mothers and Raising Healthy Sons

April 6, 2018

Let’s first start off with the obvious fact that being a single mother is not easy. And it is an extremely common form of family in the United States.  According to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau out of about 12 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. On top of the practical, financial and emotional stressors of raising children, single mothers of boys have an added burden of  enduring the stigma of society’s perpetuation of false beliefs claiming that boys without fathers won’t learn how to be “real men”.  Those beliefs include narratives that boys without fathers will be weak and some go so far to claim that boys raised by women are more likely to be gay.  As absurd as these narratives sound to most professionals, these common narratives create an unnecessary extra burden on women committed to raising healthy boys. 

The perception in the United States that most American children grow up in a home with a married mom and dad couldn’t be farther from the reality of family life. Less than 23 percent of American households fall into that category. There are an estimated eight million women parenting alone, and at the very least another 100,000 lesbian couples raising children.

That being said, many single mothers still feel that they are less than the ideal family system. At the Institute for Family Services (IFS), many women we work with describe a fear that their son might be missing out on how to be a “man” without a father in the home.  We use tools in therapy sessions that identify how society perpetuates these norms that leave men feeling inadequate if they express emotion, embrace femininity, practice collaboration over competition, and commit to a more balanced work and family life.  We educate men and women about the obvious and sometimes hidden messages they are constantly receiving in a heteropatriarchalsociety (meaning a society that values straight folks over gay and lesbian, and values men over women).  Let’s think about this…from the moment you found out you were having a boy, you absorbed messages about what colors you could or couldn’t choose for the clothes you would buy, the toys he would enjoy most, the nicknames that you might use or would never consider because of gender, even the profession that he would most likely or least likely choose someday.  As boys grow up, they are bombarded with more ofthese messages: through music lyrics that teach them to objectify women, advertisements for the kinds of clothes that will make him most attractive, cologne that will help him win the woman he is trying to seduce, the culture of sports, the list goes on and on.  It is still not completely embraced by the mainstream for boys to take up ballet without people questioning their sexual orientation, or playing with dolls over matchbox cars.  Both single parents and two parent families, whether heterosexual or LGBT, face the challenge of learning how to resist these societal pressures to reinforce these rigid norms of being a boy or being a girl.  That challenge is greater for single mothers who are even more chastised for “coddling their sons” when they aren’t subscribing to this male code.

The key to raising healthy boys is not dependent on being in the 23% of families with fathers in the home.  The key to raising healthy boys is to surround them with men and women who understand the consequences of buying into and resists enforcing this male code that stifles boys, and later men’s, expression of their full identity.  We know that men have a shorter life expectancy than women, that they have a higher rate of heart disease and other medical conditions exacerbated by stress.  This is important because it is linked to this male code that tells men they should be able to handle all that life throws at them, hold their feelings in or not acknowledge feelings at all, and “man up.”  Men don’t enjoy the benefits of having a strong support network to rely on in challenging times, like women do.  Their social network often focuses on socially acceptable male activities, like grabbing a beer to watch a sports event.  At IFS, single moms learn how to create a network of people around their families, some who may be biologically connected and others who are handpicked, to have positive male and female role models who can instill values that counter the damaging messages of keeping boys locked in a narrow definition of what it means to be a man. 


Some other common challenges that single moms identify as being important to address are co-parenting when the other parent has a different parenting style or may not be consistently involved, taking care of themselves while often working 2 jobs to make ends meet, establishing the new rules and value system in their home following a divorce, and moving from single parent households to a blended family.  Boys being raised by their mothers often have unspoken loyalties to their dads, even if their dads haven’t played an active role in their everyday lives.  The team at IFS has helped boys and men, through exploring family patterns and sometimes developing rituals, to decide how their loyalties serve them well, or block their ability to fully engage in healthy intimate relationships as sons, fathers and partners.

We’ve all heard single parent moms being referred to as superwomen, and doing the work of mom and dad.  We’ve also heard the warnings of doom and gloom about the categories of higher risk for dropping out of school, poverty, etc. that children of single parent homes fall into.  It may often feel to women raising sons alone that you are in a no win situation.  Single parent households led by women can, and do, provide for their children’s practical, financial and emotional needs. Single parent mothers may complain about feeling exhausted, burning the candle at both ends and juggling multiple demands of work and family, but we have seen that these families are often paving the way for raising healthy boys.  The bottom line is, raising healthy boys requires more than one or two parents, for that matter.  It requires understanding the trap of the male code, and then developing a community of men and women who support you in resisting that code, and teaching your boys a value system of equality, peace and authenticity.

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