Family: You Keep Using That Word

I do not think it means what you think it means.

Six years after the end of our relationship, I found myself awkwardly seated at a table on the fringes of my son’s father’s wedding hall. His bride was a mysterious but beautiful young Ukrainian woman I’d only met a few months earlier, and frankly the whole thing intimidated the pants off me.

The day of the wedding, there had been a massive windstorm, and stray branches were littered across the parking lot. The threatening gray sky set the scene for some kind of apocalyptic event. From the edges of the room with my quietly disoriented date next to me, I watched my extended family officially take shape: my son stood in his tiny pressed suit at an archway between the couple, occasionally skipping between us from one side of the hall to the other, so excited to be part of something so grand. His dad tousled his little mop of hair just as often as I flattened it smooth again—a subtle, invisible tug-of-war. I pointed this out to my ex as he visited our table. He chuckled and gave grinning Tommy another ruffle. Without ever having had a nuclear family to compare this to, Tommy’s worries extended only to how many treats he would get after the ceremony.

Tommy has always lived with me and happily visited with his dad without being subjected to an autopsy of our relationship. The arguments he’s exposed to are the important ones—the value of cats as pets or whose hairstyle is cooler (mine). I’ve grown to adore Tommy’s stepmother. Though the three of us are friends now, if you’d asked my ex and I when we split if this were possible, we’d both have found a clever way to change the subject.

Back then, the idea of being a single mother terrified to me. All I’d ever seen were TV renditions, and since I’m no Lorelei Gilmore I feared Teen Mom was my destiny. But it turned out–as it almost always turns out–parenting a child alone is infinitely easier than trying to crush a family together from parts that just don’t fit.

I’m often asked, “why couldn’t you make the relationship work for your child’s sake?” This is interesting, because the concern is never about the real hardship affecting lone-parent families: poverty. Child poverty is the main contributing factor toward poor socio-economic outcomes for our children. In New Westminster, only 18% of census families live in single detached homes, compared to a national average of 55%. Most families (76%) live in apartments or duplexes that continue to become more unaffordable as the housing market worsens for everyone.

According to the 2011 census, 6,340 of New Westminster families with children at home were married, 605 were common-law, and 2,755 were lone-parent families. Of those lone-parent families, 2,195 are female-headed households, which means my particular family structure isn’t so unusual: we make up nearly 23% of families with children at home. When women still earn less than men and perform the bulk of domestic labour, it’s no surprise our major challenges when he have children alone are income- and career-related, which explains our troubles with housing and poverty.

That the question “why didn’t you figure it out?” is about our children’s emotional well-being in light of not having a specific (heterosexual, married) family structure is insulting. It assumes there is only one good way to raise healthy children. It ignores the gendered income and labour disparity that perpetuates child poverty, and invalidates anything outside the prescribed norm. It’s also intrusive. Married couples are never asked by new acquaintances to describe the worst parts of their relationship publicly, but this information becomes an overriding part of your character as a single parent, and is therefore Everybody’s Business. Apparently nobody becomes a single parent without a fascinating, tragic backstory.

This attitude superimposes a ‘correct’ family structure on top of ours, highlighting the ways the two are mismatched, and demanding we address our ‘otherness’ in ways that reassure the observer. I’m expected to agree that my son’s upbringing is flawed, and feel pressure to heroically ‘make up’ the differences with Tales of Personal Strength! or some other inspirational martyr nonsense that conveys that ‘we’ll be okay despite it.’ Look, I don’t have time to inspire. I’m busy today.

Regardless of my response, the result is usually a pitying look, which is–as we all know–the correct way to respond to someone grocery shopping with their family between karate and dinner. My son hears the exchange and sees the look. He goes from feeling proud about his new karate belt level and excited to tell his dad at dinner, to wondering what’s ‘wrong’. It’s troubling. Nothing is wrong. When society calls anything other than a nuclear family a ‘broken’ one, we make healthy, loved, supported children feel broken for no reason at all. I just want to buy milk and self-consciously grab pack of toilet paper, and suddenly my family is wrong. Tommy and I are having that talk again in the back seat of the car, and his day is tainted by the whole thing.

We have these talks a lot. I have been asked in front of Tommy why my son isn’t white, what his dad is, where his dad is, and all the awful little things in between that prompt him to doubt his family’s legitimacy. The reality is, even if we hadn’t attended Dad’s wedding and even if Dad wasn’t in the picture, nothing is wrong with us. The process of being required to explain ourselves for existing differently is what’s wrong.

Whether your family includes biological heteronormative parents, remarriages and half-siblings, a lone-parent household, adoptive or foster parents, eighteen siblings, no siblings, a ‘mixed’ ethnic background, LGTBQ+ parents, or guardians who aren’t parents at all, the only thing that matters is that your family is supported in getting the resources you need to stay healthy and produce decent people. None of us have the picture-perfect family of yesteryear’s newspaper ads, and we shouldn’t! (Guys, those ads also told us smoking would make us cool and that asbestos was a good insulator.)

If you want to acknowledge challenges in non-traditional family structure as a way of showing your compassion, try this: look for common interests and shared experience. When you see me grumbling at my son about dawdling while trundling along the sidewalk with my milk and toilet paper, don’t think of me as a beleaguered single mom taking it out on her neglected kid. That’s just not what’s happening. We’re being a family: a patchwork of warmth, laughter, love, dysfunction, impatience, determination, and devotion, just like yours. And trust me, I know you have your share of grumbles, because this family thing is hard work however you do it.

 

Jackie Atkinson

Jackie Atkinson is an Academic Advisor at Douglas College and has participated in and organized support groups for single parents since 2010. She is a mother of one ridiculously charming and eccentric little boy, and likes to draw, paint, tell hyper-embellished stories, and make terrible jokes in her spare time.

Jackie Atkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

7 comments

  1. So that single mom down the street turns out to be a talented writer. Great read and insights. Parenting is a challenge, regardless of family arrangement. Kids (and parents) deserve equal understanding and opportunity. Thanks for raising my awareness.

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