When I tell people that I'm a single mom, with 60 percent custody, the typical response is a combination of pity and comments like, “you're so strong” or “what a tough job.” If I'm not in the mood to engage with the person commenting, I'll just smile and say, "thanks." But sometimes I'll respond with the truth: "Actually, it's easier than being married."
There's a narrative that has taken root in society of the hardworking, tired and overwhelmed single mom. And I am all of those things — often. But this narrative is sometimes subtly used to support the retro notion that a two-parent family is still best, with its implication that it would be easier if I had someone to help me. But my ex-husband Mike (not his real name) did anything but help.
"This house is always a mess," he'd say when I flopped down on the couch after making dinner, clearing the dining room table, doing the dishes, wiping down the counters and sweeping the kitchen.
"You could help," I'd point out.
"Sure, Dena, ask your handicapped husband, who spent all day at work, to clean the house." He'd snap his laptop close and get up in a huff, legs buckling twice, before stalking into his study and leaving me to watch our son. Mike had relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, which meant that his physical capabilities fluctuated daily. What didn’t fluctuate was his willingness to help.
The default was always that the house was my responsibility. The house, the grocery shopping, the laundry, our child — all mine. I worked full time, too, but that didn't matter.
"You know that the laundry chute is literally three steps away, right?" I'd ask, picking up his dirty socks from the bedroom floor.
He'd roll his eyes and turn on his side in the bed. "God, you're so passive aggressive."
But there was no way to win. If I asked him directly to help out — to do the dishes after I cooked or to fold the laundry I washed — he'd rant about how hard it was to balance his multiple sclerosis and work. At first early on in our marriage, I was sympathetic. Until he admitted to me once that he could have helped clean the bathroom, a chore we had agreed that he would tackle that week. He had plenty of energy. He had just wanted to play video games instead.
"You mean, you lied? You used your MS as an excuse not to do what you’d said you’d do?" I asked.
He shrugged, unrepentantly acknowledging his lie. After that it was hard for me to trust any time he used his disease to avoid doing something unpleasant. On one memorable occasion he walked into the house, past the mop, to where I sat on the living room couch and announced, “The kitchen floor’s really dirty, Dena. It needs to be mopped.”
Women are working full time in higher numbers than ever before. Seventy percent of women with children in the U.S. participate in the workforce and are the sole or primary breadwinner for 40 percent of households, versus 11 percent in 1962. But the vast majority of the housework and activities that support daily life still falls on our shoulders. We spend twice as much time, on average, cooking and cleaning.
While men do pick up more of the yard work, women still spend over an hour more than men daily on household activities and caring for household members. Society’s norms may have shifted so that women have more opportunities in the workforce, but they haven’t shifted nearly enough at home.
And I’m hardly the only woman who feels this way. One single mom told me it became obvious when her ex moved out that she had been giving him credit for doing more around the house than he really did. Now that he’s gone, her kids, 15 and 17, have taken on more of the household work and are learning to take joint responsibility for tasks. Because it’s just her, “they don’t see any gender split around things like cooking and stacking wood.”
Other single moms have noted that even if their exes had cooked or helped out with the kids, it’s still easier for these women to go it alone now than to deal with the constant negotiating, tension and passive aggressive behavior around household chores that they experienced during their marriages.
Even with a 3-year-old, Ani X. says that it’s easier to take on all the housework herself rather than “wasting emotional and physical energy wondering why I was always the one doing everything.” There are no internal struggles: Should I leave the mess and see if he cleans it up? Do I have the energy for another argument about housework? If there’s a mess, it’s hers.
With the societal shifts in the workforce and at home in the last century, the struggle to define gender roles has become pointed and divisive: One side argues for gender-neutral toys and girls in the STEM fields and the other holds up "man and woman" and "tradition."
Not only are we still clinging to binary gender categories but we still haven't reached the point of dividing the work of living between partners not on the basis of gender but time, inclination and ability. We’re not striving for balance. And women have been raised to gaslight ourselves, to worry about being called a nag, a shrew or a bitch if we complain, as if that would worse than being a freeloading slob — to the point where we don't open our mouth and demand help. We just take care of it. Is it any wonder that it's often easier to do it on our own?
We have got to do a better job as a society in raising men to take accountability for their homes and to strive for true equality in relationships. Being a "real man" isn’t about bringing home the bacon or tossing a football around in the backyard. Our focus should be more on teaching children respect and consideration for all facets of their lives, rather than teaching limited concepts of teamwork that stop when they step off the field. The single moms I interviewed all mentioned how their children have learned more about responsibility, teamwork and helping others after their divorce than they ever did in a two-parent household.
When my son upends his bucket of toys on the living room floor and responds to my request that he clean them up with “You can do it, Mommy,” he knows what I’ll say, “I’m not the one who made the mess.” While I will often help him clean up, I’m always clear that he shouldn’t expect it from the other person: It’s his or her choice to pitch in. He already knows how to sort laundry between dark and white clothes and he clears his plate after dinner. Yes, I have to remind him, but that’s OK. He's 5, not 35.
It's a lot easier to keep my house clean now that I get time off every other weekend and don't have to pick up after a grown man, too. I'll admit to taking a perverse pleasure when I can see, in the background of FaceTime calls with our son, that my ex's house is a mess.
So, yes, I’ll say it: Being a single mom is easier than being married to someone who didn’t pull his weight at home. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have preferred a partner who, upon seeing that the kitchen floor was dirty, would have picked up the mop and pitched in.