Single Motherhood in America

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As times have changed in America, so has society, its norms, and its expectations. For mothers, society has a plethora of opinions of what a mother should be and do. Within the last 50 years, society has changed motherhood in America to be much more demanding and uncompromising. The creation and idealization of the ‘super mom’ has evolved to create a hardship on single mothers today by overwhelming mothers with an abounding amount of responsibility, with no realistically ‘good’ way to handle it all. Though all mothers face this struggle, this burden falls far heavier on women with less financial resources, which is demonstrated in the modern TV show, Jane the Virgin.

Though the idea of a working mother is common today, that has not always been the case. Before the 1950s, women generally were stay-at-home mothers. They often found themselves trapped within the home with no other options than playing the roles of a submissive housewife and a nurturing mother. However, with the rise of a women’s liberation and feminist movement, women joined the call to find purpose in the workforce and in other opportunities outside of their homes. A major influence for this was the famous and pivotal book, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Friedan targeted women, and made the radical claim that “[a mother] does not have to choose between marriage and a career… it is not as difficult as the feminine mystique implies, to combine marriage and motherhood and even the ‘career’” (342).

This call for women to pursue a higher purpose in life, as well as holding onto everything they had before, encouraged women to believe in the idea of a working mother. Mothers were able to find a new sense of individualism in the world, which was near revolutionary for the mothers that this movement targeted. The group of mothers were mostly, if not all, white women of a middle class. Though these women found the idea of working in the paid labor force as incredibly important for their lives and well-being, there already was another demographic of women working at the time. Women of lower-class, women of color, and single mothers had found themselves working out of necessity years before this liberationist movement. From their perspective, they disagreed with the movement “to be liberated to enter the world of work,” and they had long-since grown “tired of [their] alienated work” (145).

Their voices, unfortunately, were ignored in comparison to their middle-class counterparts who had much more credibility and respect in the eyes of society, despite their desire to return home to their families. Consequently, this working demographic was joined by the white middle-class mothers who sought their own identity in the workforce. The end result was a new era of motherhood that combined paid labor and the continued role of a primary caretaker over all things home related.

At the time, this concept was perceived as progressive and opportunistic for all women; however, this later developed into the concept of the “supermom” ideal many witness in contemporary society. Though it was not considered controversial at the time, the home was still considered a “woman’s domain” in America. With this change, mothers soon found themselves in the chaotic role of both caretaker and a partial breadwinner for their families. Many mothers at the time had hoped for help in the home from their spouses, but very rarely did their husbands offer any more support than they had before their wives had entered the workforce. It had quickly become an expectation for women to be able to balance both roles on their own, thereby creating a new role, the supermom.

Society, which once only pressured women to have complete control over children and home-life, expected women to maintain everything they once had before, as well as an added career. Eventually, this expectation was further idealized into a supermom who has it all together and projects the balance of both roles to be easy. This portrayal of working mothers has become more and more common, suggesting “that [a mother] is “energetic” and “competent” because those are her characteristics, not because she has been forced to adapt to an overly demanding schedule” (24).3 This expectation creates yet another burden on mothers, as they are held to an even higher, more unreachable standard.

Women today are often entrapped by this expectation, with society enforcing the belief that women are meant to handle both, not just one. The social norm, now, is for women to prioritize their career and be self-sufficient, but still take care of their home. Leaving work for even a small amount of time, where one might seem “to value family over professional advancement,” is “directly at odds with the prevailing social pressures” that exist today (1).4 This leaves women trapped in their situations with little options for advancement in either aspect of their lives. Though this is a widespread issue, those typically affected are specifically from more affluent backgrounds. Other mothers, such as women of color and lower class, deal with all of these challenges and more. In the same way, single mothers struggle with these issues on a much deeper level.

This expectation of women to play every role clearly has some level of impact on nearly every mother, but women who experience single motherhood have a unique perspective with their own individual hardships. These women do, in fact, deal with the expectation to work, be a mother, and handle it all gracefully. However, single women are often held to higher standards in respect to these expectations. Throughout history, single mothers have been stigmatized to be “less worthy” or “less capable” of handling their entire family and its needs, without the help of a man.

Though it is not as clear today, there are still more critiques against single mothers in comparison to their married counterparts. Because raising children alone goes against the historical social standard, there is an additional bias that these mothers must overcome. If that was not enough, many single mothers must also fight much harder to support their families, “as dual incomes have become indispensable” in America (1).5 Without the income of two parents, a family may not have the resources it needs to live a typical, American lifestyle. This struggle also reinforces the judgement against single mothers, making their experience of motherhood all the more difficult.

Each of these are thoroughly exemplified in the modern television show, Jane the Virgin. The show showcases single motherhood through the characterization of moms Petra Solano and Jane Villanueva. Petra is a European immigrant who lives a very wealthy, affluent lifestyle. Though she is from another country, she tends to seamlessly blend into American culture as she is a rich, white, working mother of twins Anna and Elsa. Jane, on the other hand, is from a lower-class family who immigrated to America only two generations before Jane was born. She works many jobs to be able to provide for her extended family as well as her own son, Mateo, while she pursues her own writing career.

Connecting these two mothers is the father of their respective children, Rafael Solano. The varying plots of this show makes their connection to each other rather convoluted. So, to simplify, Rafael became the “baby-daddy” for both mothers through artificial inseminations that occurred outside of any romantic relationships between him and these women. This established a relationship between a mother and a father who are not together but can work together for the sake of parenting. By separating these women from romantic attachment of the father, the show is able to better portray the lives of single mothers today as they navigate the societal expectation to be a supermom and display the need for outside resources for parenting. Because of the individual situations of each mother, this show is also able to demonstrate the difference between single motherhood for women of different social classes.

Jane the Virgin showcases society’s push for women to join the workforce, even after entering motherhood, very clearly with both Jane and Petra not long after they give birth to their children. Petra “rushes straight back to work” at the hotel that she both owns and manages “only days after the twins arrive” (1). This isn’t necessarily out of character for her, as she is usually rather unattached and unemotional, but she does claim that work is where her primary occupation is. Jane also returns to work quickly after having Mateo but does not welcome the idea as eagerly as Petra does. She is very conflicted regarding the concept of being a working mother, and “she agonizes over the decision to go back” to work and to graduate school.

At the same time, Jane feels the pressure against staying at home and refuses to “let motherhood hijack [her] goals” for her career. While these women are both expected to return to work they handle the majority of the responsibilities that deal with having children instead of the father, Rafael, throughout the show. The class difference between Jane and Petra adds another dimension to this example. Petra chooses to go back to work simply because she feels the need to return. Jane, however, returns to both graduate school, to further her career, and her side job in order to be able to support her family. Returning to the workforce is less of a choice for her because, unlike Petra, she doesn’t have the resources to be able to stay at home if she wants to. This is a direct example of how mothers in America are expected to handle both roles, as well as how economic status affects single super moms.

In the same way that a mother’s place in the workforce has changed, so has a father’s role in the home, to some extent. Due to the constant pressure from women, husbands have begun to take a more active role with childcare and housework than they have historically. This is shown in Jane the Virgin through the character of Rafael. Though Jane and Petra are the clear primary caretakers of the children most of the time, Rafael co-parents to the best of his abilities both financially and through childcare. Jane and Petra’s lives are both extremely chaotic, with Petra running a hotel at all hours of every day and Jane constantly at one of her jobs or working toward her writing career. Rafael’s help is entirely necessary and very appreciated by both of the mothers.

However, this support can often be somewhat unreliable due to the show’s ever-changing plot. This is certainly an illustration of motherhood and the idea of co-parenting today. Fathers taking an active role in parenting is “psychologically beneficial to mothers” as it relieves a substantial amount of stress and responsibility (1). This is more common now than it has ever been for a father “to be more emotionally involved in his children’s lives” and to “take on a more equal share of caregiving time” (1). In fact, more recent studies are supporting the theory that an active father “has taken root” in American families today (1). Though it is fairly small, this is a reasonably positive aspect of motherhood in America today, which is impacting the lives of families everywhere. However, even though it is becoming more common for fathers to help, this assistance often remains an unreliable support system for mothers at times.

Though an active take on fatherhood has increased more in recent years, it is still often not enough extra help for women to manage both work and home life. To manage these roles further, mothers are now needing to employ outside help to care for their children and the home when they do not have the time to do it themselves. Both Jane and Petra exemplify this factor of modern motherhood as well. Jane, for the most part, is able to rely on her extended family to care for Mateo when she and Rafael are busy with work.

This is incredibly beneficial to Jane, as she does not always have the financial resources to pay for outside care. This usually works, but in the event that Jane’s extended family members are also occupied, Jane has to hire a part-time babysitter to take care of Mateo. Jane opposed this for a while because money is fairly tight for her at times, but circumstance deems it necessary in some cases. In comparison, Petra has absolutely no qualms with employing outside care. In fact, she hires two night-nurses to take care of her twins as soon as they leave the hospital. She also has nannies to take care of her children throughout the day, with few exceptions. Money is not a factor for Petra, but she sees this help as absolutely necessary for her to be able to pursue her professional endeavors.

Mothers in America also feel that it is necessary to hire outside help to take care of their children on a daily basis because of the expectation of their commitment to working. While it may seem as though this is a helpful institution for women to be able to manage all aspects of motherhood better, the Journal of Family Issues states that “both mothers and fathers experience greater parenting stress as hours of nonparental care go up” (1). This shows that the management of childcare adds yet another layer of stress and responsibility to already overwhelmed mothers. This, as does every other supermom related issue, affects lower-income women on an elevated level. Women of a lower socioeconomic status have the added responsibility of managing the financial issues that come with hiring outside care, which only adds more stress to these mothers.

Another perspective of differing experiences between single mothers is that of women of different races. Women of color often deal with more severe and difficult versions of every issue of white women, and single motherhood is no different. Single mothers of color also deal with the expectation to “do it all:” work, be a good mother, and find extra care for their children. On top of all of that, they must face racial discrimination and judgment at every turn. They are often victims of double standards when it comes to balancing their roles. For example, white women are praised when they can both parent and maintain a career, but black women can be criticized as being a “deviant matriarch” when they are “too successful.”

While many women of color had to join the workforce of necessity, they are judged for needing the income, taking too much control, or any other critique that can be made. While dealing with this and blatant racism, women of color who deal with single motherhood are at yet another severe disadvantage. This is not always clearly represented in Jane the Virgin, however. Though the two single mothers that were used for comparison were different ethnicities, the show does not often discuss the difference this makes concerning mothering. Though it is mentioned in other contexts, the difference between Jane and Petra’s experience in motherhood is often due to their social class, not their race.

Through the analysis of Jane the Virgin and its two main single mother characters, major issues for mothers in America are brought to light. Mothers all face the expectation of the “supermom,” but the experience of single women of color and lower class are often more severe and have greater consequences on the mothers. The concept of the supermom is a toxic portrayal of what a mother should be and forces women into a stereotypical “shell” of a woman who only takes care of others. Though it stems from a feminist movement, it has become harmful to women because it has taken away the choice to work or choose to be just a mother. These issues are even more uncompromising for women in more disadvantaged positions. Ideas like longer paid maternity leave, as well as paternity leave, are current ideas that pave steps in the right direction to give mothers a chance to be able to handle all that society has forced on them. Motherhood in America is simply not fully possible anymore, and the only response women can have, at this point, is to demand change.

Cite this paper

Single Motherhood in America. (2021, Nov 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/single-motherhood-in-america/

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