Sorry, Rick Santorum: Single Moms Aren’t to Blame for Gun Violence

Blame for the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has been cast in many directions—at the NRA and the politicians it funds, at our shaky support system for those with mental illness, at the FBI and the officers on the scene. I was outraged, but sadly not that surprised, when a political commentator found another group to blame for the tragedy: single mothers.

Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons


“The fact that these kids come from broken homes without dads,” said former senator Rick Santorum on CNN, is a “commonality” that explains why a young man would enter his former school and shoot up his classmates and teachers.

In fact, as was well reported, the Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was adopted at a young age into a two-parent family; his father died in 2004, and his mother died suddenly late last year. But Santorum has a long history of single-mom bashing that’s untethered to the truth—“we are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms,” he reportedly said at a 1994 town hall meeting—and he’s not the only one. On TV and in the media, single moms are often portrayed as a problem to be solved. According to the storylines and commentaries, they’re clueless, irresponsible, lazy, morally lax and unable to stop having children. They mooch off of social welfare programs, the persistent stereotype goes, and would rather have more babies than hold down a job.

As founder of ESME.com (Empowering Solo Mothers Everywhere), I can say without reservation that the stereotypes about single moms are not true. Over one million Solo Moms, as we call them, have visited or connected on our site, app and, 75 local Facebook groups. Our surveys and interactions show that most of them are employed, hard-working, have just one child and are utterly dedicated to their child or children. Their struggles are born not from carelessness, but from divorce, abandonment, death of a spouse and other hardships. And rather than sitting back and waiting for the government to take care of them, single moms are weaving their own safety net.

There’s one truth that unites all single moms across age, race, class and culture: the children come first. Moms who parent alone sacrifice sleep, self-care, spending money and just about everything else for their kids.

Single moms’ dedication to their children is regularly confirmed by the survey responses ESME members give when connecting with other solo moms. When asked what they are most passionate about, “My kids” is overwhelmingly the top answer. Societal concerns, such as social justice and education reform, are a distant second and third. When asked about dating, the most common answer is, “I’m focusing on my kids right now.” Moreover, when we ask them about their greatest challenge, they cite balancing work and family, remembering to take care of themselves, finding emotional support, adjusting to their new situation and time management.

Do those sound like the answers of lazy people who can’t get their acts together? Almost without exception, we find that single moms are advocating, laboring and self-sacrificing for their children.

The single mothers we’ve surveyed report struggling with depression, domestic violence, unemployment, public assistance, addiction and sexual abuse. Single moms are vulnerable to hunger and homelessness, and they’re often one health crisis away from poverty. A chorus of confidential chat rooms and Facebook groups, especially those focusing on domestic violence, reveal painful realities that no woman or child should have to endure. Our current historical moment, when social supports such as Medicaid, food stamps and healthcare are at risk, is incredibly frightening for single mothers. They extend themselves in ways that boggle the mind, but they can’t stay afloat based on mutual generosity.

Contrary to popular belief, however, single moms are not the cause of poverty or social ills. “Even if all single mothers married or never had children, poverty would not be substantially lower,” a research team recently explained in the New York Times. Yet in their fervor to absolve single moms and focus on anti-poverty policy, the authors underplayed the prominence of the single mom demographic. Teen pregnancy and divorce rates are down—but single motherhood, in all its hardship and glory, is here to stay. Demographers predict that in a few short years, half of all American kids under age 18 will be raised by a single mom at some point in their childhood.

In the thousands of conversations I’ve participated in or observed between single moms, a common refrain is their motivation to inspire and help each other. Every day on ESME, solo moms exhibit selfless acts of generosity, from giving away baby clothes and sports equipment to offering each other jobs or help with housing. Single moms who are struggling economically think nothing of extending a hand to other moms. It’s been a moving revelation for which none of my academic research prepared me.

Once a single mom hits her stride, she often dedicates herself to helping other single moms. Across the nation, there’s a web of non-profits started by single moms who understand the journey and want to give back. When we feature non-profits that help Solo Moms on ESME, more often than not, a current or former single mom is at the helm. Single moms are weaving their own safety net, a fact that contradicts long-held negative beliefs that shape social policy and haunt these women in their daily lives.

And despite what we’re shown on TV, single motherhood doesn’t usually result from teens who didn’t know any better. Women often end up single moms because of men’s physical and emotional abuse, drug addiction, incarceration, deployment, or decision to leave. Abandonment and failure to pay child support plunge women into poverty and hardship. Yet, strikingly, men are almost completely absent from the national dialogue about single mothers. When commentators rail against the “problem” of single motherhood, they erase men from the equation.

A tragic example is the high rate of divorce among couples who have a child with special needs. Women overwhelmingly bear the burden of care for all children, but caring for a child with special needs profoundly limits a woman’s ability to further her education or take part in the labor market. As a sociologist, I knew about the challenges of abusive relationships and the loss of income after divorce, but I was blindsided by the number of moms who are raising children with special needs on their own. The most common story? Dad couldn’t take it and split. 

Obviously, there are wonderful ex-husbands and other men who step up, but vilifying single mothers and not the fathers who contributed to their predicament is unfair and sexist. Moreover, treating marriage as a cure-all only makes sense in a world in which men participate in childcare; men and women are hired, paid and promoted at the same rates; husbands don’t abuse or abandon their wives; and men don’t fall prey to drugs and alcohol. As a society, we need to spend less time putting down solo moms and take a closer look at why so many men fail to live up to their obligations.

I think I know why single mothers receive the brunt of the blame for poverty and social ills: because portraying them as undeserving and morally flawed makes it easier to justify denying them and their children benefits. As long as our national collective conscience continues to frame single moms as unworthy, we will feel absolved of the responsibility to help them do right by their children.

As a nation, we need to honor and support their heroic effort to raise 23 million American children. If those of us with greater resources were as generous as most single moms, we would build an impressive web of support. The #MeToo movement upended a painful history of victim blaming. Society’s newfound generosity of spirit now must extend to single moms.

Marika Lindholm, Ph.D., taught at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University for over a decade. She is currently the founder of ESME.com, a website that provides resources, support and connection to mothers who parent on their own. 

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