Single Parent: True Title?

…Continuing on the topic of words I don’t like, the more I think about it, the more I don’t like the phrase “single parent”.  I know I’m guilty of using it.  I think we all are… but today I was bored in a meeting and started really examining the usage and implications of this phrase.

We’re probably most familiar with the phrase “single parent” describing the primary custodian following a divorce.  Literally, it means “one parent”.  The phrase leaves no room for the concept of co-parenting.  And I think this can be damaging…  True Story:

Dad picks up his kids on a Friday night.  He’s excited because a holiday is falling on “his” weekend and he usually doesn’t see his children on holidays.  When the kids jump in the car, his oldest informs him that he must bring them home early due to the holiday.

Dad frowns, “No…” he says.  “Your mom didn’t say anything to me about that.  I made plans for all of us to have dinner with your grandparents on that day.”

“But Dad,” Child #1 insists.  “You don’t understand.  Our whole family is coming over and we need to spend the day with them!”

In this scenario, Dad didn’t count as “family” in his children’s minds.  Could it be because they live with a “single parent”?

I’ve heard the phrase used with various connotations.  Sometimes it’s meant to convey a feeling of pride.  Sometimes, to gain sympathy.  And sometimes both.  I know one man who fought for years in the court system to obtain primary custody of his children and now he takes pride in telling people that he works full-time and is a “single father”.  He neglects to mention the weekly visitation his children have with their mother.  What is his motive?  And who is he punishing?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that some parents, by way of desertion or death, are indeed “single parents”.  And they deserve a lot of credit for the job they perform.

But what about those who are in fact custodial co-parents?  By adopting the “SP” (because I feel like I’ve typed the full words too many times) title, does it discredit the other parent?  Invalidate the other parent’s “family” status?  Convey a lack of respect for the other parent?  Does it simply limit our paradigm when it comes to divorced families?

Your thoughts?

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Posted in children of divorce, divorce, family and tagged , , , , .


  1. Well, I am a full-time single parent, and sometimes make the distinction that way because so many people use the term “SP.” I can’t say I’m offended by it, though, because even if they don’t have the children full-time, when they do, they’re doing it alone. (Or at least, that’s my assumption.)

  2. Great post. I don’t like the phrase “single parent.” I’m divorced but I don’t regard myself as a single parent because my ex is still involved with the children – he just lives in a different house. I think it’s only really appropriate when there is no involvement with the other parent.

  3. Greetings,

    Having been newly divorced, and being the custodial parent (all decision making responsibility is mine…he didn’t want any)I can say that there is plenty of room the term Single Parent. I know there are people out there who get along post divorce and can make the good decision to be co-parents, but then you have situations like mine where my ex didn’t want to have any responsibility. He just wants the boys when it’s time to have fun, but the kids don’t always want to go with him because he’s all about trying to get the boys to play happy family with his new squeeze. I do my best to let them drive how much time they want to spend with him…at ages 17 and 15, that’s really more their decision to make. They are young men now, not little kids.

    I think that there are so many different styles of parenting and getting along when it comes to divorce that there most likely more specific terms that can be used than what most people actually think about. As for me…I’m a full-time single parent.

    • I think you’re right about the many different styles and terms that could be used. I’m sorry to hear that your sons are having a less-than-optimal experience with their father, post-divorce. When I was a teenager, I stopped doing overnights with my dad. Looking back, I can see how that weakened the bond between us. But at the time, it seemed appropriate.

  4. I don’t like the phrase single parent now as a separated and divorcing parent. Honestly, I was far more of a single parent when he was working long hours and I was home all day alone with the kids and got more one hour of respite every other day. THAT was single parenting. Now that he is actually being a parent, my life is EASIER as a “single parent” than it was as a “partnered parent”.

    • Very interesting perspective: being a “single parent” while sharing a home with a non-participatory partner. Now that you mention it, I’ve heard other people say the same thing about parenting in a marriage, though without using the SP title. I’m glad to hear your co-parent taking on a more active role now.

  5. Single parent’ seems to conquer up many negative associations as if we are
    a failure of some sort. Although saying that, it’s been clear to me that a
    ‘single father’ gains far more respect and sympathy than ‘single mothers’. I
    have come across many situations where single fathers use their new found
    status for sympathy. In the UK the politically correct term is: ‘lone
    parent’. Personally I think this is no better.

    My feeling is these terms do indeed discredit the other parent, in fact the
    family status. I don’t consider my self ‘single’ or ‘lone’ i*n terms of
    parenting* because my children still see their father, their grandparents,
    aunties, uncles, close family fiends and have a rich social life etc etc.

    Why can’t I just be a ‘parent?’! Why label me because I don’t happen to live
    with or am married to the father of my children? I’m a Mum, that’s the most
    important thing in my eyes.

    Good post by the way!

  6. Interesting… I always looked at it as I am “single” – not married anymore, and I am a parent. Therefore, I am a single parent. My ex is also a “single” parent, at least until he puts a ring on his girlfriend’s finger.

  7. This is a (not so) simple matter of identifying what the word “single” refers to. People get hung up on the belief that “single” modifies the term “parent” or “parenting.” It doesn’t. Single refers to the relationship status of the parent and not their particular parenting situation.

    Does this reality solve the problem of judgments regarding the term “single parent?” Certainly not and I’m not sure that the reality of the language will ever change that. Why? We don’t refer to a couple with children as “married parents” or “otherwise spoken for parents” or “dating parents” or similar.

    I’m sure it will be debated until the proverbial cows come home. If a person is single (that is, not married or otherwise spoken-for) – they’re a “single” parent.

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