Toni Morrison and J.K. Rowling have inspired countless writers to follow in their footsteps, yet their distinctive work is rarely linked to their shared experience of parenting children on their own. As coeditor of We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, an anthology of essays and poems by solo moms, I’m convinced that it’s time to acknowledge solo-mom writers for their unique literary contributions and be inspired by their bad-ass approach to the craft. Solo moms face numerous hurdles when it comes to creating art: time, money, and support are often in short supply. Yet many solo mom writers are not only productive but publishing. Here are five inspiring lessons from solo moms on the writing frontline.
1) Take Risks
For solo-mom writers with children to support, writing is inherently risky and impractical. Yet, somehow, they get it done – writing with grace and confidence, despite the fact that society undervalues them and offers little support.
J.K. Rowling, for instance, began writing the Harry Potter series when she was a young single mother living on public assistance, stigmatized at work and church as the “unmarried mother.” Like other successful solo mom writers, Rowling pursued her passion despite social and economic realities that make writing an act of courage. We all fear disappointment and failure, but for solo-mom writers, the stakes are often higher. Even after achieving momentous success, Rowling says, “I’m prouder of my years as a single mother than any part of my life.”
Writing is always risky, but whether they’re documenting the experience of raising kids on their own or letting their imaginations run wild, solo mom writers enrich our literary canon with bravery and heart, daring us to pursue our own passion.
2) Be Authentic
The term single mother carries a lot of baggage. “Everyone has my story wrong,” says solo mom writer Robin Rogers. “I don’t want to be cast as a victim or a hero – I don’t want to be pitied or admired. One of the hardest things is having stereotypes dominate everything I do.”
By showing the complexity and diversity of the single-mom experience, solo moms help break down and refute pernicious stereotypes. “If being a solo mother was going to define me,” Rogers says, “then I was going to define what it means to me to be a solo mom.”
In her New York Times bestselling memoir With or Without You, Domenica Ruta shares the story of being raised by a drug-addicted solo mom. A solo mom herself, Ruta describes solo moms and their children as the canary in the coal mine – the first people to be affected by the societal ills and government policies that negatively impact families. Predating the opioid crisis, Ruta’s poignant memoir mines her painful upbringing to illuminate hardships that too many children face today.
We’ve all heard the adage “write what you know,” but solo mom writers take it a step further, inspiring us to lean into our stories with honesty and passion. In their quest for honest representation, Rogers and Ruta achieve authenticity. By accessing and responding to difficult realities, our work holds the potential to transcend descriptive detail and become truth.
3) Spin Art from Pain
Solo moms face more challenges than most parents. The statistics are grim, revealing that solo-mom families struggle with hunger, homelessness, and other effects of poverty. Even when solo moms can raise themselves above the poverty line, employment demands, a child with special needs, or an aging parent can make each day a herculean struggle.
Some become solo as a result of abandonment, divorce, or death; for some, parenting solo is preferable to the spousal abuse they endured. Solo-mom writer Kelly Sundberg eloquently expresses that horrible reality in her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” which went viral, was chosen for the Best American Essays 2015, and is reprinted in We Got This. In her full-length memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, Sundberg further chronicles her escape from domestic violence, offering a powerful example of how solo-mom writers turn pain into creative expression. “I was able to take that darkness and make it into something empowering, which gives me hope for my future, both as a writer and as a person,” Sundberg writes.
Solo mom Cheryl Dumesnil admits that life challenges, including a divorce, illness in the family, and a hostile national landscape, almost thwarted her ability to finish her poetry collection, Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. “What called me to write each of those poems was an intimate, existential effort—to stay hopeful in the face of disaster, to love humanity even when it shows up ugly, to accept loss as part of life, to understand grief as evidence of love,” she reflects. Like solo moms before her, Dumesnil made art from pain, “all the while . . . trying to stand upright and raise my two children.”
Dumesnil sees her work as an expression of hope and empowerment: “There’s something deeply empowering about acknowledging our resilience,” she notes. Sundberg and Dumesnil remind us that just doing the work is itself beautiful and hopeful.
4) Relish the Process
Poet and solo mom Rachel Jamison Webster, who lost her partner to a devastating illness, says she’s happiest when she makes time for her poetry, “experiencing the shapely integrations and discoveries that come through writing.” When she writes every day, “even a little – I can be more awake and present with my daughter,” she concludes.
In her successful writing guide, Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier, solo mom by divorce Joni Cole offers humor, anecdotes, and exercises to help writers jumpstart the creative process. “For most writers, and solo moms in particular,” Cole explains, “we don’t have a lot of time to waste on self-doubt, procrastination, or writer’s block.” Cole’s own experience with toxic feedback convinced her that it’s critical for writers to nurture each other. “I have little tolerance for naysayers, curmudgeons, snobs, gatekeepers – all those voices outside (and inside) our heads that discourage us from trying something meaningful, like expressing ourselves through writing and sharing our stories,” she says. Being a solo mom has made Cole more determined than ever to make a living as a writer and cheerleader for other writers: “I want to be a role model for my daughters: I want to be someone who finds a way to achieve her dreams despite the obstacles of life.”
Carving out writing time might at times feel selfish to the solo mom writer, but most conclude that it benefits both them and their children. For any writer with outside responsibilities, it’s a firm reminder that denying our passions undermines the joy we bring to other parts of our identity.
5) Slay Writer’s Block
Solo moms demonstrate what’s possible in our own writing, and they also give us writers a kick in the pants, just daring us to have writer’s block.
Solo Mom writers are masters of stolen moments, focus amidst the chaos, and sheer determination. There’s much to be learned from this “no excuses” attitude. “I wrote a good chunk of this book in a postpartum fugue state,” Domenica Ruta writes in the Acknowledgments of her new novel, Last Day. “There were times I didn’t think I would survive, let alone make art again, once I became a solo mother.” Not only did Ruta survive, but she wrote with dedication and purpose, and her child thrived. And her novel was recently honored as a New York Times notable book of 2019.
Understanding that solo moms are always crunched for time, Joni Cole, like Rachel Webster, touts the value of seizing short intervals to write: “You can achieve good work in half-hour increments, and they add up.” Cole admits she’s had to let go of the “preciousness” of writing and views that as a positive. “A writing life doesn’t require the perfect room of one’s own, the unbroken afternoon, the candle and herbal tea in your favorite mug,” she says. She encourages busy writers to write at odd hours, during kid’s sports practices, and in waiting rooms. Cole reminds all of us that “You can write when you’re exhausted and resentful, and – lo and behold – sometimes the very act of writing alleviates the exhaustion and resentment.”
Solo motherhood can’t be untangled from a writer’s identity, nor should it. Instead, with all the inspiration solo mom writers provide, it’s time we support their talent and grit, as well as acknowledge the beauty and power of their work. Lucky for us, we as writers are the better for it.
MARIKA LINDHOLM, Ph.D., is the founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), a website that aims to redefine single motherhood by providing resources, inspiration, and a point of connection for the underserved community of Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, Lindholm taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. In addition to publishing numerous scholarly articles, she has been a regular contributor to Psychology Today, Working Mother, Mind Body Green, and Talk Space. She has published essays and fiction in the Daily News, Elephant Journal, The Hill, Ms., Silent Voices, and the Southern Indiana Review, andis also the co-editor of We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart and Humor, the first anthology for solo moms by solo moms. Lindholm is now remarried and living in New York’s Hudson Valley. In addition to overseeing ESME, she runs an organic farm with grapes, apples, chickens and 350,000 bees and is the mother of a blended family of 5 children, including 2 daughters that she and her husband adopted internationally.