If you weren’t shopping on Friday, you were probably watching Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. The return of Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, the mother–daughter duo we all grew up with, was almost more important than the turkey this year.
As we revisit the show that, beginning in 2000, notably challenged our stereotype of single moms, I’m reminded of my own childhood.
My parents separated when I was 10 after sixteen years of marriage. My dad was still around, but I lived with my mom, and she was by far my primary influence and provider. The older I got, the more distant my relationship with my father became.
Into my late teenage years and early twenties, I often wondered how much their divorce affected me. I mostly felt like I survived it without even a scratch; still I knew that psychology told me otherwise. Sobering statistics about the negative impact of divorce on children are not hard to come by. Teenage pregnancy and dropout rates are higher. Income potential is lower. On top of that, our mental/emotional health is often found to suffer for numerous reasons having to do with this change in family dynamic.
Lorelai didn’t divorce Rory’s father; they were never married, and she had Rory when she was a teenager, so my situation is a bit different. Still, critics of Gilmore Girls who say the show glamorizes the whole “single mother” image aren’t unjust. Rory, for all her eccentricities, mostly fits the best-case scenario for a child raised by a single parent—well, so we thought anyway. But rather than bemoan the show for its positive take, I really appreciated it. I guess I saw myself in Rory—someone who despite her postmodern family was pretty accomplished and well-adjusted.
I’m now beyond those hyper-vulnerable teenage years and no longer at risk of becoming many of those harsh statistics. But as anyone whose parents split will tell you, divorce stays with you forever. In many ways my parents’ divorce is actually more palpable now that I’m in my mid-twenties than it ever was—because I’m now at an age where the prospect of marriage looms heavily.
I’ve never felt a burning desire to get married. I had other examples of healthy marriages growing up, but I still didn’t see marriage as the ultimate goal like many of my peers did. I mostly assumed that was a byproduct of seeing my most important marital influence fail. What I didn’t realize was how much my mom’s example changed the way I view men—or rather a man’s place in my life.
You see, having been raised by my mother, it isn’t just the cliché “daddy issues” that impact how I approach men. In fact, I’ve always challenged that label that too often gets cast upon daughters of divorce. To assume we’re all broken humans who will inevitably bring more than our share of emotional baggage to a relationship is unfair and pessimistic.
For myself and friends I know who were also raised by strong, independent moms, it’s not a longing for the attention of a man that dictates how we approach relationships; it’s actually quite the opposite. For us, men just don’t fulfill the same role. That’s not to say they aren’t welcome or valued in our life, but they aren’t one half of a whole in our mind’s eye.
I watched my mom day in and day out tend to my sister and me, have a career, take care of our house, and have a social life. Unlike the characterization many have of single moms, mine wasn’t out looking for men—and she definitely wasn’t bringing them into our home. She wasn’t flailing and purposeless as a divorcée. She didn’t walk around cursing my father or the whole male population. While I know she sacrificed a lot for us, she never modeled bitterness or despair. She was a woman without a husband who still had a life to live and children to raise—and that’s exactly what she did. That’s exactly what many single moms out there are doing.
None of this is to say that I don’t admire marriage. Had it been in the cards for me to have blissfully partnered parents, that would have been great. But that wasn’t my experience, and I think as a woman today, divorce hasn’t left me bereft of positive models in terms of how I should relate to men. I have very close friends whose married parents were like family to me growing up. I have grandparents on both sides who modeled decades-long marriages. I found male role models from playing tennis and from my mentors and professors in college. My mother knew as much as I did that I still needed those male figures in my life, so we collectively fostered those relationships. Yes, I do have some residual issues with trust and heartache from my dad leaving, which I address with regular therapy. But I’m thankful for my mother’s example, which showed me that, as a woman, I can—and should—take care of myself.
The sense of female empowerment that can come from having a single mother is completely underrated in our society. It’s important to acknowledge the many effects that divorce and single parenting can have on a person, but it’s not fair to only point out the bad. Women raised by women can see men from a unique perspective—as people we are happy to choose a partnership with but whom we do not have to rely on for survival or even fulfillment.
My mother raised two children and had a long and successful career. She loves and respects men and taught me to do the same by championing the role men have played in her life and urging me to seek that out for myself. I’m grateful to her and to the sugar-coated examples from Gilmore Girls that paint children of single moms in a positive light, proving that odds don’t have to define us—that it is possible to come from a nontraditional family and still be worthy. And as the latest Netflix special hints at, that mistakes or missteps don't have to define us. It's all in how we handle it.
My own life experience has, for better or worse, made marriage a low priority for me. But it’s not because I don’t believe in the institution. It’s because I’m happy to follow in my mother’s footsteps and be content with the goals I have outside of marriage until and unless the truly right person comes along.
Photo Credit: Purple Fern Photography