How Latinas Are Redefining Single Motherhood
Raising a kid on your own or with a coparent takes grit and determination, but it’s amazingly rewarding, according to the more than 400 single Latina moms we surveyed. Even though you do most of the heavy lifting, you’re not alone. That’s good news—and where things can sometimes get tricky.
Three years ago, while pregnant with her second daughter, Luna, Natalie Rios faced the unexpected: She and her husband of nine years separated. Suddenly, the Dominican-American entrepreneur in Brooklyn, New York, was left raising a 3-year-old daughter, Sofia, with another on the way, while struggling to keep her finances and business afloat. "It wasn't the script I had in mind for my life," says Rios, who adds that she doesn't share parenting responsibilities with her ex. "But being Latina and knowing how to hustle, I knew I'd be okay. It was a matter of empowering myself and putting one foot in front of the other to stay strong for my girls."
Rios isn't alone in that sentiment. Parents Latina recently surveyed 439 Latina single moms with children under age 12 and found that more chose "strong" to describe themselves than any other word, regardless of whether they parent solo or coparent. And 8 out of 10 said they felt a great sense of pride in their parenting. Yet many have to contend with society's misconceptions about their roles. "There's a lot of stigma around single motherhood in the Latino community because of traditional gender norms that view men as the protectors and financial providers, and women as the selfless, do-it-all caretakers," says Ernestina Perez, a Mexican-American therapist and founder of Latinx Talk Therapy, in Chicago.
According to Perez, though, more and more single mothers are beginning to redefine for themselves what it means to be Mami. "As women get further in their careers and education, expectations are changing," she says. "Latina single moms have always been very resilient. But this new generation is learning to speak up for themselves to get what they want."
That's what our research ultimately revealed: Survey respondents are looking for more balance in just about every area of their lives. And it all boils down to relationships. The ones you have with your kid, family, coparent, and—just as important—yourself.
Learn to Let Go
The best part of single motherhood? The love moms have with their kids, said 41 percent of those we surveyed. Sanjuana Coronado, a Mexican-American mom of a 4-year-old son, Ethan, in College Station, Texas, agrees. "I get to be his rock," she says. "You don't really get told you're a good mother by a lot of people. So when he says, 'I love you' or 'Thank you,' it means so much more."
She didn't have that kind of relationship with her parents. "They immigrated to the U.S. and were always working, so they didn't have a lot of extra time to spare. As a single mom, I'm juggling so much. But I never want my son to feel like 'Mami's too busy for me.'"
That can sometimes be easier said than done. Survey participants reported that work-home life balance is the toughest aspect of single parenthood. "Because of cultural expectations, Latina moms especially have a certain definition in mind of what it means to be a good mother," explains Perez. "They tend to think that they should be doing more for their kids, which leads to a lot of guilt as well as burnout."
The best way to deal? Give yourself a break, says Susana Marquez, a Guatemalan-Salvadoran marriage and family therapist based in Long Beach, California. "Instead of worrying about what you can't do, focus on what is working. And if you want to make changes, start small."
For example, even 10 minutes of solid one-on-one time with your child can help them feel seen and heard. "Think about what makes your kid happy and engage in those activities, whether it's riding bikes or playing a video game," Marquez says. "Really get on their level and be present."
And perhaps most important of all? "Know that balance doesn't really exist, and create your own definition for it," Marquez says.
Build a Mom Tribe
Among those we talked to, 60 percent rely primarily on their parents for help, 36 percent turn to friends, 25 percent to siblings, and 20 percent to grandparents. "Extended and immediate family is crucial for Latinas. We're very intertwined as a people," Marquez says. That doesn't mean the vibe is always "one big happy familia," though. "Even if your parents or abuelos (grandparents) are extremely helpful, they can still convey the message: 'You depend on me too much,'" Marquez notes. As a result, single mothers often feel bad reaching out for backup.
In fact, nearly a quarter of coparenting moms and 1 in 6 solo moms we surveyed said that was one of their biggest concerns. "In our culture, there's the notion that you do what you have to do and don't complain. It's common to hear, 'Well, Abuela (grandma) looked after five kids without any resources. Why can't you handle it?'" Marquez says.
But whether or not you're parenting on your own, you need a solid support system. Acknowledge first that asking for help isn't a weakness but a sign of strength, Marquez suggests. Then make a list of five people who consistently show up for you and your child. Focus on cultivating those relationships, and tune out the naysayers. "Be honest, too, with those in your inner circle about how difficult it is for you to lean on others. That way, they know where you're coming from," says Marquez.
And whenever possible, include them in your kid's milestones. For example, every time Peruvian-American single mother Melissa Aquije has good news to share about her 7-year-old son, Enzo, she texts her parents and brother right away. They live near her in Downey, California, and never hesitate to pick up Enzo from school or assist with homework. "If he gets an award or a good report card, I include them," Aquije says. "Even just a simple thanks to say, 'You were a big part of this.'"
Introduce Role Models
As independent as single moms are, parenting without a father figure is a big concern for 35 percent of respondents. "It's always going to be in the back of my mind," Coronado admits. "I don't want my son to one day think he is missing out by not having a man at home."
While there are certainly benefits of paternal involvement, a new study out of the Journal of Marriage and Family found that parental status may not matter as much for Latino children, thanks in part to the supportive and protective nature of extended family. "Society has created this image of a husband and wife as being crucial for a kid to thrive," says Marquez. "But a mother can be a very validating, nurturing presence for her children and bring up assertive, empathetic, and respectful kids on her own."
And even if your child's biological father isn't involved, you can still provide your kid with male role models to look up to, such as an abuelo (grandpa), an uncle, a coach, or a teacher. "They can provide children with patterns and examples of how to navigate being a man in society," says Perez. "And though all genders can benefit, boys especially need that guidance as they mature."
For moms who coparent, there's also the issue of raising a child with another person who may have their own ideas. More than half of the mothers in our survey said they were very or extremely successful in sharing responsibilities, decisions, and schedules with a coparent. But 9 out of 10 moms continue to face hurdles, the biggest being different parenting styles (43 percent) and poor communication (41 percent).
The key, our experts say, is fostering open lines of dialogue and being willing to compromise. "Remember that the goal isn't to have the other parent match your style exactly—it's doing what's best for your child," Perez notes. Whenever possible, use "I" statements and skip the blame game. For example, instead of saying, "You keep our kids up way too late," try, "I notice our children behave better if they're in bed by 8 p.m." And be clear about your parenting rules and expectations. When in doubt, writing them down can help. That way, everyone's on the same page.
Make Time for Yourself
Of all the relationships that single mothers have, the one that's most likely to languish is the one with themselves. Survey participants spent the majority of their week focused on their kids, work, or chores. And 34 percent cited lack of "alone time" or self-care as the biggest challenge of single parenting.
But a little relaxation can do a world of wonders, Perez says. "When you're handling so many responsibilities, your mind can feel like it's racing—jumping from one thing to the next." In order to counteract that, schedule a few moments out of a day to unwind—listen to music, take a bath, or simply call an amiga, she recommends. "Single moms are used to putting their kids' wants ahead of their own. So they have to train themselves and get in the habit of asking, 'What do I need right now?'"
It's okay if that doesn't come naturally at first. When Aquije's son, Enzo, was younger, she felt bad even going for a mani-pedi. "I would think, 'Enzo doesn't have anyone else but me,'" she recalls. "But then I'd be so emotionally drained from not taking breaks."
So she started carving out pockets of "me time," like a 30-minute workout during lunch. "It's the reboot I need every day so I can be the best mom for Enzo."
The added benefit of focusing on Mom? You're modeling for your kid how setting boundaries leads to a well-rounded life—as Rios can attest to. She has stopped trying to "do it all" and instead is more in the moment. "I've come to accept that I'm not a supermom, which is something I want my girls to see," she says. "Our family looks different, and some days I get it right, some days I don't. But it works for us, and that's all that matters."
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's April/May 2021 issue as "All the Single Mamis."